That time has passed, of course, and now advertising can be done through websites, social media, radio, television or various forms of billboards.
For potential clients in many parts of the province, legal advertising seems to be omnipresent.
In the advertisements, there can be promises of free initial consultations, no fees paid until there is a settlement and a strong implication that the experience will end with a favourable financial result for the client.
“I worry about the perception of the public. It sounds as if it is all free,” says Jaye Hooper, who heads Hooper Litigation in Ottawa.
She is also president of the Federation of Ontario Law Associations, which advocates on behalf of the 46 local law associations in the province.
“We have made our concerns known to the Law Society [of Ontario],” says Hooper, who adds that FOLA has been supportive of changes made last year by the regulator that are related to referral fees and advertising.
Since the changes came in, the LSO has initiated disciplinary hearings against some firms based on their marketing practices.
“We just hope they will continue to enforce the rules,” says Hooper.
Warren WhiteKnight, president of the Frontenac County Law Association, says the best way to counteract widespread advertising from outside firms is through traditional methods of marketing or networking.
“You need to be tapped into the community,” says WhiteKnight, a lawyer at Bergeron Clifford LLP, a personal injury firm in Kingston, Ont.
“You can level the playing field with community involvement,” says WhiteKnight, who says efforts can include volunteering or teaching.
“We try to serve the community properly,” he says.
“Like other personal injury firms, we have satellite offices. But if I get an Ottawa file, I do the actual legwork and I go to Ottawa.”
WhiteKnight suggests the LSO consider a marketing campaign urging the public to “buy local” similar to what farmers in the province have done.
Corey Wall, president of the Simcoe County Law Association, says he believes the widespread advertising by firms in major markets is having an impact on the provision of certain types of legal services in smaller communities.
“I practise an hour north of Toronto and I recently had a difficult time finding a local lawyer to handle an immigration matter,” says Wall, a lawyer at Carroll Heyd Chown LLP in Barrie, who focuses on estate litigation. He adds that certain areas of the law do not lend themselves to advertising to the general public.
“How do you advertise family law? It is difficult to be tasteful,” says Wall.
For the overwhelming majority of lawyers in Ontario, however, regardless of their views on radio spots or billboards on city buses, there may not be the money to advertise — especially for small firms or sole practitioners.
Some methods that lawyers have used in the past are still just as important today, says Wall.
“Your community needs to recognize you as being local. You should go out and sponsor events and do those things that have traditionally brought honour and repute to the profession. For those of us who are not part of the television scene or not at a big corporate firm, it is about getting into the community and networking,” he says.
The Simcoe association includes practice groups in various areas of the law that meet once a month to discuss common issues, including marketing, which Wall says is also beneficial for its members.
Using technology can also be a way to network or market one’s legal services, Hooper says.
“I don’t have the budget for advertising, nor would I want to be on the side of a bus. But social media is getting bigger.”
There are numerous software programs that exist now to be able to build a professional website inexpensively, Hooper says. “You need a website these days to let the public know that you exist.”
Another issue that may be a concern in a time of widespread advertising with big promises is the initial consultation with the client.
“Clients are savvy. They may now seek out free initial consultations with two or three lawyers. Litigation is a tough slog. I try to be frank with them, but some lawyers do not point out the struggles because they want the retainer,” says Hooper.
She says this may be an even greater issue in Toronto and surrounding municipalities because of the number of lawyers in the region.
“In an area like Toronto, it is very hard to stand out. In Ottawa, we are a collegial bar and people get to know each other.”
Hooper says “building networks with lawyers who have other types of practices” is another way to attract clients through referrals.
Stephanie DiGiuseppe, a criminal defence lawyer, became a partner at Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe Barristers in Toronto this past August. Before that, DiGiuseppe had articled and practised at a mid-sized firm in the city as well as set up her own practice. She says marketing yourself as a lawyer can be “challenging.”
“[Y]ou want to get your name out, but you also want to make sure that you maintain your personal and professional integrity,” says DiGiuseppe, who uses social media such as Twitter to advertise her work. She says social media is “more useful to connect with peers” than clients.
“Do not undervalue the importance of connecting with peers,” she says, saying it leads to benefits such as referrals, strong friendships and support.
She also recommends getting involved in legal associations.
“Dedicating your time to external causes, such as volunteer work, will help you spread your name beyond the legal community and allows you to market yourself to a broader audience, while also engaging in fulfilling non-legal work,” she says. The most simple solution?
“[T]he best way to build business is to do good work, and this will, over time, translate into publicity and referrals,” she says.
“If you have the opportunity to be involved in novel or high-profile litigation, take the opportunity, even if it is not particularly remunerative,” she adds.
— With files from Gabrielle Giroday