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January 31, 2010

The Billboard: The Last Frontier of Conventional Advertising, But Should Lawyers Try It?

Conventional advertising is going the way of the dinosaur.   Declining newspaper circulation means fewer outlets for print advertising, and reduced visibility for ads in the print publications still in existence.  The advent of services like Hulu or Tivo enable consumers to bypass television commercials entirely.  Meanwhile, more and more consumers are spending time online, making the Internet and more recently, mobile technologies the hotspot for ads.

Still, there's one last bastion of conventional advertising:  the billboard.  As David Sparks discusses at SocialMedia.biz, the billboard survives social media because there's no way to avoid outside ads:

As I'm wait­ing for the bus, dri­ving my car, or sit­ting on pub­lic tran­sit, I can't not look at the adver­tis­ing. It's actu­ally some­thing to do. I can't look at the peo­ple. You know what hap­pens if you make direct eye con­tact with any­one on the bus? They'll think you're com­ing on to them or you're a psy­chotic killer. Isn't that every­one who rides the bus?

But is billboard advertising appropriate for lawyers?  Frankly, I don't know, so I searched around on the web, and here's what I found:

1.  Billboard ads can be effective

San Antonio, Texas based family law attorney Michael McLees invested roughly one thousand dollars a month in a billboard to market his new practice.  McLees' billboard is simple and in good taste (insofar as billboards go) with just his picture, firm name, phone number and tagline, Family Matters.  Over at his blog, McLees reports that the billboard does in fact generate clients.

Traverse City, Michigan lawyer Enricho Schaefer also reports that billboards are effective, even for law firms such as his with a dominant internet presence.  Schaefer's billboard is also tasteful, featuring many of his firm's local clients, who appreciated the added exposure.

2.  Billboards can also be cheesy or carry negative connotations

Though billboards can be effective, there are also drawbacks.  Some billboard advertising is cheesy and or controversial.  And sometimes, it can reflect poorly on a lawyers' abilities.

Chicago, Illinois attorney Corri Fetman stirred up a controversy with her Life's Short, Get a Divorce billboard featuring the scantily clad torsos of a woman and man.   Many fellow lawyers criticized the ad as trivializing divorce, or as simply undignified.  There's no word on whether the ad attracted clients, but it certainly received wide media coverage.

Meanwhile, in Houston, Texas, DWI lawyer Tyler Flood put up a billboard on a street known for a high number of drunk driving arrests.  Flood's billboard, depicted here, asks drivers to keep Flood's number on their cell phones, prominently warns them that if arrested, DON'T BLOW (i.e., take the breathalyzer test). Not surprisingly, law enforcement officials are critical of the billboard, claiming that it provides bad advice since drivers who decline to take a breathalyzer test can have their licenses suspended for three months, or in certain cases, be subjected to a blood test.   However, Flood's billboard passed muster with the state disciplinary committee which reviews billboards in advance of publication.

Billboards can also carry negative connotations.  Memphis, Tennessee lawyer James Ferrell has a poor impression of  "billboard lawyers" in his neck of the woods, many of whom have never taken a case to trial:

Of all the lawyers who heavily advertise on billboards, city buses and television, I know of only one (and I won't say which one) who is actually a credible trial attorney.  Most are virtually unknown in professional circles, except by reference to their advertising.  Most seldom if ever try a case in court. Most never speak at continuing legal education programs, and  attend barely enough CLE to keep their licenses. Hardly any are active in professional organizations.

When clients have asked me to consider taking over cases that those firms had been handling, I have been appalled at the lack of the most basic forms of investigation and preparation.

Conclusions regarding billboard ads

Based on my review of lawyers' experiences with billboards, I arrived at the following conclusions.  First, billboard advertising may survive social media, but that doesn't mean that it's for everyone.  Billboard advertising doesn't come cheap so unless you receive some tangible returns like McLees or Schaefer, it's probably not worth considering. 

Second,  if you're going to advertise by billboard, keep it simple and tasteful.  Billboards that are cheesy or brazen generate controversy but they can also offend prospective clients and harm the public image of all lawyers. 

Finally, bear in mind that a billboard is no substitute for excellence:  high quality work and scrupulous ethical standards in every case that you handle.  Even if you put the resources into advertising by billboard, you're not going to attract clients if you're a lousy lawyer because those clients may still ask around about the quality of your work.  
Billboards may be the last bastion of conventional advertising -- but there's nothing to stop consumers from Googling you on the Internet after they've found you on a billboard.