Features - The State of Law Firm Marketing: The Bates Decision and the Internet


Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that the First Amendment allowed lawyers to advertise their services.

But looking back after a quarter century, the impact of Bates v. Arizona has until recently been both limited and controversial. Lawyer advertising has often been a lightning rod for criticism of the legal profession. Members of the legal profession were concerned it was undignified for professionals to hawk their services. Jonathan K. Van Patten of the University of South Dakota School of Law wrote that the growth of lawyer advertising has created a “sense of unease” among both legal professionals and non-legal professionals.

Today, much of the public’s impression of law firm advertising arises from television commercials and Yellow Pages display ads extolling a limited number of practice areas, such as family law, personal injury, Social Security law, workers compensation, immigration law, and so on. And since mass-media advertising, by definition, reaches a broad audience, many areas of the law – from special education law to water rights – are not well suited for mainstream advertising, particularly those with narrow or highly specific constituent bases. Thus, many firms and indeed entire practice areas have, until recently, been largely unaffected by the Bates decision. The ability to advertise has not altered their marketing.

When the Internet exploded into the popular landscape in the mid-1990s, there was a tremendous concern that the problems and limitations of mainstream advertising would manifest themselves in the new online world as well.

A 1996 article in the Journal of Law Technology and Politics cited the potential for “ambulance chasers on the Internet.” The author warned, “If the legal profession wishes to preserve its dignity and protect the public, it must begin to exercise the same self-restraint now with respect to advertising over the Internet that it exercises with respect to other advertising media.” Many feared the Internet would be overrun with Web sites such as “www.whiplash.com.” In truth, that particular Web address is still unused today.

The first law firm Web sites often were little more than electronic billboards. Many indeed resembled print advertisements. A 1995 home page for one law firm announced: “This page is intended to help you get to know us better and to provide easy access to us.” It also had an e-mail hypertext link and listed the firm's local, toll-free and fax numbers. Additionally, the page told the viewer to watch the space for “FREE information with NO OBLIGATIONS.”

Law firms quickly discovered, however, that the Internet was different from other media, combining the focus of direct mail, the graphical abilities of television, the immediacy of radio and the browse-ability of a brochure. A Web site is a powerful information resource and a must-have complement to law firm marketing efforts. A prospective client may hear about a firm through an acquaintance or advertisement, and then seek out the firm’s Web site for additional information.

“It’s like having a 24-hour lobby filled with racks of information and brochures,” says Andy Havens, director of marketing for Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP. “People can visit whenever it’s convenient for them, browse, pick up a ‘brochure’ if they feel like it, and find out more about the firm at their own pace.”

In addition, the Internet offers unique qualities that other media cannot match:

Interactivity – Visitors to a site can choose which information they wish to view. They can select information on a firm’s practice areas, attorney bios, past cases, attorney-authored articles or a host of other information of their choosing. If a visitor wishes additional information or would like to contact the firm, a quick e-mail link can open a line of communications. Visitors can also sign up to receive firm newsletters or register for a seminar.

Non-invasiveness – “Having a Web site is different,” says Havens. “It doesn’t require lawyers to wave the flag and try to force their message in front of people. People come to your Web site because they’re seeking information or representation.”

Timeliness – Today’s state-of-the-art Web sites can be easily and instantly updated by firm staff without requiring extensive technical training. If, for example, a new attorney is hired, his or her biographical information and photo can be posted to the Web site immediately. Relevant news stories from today’s headlines can be displayed or even e-mailed to clients.

Affordability – Few firms can afford the expense of producing a TV or radio commercial and purchasing airtime. Web sites – whether a bare-bones site or a sophisticated bells-and-whistles-laden site – all carry the ability to reach anyone with Internet access. Web sites can thus help level the playing field for firms large and small.

In addition, a Web site can be an important means of introducing an attorney to a prospective client without having to step into the attorney’s office. Law firm Web sites, as well as lawyer directories such as the West Legal Directory, can display information such as a lawyer’s credentials and experience in great detail, as well as links to full-text versions of authored articles.

One of the most important aspects of online marketing is its ability to meet the needs of specific audiences. A Web site can provide a depth and breadth of information that other media cannot match. “We’re not limited in terms of space or time for how much information we can offer,” says Bobbi Rix, chief marketing officer for Meritas, a global law firm. “If people want to dig deeper and find more information on us, they can. For example, a lot of law firms handle corporate finance, but what if someone is seeking mezzanine financing? Our West FirmSite can provide that type of specific information.”

A well-marketed law firm Web site forms the antithesis of the blaring late-night TV ad that the public has all too often come to associate with law firm advertising. Instead of being forced to endure a commercial or a billboard, people visit a Web site by choice, often because they seek legal information or are actively seeking legal representation.

The ABA has cautioned law firms to act as though Web pages are subject to the same rules of professional conduct governing advertising. Most states have statutes or ethics regulations governing advertising and related activities that prohibit law firm advertising that is false, deceptive or misleading. These prohibitions are usually stated under the broad umbrella of “communicating legal services,” which could be taken include online marketing as well.

Nonetheless, in Bates v. Arizona, Justice Blackmun stated that lawyer advertising was both permissible and desirable because it provided a way for lawyers to provide information to potential clients. The limitations of traditional advertising, as we’ve seen, have curbed the impact of lawyer advertising on both law firms and their potential clients. Web sites, on the other hand, provide an effective means for potential clients to find and gather information on prospective counsel. Online marketing overcomes many of the limitations of advertising – such as cost, firm size, geography and size of target market.

Justice Blackmun could scarcely have envisioned the emergence of the Internet when he wrote the Bates decision back in 1977. Twenty-five years later, online marketing has finally achieved many of the hopes and aspirations raised by the case. Lawyers and law firms now have it within their reach to provide prospective clients with the information they need to make informed choices when selecting counsel.