Law firm for hire 'Let's talk about it': Wall crumbles as old-line Baltimore establishment hires ad agency.

October 10, 1997

VENABLE, BAETJER and Howard may never air a television commercial hyped with blaring sirens or the solicitation, ''Let's talk about it.'' But its decision to hire an advertising agency has narrowed the great divide between the venerable firm and the camera-ready lawyers whom traditional firms always have despised.

Establishment legal offices and bar associations long have frowned upon the practice of lawyer advertising, even after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it a free speech protection 20 years ago. Until recently, the line of demarcation was clear: Traditional firms with big business clients never, ever advertised; personal injury lawyers looking for a good case had no qualms about promoting themselves.

The line has become thin and blurry in the competitive legal environment, however, as more and more older law offices loosen their collars. They hold seminars for prospective clients and employ marketers and consultants.

Venable had broken ground in marketing even before it hired the Reeves Agency of Baltimore to produce ads for national legal and financial publications. The firm, chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, was the first to develop a web site, another marketing tool. Other area firms have followed Venable onto the Internet.

But until now, local establishment law offices have maintained -- though not convincingly -- that marketing was not advertising. The distinction was clear, they insisted.

No longer. Venable has shattered the degree of separation. Don't expect its print ads to use the panicked language of a Stephen L. Miles or Saionz & Kirk commercial. But like their televised counterparts, the firm will use the right words and pictures for the right audience.

Lawyers still steeped in tradition will bemoan the appearance of the Venable ads. They already fear for their embattled profession. They no longer can distance themselves so easily from TV lawyers they have blamed for much of the profession's poor image.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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