Boundaries for legal advertising


About half a century ago, bar associations forbade attorneys- at- law from advertising their services. Traditionally, it was considered unseemly that a lawyer should market his or her practice. Lawyers were restricted to stating their business on a card. Announcing one’s services on billboards, or other media was considered undignified, and it was believed that it might lead to unnecessary lawsuits, misleading claims of services, and even a rate war. But such restrictions slowly fell by the wayside as the new century approached and many bar associations across the world lifted such restrictions marginally or fully.

The United States leads the way in legal advertising, with its legal fraternity taking to the medium wholeheartedly. Whether it is billboards, TV ads, print or web presence, lawyers are relying on multiple ad streams to get their message across. . According to the Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), lawyers and law firms spent $770,598,900 on television ads in 2016. The CMAG estimates that going by the monthly average ad spend, the figure could go up to $924 million by year-end . “Legal advertising not only appears to be recession-proof but also politics-proof,” the report states. Figures from the US lawyers Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) show that law firms increased their spending by over 75 percent in the last 10 years. Over, 78 percent of the top 100 Google terms are linked to litigations, say research firms Webpage FX and SemRush. One survey estimated that 73 percent of US law firms advertise in some way (other than through their website).

This stark break from the traditional position of no soliciting of clients beyond word-of- mouth or referrals was brought about by the landmark case of Bates vs State Bar of Arizona. In this case, two lawyers with a small practice dealing in regular legal work such as name changes, uncontested divorce cases, and bankruptcies took out a print advertisement in a bid to garner more clients in 1976. This was not allowed by the State Bar of Arizona, and the lawyers in question received six months of suspension. They appealed to the Supreme Court contending that the ban violated the rights they were guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US constitution, which allows for free speech. The Supreme Court held that the ban on lawyer’s advertising violated the rights guaranteed to them by the First Amendment. The court held that inherently misleading commercial speech or commercial speech that has been proven to be misleading may be absolutely prohibited but other restrictions are appropriate only where they serve a substantial state interest, directly advance that interest, and are no more restrictive than reasonably necessary to serve that interest.

This Supreme Court ruling unleashed a juggernaut in the legal profession with lawyers, as cited above, becoming one of the largest advertisers. Legal advertising has had both positive and negative effects on the profession. On the positive side, it has aided the general public by making it more aware of legal issues and the availability of criminal defense services. For instance, recent statistics show that two out of three people do not get a lawyer when they need one. For the professionals themselves, an avenue to advertise their services has enabled them to garner more business. Like others, even lawyers are affected by lean economic cycles and competition. Moreover, legal consumers nowadays are “more discerning, internet savvy and respond better to immediacy, emotion and virality rather than more considered and thoughtful advertising .”

The approach to legal advertising is varied in different countries.

Advertising in the United Kingdom is under “fairly well-developed regulation.” In the European Union, lawyers are not prevented from promoting their firms, but they are, however, subject to various restrictions. Aggressive marketing such as in the US is frowned upon and not easily sanction by the bar associations.

Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia are gradually relaxing regulations on legal advertising to adapt to global demands. In India, lawyers are still not allowed to advertise their services, although legal firms can maintain websites. Australia and New Zealand allow the legal fraternity to advertise, and Bar Councils are relaxed in their approach to promotional activities, again the US way is still not acceptable.

Legal advertising in the US reflects the contentious and litigious nature of its legal system, which in turn makes the practice of law a very lucrative endeavour in the country. The infamous commercials such as the Texas Hawk, and Jim the Hammer exhorting the public to use their services for the silliest of infractions, injuries and accidents reflect this thought process. Let’s sue, seems to be the acceptable war cry.

Aggressive tactics adopted by certain lawyers and law firms may disenchant people and lead to loss of respect for the profession, but it cannot be denied that the days of referrals and word-of-mouth clientele are long gone. Market forces, changing economies, and competition among the fraternity have changed the playing field.

Legal advertising still suffers from bans and restrictions in most parts of the world, because any form of promotional material is still governed by what is seemly professionally. Other businesses and services are not held back by such norms, and it is time that things changed for lawyers too.

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