Solicitors plan pounds 5m revamp on their image

STEPHEN WARD

Legal Correspondent

The Law Society's president Martin Mears is hoping to improve the image of solicitors with a pounds 5m-a-year television advertising campaign.

If the spending is authorised, the profession will be asked to fund the commercials with a levy of at least pounds 100 a year from every partner in a solicitors' firm. The plan is for what is known as a "generic" campaign, which does not promote particular services such as probate or divorce, but which portrays solicitors as friendly, accessible and trustworthy.

When he was elected last year in the first contested vote for president for 40 years, Mr Mears promised to raise the public's esteem for his members. He won on a tide of discontent with the Law Society establishment, particularly among high- street solicitors who have seen their incomes fall through the recession, competition and a slump in house sales and widespread cut-price conveyancing.

Mr Mears insisted on election that solicitors would be more popular if they were better understood, and blamed the Law Society for failing to promote a positive image better. When he took office last summer he set up a working party to find ways to improve things.

Mr Mears chairs that working party, and is anxious to press ahead with an advertising campaign, although others in the Law Society have reservations about the cost. He recently met executives from the Riley Advertising agency in Glasgow, which ran a similar series of generic adverts from 1990 onwards.

They devised jokey television commercials encompassing a series of situations in which a solicitor might be needed, such as a burglar about to be arrested, and a slogan, "It's never too soon to call a solicitor". At the start of the current soccer season a newspaper campaign put the slogan next to a picture of Eric Cantona just before he kicked a Crystal Palace fan.

But the campaign was not universally popular with solicitors, particularly the large firms with solely commercial clients, who could not see the benefit to themselves, and others who thought the seriousness of the profession was demeaned. Accountants had similar reservations with a recent campaign slogan posing the risque question: "Wouldn't you sleep easier with an accountant?"

Tony Girling, a member of the president's working party and chairman of the Law Society's public relations advisory board, said he was keen on an advertising campaign, but that it needed the support of a majority of the profession.

The campaign needed to run for at least three years to be worthwhile. "If you stopped it after a year, that would be pounds 5m wasted," he said. In England and Wales, 40 per cent of solicitors work for firms with 11 or more partners who had to be persuaded to contribute to the levy.

A 1991 survey showed an even split in the profession for and against a generic campaign. Mr Girling said the majority of the working party thought there should be widespread research among solicitors before any campaign goes ahead. Many favoured the advertisement of particular services, or the use of posters rather than television.

The last big television advertising campaign in England blamed a series of disasters on bad legal advice from "Whatsisname". It won awards, but the profession hated the image.

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