How Legal Advertising has Changed Drastically Since 1976

When I was in elementary school, my teacher would often fill small voids of silence during our class time by humming the beginning of a commercial jingle, and then waiting for a chorus of twenty squeaky voices to complete his tune with a phone number or a slogan. In doing this, he had created an army of ten year olds trained to recite the phone numbers of several lawyers in town. Years later, I still find myself amused at the volume of advertisements for legal services that are out there. It has become a game to count the billboards as I travel from Auburn to Birmingham, or to see how many attorneys pop up in my linkedin ads. It is hard to imagine a world where each road trip, morning news hour, or social network is not punctuated with advertisements for legal services; however, before 1976, that was just the case. This stark contrast raises the question--how did we get from virtually no legal advertisements to being exposed to dozens each day? And how has education managed to evolve alongside this rapidly growing practice?

Every social media ad, every billboard, and every ceaseless commercial jingle created for the legal industry shares a common ancestor--a small clipping from the Arizona Republic published by Jon Bates and Van O’Steen in 1976. To today’s observer, this clipping may seem like a harmless attempt to promote an otherwise struggling practice; however, the State Bar of Arizona perceived this to be a gross ethical infringement. The case of Bates v. State Bar of Arizona traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, where the ban on legal advertisements was lifted due to the justices’ conclusion that these advertisements were protected under the First Amendment. This monumental decision ushered in a new era of billboards, newspaper clippings, and radio advertisements, and created a more educated consumer within the legal field.

As technology has evolved, so has legal advertising. In addition to the media used in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when legal advertising was a new and vastly unexplored frontier, firms are employing modern advancements--such as social media, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Optimization (SEO), and blogging--in order to educate and attract potential clients. Social media and blogging allow firms to make connections with potential clients by sharing articles, making posts that exhibit the firm’s values and strengths, and establishing a more interactive online presence through the client's’ ability to reach the firm with direct messaging and comments. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) enables firms to cultivate a more consistent presence by strategically placing advertisements for firms in the results for related online searches. This creates visibility for the firm, and reaches several potential clients, similar to how a newspaper clipping or tv commercial would reach clients in the beginning years of legal advertising. Social Media presence and SEM can be maximized and made more effective by Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO allows firms to see what works and what can be improved in regards to their online presence. It provides a glimpse into what attracts clients and what will grow visibility and engagement. Firms can use SEO in order to maximize their impact within the vast expanse of the Internet, and reach the most consumers. With the addition of these resources and the advancement of technology, law firms are more equipped than ever to educate and reach potential clients.

The rapid pace at which the technology and tools available to firms and clients may raise the question--can education keep up? Luckily, the answer to that question is yes. The American Bar Association has created a department called the Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC). This department provides firms with online tools, resources, and tips on how to stay up to date with the latest means of connecting and advertising. The LTRC compiles articles and resources into an online directory for lawyers to reference as they work to build their online presence. Colleges and universities are also equipping future generations of lawyers to stay on pace with advancing technology by incorporating technology, social networking, and concepts of branding into the classroom. With advancements in education that match the pace of evolving technology, present and future lawyers are well-prepared to maximize their impact and create engaging content to attract potential clients.

The past four decades have brought about enormous advancements in the field of legal advertising. As technology continues to evolve and new tools are introduced to the toolbox of legal advertising, firms continue to adapt and succeed from the progression from a complete ban on legal advertisements to millions of potential clients at the click of a button.


This article was written by Lindsey Jinright, one of Reid Law's 2018 summer interns. Lindsey is a senior English major and Anthropology minor at Auburn University. Lindsey may be contacted at