Legal Marketing as Professional Responsibility

Because solicitation is a bad word in the legal profession, the ABA Model Rules governing advertising and direct marketing make you read between the lines. You learn what you can do through rules that mostly state what you can’t. Because lawyers are blood-sucking vampires, our pale faces stuck in the rear-view of every tearing ambulance, these rules restrain us from the helpless sleeping public, when night falls and our urges to solicit business overwhelm.

But this is the age of Google and always-on Web connectivity. Let’s channel our unholy energies in the way I describe below and prove to the ABA we’re not that dangerous – and that the model rules on lawyer advertising should be significantly revised and expanded.

This is legal marketing as professional responsibility.

Online Legal Marketing Is Not the Same as Cold-Calling Families at Dinnertime

A quick show of hands shows nearly every lawyer in the room has a website or is thinking of getting one. We generally can’t engage in direct legal marketing (telephone, email, mobile, etc.) but we can advertise online. This is pull legal marketing. Prospective clients search us out.

And we should be doing a lot more with it.

As Jessica Mador reports for Minnesota Public Radio, two tours of duty and the guy gets 60 calls a day. A military veteran in financial trouble after the 2008 recession and his life is threatened. His voicemail fills with cuss words and insults.

It gets so bad with these debt collectors, he hits rock-bottom.

Look, the guy puts a shotgun in his mouth and is this close to pulling the trigger.

Mere words on a website won’t necessarily prevent someone facing legal problems from contemplating suicide. But, on the other hand, the debt collectors used words too. It’s generally against the rules for an attorney to reach out directly to someone in need, so we don’t have that option, do we? We don’t really have anywhere else (except online) to broadcast to the world at large: “You’re not a loser. You don’t have to put up with abuse and harassment. You can make it stop.”

The Words We Write in Legal Marketing and Promoting Ourselves Do Matter

We have, however small and provincial our little corners of the Web in our websites and blogs, an ethical and perhaps even spiritual (if you want to take it there) responsibility to practice legal marketing in this way.

  • We have it in our power to write that a consumer doesn’t have to put up with a debt collector’s harassment and abuse and lies.
  • We have it in our power to write that the person considering bankruptcy is not a failure.
  • We have it in our power to write that an addiction should not be a criminal offense (if that’s your take on it), or that being accused of a crime doesn’t make you a bad person, nor does it make you guilty.
  • We have it in our power to remind those who are getting divorced that they have a responsibility to think of what’s best for their kids and that fighting over anything and everything is only going to add stress, time and legal fees.

In short, we have it in our power to tell the stories that matter to people facing legal problems in their lives, to give useful information that perhaps eases their minds a little and answers a few of their basic questions about their situation, and to promote ourselves honestly and truthfully, with a minimum of puffery … to communicate—because not every lawyer is good for every client—what exactly it is that makes us the right fit for whoever is looking for a lawyer to help them with their problem.

Just Like Pro Bono Publico

We are encouraged to pursue 50 hours of voluntary pro bono work every year as part of a professional responsibility to serve those less fortunate among us. The rule, as it reads, is stated in the affirmative; there’s no reading between the lines with this one.

Not all of us actually do our 50 hours of pro bono work every year, but everyone advertises and does legal marketing, and we should be encouraged to do so as a matter of professional responsibility.

The legal marketing rules should be just as affirmative.


  1. Avatar static says:

    Do I understand the point of this scattered yet overwrought post to be that we should fulfill our pro bono responsibilities by marketing ourselves? And you didn’t post this here instead of the Onion by accident?

    • Avatar Chris B. says:

      I wasn’t as straightforward as I should’ve been. Here’s what I was trying to say: Legal marketing should be about more than “Mr. Johnson is an experienced and dedicated lawyer. Call today.”

      No, we don’t fulfill our pro bono responsibilities by marketing ourselves, but the ABA rules should reflect the power of legal marketing (or the power it could have) by stating an aspirational goal for the provision of legal information and legal advertising.

  2. Avatar RJON ROBINS says:

    I originally wrote this article for The Florida Bar News in 1999 when I was a Practice Management Advisor for The Florida Bar’s Law Office Management Assistance Service. I believed this then, I believe this even more today:

    As attorneys, we have an ethical obligation to actively market our services and engage in Rainmaking activities. Now, I am not going to try and convince you to take out an expensive ad in the telephone directory or advertise on late night television. Those are examples of “advertising” not Professional, Ethical or even especially profitable Rainmaking.

    Advertising has its time and place in a proper marketing plan, but it is the most expensive and least effective tool available to us as attorneys, in our ethical quest to market our services to the public. And most lawyers would be well-served to ignore this tool in their tool box at least until their law firm is approaching about $250,000 in annual gross revenues (or $20,000/month for at least three consecutive months).

    Why do we have an ethical obligation to engage in rainmaking activities you ask?

    Well, take a look at your local telephone directory. Two-to-one, what’s the largest section? Unless things have changed a lot since I am writing this article, your answer is probably “attorneys.”

    The telephone directory is chock-full of attorney ads & this is a very poor reflection on us as a profession, but probably not for the reason you think.

    Know, Like & Trust
    In every business, in every city all over the world, people prefer to do business with people they know, like and trust. You probably already know that. So what does it tell you that there are so many attorneys who find it beneficial to advertise in the telephone directory?

    What it tells me is that there are an awful lot of people out there who don’t know a single attorney, or even know someone who knows a lawyer they can turn to when they have a legal problem.

    Because you have to imagine if you don’t already know it’s not exactly fun for a potential client to sit down in front of a perfect stranger and explain to them the details of possibly the most embarrassing situation of their life.

    Wouldn’t you think that client would be more comfortable and communicate more freely with a lawyer whom he or she already knows, likes and trusts?

    Maybe it’s just me but I was never happy when my new clients were less than candid with me about the full-scope of their predicament. Most of the time, this was the case when they were not yet comfortable enough with me as a person. In other words even after they signed the retainer agreement, it was nearly impossible to provide the highest quality legal services to my clients unless & until they felt like they knew me, liked me and trusted me.

    So, doesn’t it just make common sense to address this point as early as possible?

    That’s what a very professional, a highly-ethical and the most profitable law firm marketing strategies and tactics accomplish for lawyers and the community at large.

    I firmly believe that as members of the learned profession of law, we have an ethical obligation to make sure that as many people as possible already know, like and trust a lawyer when they have a need for someone to help them protect their rights. Please make a commitment today to reach-out & give a prospective client the opportunity to know, like & trust you so they at least know a lawyer if they or anyone else they care about ever needs one of us!

    • And one of the perfect ways of doing that today—of getting prospective clients to know, like and trust us—is to put more effort into “content marketing,” which, loosely defined, is the practice of providing useful and trustworthy information, not advertorials.

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