The solicitors come into the sitting room: Practices interested in reaching out to a wider public are testing the expensive waters of television advertising. Sharon Wallach reports

POUNDING surf, gambolling children and mighty snow-peaks are not images generally associated with law firms. But they featured recently on television in the United States, in a 60-second commercial for Williams, Kastner & Gibbs, a 110-lawyer Seattle firm.

Susan Johnston, the firm's marketing director, describes reactions to the advertisement from the local legal community as 'pretty interesting'. 'A lot of firms have looked for a valid reason to criticise, but they couldn't come up with much,' she says.

One reason the commercial caused a stir, says Ms Johnston, is that television advertising by lawyers has largely been the province of personal injury plaintiffs' lawyers. 'They are hard-sell ads, with telephone numbers flashing, and some are very tasteless,' she says. According to the Wall Street Journal, this advertisement was a first for a corporate law firm.

It was made for dollars 250,000 by R W Lynch Company, a Californian-based advertising agency, which then approached the firm. 'It happened to fit our goals,' Ms Johnston says. 'We had recognised the need to raise our name awareness; it was our key marketing goal for this year.'

The firm's name is not mentioned until the end of the commercial, and no phone number is given. 'It was intended to be pure image-advertising,' she says.

It was also, she admits 'sentimental'. 'In the US, emotional responses to the media are more direct than in England. The English viewer is cynical, and so the ads are more subtle, more ironic,' says Ms Johnston, who was formerly marketing director with Cameron Markby Hewitt, a firm of London solicitors.

Reaction from Williams, Kastner & Gibbs' clients to the commercial has on the whole been positive. 'One call came from a non-client who said he admired our acumen and nerve and gave us his estate planning work,' Ms Johnston says.

'A few clients expressed views that were more negative, along the lines that a law firm shouldn't stoop to advertising - but none of them had actually seen the ad.'

What makes the firm's move even more unusual is that, contrary to expectations, the profession in the US lags behind the UK in terms of sophisticated marketing techniques, according to Ms Johnston. 'Even the Wall Street firms are very reticent about using pro-active marketing. Few of them even have brochures.'

Be that as it may, the legal profession over here, at least in England and Wales, is unsure about the merits of spending large sums on a television campaign. The Scottish Law Society, on the other hand, has three years of a successful campaign of TV advertising under its belt.

A survey carried out by the agency responsible for the campaign demonstrated its popularity among the Scottish public. It is less well-received by solicitors. More than 60 per cent said that the campaign was amateurish and tacky; some said the adverts were stupid or condescending.

At this year's annual meeting of the Scottish Law Society, however, not one vote was cast against continuing the levy of pounds 100 per solicitor to finance the campaign, enlarged to include poster advertising, for a fourth year.

The Law Society of England and Wales is showing more caution. Last year, ITVA, the trade association for ITV companies, set its sights on solicitors in an attempt to attract new institutional advertising from professional groups. Its series of hard-sell seminars brought a mixed response. Several participants commented on the impossibility of providing one campaign that would be of value to the whole profession. How, they asked, do you mount a corporate campaign covering large City partnerships, high- street practices and low-income legal aid firms?

It is unlikely that views have changed since then. According to Sue Stapely, head of the Law Society's press and parliamentary unit, a small majority of the society's council members believes that the financial climate is not one in which solicitors can be asked to delve into their pockets to finance an advertising campaign.

'But our public relations advisory board is looking with great interest at the results of the Scottish campaign,' Ms Stapely says. 'There is also increased interest among individual firms in advertising of all kinds.'

However, as in the US, few practices here have so far taken the expensive step of investing in TV advertising. One who has successfully taken the plunge is Philip Hamer, of Philip Hamer & Co, based in Doncaster.

'We began advertising six years ago, as soon as the rules were relaxed,' he says. 'We began with local radio.'

Two years ago the company began advertising its personal injury expertise on television. 'There is a large untapped market out there,' Mr Hamer says. 'Except for those involved in road accidents, people don't usually sue. Many are not even aware that they can. And when they do, they tend not to use their regular solicitors, because personal injury litigation is a highly specialised field.'

Mr Hamer describes the 20-second Hamer commercial as 'cheap and cheerful'. 'We give a freephone number, and because that appears on the screen throughout, it has more impact than a radio commercial,' he says.

The ad appeared again for a fortnight's campaign three months ago. 'Once the commercial is made, then you can show it whenever airtime is available. And when staff are available: it is pointless to generate demand if you can't service it.'

Television advertising is without doubt expensive. 'You have to be a firm of a certain size with resources reasonably committed to the area of work you are advertising,' Mr Hamer says.

He once tried advertising another service offered by his firm: debt collection and company formation. 'To say that the response was modest would be an exaggeration,' he says.

'The real benefit of TV advertising is it allows you to specialise completely,' says Mr Hamer. 'There is an argument that it adds to the cost for the customer, but it actually means that you can be more efficient.'

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