Lawyers market themselves and their practices in all sorts of ways: from the more traditional, subtle approach like giving speeches to industry groups or writing articles to somewhat more "in your face" methods like television commercials in which they promise to get injured clients "maximum cash" and ride around in tanks.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1977 that lawyer advertising merited First Amendment protection, attorneys have been pushing the envelope even as state bar association advertising review committees strive to keep ads within the bounds of professionalism.
You know you're not in the Yellow Pages anymore when you see a lawyer marketing his criminal defense practice to gang members with business cards proclaiming himself "the thugs' lawyer," or a Los Angeles practitioner holding herself out as "L.A.'s Dopest Attorney" for clients who "want to smoke pot on probation," or a Chicago divorce lawyer whose billboards of scantily-clad men and women read "Life's short. Get a divorce."
Of course, some efforts at pushing the marketing envelope are more successful than others. Take the promotional gag used by the California law firm Quinn Emmanuel back in 2000, for instance.
In an effort to appeal to hip Silicon Valley businesses, the law firm's marketing consultants shipped out between 500 and 600 paperweights shaped like hand grenades – complete with the firm's name jauntily affixed to the pin – to said businesses.
The problem was, the paperweights looked a little too much like the real thing. Employees at more than one business recipient reported the realistic looking items to the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office bomb squad as well as to U.S. Postal Service inspectors.
The law firm swiftly went into damage control mode, offering to pay for the bomb squad's time and rounding up fake grenades from as many of the promotion's recipients as possible.
As a senior partner with Quinn Emmanuel commented at the time, "Our marketing consultant told us this is Silicon Valley, they're youthful, kind of aggressive, edgy, this is an effective promotion to do. It sounded a lot different than it turned out to be. When somebody tells you 'plastic grenade,' you think of something that floats in your kid's bathtub. I saw this thing for the first time yesterday afternoon, and it looks pretty realistic."
Not surprisingly, the law firm fired its marketing consultant.
Maybe these consultants later found employment in Texas. In November 2009 the Houston law firm Lindeman, Alvarado & Frye came under fire for its advertising methods. To tout different aspects of the firm's criminal defense practice, the attorneys' Web site featured some questionable choices of photos.
For example, accompanying the firm's trumpeting its representation of individuals accused of child sexual assault and Internet solicitation of minors was a photo of a guilty-looking blonde girl in pigtails showing some skin. Along with the Lolita-like illustration is text about the "life-altering" effects and "personal costs" that accusations of molestation can bring.
For the firm's family violence practice, there was a photo of a little girl with an adult's hand over her mouth; let's face it, the implication of witness intimidation is never a good idea. And the law firm's blurbs about its defense of rape and sexual assault charges is accompanied by a photo of an apparently beaten, cowering woman.
If you're going to advertise about how you defend individuals insisting on their innocence, it doesn't make much sense to use photos that look like they came straight from the prosecutor's exhibit list. That's akin to advertising one's defense of accused murderers by showing pictures of dead bodies. To no one's surprise, the tasteless photos soon disappeared from Lindeman, Alvarado & Frye's Web site.
Lawyers have fared better when they used a humorous tack. In 2008, San Francisco-based law firm Hanson Bridgett figured the best way to draw attention to their attorneys' lighthearted approach to the practice of law was to produce a YouTube music video.
"The Law According to Hanson Bridgett" features a number of the firm's lawyers as lederhosen-clad musicians, walking down Market Street in San Francisco to an accordion-based beat that resembles the unholy union of Cajun zydeco and polka music.
With thousands of hits on YouTube, the offbeat video was a hit that showed viewers "a firm where people don't take themselves too seriously, but they are serious about what they do," according to firm managing partner Andrew Giacomini.
When asked what moved the firm to create the video, Giacomini says. "I just got really interested in the whole social networking video-sharing culture. People would send me videos, and I started paying attention, and I realized there was a whole new world of outreach out there."
However, in the humor department, it's hard to match the New York law firm of Trolman, Glaser & Lichtman. The plaintiffs' personal injury attorneys are using a humorous series of television commercials to highlight the firm's practice while poking fun at frivolous lawsuits.
In one ad, a female actress seated at a kitchen table laments, "The pain was excruciating. It's like I had this huge, really sharp machete chopping down on me every time I tried to move. It was the worst paper cut I ever had – they made that paper way too sharp." As she mournfully raises a hand to reveal a bandage on her finger, the woman says "someone has to pay."
Then a tagline appears on the screen noting "There are some cases even we can't win," and a voiceover for the firm intones "If you've been injured, call us, but keep in mind: you really need to be injured."
Another commercial begins with a man telling how he was playing the best videogame of his life when a power outage cut the game short. As tears stream down his face, he says, "My game was lost. I never thought the power company would do this to me. I have pain and suffering."
The clever departure from traditional lawyer advertising works by poking fun at cases lacking in merit while giving the impression that this firm is selective about its work, pursuing only meritorious cases.
According to Mr. Lichtman, "It's saying to the public that we understand that we're a litigious society, No. 1, and No.2, we understand that litigiousness is food for a joke. But we also recognize there's an importance to having access to the court system if there has been an injustice."
True – and it beats sending fake hand grenades through the mail.
John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org