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The odds of a pounds 3.5m bet

The Law Society's proposed advertising campaign has enraged many members. Matthew Goodman reports
Some of the UK's leading commercial lawyers are reacting angrily to the way their interests appear to have been ignored by their own industry body.

Top in-house lawyers, who handle the legal affairs of companies internally (and who pick which outside lawyers to instruct), are bitter about the Law Society's new campaign to spruce up the legal profession's somewhat tarnished image. They are angry because although they are helping to pay for the PR drive, they believe they are not likely to see any benefit from it.

Moreover, the Law Society has admitted that it has not conducted any research into whether in-house lawyers (around 7 per cent of all practising solicitors) even need their image bolstered. Indeed, it is the one sector of the profession which, by its very nature, does not service clients - and it is clients the Law Society is seeking to target.

The society announced, in May, that it had pounds 3.5m to spend on advertising and PR at one of the country's leading ad agencies, J. Walter Thompson. It hopes the initiative, will improve the public standing of all UK lawyers, high-street solicitors, City heavyweights and the 4,000 in-house lawyers.

The society has revealed, however, that it has only researched how the image of private practice lawyers can be cleaned up and has no data on how those working in-house are viewed outside the profession. David McNeill, media relations officer for the Society says: "The campaign will be focused around a study on client perceptions of private practice lawyers published by the Policy and Planning Unit last year. The ad agency did some brief research, too." He admits: "We haven't got any research about in-house lawyers." This news is particularly disheartening for in-housers, as the campaign is being funded, in part, by money they have paid the society for practising certificates.

In-house lawyers cite the PR exercise as the latest example of the Law Society puffing the interests of private practice lawyers ahead of its own needs. Doubters wonder whether the multi-million-pound campaign will do anything to boost the popularity of lawyers working in-house, while many feel the campaign will do little to improve the image of any sort of practitioner.

Frank Kieran, the manager of Marks & Spencer's legal department, says: "In-house lawyers don't need the promotion treatment," while a senior lawyer at another top-40 FT-SE company complains that the Law Society is wasting his contribution. "Money disappears into a black hole," he claims. "The society doesn't give me anything worth having. This drive to improve the image of the profession is one more manifestation of that," bemoans the lawyer, who prefers not to be named.

McNeill explains the rationale behind the Law Society's decision to tackle public perceptions of lawyers. "There seems to be a contradiction in the public's opinion," he says. "Members of the public have a relatively low opinion of lawyers in general, but they have a high opinion of their own lawyer. They think he gives them value for money. The society is trying to bridge the gap between the experience and the reality."

McNeill does not explain how the campaign might address the needs of in-house lawyers, and talks of the importance of getting across "the message of client care", a topic clearly aimed in the direction of lawyers in private practice.

Some in-house lawyers remain sceptical about the idea of promoting solicitors.

"I don't think the campaign will do us any good at all," says Michael Lester, the GEC legal director. "The way in-house lawyers boost their image is by performing effectively." This view is shared by Howard Trust, general counsel and company secretary of Barclays Bank, who feels the accuracy of the message is more of an issue than its cost. He says: 'It's the reality that's important, not the image. The profession has to be careful that it is not promoting the idea of solicitors being able to provide a quality of service they're not able to provide.'

But not all in-house lawyers have been as quick to condemn the Law Society's plans. Some felt that a desire to promote the image of the profession could only serve to bolster the image of company solicitors as well as private practitioners. Tony Gartland, head legal adviser to the N&P building society, admits it's difficult for the society to protect everyone's interests, but added: 'Promoting the image of the profession can only be a good thing.'

McNeill is aware that when he insists the campaign will 'sell the value of services solicitors offer', the question for lawyers must be: who is the society trying to convince?

The author is a reporter with the 'In-House Lawyer'.