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Mint column: Legal ads vs legal journalism

Not advertising
Not advertising

The other day a public relations (PR) agency called me and said that it really wanted an article written for Mint about one of its clients, a fairly well known Delhi lawyer. They said they wanted an interview with or a quote from that lawyer to appear by next week and they would arrange a meeting as soon as possible. As far as pitches for stories go, it was pretty weak.

Many journalists have had similar experiences with lawyers, and although occasionally the lawyers’ requests get entertained, most of the times the hacks will react incredulously or, if they are not on a law-related beat, be confused as to why anyone would want to read a profile of a lawyer.

That said, there are several media savvy lawyers who are a constant fixture on the television punditry circuit, commentators in newspapers, some talented writers who are regular columnists or even some who sneak into Page 3 from time to time.

Nevertheless, a large number of lawyers seem to almost wilfully misunderstand the function of the press, legal or otherwise.

Because Indian advocates and law firms are famously banned from advertising their services under the Advocates Act, many lawyers therefore see the media and journalists as primarily a way of advertising themselves to prospective clients and recruits.

The theory behind the advertising ban is simple: Law is a dignified and noble profession and it is unseemly for lawyers to tout their services. And the argument is fair—if advocates were allowed to advertise their services, it wouldn’t be long before we could end up in a situation such as in the US, where every fourth TV ad on daytime television seems to promise riches if you have suffered from an accident. In the UK, since no-win-no-fee schemes were legalized in 1999, it has become nearly as bad on the cheaper channels of the cable TV spectrum.

In theory, no-win-no-fee schemes are intended to increase access to justice for litigants by lawyers agreeing not to charge claimants upfront for court battles but instead taking a cut of any damages won. There is anecdotal evidence that Indian lawyers too, despite it being strictly prohibited, informally entering verbal no-win-no-fee arrangements with clients, particularly in compensation claims in rural land acquisition cases or in motor accident claims in the cities, for example.

But actually other legal markets have fallen out of love with the conditional fees to some extent, with the UK’s justice secretary saying in 2011 that it had burdened the system with spurious cases and cost the public National Health Service (NHS) hundreds of millions of pounds in legal costs to defend claims.

However, to many Indian lawyers, advertising and all that comes with it has become a litmus test of how advanced the Indian legal market is.

As such it is a convenient fig leaf that allows domestic firms to claim that because the Indian legal industry is still stuck in the proverbial dark ages, liberalization of the market to allow foreign legal firms must still be a long time away. “Foreign law firms have so much money and are allowed to advertise their brands but our hands are tied. How are we ever supposed to compete with that?” they cry.

Well, there is evidence that Indian law firms are perfectly capable of competing with each other, and with foreign firms, without advertising.

And actually, it’s not as though they don’t. The Bar Council of India (BCI) may not be aware, but Indian law firms do regularly advertise in legal trade magazines published outside of India and even in a few domestic ones. Sure, the ads aren’t terribly exciting, sometimes amounting to little more than a full-page copy of a business card, but paid-for they usually are, so I don’t know what else would qualify as advertising. The same could be said about the sponsorship of events and conferences, which are another good way of at least staying in the minds’ eye of clients.

And then there are law firm websites, which used to be classified as advertising and were therefore banned, but were then permitted by the BCI a few years ago if the websites essentially amounted to scanned-in business cards. Recent research shows that today most law firm websites have become a lot fancier than that.

On another level, the ban on advertising is also a way that the large, older firms can continue to dominate their smaller competitors in terms of visibility and branding by virtue of their incumbency.

And that’s where PR starts merging with advertising again to a certain extent. The old law firms continue to push their advantage by hiring PR agencies and even internal full-time PR staff—something which was nearly unheard of as little as four years ago.

Those large firms then ensure that as many deals as possible that they work on are pushed out to the ever-growing microcosm of specialist Indian legal publications, most of which dutifully publish whatever they are sent. The established managing partners and senior advocates will continue to exploit their clout by giving TV interviews and being available for expert vox pops. And some of them will also assume that journalists will write features about them.

So may be it is unsurprising that the boundaries between legal journalism and legal advertisements are sometimes hard to draw, especially for those uninitiated or perhaps wilfully blind to the sophisticated marketing machines that much of Indian Biglaw has already become.

Picture by sludgegulper

This article first appeared in Mint. Legally India has an exclusive content partnership with Mint, which will feature the latest legal news and analysis every fortnight on Fridays in its print and web editions.

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