Marketing for law firms: some rules to consider

Learn about the different strategies in marketing for law firms, plus the relevant rules of the law societies to consider when planning or implementing these plans

Marketing for law firms: some rules to consider
Marketing for law firms involve a lot of process — and a lot of planning

With more lawyers being licensed every year, it’s probable that there would be increasing competition among lawyers and firms. In some ways, this is already felt by others, which drives them to engage in marketing and advertising to make their services known to the public.

But how do the rules of law societies impact the type of marketing that law firms can use? More importantly, are there any legal and ethical implications when law firms engage in marketing?

Is marketing for law firms allowed in Canada?

Marketing for law firms has been permitted by the rules or codes of conduct by the different provincial law societies. However, there are certain restrictions that law firms should follow whenever they engage in marketing practices to attract more clients.

Rules on marketing for law firms

The rules on marketing by the law societies mostly follow the Model Code of the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC).

Conditions on law firm marketing are regularly updated by the law societies, prompting firms to always check the latest rules whenever possible. For example, the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) amended or added more rules on advertising and marketing in 2017 and in 2021.

In adding these rules, the LSO’s Advertising & Fee Arrangements Issues Working Group researched what the public and the members of the bar thought about advertising. Some concerns that emerged include:

  • misleading information on the claims and services
  • claims on expertise in areas that could not be objectively proven

“Firms could try to get around this by advertising certain awards they may have won. However, some awards can essentially be purchased or may fall along the lines of “participant” awards that we all used to get simply for appearing,” said Gary Goodwin, a Victoria-based lawyer.

“Ensuring that advertisements are true, accurate and verifiable does alleviate a number of concerns such as claims that are mere puffs.”

Here are some tips to consider on what marketing for law firms may look like:

As a caveat, firms and lawyers must tie these marketing strategies with the rules on marketing of the law societies, as will be explained further. In any case, more resources on these law societies’ rules and codes of conduct are also found on our Professional Regulation page.

How to market legal services, legally

Under the Rule 4.1-2 of FLSC’s Model Code, which has been fairly adopted by most law societies, a lawyer may market their legal services only if it's shown that:

  • it's demonstrably true, accurate and verifiable
  • it will not mislead, confuse, or deceive the public
  • it should be in the public’s best interests, and
  • it's consistent with a high standard of professionalism

To further guide lawyers, commentaries on these rules are added. For instance, the commentary under Rule 4.2-5 of the Law Society of British Columbia’s Code of Professional Conduct (also known as the BC Code) says that this rule is violated when the marketing:

  • takes advantage of the clients’ vulnerability (physical or emotional)
  • creates unjustified expectations on what a lawyer can achieve
  • brings the administration of justice into disrepute

How to advertise legal fees, free of violations

Rule 4.2-2 of the Model Code is the standard guide for lawyers and firms when marketing fees for their legal services. Although it allows them to advertise fees charged for their services, there are conditions that must be followed:

  • advertising must be reasonably precise on the services offered for each fee quoted
  • advertising must state the other charges in addition to the fee
  • lawyers and firms must strictly adhere to the advertised fee in every case

As with any other rule, law societies may adjust these rules based on experience and to address current issues. For example, the 2021 amendments to LSO’s Rules added the following:

  • lawyers are allowed to advertise a price on residential real estate transactions, subject to few conditions (Rule 4.2-2.1)
  • lawyers are allowed to market or advertise legal services whose fees are charged on a contingent basis, subject to some restrictions under Rule 3.6-2.2 (Rule 4.2-2.2)

Another example of varying rules on lawyers’ fees would be Barreau du Québec’s Code of Professional Conduct of Lawyers. Rule 147 of the Code allows lawyers to advertise lump-sum fees, given that:

  • these prices are fixed
  • the advertisement specifies which professional services are included
  • the advertisement indicates if disbursements and taxes are already included
  • the advertisement indicates if other professional services may be required, which are not included in the advertised fees

How to advertise a specialty, with no hang ups

One thing that will make a lawyer stand out among the others is when they advertise that they specialize in a particular legal field or practice area. But Rule 4.3-1 of the Model Code says that lawyers cannot advertise that they’re a specialist in a specified field. The exception to this is when they have been certified by their own law society.

Additionally, the commentary says that lawyers may advertise areas of practice, including their preferred areas of practice, or a restriction to a certain area of law. However, as any other restriction says, it must still be accurate and must not be misleading.

Some law firms expanded or modified this restriction on marketing for law firms. The same Rule under the Code of Professional Conduct of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society says that marketing for law firms cannot use the following words:

  • specialist
  • specializing
  • expert
  • expertise
  • or its other synonyms

What are the best marketing methods for law firms?

Considering the above-mentioned rules of the law societies, marketing for law firms may include:

  • advertisements and other similar communications in media
  • firm names (including trade names)
  • letterhead
  • business cards
  • logos

“Of course, advertising comprises a small portion of what marketing does include such as market research, segmentation, promotions and other aspects. Promotions include the gamut of advertising, personal selling, public relations and general communications,” Goodwin said.

Best marketing methods for law firms

Goodwin suggested some methods when law firms advertise themselves, such as presenting at seminars and distributing newsletters. He emphasized the power of referrals as part of marketing for law firms. “The greatest return on investment for marketing still appears to be the referral. Although referral marketing sounds old school, this likely remains one of the greatest returns on investment,” he said.

He also added that referrals work because individuals sometimes worry about trying something new. “Individuals like to be part of the crowd. They feel more comfortable with some choices that have been chosen by others. This has the perception of reducing risk in a choice.”

Avoiding emotional appeals when marketing for law firms

Goodwin warned that law firms should avoid using emotional appeals when advertising or marketing their services. “We would likely not see ads claim that a law firm was faster, smarter or angrier than any of its competitors.”

This is also related to the prohibitions that the different law societies impose. The Model Code’s commentary on Rule 4.2-1 says that one of the possible ways of violating its rules on marketing is when lawyers use testimonials or endorsements that contain emotional appeals.

Mission-based marketing

Goodwin says that these rules “suggest law firms need to consider more of a societal type of marketing.  This goes beyond the traditional marketing model of having the client’s interests at the centre and surrounded by a law firm’s resources along with a profit motive.”

He says that firms may consider a ‘mission-based’ marketing, which considers the larger public interest, and the rule of law. Using the LSO codes of conduct as an example, where it “includes a duty to the client while maintaining a mandate within the law's limits. This aspect brings legal marketing into the realm of societal or mission-based marketing.”

However, he adds that some types of legal advertising can divert from this mission-based aspect of societal marketing. “It does help with the individual associative marketing and the individual lawyer, but it can detract from the overall lawyer brand.”

Digital marketing strategies for law firms

Digital marketing is clearly a go-to in this age, and lawyers are not spared from adapting these modern marketing strategies. Emphasizing on creating “substantial media on YouTube,” Goodwin says that this “can humanize some of the lawyers and make them more approachable.”

Other digital marketing strategies that law firms can use include:

  • improving social media profiles: complete the profiles of lawyers and firms on LinkedIn, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), or Instagram, to name a few
  • creating social media content: keeping audiences active through regular posts, which can be tied up to the lawyer’s or firm’s website
  • using different mediums: aside from written content, lawyers can also create or accept invitations to appear on legal podcasts and YouTube videos
  • using emails for marketing: optimize emails as mediums of marketing, such as adding signatures with contact information and links to social media profiles

As one opinion piece says, it’s never too late for lawyers to use social media.

Marketing for law firms: another legal consideration

Traditional ways of marketing for law firms have now evolved, as reflected in the additional or amended rules of law societies. Goodwin said that “when the use of AI and alternative business structures becomes more commonplace, then the ability to market these new processes and ventures would create competition and drive innovation even further.”

While firms and lawyers engage in new ways to advertise and market themselves, it’s also important to regularly analyze the rules of law societies. Not only to prevent penalties on their side, but also to protect the larger interests at stake — the clients, the public, and the rule of law.

Check out our Practice Management page for more articles on operations and marketing for law firms.

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