The Virginia State Bar believes you could learn to love a lawyer. 

Back to Basics

Before Linda Tripp, there were lawyer jokes. Lawyer advertisements make up one whole category — the billboard with the boxing glove, that obnoxious jingle you can't stop humming, the TV spot with an actor who hasn't been on top since the "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

Those campaigns are undeniably successful: We remember the ads and they must bring in business. Yet they don't do the profession much good. Some would argue that they do great harm to professional stature and image by failing to communicate the complex and vital role attorneys play in the legal system. Lawyers do a lot more than get bums out of jail or negotiate cash-for-crash insurance settlements.

So, like Linda Tripp, lawyers are undergoing a public relations make-over, in the form of a top-notch, low-cost advertising campaign engineered by the Virginia State Bar. The message is pure and crisp: You have rights. Lawyers protect them.

One ad, for instance, shows a photo of an African-American woman. The text says skeptics say she will never start her own company. A lawyer says she will. The bank denies her loan. A lawyer says they can't. The real estate agent won't give her a lease. A lawyer sees to it that they do.

Another ad has a photo of an older man. The text explains that a nursing home took away his dignity. A lawyer restored it by having the home's license revoked and putting the man's financial affairs back in order.

The Virginia campaign is thought to be unprecedented nationally and may even be made available to other bar groups throughout the nation if they want to purchase rights.

With all due lawyerly deliberation, The Virginia State Bar's Committee on Publications/Public Information has been working more than a year on the idea, eventually linking with the Adcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University to develop a print campaign and take it through an internal approval process.

No state dollars will be spent on the project, which will debut in print this month in the State Bar's glossy The Virginia Lawyer, which circulates to some 32,000 subscribers. The Bar raised money from firms to fund the production costs. Now, the five-ad campaign is available to any local bar that wants to pay to place the advertisements in its local or regional newspapers and magazines. "We have several promising leads and a number of bar entities who have expressed interest," says Tom Spahn, the attorney who headed the concepting committee.

The creative force behind the campaign is the much-lauded VCU Adcenter.

After loads of local and national press attention, the university center is building a rep for winning prizes and producing students who go from school to placements in the nation's top agencies.

What sets the Bar/VCU partnership apart from some other Adcenter endeavors is that it is for a real-world client. Adcenter students usually don't take on real projects partly so the center won't compete with the real agencies.

"We don't normally do this," explains Associate Professor and Creative Supervisor Jerry Torchia, at the Fan photography studio where his student team is directing the Bar ad shoot. "We did this because it was a really hard assignment that would be a challenge."

No kidding. Remaking public opinion of lawyering is right up there with improving the image of telemarketers, journalists and Linda Tripp. What were the students trying to accomplish? To create a positive perception of lawyers in the minds of Virginians.

What happened next illustrates the power of collaboration and the way the Adcenter works. The creative process started in the fall of 1997, when someone from VCU and someone from the Bar bumped into each other at the YWCA and hatched the idea of a joint project.

In the spring semester of 1998, 12 student teams were turned loose on strategic approaches. Five final presentations went to the Bar last spring. Students went on summer break and in the fall, the selected students came back to work the final product.

Those students — John Gradek, Pete Ruest and Holly Thompson — started off spending hours researching at the T.C. Williams School of Law Library at the University of Richmond and reading the Virginia State Code. They did people-on-the-street interviews (case-study research in ad parlance) about perceptions of lawyers. They examined the current state of advertising for law services and agreed in-your-face ads don't do much to advance the positives of the profession. The students developed a simple strategy and simple message: How lawyers protect individual rights.

Says Holly Thompson, the copywriter, "We wanted to take everyday situations in which real people might need a lawyer. ... We wanted to do a pretty emotional ad."

The finished ads yank observers with realism and a reach-out-and-touch someone-Hallmark card appeal that quietly and effectively presents attorneys as might on the side of right, avengers of injustice and protectors of individual rights.

"Agencies couldn't come up with anything this good. It's a very adult campaign," says


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