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Lawyers tread fine promotional line

“Have you hugged your attorney today?” While advertisements like this aren’t commonplace in the field of law, there is no denying that marketing for attorneys has changed in recent years.

About 50 years ago, the words “marketing” and “attorney” wouldn’t have appeared in the same sentence. William Towle, an attorney at Ward & Babb in South Burlington, said the history of attorney marketing is nearly nonexistent.

“Traditionally, attorneys were not allowed to advertise at all,” said Towle. He said professions such as law and medicine didn’t “do” marketing.

This has changed over time, and Towle said the marketing or networking that attorneys do today, while still considered “conservative” in the business world, is quite different than what attorneys did in the past.

“Marketing is a carefully used term in this profession,” said Towle. “Lawyers aren’t pre-disposed to think about it in that way.”

On a national level, the recession in the early 1980s prompted a change in the way that attorneys reached out to their clients, said Paul Ferber, professor of law at the Vermont Law School.

“I would call it promotion rather than advertising,” said Ferber of marketing efforts during this time. “Major firms had pamphlets printed and distributed to current and potential clients. The pamphlets promoted the most prominent partners as well as the range of projects they handled.”

In Vermont, Ferber said he believes the most significant change in marketing efforts occurred 15 to 20 years ago. “Lawyers began advertising on radio and even local TV,” said Ferber. “This advertising was predominantly done by lawyers depending on high volume: plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers, domestic relations lawyers, criminal defense lawyers particularly advertising their prowess in handling DUI (driving while under the influence) cases.”

Still, Ferber said Vermont attorneys have the most success with old-fashioned, word-of-mouth marketing. “This hasn’t changed as a way for the general practice lawyer to obtain clients,” said Ferber.

In today’s business world, social networking and obtaining a presence online is becoming increasingly important. Is this also true for attorneys? Towle believes it is.

“Although it’s not advertising per se, most firms do have a Web presence,” said Towle. “Even 10 years ago, I would have had senior lawyers tell me that it was unseemly or unbecoming of a law firm.”

Attitudes toward online marketing and media networking seem to be changing within the field of law. “In the last couple of years, more lawyers are getting involved in social networking sites,” said Towle. “I think LinkedIn, in particular, has some acceptance in the field of law now.”

Towle, who has an account on LinkedIn, said community involvement has historically been the main way lawyers formed relationships with individuals who might later become clients. “Just as you used to have a real-life presence, people now expect you to have an online presence as well,” said Towle.

Ferber agrees having an online presence is important for attorneys. “I think every lawyer needs a Web site,” said Ferber.

A Web site, according to Ferber, may take over the role of the Yellow Pages phone book at some point, especially for a potential client who doesn’t know a lawyer and isn’t able to get a reliable recommendation from friends or family.

“No matter the source of client interest, so many people are used to obtaining information on the Web,” said Ferber. “It is a way of doing the kind of selling a pamphlet would in a situation where the lawyer does not know who the potential client is. It is an opportunity for the lawyer to let the whole world know what she does, what her credentials are and what she has already done.”

Still, there seems to be a fine line between promoting oneself in the field of law and being seen as the consummate professional. “I think it is the consensus of the lawyers with whom I have spoken over 20 years, including 10 years on the Professional Conduct Board (now the Professional Responsibility Board), that allowing advertising has reduced the public perception of lawyers,” said Ferber.

“The bulk of the advertising is by plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers, who have never been viewed as the finest example of the traditional lawyer-statesman,” Ferber said.

He said that while he has taught a course on the legal profession and ethics at Vermont Law School, a “how to” on marketing one’s law practice isn’t a significant part of the class. “I would guess the same is true of most of my colleagues who teach the course,” said Ferber.

“The way I approach the subject is through problems which explore what the rules permit. Many of our students go into public service or government work and are not interested in the subject.”

And, while one might not yet find an overabundance of Champlain Valley law professionals on Twitter, the movement of attorneys toward social media is one that is gaining ground.

However, social media – like all marketing endeavors – is governed by a code of ethics that all attorneys in the state must abide by. Web sites, while allowed, must have more of an educational angle than a sales angle. The Vermont Bar Association’s Advisory Ethics Opinion states in detail what should and shouldn’t be included in advertising one’s law firm. Though the Professional Responsibility Board is responsible for discipline, the bar association offers “persuasive guidelines” for behavior, according to Towle.

Because social networking is still a new form of advertising and networking, there remain questions about its validity in the minds of some business owners. And, while professionalism is the name of the game in the field of law, there are valid reasons to participate in social networking.

Offering white pages, information about one’s firm and what it specializes in, statistics pertaining to the specific type of law an attorney practices and other information is useful and might help to draw a client who would otherwise be thumbing through the Yellow Pages for more information about a law firm.

Sites like LinkedIn seem more appealing to attorneys than sites like Twitter. Towle, who said his firm has been using LinkedIn for the past two years, said it’s a good way to network with colleagues. However, as far as finding potential clients through LinkedIn, Towle has his doubts.

“I’ve used it more as sort of the old fashioned Rolodex,” said Towle. “LinkedIn becomes a sort of electronic way to do that.”

Listservs, which are electronic mailing lists, among attorneys are still “vibrant” and a good way to make referrals and networking connections, according to Towle.

Still, he said that “being prominent in your community and making sure people know who you are and where you are is still the most important type of marketing. We’re still doing this, just using an electronic media to do it.”

Will changes continue to take place in the field of law in respect to promoting one’s firm? “I think there’s an increasing acceptance of these media forms,” said Towle. “I think the law will increasingly accept them, but I think there will always be limits.

“Certain areas like law and medicine – there need to be some restrictions. I think law has been slow to embrace media advertising . . . we’ll get there, but we’ll always be sort of behind the curve in a way, because this is a profession that shouldn’t be marketing itself like cola.”

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