The History of Legal Marketing

Updated: Sep 20, 2021

LEGAL MARKETING – regulators are now more permissive, even proactive.

A lot has changed since 1986, when solicitors were first allowed to advertise and promote their services. Now many marketing options are available and widely used within regulatory rules and guidelines designed to preserve the reputation and integrity of the profession. Mike Johnstone, director of specialist marketing firm TOMD, examines the history.

Annual processions of senior judiciary in wigs and robes, seemingly unchanged since the Courts routinely ordered public hangings, could be construed as evidence of a legal profession stuck in the past. The reality is that relatively few judges and lawyers still don the traditional garb for hearings and that solicitors in particular aim to project a more friendly, modern image.

Looking back into the distant past, lawyers have existed for millennia. There are numerous biblical references, as the profession existed in the Roman, Greek and other early civilisations. They were later thriving in medieval Europe, including Britain. The Inns of Court in London’s Temple district have been the hub for barristers since the 14th century.

Law Societies set marketing rules…

Professional societies were formed by groups of lawyers in the UK prior to 1800, but the 19th century saw one very significant advance, the formation in 1825 of what is today The Law Society of England and Wales. The Law Society of Northern Ireland was founded in 1922 and creation of The Law Society of Scotland followed in 1949.

In the early post-war decades, the Law Societies’ marketing restraints meant solicitors were still seen as unapproachable amongst prospective clients needing legal services. As affluence increased, more home ownership, more business start-ups, more relationship issues and more litigation brought more public contact with the profession, yet law firms seemed publicity-shy.

…and eventually relaxed them

One cause of the reticence was that until the mid-1980s solicitors were barely able to promote their services at all. They depended on local awareness, word of mouth, an entry in the telephone directory and a brass plate outside the office. The Law Society (of England and Wales) initiated change in 1986 by ending its ban on advertising legal services.

The new millennium saw formal regulation of law firms separated from other Law Society functions with the creation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The Legal Services Act 2007 then also introduced commercial ‘Alternative Business Structures’, enabling non-lawyers to own or manage law firms. The first ABS gained its SRA licence in 2012.

March of technology

In March 2021, the SRA initiated research into current and potential use of technology and innovation by solicitors. This proactive approach reflects recognition by the various bodies responsible for the UK legal sector that, in a rapidly-changing commercial world, technology and innovation play a growing part in both marketing and customer relationship management.

So, solicitors are nowadays free to put themselves out there, subject of course to normal advertising standards and to specific requirements laid down by the SRA. Various suitable advertising and promotional methods are available, including social media. Law firms keen to enhance their visibility often enlist the help of specialist marketing experts.