The ad begins with a scene of a slender 40-year-old woman being lifted out of her wheelchair and strapped into a rowing scull.
As her oars cut into the sun-dappled water, her voiceover tells her story in edited fragments. She once loved water skiing, sailing and scuba diving. But then her car skidded off the road, and rolled five times.
“They told me that I broke my neck and I was never going to walk again,” the woman says, before the music lifts and she describes how her lawyer helped her and “gave her hope for a productive future.”
It’s part of a new TV, radio and online ad campaign launched by three Ontario personal injury law firms, calling themselves the Personal Injury Alliance. The slickly produced ads stand out in a world where smaller personal injury firms tend to use cheesy, late-night spots that boom: “Have you been injured in an accident?”
Some say the campaign is a sign that more Canadian law firms will start to look to mass market advertising on television, perhaps using modern techniques such as storytelling or even humour now mostly shunned by the legal business but common in the race to sell banking, insurance and accounting services.
The trend is more developed elsewhere, with some admittedly extreme examples. In Germany, a cheeky law firm ad recently shown at a film festival depicts a woman holding a chainsaw dripping with blood, leaving a house. On-screen text then advises consumers to get a divorce lawyer to avoid such a drastic situation.
In Chicago, a family law boutique’s risqué billboards depicted both a buff male torso and a woman in lingerie with the slogan, “Life is short. Get a divorce.” They were deemed inappropriate and taken down by the city in 2007, but not before they attracted international attention.
Few anticipate a rash of similarly provocative ads from Canada’s mostly buttoned-down profession, which is bound by strict rules on advertising.
But some legal industry observers say Canadian lawyers should shed their traditional squeamishness about salesmanship. Others even call for the profession to ditch or modify the rules they say discourage more creative advertising.
Doug Jasinski, a former lawyer who founded a Vancouver-based ad agency called Skunkworks Creative Group Inc. that caters to the legal business, blames the history of bad advertising on the legal profession’s conservative culture, and the need to get partners at law firms on board – a hurdle regular companies do not face.
“Marketing’s always been done with the nose held, to a certain extent, by a lot of lawyers,” Mr. Jasinski said in an interview, adding that, in recent years, many firms have nonetheless hired external marketing experts.
Fear of law society discipline, which varies across the country, is also to blame. In Ontario, rarely enforced rules from the Law Society of Upper Canada not only forbid ads that are untrue, but deem that they must be “in the best interests of the public” and “consistent with a high standard of professionalism.”
The rules say ads that “may contravene this rule” include those that boast about the amount of money of lawyer has recovered for a client without any sort of disclaimer, and any ad that suggests “qualitative superiority to other lawyers” or implies that “the lawyer is aggressive.” Ads that use “testimonials or endorsements which contain emotional appeal” may also cross the line.
Mr. Jasinksi said it’s time to update the rules “in light of modern realities,” since they make conventional advertising very difficult: “When you look at the rules, although I think they are well intentioned, they kind of have the effect of undercutting a lot of what marketing is about.”
Alan Farrer, the managing partner of Thomson Rogers, one of the three firms in the Personal Injury Alliance along with Oatley Vigmond and McLeish Orlando, said they are confident that their new TV ads comply with the law society’s rules.
“There’s emotion in the ads, no doubt about it, but the appeal’s not emotional,” he said. “I think we’re satisfied that we’re in compliance and we are trying to do it in a dignified way.”
He said that, historically, many Canadian lawyers have considered advertising “unseemly.” But he thinks as the legal business becomes more competitive, more advertising is inevitable.
Mr. Farrer said his firm and the others involved launched the new campaign because they wanted to upend the “ambulance chaser” stereotype that many have about personal injury lawyers, and provide solid information to help people choose one.
Jordan Furlong, a legal marketing consultant, singles out a recent TV ad from Britain for a franchised lawyer operation there called Quality Solicitors – a law firm ad unlike any made in Canada.
A slow-motion montage of some of life’s most challenging and rewarding moments is set to a pop song as actors portray, among other things, a couple arguing in a scene that then cuts to a close up of the man’s wedding band. The slogan is “For Whatever Life Brings.”
Mr. Furlong said part of the reason such ads do not exist in Canada is that the country’s national firms are business law firms, which prefer niche advertising and are not focused on the mass consumer market. Divorces, wills and personal injury cases tend to be handled by regional firms or smaller local ones, without the resources, or the need, for national ad campaigns.
If this changes, or if the rules that ban non-lawyers from owning law firms ever loosen, as they have in Britain, then new, consumer-focused national firms might emerge, Mr. Furlong said, along with slick advertising now foreign to Canada’s legal market. But for now, those changes seem far away.
“If we see the day when it’s President’s Choice, or Canadian Tire or Tim Hortons, it seems crazy to say it, but if companies like these start getting into legal services, then absolutely you will start to see more marketing and advertising geared toward making a connection with people.”