American lawyers may cast an envious eye over the legal traditions of the UK, but they would not be so keen on the country's stricter laws on advertising.

Ever since the Supreme Court lifted the ban on lawyer advertisements in 1977, US law's honeymoon with advertising has shown no signs of ending and the American Bar Association's (ABA) commission on the issue found that in 1994, the most recent year for statistics on lawyer advertising expenditure, spending rose to a record $126 million.

As Will Hornsby, commission staff counsel, says: “There has never been a year when television advert expenditure has fallen below the previous year.”

The majority of these television adverts are dominated by personal injury services but they also include bankruptcy, domestic relations/family law and criminal defence services, as well as traffic law violations.

Jeff Allyn, executive marketing manager of RW Lynch, a niche agency in San Ramon, California, which specialises in broadcast advertising for lawyers, is not surprised by the advertising boom. “Television advertising has the broadest reach among US media and is the most effective way to establish name recognition among a consumer public,” he says.

Ninety per cent of Lynch's business is in creating television adverts for lawyers and 95 per cent of that is directed at a consumer public. Just 5 per cent involves radio advertising for lawyers. Lynch's brochures also reveal the company's involvement in creating transit and billboard legal advertising. “In your face, seven days a week. That's right – when you use outdoor and public transit advertising, your message is unavoidable, seen every day by precisely the audience you're trying to reach,” explains the Lynch copy, strategically placed next to a bus displaying a sign reading “Injured? Call 1-800-333-0401.”

The brochure also includes a smattering of legal logos, news-letters and telephone book advertisements in legal areas such as medical malpractice, products liability, traffic accidents, workers compensation and divorce. The cost of creating a television advertising campaign starts at $2,000. But Allyn says law firms serious about advertising realise they must invest to secure real returns. “If someone really wants to go on-air as their own spokesperson in an advert, they are looking at $15,000 as a starting point,” he says. Placement costs are extra, of course.

“Personal injury is ideal for TV and public media – these lawyers are trying to reach the person on the street whose circle of influence does not include a lawyer,” says Allyn.

Experts suggest a lawyer's first step in advertising on television is to establish a high quality image. “When that image is seen enough times, a potential client will recognise the lawyer,” says Allyn.

The concept is the same for corporate law firms hoping to woo institutional business. “But larger law firms find greater value in establishing name recognition through print media,” says Paul Herrmann, president of Herrmann Advertising and Design based in Maryland.

Indeed, the larger the firm and the more corporate the practice, the less likely the firm will advertise on television or radio. Hornsby explains: “Corporate law firms advertise for corporate image benefits and do this through well-chosen sponsorships and public relations.

“These activities are not consistent with spot commercials.”

Allyn agrees. “I don't ever expect corporate law firms to be in television because their market responds more to the print media arena,” he says.

In contrast to the growth in television advertising, Hornsby says the “bottom is falling out of radio advertising among lawyers”. He is backed up by ABA statistics and the response to its annual 'Dignity in Advertising' programme. Conducted since 1992, the awards programme receives up to 170 submissions from US law firms each year, including between 50 and 70 television commercials. However, the ABA has never received more than three radio submissions in any year.

“In radio, the demographics are too diffuse for making a personal sale and the medium lacks the imagery which supports a firm's name and telephone number,” says Hornsby. But he says radio still has potential for law firms. “If a firm wants to establish an identity, I would think a radio campaign exalting the law in some way would contribute to public education about the law and may be highly effective for the firm.”

This trend, backed by ABA research, suggests US legal advertising will continue to rise particularly because tort reform shifts will limit the amounts of lawyer recovery on any action. “This means volume work and commodity work will become more important to lawyers,” says Allyn. “And in order to let people know you are out there and doing this type of work, advertising is the only answer.”