New Delhi: Imagine cruising by a billboard in any of India’s metros that reads: “Tripped on your staircase? Want to sue your landlord? Contact us.”
For now, you might just have to imagine such a pitch, though they are quite commonplace in the US, where some personal injury lawyers, disparagingly referred to as ambulance chasers, solicit business by lurking around hospitals or by advertising in newspapers and in Yellow Pages with toll-free phone numbers and “free” consultations.
While it may never reach this level of advertising—even in the US, ambulance chasing isn’t representative of the ads that many law firms and lawyers run—there is a growing debate in the Indian legal world on why the profession should have very strict curbs on promoting its services stemming from laws that originate from British thinking.
“Legal advertising has never been a reality in India,” says Niraj Kumar, partner at Agarwal Law Associates. “But the legal fraternity is deliberating if it should retain the Victorian tradition that bars advertising. Even England has done away with it. This is not just a change of heart but a realization that the nature of legal services has changed considerably.”
India’s Supreme Court is set to hear on 22 November a writ petition, filed by advocate V.B. Joshi, to challenge Rule 36 of the Bar Council of India (BCI) Rules formulated under the Advocates Act of 1961 that bans advertising by lawyers. BCI, a body of elected representatives from the legal fraternity and ex-officio members such as the attorney general and solicitor general of India, lays down standards in professional conduct and etiquette as well as legal education. BCI has been constituted under the Advocates Act that regulates legal practice in India.
At the last hearing held in September in the case that was filed in 2000, BCI, as well as the Union government, did an abrupt turnaround and suggested that lawyers be permitted to advertise through their own websites and also be allowed to insert entries in online legal directories.
Less than a decade ago, some corporate legal advisory firms were reprimanded by BCI and directed to pull their entries from www.martindale.com, an online legal directory.
But the government’s view on all other advertising options in print, television, radio and the Internet, however, remains unchanged. And it isn’t just the government that seems to feel this way.
“We are against full-blown advertising. But if someone in Chicago wants to find a lawyer in Kanpur, the Internet can be an effective tool,” insists Lalit Bhasin, partner of the law firm Bhasin and Co. Bhasin is also president of the Society of Indian Law Firms, an association of top firms in the country that sought permission to intervene in the writ petition related to legal advertising before the Supreme Court.
Advertising by UK’s legal practitioners is subject to a “fairly well developed regulation,” says Tony Khindria, a solicitor who practises in London and Paris. “The American system is most open. The situation in France is somewhere between England’s policy and India’s conservative stance.”
Besides countries in the West, Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia have been progressively relaxing their regulations on legal advertising to adapt to global demands.
For instance, Malaysia’s Legal Profession (Publicity) Rules that were passed in 2001 is a simple yet comprehensive code that regulates advertisements in legal and non-legal directories, controls publication of journals, magazines, brochures and newsletters by lawyers and interviews in electronic and print media, bars publicity through clients and even includes a rule that regulates lawyers sending greeting cards on special occasions.
In Hong Kong, lawyers are forbidden from advertising on television, radio and cinema. Though advertising in print is permissible, larger firms prefer alternative strategies such as engaging in aggressive client and public relations programmes and branding exercises.
“Smaller firms in Hong Kong advertise in niche papers, but we don’t think an advertisement can say much about our legal services,” says Yvonne So, regional public relations and communications manager of Allen & Overy, an international firm that has 27 offices worldwide.
The law firm’s approach to publicity is three-pronged, says So. Their focus is on effective showcasing of their associates’ expertise, dissemination of information through their website and press releases and building relationships with clients.
Some leading Indian law firms are working around the legal advertising ban by emulating the alternative methods used by their international counterparts.
For instance, Fox Mandal Little, the largest firm in terms of number of partners and associates, has an in-house strategic communications department to help the firm build a brand presence. “Few firms have gone in for a flexible interpretation of the advertising ban,” says Juhi Garg, head of strategic communications. Garg’s job entails presenting the press and prospective clients information on latest developments at the firm, such as awards and accreditations received by partners, and data on metrics that show growth.
“It is not healthy in any service sector if only some names get visibility,” says Anoop Narayanan, partner at Mumbai-based law firm Majmudar and Co.
His firm has employed communication consultant Percept Profile Pvt. Ltd to showcase its partners’ proficiency in specialized areas of law and help it gain more exposure in the media.
AZB & Partners, one of India’s top law firms, argues that they have never felt any pressure to advertise in the general media, though the inability to have its own website and freely circulate brochures has been a limiting factor.
“Legal advertising will be a welcome development, though big firms that often ride on big legal personalities have not been seriously affected by the ban on full-blown advertising,” says Vinati Kastia, a partner at AZB & Partners in New Delhi. (Mint’s fortnightly legal column, Lawfully Yours, is contributed by AZB.)
“Corporate lawyers have a steady flow of clientele and will not be interested in reaching out to the masses,” she insists. Kastia says she fears that advertising in print and television could confuse or mislead the common man and recommends alternative methods, such as awareness programmes on legal aid through non-profit groups and redressal forums.
Both Kastia and Kumar do say that advertising could help the rising number of first generation lawyers as well as smaller firms. “If pure advertising was allowed, clients would get more information on small firms and their low-cost options,” admits Kumar.
So, do big legal players oppose advertising because it might level the playing field?
“We (are) against pure advertising, but we are not stopping small firms and lawyers from having their own websites,” says Bhasin.
He maintains that advertising “would degrade the nobility of the profession,” but says he supports “dissemination of basic information by lawyers through websites, brochures and international law directories.”
“If cops and traffic police can advertise, why can’t lawyers?” asks Josy Paul, national creative director of ad agency JWT India, who says he wasn’t aware that lawyers were barred from advertising in India. “I just thought that legal firms have no time for advertising.”
But marketers don’t see it becoming a large market even if it were allowed. Santosh Desai, CEO of Future Brands, a division of Future Group, and former president of ad agency McCann-Erickson (India) Ltd, says the legal advertising category is likely to be around Rs60 crore a year or about half the annual ad billings by the hospital sector.
“There would be a certain amount of hesitation from the big firms who would be afraid of taking the leap,” predicts Desai.
If such advertising were allowed, “guidelines, like a code of conduct, need to be put in place,” says Mahesh Chauhan, president of the ad firm Rediffusion DY&R Ltd. Chauhan echoes the legal fraternity’s view on the need for a regulatory mechanism to monitor dissemination of information by lawyers on the Internet.
The bar associations of the Supreme Court and the high courts currently publish directories but they only contain names of advocates on the courts’ records and their contact details.
With no information on a lawyer’s area of specialization, there is no way that a lay person would be able to distinguish between lawyers.
But independent counsel Krishnan Venugopal says that if Internet homepages and entries in online directories are allowed, clients must be furnished with simple, verifiable and limited information on a lawyer, including educational qualifications, experience, contact details and areas of practice to avoid misrepresentation.
“Full blown advertising may become relevant in the future but the need of the hour is to resolve the issue on the ban in India on lawyer websites, homepages, entries in online legal directories and brochures,” says Bhasin.
Anushree Chandran in Mumbai contributed to this story.