More on Lawyer Advertising

A well-written post by fellow blogger Allison Shields discusses the new Opinion on Lawyer Advertising issued in Florida, and its impact on attorneys. What amazed Allison so greatly was the lack of lawyer comment on something as critical as the proposed further restrictions on advertising. Could it be, I wonder, that agreement, rather than apathy, was the reason?

I wrote previously in a blog post entitled “Have the PA Rules Regarding Lawyer Advertising Changed?” that the PA Bar Association now has a Task Force investigating the current state of lawyer advertising in PA. The Task Force is soliciting lawyer comment before making any recommendations. So if you want to be heard, now is the time, before the bell is rung, and recommendations for revisions to the Rules have been issued.

I’ll dare to depart from conventional opinion expressed in blawgs regarding the new restrictions in Florida and New Jersey. I see so many lawyer advertisements and web sites which are clearly over the line as to what is allowed in PA, that it is very apparent that we — Pennsylvania — are currently unable to keep up with oversight in this area. So I don’t think it would be a bad thing for advertising in all forms, including email, to be submitted for review and approval prior to use. I believe it is the only way that lawyers will start to conform to the existing regulations, let alone the more restrictive Rules which will inevitably result from the recommendations of the Task Force.

The whole point of advertising and marketing is to create differentiation for a law firm. To somehow stand out from the crowd and help clients and prospects understand what makes your firm different from — and therefore more desirable than — your competitors. I believe that attorneys can present themselves in sufficiently differentiated ways even in a more restrictive environment. However, that presumes that there are actually real differences. The problem is that so many firms actually work hard to be just like their colleagues, that they really are not differentiated. So the inability to appear so without “over the top” subjective statements isn’t the fault of the advertising restrictions. It’s the fault of the firm in being truly like so many other firms, if fault is even the right word to use.

OK, so marketing wisdom says that to be heard in a crowded marketplace requires that your firm somehow show it to be different from those around you. That’s what differentiation is all about. But for all the firms which are good solid firms with talented lawyers, but not really so different from their colleagues, the truth is that strong attempts to create differentiation, without true change to the firm, will and probably should be beyond the confines of advertising Rules. I don’t see that as unnecessarily restrictive. I don’t see that as restricting free speech. I see that as accurate portrayal, which is what lawyer advertising and marketing should always be about. In other words, firms should not be able to talk the talk without walking the walk. It’s not enough to want to find a way to say “we’re better because . . . ” unless you’re truly different in significant ways which inure to the benefit of the client.

The other day I visited the web site of a mid-size Philadelphia law firm for the first time. The home page of their web site proclaims ” . . .more than 60 years of providing sophisticated legal representation sets it apart from other similarly sized business law firms.” Ok, simple and to the point. It doesn’t overstate. It doesn’t say it makes them better, more knowledgeable, more responsive and so forth. Well . . . in larger type above this statement the firm pronounces itself “the premier business law firm of its size in Philadelphia”.

What does that mean? How is that objectively substantiated? Doesn’t it imply that all those other mid-size business law firms in Philadelphia are less stellar? If you’re one of those firms, do you find that relative characterization objectionable? Or are you just so used to these types of statements that they no longer register with you? Trust me when I tell you that there are much more egregious statements made on other law firm web sites.

Folks, I’m not by any means the morality or ethics police, nor do I want to be. There are overworked people whose jobs focus on patrolling those borders. But as someone who has proudly spent 30 years serving this industry, I have not been able to avoid observing the steady decline of public opinion regarding lawyers. And I absolutely believe that excesses in advertising and marketing have had a lot to do with it. And if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not talking about PI attorney advertising alone, although certainly many of theirs top the list.

Personally, I am looking forward to a more restrictive environment in PA where lawyer advertising and promotion is concerned. I am hoping that pre-approval will be required. And I am hoping that more efforts will be exerted toward that which is already “out there.” It doesn’t serve the legal industry well, even though it may be effective for individual firms. That’s my opinion, and I’m sticking to it!

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