Rise and rise of the 'm' word

Marketing used to be a dirty word to many lawyers, mentioned in the same breath as “undignified” or “inappropriate”. And when regulations on advertising by law firms were relaxed in 1984, solicitors were reluctant to use the opportunity to sell themselves.

A letter to The Lawyer in August 1988 read: “I sincerely hope The Law Society will not listen to the recent calls for solicitors to advertise their charges. The profession has already suffered numerous indignities and had its image tarnished by its surrender to consumer-led lobbying.”

But a few pioneering firms did grasp the nettle. Television adverts appeared in 1987, and innovative ideas in the late 1980s included Stoneham Langton & Passmore's advert featuring its senior partner Grant Middleton and his BMW superbike, and Parrott & Coales' hot air balloon.

The late 1980s also saw the emergence of PR consultancies dedicated to the legal profession, and in 1990 Stephenson Harwood became the first City firm to appoint a director of marketing as partner. The Bar, however, tried to dig its heels in. 1988 Bar Council guidelines said that chambers brochures should, like barristers, “appear dignified, sober and professional”: with no photographs, artwork or illustrations.

But in an increasingly competitive world, the Bar Council could not stop the tide of self-promotion. Its new July 1989 regulations allowed barristers to advertise their hourly rates, charging methods and services.

Today marketing is a vital part of legal business. A number of PR companies specialise in legal practice, getting work through personal recommendation or beauty parades. One company has even created an advertising course for lawyers on the Internet and claims to be the first advertising agency for the legal profession.

Some legal firms use in-house marketing teams, while others mix internal and external consultants. Things can get complicated when firms merge, as in the recent merger between McKenna & Co (which used consultancy Financial Dynamics) and Cameron Markby Hewitt (which had an in-house marketing team but called in external consultancy Fishburn Hedges to handle the merger discussions). Unusually, following the merger, both consultancies were retained.

The Law Society has a marketing department which promotes schemes such as Accident Line Protect, and a communications department which promotes the profession as a whole, plus a press office. It also occasionally hires external PR consultants – last year it reportedly earmarked £200,000 to hire PR guru Sir Tim Bell's company to campaign on legal aid. Yet a society spokesman comments: “A number of people rue the day that solicitors ever marketed their services. This is particularly so with conveyancers, who blame the relaxation of advertising rules for increased competition.”

Sue Stapely, director at Fishburn Hedges, solicitor and former head of PR at The Law Society, says: “The Law Society's role was originally seen as simply to promote solicitors as a whole. But it became apparent that the way we were operating was not meeting the needs of the profession. Solicitors were interested in finding out how to promote their individual firms, sometimes against each other.

“In the past, marketing was usually handled by a fee-earning marketing partner, but we are now seeing individuals with professional expertise being brought in as external advisers or in-house. Firms are also using national initiatives, such as Make a Will Week, to promote their expertise and heighten the firm's profile.”

There is an increasing awareness that effective marketing involves carefully safe-guarding a firm's reputation as a business. “If the firm experiences difficulties or changes, such as a merger, it now involves its in-house team or comes to people like me at a much earlier stage,” Stapely comments.

She adds that there is a growing tendency for practice groups or individuals within a firm to promote themselves, particularly through media relations. “In the old days, people were content to see the firm's name mentioned. Now individuals want to see their own name or practice group mentioned.”

Linda Phelan has spent 10 years in in-house marketing, first setting up Titmuss Sainer's (now Titmuss Sainer Dechert) marketing department, and for the past five years as marketing director of D J Freeman.

“The changes have been incredible,” she says. “Ten years ago we were still talking about electric typewriters, no sophisticated access to financial or client information, no databases and no real sense of corporate identity.” Phelan says the major change has been the increasingly enthusiastic attitude of fee-earners, and she thinks the future is “increasingly competitive. It's clear that successful firms will be those that can differentiate themselves from their competitors. It is more important than ever to establish and maintain an agreed vision and culture – and align all aspects of business. Marketeers are having more input on strategy and the business planning process”.

At the Bar, things continue to move more slowly, although some leading barristers do hire PR consultants to promote them as individuals. But a Bar Council spokesman says: “There is a massive gap between what chambers do at the moment and what they should be doing to represent their services.

“It has to go beyond the standard brochure. There is a tension at the Bar over whether or not chambers should act as groups with a collegiate approach, or whether they should be seen as bunches of atomised individuals. The sets that will thrive are those that recognise the importance of maintaining and enhancing the reputation of the set as a whole.”

Monckton Chambers offers an example of this approach. Last year it employed Milly Ayliffe (formerly a solicitor with Norton Rose) as practice manager with a marketing brief.

Ayliffe promotes the chambers as a whole and individual members by organising seminars, issuing press releases, getting barristers to speak at external conferences and developing a corporate identity. She believes that this “gives people a much better idea of what we are about” than simple adverts.