Good news: there is no such requirement. There are plenty of other brands--respectable ones—available to the legal profession.
This is true for all practice areas, including bankruptcy, class action, malpractice and personal injury. Let’s not pretend there are no spurious cases, but let’s acknowledge the legitimate ones, too. And legitimate cases can do more than enrich plaintiffs and attorneys. They can perform a service, often halting abusive practices that law enforcement typically fails to address.
So there is a place, even a need, for solid attorney advertising. But sadly, many a good firm, fearful that advertising equals stuffiness or sliminess, opts to rely on Word Of Mouth instead. WOM may be the most credible form of advertising, but it is also the slowest. You can go broke waiting for it to perform.
If fear of the stuffed-shirt/ambulance-chaser dichotomy has kept your law firm from marketing, I’d suggest thinking a little harder. For now, set aside how you want to come across. Instead, begin with a look at the kind of client you wish to attract. That’s where you should aim your approach. If you’re not looking for snobs or greedy dirtbags, there is no reason to run advertising that appeals to such. When you truly aim your messaging at the market you wish to attract, the problem of “how you come across” usually takes care of itself.
I’d also suggest avoiding any advertising agency that thinks wild creativity is the solution to every marketing problem. You’ll be getting off easy if they only waste your money. More likely, they will also make you look silly. Instead, find an agency that understands the power of substance and clarity.
One more thing about working with an ad agency. Since a good deal of lawyering entails writing, many attorneys quite naturally fancy themselves writers. This can lead to obsessive editing or even rewriting. (Examples: “The word free is unprofessional. Let’s say without charge.” Or, “Professionals don’t use contractions.” Or, my personal favorite, “An English teacher would mark you down for using a preposition to end a sentence with.”) Presumably, you hire an ad agency because they can speak to your market better than you would do it yourself. If you don’t have confidence in them to do that, you have the wrong agency. (Or, you’re an awful client. For more on this, click here to read my column in Deliver magazine, “Why Clients Get the Work They Deserve.”)
Legal advertising is a strong interest area for me. I have advertised law firms I respect, and I have declined law firms I don’t. And I appreciate the attorneys I have retained to help me avoid getting into trouble, to ensure contracts were fair to all parties, to protect me from slimeball attorneys hired by someone else and, once, to represent me as a plaintiff in a malpractice action. I know, first-hand, the value of a good law firm. The public deserves to hear from them.