A history of legal marketing

A history of legal marketing

A history of legal marketing

A lot has changed since 1986, when the Law Society of England and Wales first allowed solicitors to advertise and promote their services. Nowadays, many marketing options are available to legal services providers and are widely used within the regulatory rules and guidelines designed to preserve the reputation and integrity of the profession. Mike Johnstone, director of specialist marketing firm TOMD, examines the history.

Anybody who regularly watches English courtroom dramas on TV, with barristers holding forth in their formal wigs and robes, could be forgiven for thinking that the legal profession is somewhat stuck in the past. Of course, the reality is that relatively few judges and lawyers still don the traditional garb for hearings, and that solicitors in particular aim to project a more friendly, modern image.

Looking back into the distant past, lawyers have existed for millennia. In addition to numerous biblical references, there is ample evidence of legal professionals within the Roman, Greek and other early civilisations. Further historical sources place them in countries across medieval Europe, including Britain. The Inns of Court in London’s Temple district have been the hub for barristers since the 14th century.

The Law Society set the marketing rules…

Professional societies were formed by groups of lawyers in the UK prior to 1800, but the 19th century saw one very significant advance: the formation in 1825 of what is known today as The Law Society of England and Wales. The Law Society of Northern Ireland was founded in 1922, with The Law Society of Scotland following several decades later in 1949.

In the early post-war decades, the marketing restraints imposed by these Societies meant that solicitors were still seen as unapproachable amongst prospective clients in need of legal services. As affluence increased, more home ownership, more business start-ups, more relationship issues and more litigation brought the general public into closer contact with the profession. And yet, law firms remained aloof and publicity-shy.

…and eventually relaxed them

One cause of this apparent reticence was that, until the mid-1980s, solicitors were barely able to promote their services at all. They depended on local awareness, word of mouth, an entry in the telephone directory and a brass plate outside their office. The Law Society (of England and Wales) changed all this in 1986, when it ended its ban on advertising legal services.

The new millennium ushered in the formal regulation of law firms, which was separated from other Law Society functions through the creation of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The Legal Services Act 2007 then also introduced commercial ‘Alternative Business Structures’, enabling non-lawyers to own or manage law firms. The first ABS gained its SRA licence in 2012.

The march of technology

In March 2021, the SRA initiated research into current and potential use of technology and innovation by solicitors. This proactive approach demonstrates that the various bodies responsible for the UK legal sector are highly cognisant that, in a rapidly-changing commercial world, technology and innovation are playing an integral part in both marketing and client relationship management.

So, solicitors are nowadays free to put themselves out there, subject of course to normal advertising standards and to the specific requirements laid down by the SRA. A whole world of promotional and marketing channels are now available to law firms, including social media, email marketing, blog posts, traditional and digital advertising, and so much more.

Even so, marketing within a regulated industry does require a more careful and tempered approach, which can feel quite difficult to navigate for those with little to no marketing experience. Firms starting out on their marketing journey might feel more comfortable doing so in partnership with a specialist marketing agency who has experience and understanding of the unique challenges they face.

20 years of legal expertise

TOMD has been advising law firms on their content and communications strategies for over 20 years. Why not email info@tomd.co.uk for an introductory chat about our services?


About the author
Mike Johnstone specialises in providing practical marketing, content and client communication advice and solutions to professional services firms. Over 20 years ago, he co-founded The Outsourced Marketing Department (TOMD). Each year, Mike and TOMD work with closely with a number of law firms, solving their marketing challenges by delivering easy to use solutions, services and...