Buyer beware - lawyers for sale

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THE timing was perfect. England's batsmen were facing the West Indies fast bowlers, an occupation which involves a hard leather object whizzing towards the human body at 90mph. Cometh the adverts, cometh the lawyers. Got a personal injury claim? Call us free for advice.

The new development hit the screens of those watching the Third Test Match in Trinidad on satellite television last week. A group of personal injury lawyers ran a straightforward advert, including a freephone number.

The marketing of lawyers and their wares is becoming increasingly widespread. Lawyers view the area of personal injury to be a rich, unmined seam: just one in four people who have a legitimate claim for personal injury actually go to court, according to the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. Furthermore, the introduction of no-win, no-fee for lawyers means you can take action without fear of facing a huge bill if you lose.

Advertising and the legal profession have not always mixed so easily. Lawyers were only allowed to advertise on radio in 1984 and it is only since 1987 that they have been permitted to sell themselves on television.

One company to promote itself on television is Nelsons Solicitors, based in Nottingham. They used their own clients to give anecdotal accounts of the firm's work in personal injury, fraud, criminal law, wills, financial services and divorces.

"Because of the extremely sensitive nature of divorce we used an actress to read a client's statement," said marketing manager Christine Pudge. "We got a good return on some parts of the adverts. The trouble is you can't sell a legal firm like you can sell a bar of chocolate. People either need a lawyer or they don't. You can't make it irresistible."

Guidelines for lawyers who want to advertise are laid down by the Law Society. In what outsiders might view as a traditional piece of legalese, lawyers are allowed to advertise, but they cannot tout for business.

"That means they can drop a leaflet through your door but they can't knock on your door or ring you up and try and sell you a product," said Catherine Slater of the Law Society. "They must not do anything that brings the profession into disrepute or which is too tacky."

Legal firms are increasingly aggressive in the field of personal injury, according to Chris Fogarty, features editor of The Lawyer magazine. "One firm advertised their personal injury service on the back of hospital appointment cards," he said. "The British are coy about going to court. But I saw one lawyer stand up last year at a meeting and say he was proud to be an ambulance chaser. Many see themselves as social crusaders."

However, Irwin Mitchell, a firm with offices in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield, decided not to broadcast a radio advert dealing with family law.

"We produced a family law advert on divorce but the reaction was that it possibly crossed the line and we did not put in on air," said marketing executive Stuart Peace. "We would never advocate advertising to the extent that is done in America. We must get the balance right. The key is not to be insensitive or in-your-face."

The firm has advertised on local radio in London, Sheffield and Leeds, with adverts ranging from 10 to 80 seconds. The longer messages included documentary-style accounts of a road accident victim and a mother whose child was hit by a car. In another broadcast, the comedian Alexei Sayle was hired to perform a tongue-in-cheek advert.

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