'Advertising' lawyers trim fees with videotape advice

It does not bear the stamp of Madison Avenue, but partners Eric Galton and Don Hancock of Austin have a plan any marketing executive would tip his hat to. Television and newspaper advertising begins this week. Already completed are a series of videotapes that introduce new clients to some of the firm's services. And group seminars are planned this summer to handle the anticipated increase in business.

What they are promoting is Hancock, Piedfort -- a fledgling law firm that has eagerly welcomed the trend of the past few years in the legal profession to promote and sell legal services more agressively.

The US Supreme Court allowed lawyers to advertise in a 1977 ruling and that has triggered a more competitive spirit among some lawyers.

"We're trying to use technology to enable us to deliver our product at a reduced price." says Mr. Galton, a partner in Hancock, Piedfort.

"We want to make legal services available to people who wouldn't typically use them and not have it cost them an arm and a leg " Mr. Hancock adds.

Indeed, a recent survey of major cities by the National Resources center for Consumers of Legal Services found advertising to be profitable practice for lawywers clients alike. some 217 law firms were found advertising in newspapers and the Yellow Pages, and those that made a selling point of their fees were recovering an average of $7.93 in income from each $1 spent on advertising.

Our survey also showed that advertising has lowered fees in many areas" because of greater competition, says Bill Bolger, a spokesman for the nonprofit research organization.

Mr. Galton and Mr. Hancock established their partnership in 1973 and proceeded to build a law practice in the traditional way. They charged the standard fee (now $75 an hour) for counselling in their specialties -- drawing up wills, forming small business, and handling divorces. And they waited for word-of-mouth to bring more clients.

"It wasn't working," Mr. Hancock says. "We were not able to make legal services affordable to middle-class clients while still making some kind of profit."

They realized a larger volume of business would allow them to offer some services at lower costs and this would in turn increase business. So, for the past three years, after the Supreme Court ruling on advertising, the two attorneys have spent time and money developing new services and a plan to promote them.

They have produced videotapes on various legal subjects -- wills, divorce, and how to set up a business -- that are shown to clients on their first visit. The aim is to provide basic information at a low cost that otherwise would be handled by an attorney at a higher fee.

Clients pay $15 to view one of the tapes; it would cost at least twice that amount for the same information if handled personally by an attorney.

Hancock, Piedfort also plans to begin holding small seminars this summer on various legal topics. They will includes some form of audio-visual presentation followed by a question-and -answer session with an attorney. The goal is to answer basic legal questions in a group setting in order to cut costs to clients while at the same time increasing business for the law firm.

Pamphlets with supporting information, including a dictionary of legal terms, will be handed out at these sessions.

The linchpin to all this is a print and television advertising campaign starting this week.

Will it all work? "We really have no way of knowing," says Mr. Galton, noting that adbvertising by lawyers is so new that it is difficult to predict how the public will respond.

"We were a little afraid that clients might be put off by the videotapes," Mr. Hancock says. There was concern that clients would view the tapes as a cold and impersonal service. so far, though, he says the response from clients has been "very good."

The legal profession is still generally concerned about how the public views lawyer advertising. The American Bar Association has insisted only that advertising not be disceptive or misleading.

However, state bar associations have been more restrictive in some cases, not allowing slogans or some other common advertising techniques.

"Most bar associations did not want advertising and are still informally discouraging it," Mr. bolger says. But he expects advertising to grow because "the public is in favor of it -- as are younger lawyers."

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