Don't sell yourself short

The legal profession has come rather late to the marketing party, but it's catching up quickly, as Robert Grey discovers

Lawyers have only recently embraced marketing. The profession has lagged behind others – in part because of historical restrictions on advertising – at a time when the need to promote and position your firm in the marketplace has become increasingly important.

Building business solely through recommendations is a thing of the past. There is too much competition to adopt a reactive approach to expansion.

Barristers face a threat to their livelihoods from solicitors, and solicitors are trying to resist the encroachment of accountants on their territory. These changes are blurring the lines within the profession, sending confusing signals to businesses and members of the public.

Consequently, lawyers must make effective use of a variety of media if they are to communicate with, and sell themselves to, clients. And that is just as true for the legal bodies that represent them.

The Law Society and Bar Council are prevented from being dynamic marketeers because they have a regulatory function to fulfil, and they must be even-handed in trying to protect and advance the interests of all their members. Nevertheless, both bodies are prepared to concede that they could be doing more.

"The legal profession as a whole and the Law Society, too, has come late to recognise the importance of marketing," says Law Society head of press, Sue Stapely. "It took us a while to realise the profession was looking to us for advice."

The Law Society has no marketing strategy for itself or the profession, adds Stapely. Instead it sets out to identify services offered by solicitors and then helps sell them. This is done mainly using below-the-line techniques – public relations rather than costly advertising campaigns – co-ordinated by the four-strong in-house PR team.

The two most visible examples of this approach are Make A Will Week, now in its fourth year, and the new Accident Line. The budget for the launch of Accident Line was u200,000. Some of the money was used to produce a video news release and a syndicated radio tape. This was augmented by a briefing for MPs and by garnering support from the BMA and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

The marketing push appears to have been successful. It had been forecast that Accident Line would generate 10,000 calls over a year. At the time of writing, after three and a half months, there have already been over 12,000 calls.

"The Law Society over the past few years has dusted off its slightly fusty Dickensian image," says McKenna & Co managing partner, Robert Derry-Evans.

"It seems more in tune with the pressures on the profession. We're not looking to the Law Society to help out with our marketing. But the smaller firms, who make up the greater part of the profession, will I suspect be looking to the body to do more for them."

Tony Kay, senior partner at Norton Rose, says he has been impressed with the way in which the society has been marketing services to its members. On a less positive note, he believes too much time has been spent debating the right of representation in court.

"Past impressions of the deep divisions between the Bar and solicitors probably have not been helpful in the profession as a whole explaining itself internationally," says Kay.

Of late, the Bar Council has devoted much of its marketing resources to promoting the services of UK barristers to overseas markets. This will continue but with barristers having to look to their laurels in the domestic market, greater attention is being paid to publicising their services at home.

"So far as marketing the Bar as a whole is concerned, it's at a stage of evolution," says Bar Council chief executive, Neil Morrison. "I think that the Bar in certain respects lags behind solicitors in marketing; partly because of the way barristers work and also because solicitors have greater contact with the lay client."

The Bar Council has retained political lobbying and PR firm Westminster Strategy, since 1989. As well as running the body's press office and handling Government and EU relations, Westminster Strategy has advised the Bar on broader marketing issues.

An example of this is the Century Brief initiative, which informed the public that in certain cases it is possible to hire a barrister for as little as u100 plus VAT.

"Ours is a broader brief than selling the business services," says former Westminster Strategy account manager, Graham McMillan. "It's showing that the Bar is keeping its integrity, showing that the best people are still going there.

"The advent of competition from solicitors is going to make marketing more important. In 1995 there's not going to be a glitzy advertising campaign for the services of barristers, but there's a lot else you can do."

ILEX has also upped its emphasis on marketing. It has an in-house PR department aimed at encouraging more people to become legal executives.

Marketing has now become a standard for law firms, chambers and the bodies that represent them. Whether they will succeed in doing it properly is another matter.

Robert Gray is a freelance journalist.