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Traditionally, when a company chose a law firm or a lawyer, they relied on good old-fashioned connections – the person you teed off with every Friday morning on the golf course, your brother-in-law’s brother-in-law, or your dentist’s cousin. The one thing these people all had in common was they were recommended to you by somebody whom you knew and trusted.

Over the past 20 years, the landscape of the legal industry has changed greatly. Many firms have adopted a new method of advertising as a tool to attract clients. While lawyers used to be prohibited from advertising, the ban has been lifted and it seems that the floodgates have opened. Somewhere along the road, law firms and large corporations met in the middle of the scale, and the face of law has seemingly integrated with that of Corporate Canada.

“It used to be that the biggest draw of a particular law firm would be the lawyers it employs as opposed to the name of the firm”

When choosing a law firm, does one rely on the reputation of the law firm or the individual lawyer? It used to be that the biggest draw of a particular law firm would be the lawyers it employs as opposed to the name of the firm. A comparison could be drawn between today’s law firms and large corporations. For example, people may choose a BMW vehicle over a GM model because they trust the brand name, not the salesman at the dealership selling them the physical car.

Much like cars, there is no question that name-brand law firms have become more popular in recent years, due in part to the explosion of advertising options available. These include social media, podcasts, RSS feeds, and emerging legal print publications, to name but a few. However, in the legal industry it is questionable whether one would trust a law firm because they like the brand. Turn your television channel to a business network and you will find an advertisement for Fraser Milner Casgrain. Go to any Vancouver Canucks home game and you will instantly see Fasken Martineau’s name splashed across the boards. Catch a flight out of the Toronto Island Airport and there’s Norton Rose’s name staring down at you. Law firms are gambling on the corporate model of advertising and hoping that it pays off.

How do we know if this advertising model works in law firms as well as it does in large corporations? The truth is, it is impossible to gauge whether new clients are attracted by advertising campaigns or the name of an individual lawyer that has been recommended to them. We can, however, assume that even if these advertising strategies fail to bring in new clients, the money spent to bring them into existence was not spent in vain. Regardless of whether they pay off in the expected way, they do offer side benefits.

“While they may not draw in new clients, these advertisements may potentially bring in future talent”

Providing satisfaction to those who are currently employed by these firms by letting them know that their law firm is out there trying to recruit new clients is important – keeping the staff happy is crucial in a business environment. Equally important is satisfying existing clients. Recognizing their own law firm on an advertisement helps to reassure clients that they have the greatest law firm out there. Finally, while they may not draw in new clients, these advertisements may potentially bring in future talent. When a lateral partner is considering moving their practice to a new law firm, the brand being advertised is what they will likely recall the best, therefore they remember it when making a move.

Law firms will continue to advertise at niche conferences and legal events, though the onslaught of mass-consumer-focused advertising is certainly the trend. While some may frown at this new form of advertising for lawyers, it seems the new approach is here to stay.

Warren Bongard is co-founder and president of legal recruiting firm ZSA. His columns appear every third Thursday at www.financialpost.com/executive. He can be reached at wbongard@zsa.ca.

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