Law firms becoming more aggressive in public relations, marketing tactics

October 21, 1990|By Graeme Browning

Not too long ago the catchiest bit of marketing a prestigious Baltimore law firm would engage in was to mail clients a "tombstone."

That's what the legal profession calls the announcement of neassociates -- engraved ever-so-correctly in black ink on white paper -- that law firms usually send out in the fall.

These days, however, large Baltimore law firms are flooding the mail with press releases, newsletters, brochures, clippings and copies of law review articles.

They're buying big ads to advertise daylong seminars and hosting speeches by such people as former savings and loan regulator M. Danny Wall.

And lawyers who once sneered at the news media now go to astounding lengths to return reporters' telephone calls.

Advertising has hit the Baltimore legal community.

Since advertising was once barred in the legal profession, local firms don't like to admit that that's what they're doing. Most prefer to say that they're "marketing" services. Some use the ambiguous but even more subtle term "practice development."

Whatever they call it, in the last 18 months five of the top 15 lafirms in town have either hired marketing directors or promoted a staff member to such a post.

Since the beginning of the year, four more of the city's top law firms have hired public relations firms.

Local law firms "are much more aggressive about marketing to the business community now than they were five years ago," said Stephen R. Lohman of Smith, Somerville & Case.

"It used to be that you had a stable of clients and you didn't worry too much about keeping their business," he said. "Now your clients are being actively courted by other big firms in town. hTC So you have to stand out from the crowd a little bit."

Newsletters have become a popular way to do that amonBaltimore lawyers. Published monthly, newsletters usually mix discussions of legal issues with news about the law firm and its people -- thus keeping the firm's name uppermost in the reader's mind.

At Weinberg and Green, Baltimore's sixth-largest law firm, for example, communications director Jane Middleton oversees eight monthly newsletters.

The firm uses "communications" in Ms. Middleton's title instead of "marketing" because "if you can communicate a message that will help a client you have done the client a service and in turn furthered your own business interests," said partner Jim Astrachan.

Some lawyers in local blue-chip firms, however, are far from enamored with the emphasis on marketing.

"It's still hard for some of our partners. They believe we're in a profession and a profession shouldn't advertise," said Tom Waxter, whose firm, Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, expanded its communications committee from one person to four people this year to boost marketing efforts.

"We used to send out our tombstone, and that was the limit of it," said Mr. Waxter. "But now there's a lot of competition, and Semmes just had to change its way of doing business."

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