This post is based on research and writing undertaken by Womble Carlyle’s Client Development Chairman Press Millen. Thanks to Press for his assistance.
I have been fortunate enough to spend the last 10 or so years in the legal marketing profession. In that time, I have seen this nascent function grow into a vital component of the legal services profession. But to what do we owe the profession of law firm marketing? You can thank – or blame – an Arizona attorney named John Bates.
That name may not resonate as a giant of American jurisprudence. You probably didn’t learn about him in law school. But the whole profession of legal marketing can trace its origins to John Bates in the mid-1970s.
Bates provided routine legal services to moderate income clients – uncontested divorces, name changes, small personal bankruptcies and the like. He set his prices low and depended on a substantial volume of clients. A time came when he was having trouble reaching that requisite number of clients.
So in February 1976, he purchased a simple ad in the local newspaper offering his list of services and his fees. Believe it or not, all hell broke loose. Like most states, Arizona’s State Bar had a rule, based on an ABA model rule that was in use in most other states, stating “A lawyer shall not publicize himself or his firm through newspaper or magazine advertisements, radio or television announcements, display advertisements in the city or telephone directories, etc.” The Arizona State Bar brought Bates up on charges and recommended that he be suspended from the practice of law for six months.
Bates lost at the bar disciplinary stage, and he took his case to the Arizona Supreme Court, where he lost again. But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his appeal and considered two possible grounds: One, did the ban on advertising violate the Sherman Antitrust Act and, two, did it violate the First Amendment on free speech grounds?
In October 1977, the Court ruled nine to nothing that the advertising ban did not violate Antitrust Act. But the state bar didn’t fare so well on the First Amendment challenge. The Court ruled five to four in favor of Bates, and the case is called Bates v. State Bar of Arizona. It’s an early commercial speech case which fundamentally changed the landscape of the legal profession. Suddenly, the world of advertising and marketing was now a possibility for law firms, and barbarians like me emerged at the gate.
The plaintiffs’ bar largely plunged in with both feet, as you can see if you thumb through any phone book or flip on the television during a weekday afternoon. But the defense bar was much more reluctant to enter the realm of marketing.
In fact, it wasn’t until early 1996—nearly two decades after Bates v. State Bar of Arizona—that Womble Carlyle introduced its first advertising campaign. Even so, we still were one of the first firms in our region to do so. At the time, Womble Carlyle was expanding beyond its North Carolina roots into competitive new markets, such as Atlanta and the territory where I make my home — the Washington D.C./Northern Virginia area. It was clear that if we were going to be successful in this effort, we would have to do things differently than they had been done in the past. The Firm Management Committee decided to take the plunge into what was then still an unknown, somewhat frightening, world of legal marketing including – yes – brand advertising as opposed to task-based tombstone advertising.
Womble Carlyle’s initial ad introduced a distinctive logo with the defining statement “Our Lawyers Mean Business,” along with a variety of images. One of the punch lines read “…and the bad news is that your rich aunt has named her bulldog her sole beneficiary in Miami,” and a soulful bulldog stared out at the reader.
For whatever reason, that bulldog struck a chord, both with external clients and within the firm. More than one person noted the bulldog’s resemblance to a senior member of the firm, a veteran litigator known for his tenacity in the courtroom. Some of you may know Grady Barnhill personally.
The more we thought about it, the more we liked the bulldog and all it represents. Bulldogs are loyal. Bulldogs are tenacious. Bulldogs can be a bit feisty if provoked. Those are traits that, in focus groups of clients we learned typically describe good lawyers as well. So we created a new ad campaign centered around the bulldog, which we named Winston after the firm’s founding office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The first ads showcased the ever-widening turf of the firm: Stomping Grounds, Business Arenas and Airspace. Subsequent ads turned on such characteristics as persistence, loyalty, dependability and vigilance—all very desirable traits in a champion bulldog…or lawyer. More recently, Winston has been used to tout specific industry services in life sciences, for example, and data security.
Quite honestly, the bulldog was not universally met with open arms around the firm. As you well know, the legal profession’s default setting is to resist change. Most of the opposition to Winston fell along the lines of, “Law firms just don’t have mascots. They never have before and so they shouldn’t now.” And I’m sure a number of hard-liners felt that a droopy-jowled bulldog wasn’t an appropriate image for a buttoned-up corporate law firm.
But the success of the Winston campaign gradually won over most of the hardened skeptics. Clients, colleagues and total strangers alike began favorably recognizing Womble Carlyle as “the Bulldog law firm.” Over the years, our use of Winston expanded into commercial radio and video animation ads. These new media matched our messaging evolution from “our lawyers mean business” to “innovators at law.”
That positive branding helped Womble Carlyle separate itself from other similar-sized law firms that also have outstanding business attorneys. Winston gave us an instantly recognizable identity that helped set us apart from the pack, particularly in new markets where we weren’t an established “go-to” corporate law firm.
After 15 or so years of branding, we all have gotten comfortable with Winston. Our challenge is not so much acceptance of the bulldog, but rather in making sure our various offices, practice groups and industry groups utilize the bulldog image appropriately and consistently – in other words, brand management. My department acts as the gatekeeper for the Winston brand, overseeing how the bulldog is deployed in each of our 11 offices.
But times changes, and the demands of legal marketing departments certainly have evolved in the last two to three years. In an upcoming installment, I’ll discuss how Womble Carlyle is moving beyond Winston into building the brands of individual attorneys.