Just look who's advertising now Old-line Venable hires an agency, and Steve Miles is amused

October 08, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

They're hungry, they'll fight for you and they get paid only if you win the case.

Lawyers who advertise have a fairly harsh stereotype, but the TV pitchmen are being joined increasingly by some of the grayest of gray flannel firms -- including Baltimore's Venable, Baetjer & Howard, which has just hired an advertising agency for the first time in its 97-year history.

The Reeves Agency of Baltimore will work on an image campaign for the venerable Venable, the second largest law firm in the area with offices in Maryland, Washington and Virginia.

But don't expect to see something like "1-800-HIPOWER" on billboards, or any television spots at all. Instead, Reeves and Venable are promising a slick, eye-catching series of print ads for national legal and financial publications.

Even that modest step is a precedent for the dignified old firm.

"As you look at successful law firms in the '90s and beyond, you'll see that folks are getting very smart and very strategic about their futures.

This [marketing effort] is just one piece that supports what we're doing in terms of our planning," said Mary Lou Rayball, director of marketing for Venable.

Rebecca Reeves, whose advertising agency won the account over 13 competitors, said she hopes the relationship will open some eyes.

"It's my belief that it's long since time for law firms to accept marketing themselves in whatever form that might take like anyone else," Reeves said. "I guess we'd all like to exempt ourselves from it -- it's expensive -- but, let's face it, it has a function for everybody."

In other words, don't be ashamed. Stephen L. Miles has taken that advice in building a successful legal practice with 18 years of ubiquitous TV, radio and print advertising.

News that Venable is joining the crowd, in any form, pleased Miles as much as a clear-cut case of wrongful negligence.

"I get a chuckle out of it," he said. "For years and years, all you hear is the holier-than-thou BS from the big law firms. Now [Venable] is getting an ad agency, so it's kind of funny."

Miles, who writes his own advertising, pointed out that lawyers who may have looked down on his campaigns were still marketing themselves -- giving free seminars and speeches, for instance -- to gain exposure with prospective clients.

Even Abraham Lincoln took out newspaper notices in the 1850s, but it was not until 1977 that the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the current trend of lawyer advertising by declaring such speech protected by the Constitution.

Now there is a 12-year-old National Law Firm Marketing Association. While members originally may have been going after ordinary consumers, as Miles does, more and more specialized firms are joining the trend, said Baltimore-based consultant Vickie Gray.

Legal journals and financial publications are peppered with ads that would mean nothing to the average whiplash victim.

"All Patent Litigators Are Not Alike" is the tag line on a recent Morgan & Finnegan ad in the National Law Journal; "Masters of the Intellectual Property Maze," proclaims Welsh & Katz Ltd. in Corporate Legal Times.

Such messages are targeted at CEOs and finance directors -- a select audience that even a firm as established as Venable is wise to cultivate, Gray said.

"Venable's advertising may signal a trend in Baltimore, but certainly not anywhere else. Baltimore's large law firms are way behind, I think, in embracing traditional corporate advertising techniques," she said.

Still, the market for legal advertising remains small. Herb Fried, chairman of Baltimore's W. B. Doner & Co. advertising agency, isn't exactly palpitating over the notion of a new list of potential clients.

Fried said he was surprised at Venable's decision to hire a firm, "but not enough to think that we should go after law firms, though. I think there is a limit to what they can do, and I think we're a little too large for that."

Given Venable's prominence and heritage, Fried said he was unsure why the firm felt the need to hire an outsider to define its image.

Venable is approaching its centennial in 2000, and may gear up a separate campaign to celebrate that, said Rayball, the firm's marketing director.

For now, the firm will concentrate on positioning its services and communicating the "bench strength we bring to clients in niche areas," she said.

If they ever do decide to take to the airwaves with a theme song and a toll-free number, though, they'll be welcomed aboard.

"I love competition," said Miles. "It gives me a little spark."

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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