I (Never) Saw the Sign

Jeremy Hessing-Lewis

Signage may be the most marginalized element of modern legal marketing. Creating a new law firm sign just doesn’t draw the same enthusiasm as a mobile website or a YouTube campaign. This is a drastic change from traditional legal marketing, where signage represented the beginning and end of a firm’s brand awareness efforts. Much like elsewhere in common law jurisdictions, Vancouver’s early lawyers relied on the proverbial “shingle” to attract clients.

Barrister L.P. Eckstein's office in a tent after the great fire

Barrister L.P. Eckstein’s office in a tent after the great fire (1886). Courtesy of Vancouver Archives.

There are two dominant explanations for the decline in law firm signage:

  1. Most law firm offices no longer occupy high visibility locations (especially at street-level) that make signage an obvious necessity; and
  2.  Many lawyers now practice in areas of the law well-removed from the traditional “retail” practices of immigration, real estate, family, estates, or personal injury, where clients may literally walk-in off the street.

This is to say that the legal profession in BC is increasingly defined by lawyers practising in downtown firms where signage generally amounts to an engraved brass plaque.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere in the UK a Sign

This is not the case in the United Kingdom. Owing partly to the division between solicitors and barristers and partly due to the liberalization of the legal profession following the Legal Services Act (2007) [sometimes referred to as the Sainsbury’s Act after the British grocery chain that lobbied to offer legal services], law firms maintain a visible street level presence.

In Oxford, there are several strong brands of retail-level solicitors. Particularly visible is Darby’s with their “Purple Law” approach to personal legal matters. Almost all of these firms offer flexible billing arrangements. The clients they attract are relatively low-margin and may only retain the firm for a one-off legal matter. This means that a high volume of work needs to be maintained. It can only be maintained if the firm invests in marketing itself and attracts referrals from happy clients. One of the most cost-effective ways for these firms to build brand awareness is through attractive signage at street level.

Low Overhead?

Law firms need to look at the big picture when it comes to office overhead. While a big office tower generally conveys status and proximity to the business community, there are many sets of factors to consider.  While a full set of these factors is beyond the scope of this post, I wanted to note that a large office tower is:

  1. Not always cheaper;
  2. Often less convenient for retail-type clients; and
  3. Misses out on the marketing value of a street level presence.

In the years to come, I suspect that British Columbia will see a return to street-level law firms. Along the way, I hope to see a renaissance in law firm signage.

Vancouver Law Office

Vancouver Law Office of E.C. Coulding. Courtesy of Vancouver Archives.




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