Legal advertising blows past $1 billion and goes viral

by Victor Li, ABA Journal

Morris Bart remembers a time when he was awkward, stiff and nervous on camera. It was 1980, and the Tennessee native turned New Orleans resident was building up his personal injury law practice.

It had been three years since the U.S. Supreme Court held in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that the traditional ban on lawyer advertising was unconstitutional. States were starting to carve out their own ethical rules that covered how attorneys could (and could not) market their services to the general public.

Bart was thinking of ways to drum up business when he came across a story about a lawyer in Colorado who started to run television ads.

“A lot of people told me not to waste my money, that it would never work and that it would sully my reputation,” says Bart, whose eponymous firm now consists of more than 90 lawyers in 14 offices in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. “I called [the Colorado lawyer] up, and he said that the ad had worked and that his phone was ringing off the hook.”

Bart decided to take the plunge. But he readily admits that he wasn’t quite ready for his close-up.

“I was sitting in my office chair behind my desk, pretending to talk on the phone,” Bart says. “I had to look at the camera, point the phone at it and say two words: ‘Call me.’ I felt so uncomfortable doing it that it took something like 15 takes to get it right.”

Practice makes perfect. Bart’s ads are on television constantly. Billboards with his face, phone number and website are displayed prominently on highways throughout Louisiana and the other markets he’s entered. He has a website that features a 24-hour hotline and live chat options for clients to reach an attorney at any hour of any day. He has a YouTube channel and a Facebook page that contain numerous web-exclusive videos and testimonials. He even has a catchphrase (“One call, that’s all!”) that he’s been able to adjust seamlessly for the web (“One click, that’s it!”).

And he has a cult following. The Advocate newspaper, based in Louisiana, reported in 2015 that a mother in Prairieville threw a Bart-themed birthday party for her 2-year-old son complete with an image of Bart emblazoned on his birthday cake, a Bart cardboard cutout, a T-shirt and an autographed picture.

Bart, who spends about $1 million per month on TV spots, was able to parlay this story into tons of free advertising for him and his firm. The story got picked up by major outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed and People magazine. TV host Jimmy Kimmel surprised the mother and child with a visit from Bart at their home.

“That was a joyful experience that came out of nowhere,” says Bart, whose 2015 Kimmel spot had racked up more than 186,000 views on YouTube at press time. “All of a sudden, it goes viral, and I’m getting emails from all over the world.”

It's an ad world

Whether it inspires envy, parody, anger, litigation or teeth-clenched admiration, legal advertising is here to stay. Bart’s experience shows how some lawyers are relying on multiple ad streams to compete in today’s multiscreen media landscape.

Jayne Reardon, chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Professionalism, says the rise of social media and the prevalence of the internet have created an incentive for some lawyers to move away from the traditional ads that Bart and others pioneered.

“I started practicing in the ‘80s, so I’ve lived with lawyer advertising throughout my entire legal career,” says Reardon, the executive director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. “Over the years, the tone has changed. Ads have become more sensationalized, and it’s been accelerated because there are so many different ways to get your message out there.”

All that has led to lawyers opening up their checkbooks and spending big bucks to be on TV and in print, and to maintain an active web and social media presence. According to Oct. 31, 2016, figures from Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG), lawyers, law firms and legal-service providers spent $770,598,900 on television ads in 2016. CMAG also predicted that $924 million would be spent by the end of the year based on the current monthly average.

For paid Google keyword search terms—which advertisers buy to have ads appear after the terms are plugged into a Google search—a 2015 study by CMAG and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform found nine out of the top 10 and 23 of the top 25 were legal terms. The most expensive terms were “San Antonio car wreck attorney” at $670, “accident attorney Riverside CA” at $626, and “personal injury attorney Colorado” at $553.

Although the ad-buy rush is being fueled by personal injury and mass tort lawyers, Kantar Media found that other lawyers and legal-service providers have contributed to the boom, ranking Avvo and LegalZoom among the top 10 biggest spenders on TV advertising in 2015.

“Legal advertising not only appears to be recession-proof but also politics-proof,” the report states.

Read the full article from ABA Journal

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