How far is too far? What UK law firms can learn from US Attorney Marketing & Advertising
Crazy American law firm ads are a common source of amusement at MLT towers. Every so often another brash, outspoken, US Attorney’s ad will land in our inbox and get shared to the amusement of all. The most recent, sent to us by a client, was a feature on the BBC about the self-styled “Texas Law Hawk” – a young Fort Worth criminal lawyer whose ads have been causing a stir in the States. The Law Hawk (AKA Bryan Wilson) was even featured in a Taco Bell Superbowl commercial; such is his popularity. For a marketer, being featured in a Superbowl Commercial is probably akin to winning the thing for a sportsperson (or winning an Olympic Gold medal for fans of proper sport).
While these ads appear almost scandalous to us in the UK, this post asks the question – is there anything we can learn from them? What can we take away from the unabashed advertising and immodesty messages of firms across the pond?
American V UK Law Firm Marketing
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the constitutional right of our cousins across the pond to hawk their services. In 1977, the Supreme Court held that it law firm advertising was protected under the first amendment as Constitutional Speech, in the case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona. The ad in question was sedate and decorous. It is hard to imagine it ever being the subject of serious litigation:
The contrast between Bates & Co.’s polite offer of “Very Reasonable Fees” and Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro’s promises could not be more pronounced. In less than 20 years American Attorneys went from scarcely noticeable newspapers ads to TV spots that make the Transformers movies look subtle and restrained.
The themes and iconography used in these ads are predictably American – loud, brash, extremely confrontational, emotive, loud, repetitive and most of all – loud. The imagery is similarly aggressive. Sledgehammers, chainsaws, apex predators, motorcycles and explosions feature heavily. One personal injury lawyer even embraces the “ambulance chaser” sobriquet by playing it for laughs. In his ad, he is seen hamming it up and chasing an ambulance down the street, this skit ironically filmed in the style of the original Adam West “Batman” TV series. US attorneys take to TV to advertise everything contentious in nature – personal injury, divorce, criminal defence and anything and everything relating to suing another party. One survey estimated that 73% of US law firms advertise in some way (other than through their website).
By contrast, UK law firm marketing and TV advertising, in particular, is almost exclusively carried out by large national Personal Injury firms and the tone is much more demure. Why?
US Attorney & Law Firm Marketing Analysed
To UK audiences, the archetypal US attorney is the fast-talking, fee-chasing, morally-dubious personified by either Saul Goodman of ‘Breaking Bad’ or Lionel Hutz of the Simpsons. Both offer a glimpse into the legal culture in the States. Hutz is a semi-competent ambulance-chaser whose regulatory status is as dubious as his approach to attracting clients and Goodman is the flamboyant, sleazy, crooked confidante of Albuquerque’s criminal fraternity. Saul Goodman even changed his name from Jimmy McGill to appear Jewish which, it appears, is a desirable thing:
Saul’s own TV ad plays up the super-litigious stereotype. In it, Saul asks “who can you sue?” then lists pretty everyone who could feasibly owe you a duty of care from the police, to family members, to “your church, synagogue or other religious institution”, financial institutions, companies in other countries. The possibilities, as Saul says “are limitless”.
As with all great humour, this skit has truth at its core. The approach of the US Attorney to advertising is strongly influenced by the US legal system and American society and culture. Inherent litigiousness, a lower threshold for claims (and far higher potential pay-outs) and a looser approach to what is and isn’t a justiciable issue make the law, particularly contentious matters, a much more lucrative endeavour in the States than in the UK.
UK Lawyers, generally speaking, regard themselves as servants of the law first and foremost, agents of their firm next, then as representatives of their client. In the US, this approach is flipped and there is much greater emphasis on fighting the client’s corner first and foremost. As a result, UK advertising is much more reserved, circumspect and almost reticent.
American society arguably creates the atmosphere for their legal culture to thrive – the lack of a true welfare state, lack of universal healthcare and the “American dream” with its every-man-for-themselves, capitalist, dog-eat-dog culture means that there is a far greater necessity for claims and litigation and also that the rewards of a successful outcome are far higher. For example, someone hurt at work in the UK has statutory sick pay, protection from dismissal, free healthcare and prescriptions and, as such, will probably be less of a mind to pursue a claim. Someone with the same injury in the US may find themselves summarily dismissed and in receipt of an enormous medical bill. Small wonder that they prefer the Sledgehammer-wielding Rottweiler persona over the conciliatory tone of UK personal injury lawyer marketing.
Another factor that creates the environment for lawyers like Bryan Wilson to succeed is that we live in the “YouTube generation”. While today’s legal consumers are better informed, more discerning, more likely to shop around and more internet savvy, the natural corollary is that they have reduced tolerance to traditional marketing, experience greater competition for their attention and respond better to immediacy, emotion and virality rather than more considered and thoughtful advertising. This is particularly true where distress purchases are concerned. The younger generation, millennials, in particular, communicate in blurbs and soundbites, which fits nicely with someone like the “Texas Law Hawk’s” style.
How can UK Lawyers Advertise Like US Attorneys?
The first step I would suggest is for UK Solicitors to simply get over the initial discomfort of being in the public domain. In the UK, most lawyers with a public profile either fail to leverage it for marketing purposes or are unable to (Advocates and Barristers, for example). Either that or their attempts at marketing are aimed at other lawyers – by writing for trade publications, for example. The first step for a UK lawyer to breaking out and creating a marketable profile is, of course, a strong web presence and to cast off the reluctance to self-promote (see what I did there?) Finding a particular niche, becoming the go-to person in that niche then trading on the reputation can’t hurt either.
While creating a viral ad for its own sake is not something we would necessarily recommend, there is a tangible benefit to creating a “buzz” around your marketing campaign. People will naturally link to and share funny, interesting, unusual content and the more searches, shares, clicks, likes your site gets, the better (generally speaking) it will perform in search engines.
Sooner or later, some lawyer in the UK is going to adopt a similar advertising tactic – and do very well out of it. Possibly at the cost of the respect of their peers, but do well they shall. Will it be you?
Speak to Dave now about how you can enhance your public profile – and gain more clients.