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30 years since Bates vs. Arizona, what’s really changed?

In celebration of the 30th anniversary of Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona, I wanted to talk about the true impact of this landmark case. Discussing Bates vs. State Bar of Arizona typically raises a lot of passion among attorneys, with many attorneys praising the protection of First Amendment rights, and the remainder lamenting the decision and its impact on the ethics of the profession. What both of these groups rarely acknowledge, however, is that while Bates vs. Arizona was a landmark decision, it is far from being the only factor that influences how consumers choose attorneys today. Often those against the decision cite television advertising as the downfall of the legal profession. And while television advertising is a main issue of controversy among attorneys, those who believe that Bates vs. Arizona dictates how attorneys and consumers interact are missing the point. In the age of YouTube, Google, social networks, 24-hour news channels, blogs and readily available public information, consumers operate from a position of power. There is no mystique about the “man behind the curtain” anymore, just transparency. Consumers have access to much more information than they ever did, and it is this transparency that truly is changing how consumers make their choices. Consider:

  • Car shoppers know dealer costs, rebates and holdbacks of every vehicle on the lot before walking into a car showroom.

  • Casual investors with online-trading accounts have access to virtually the same information that a professional stockbroker sees, and at the time that the broker sees it.

  • WebMD.com gets 40 million visitors to its website every month – primarily people looking for information on various heath topics.

  • The upcoming primaries and general elections are being played out on YouTube and on blogs across the country. In case you forgot, this rant by Howard Dean signaled the beginning of the end of his run in the last primaries.

While Bates vs. Arizona may have changed the mechanisms of how attorneys could market themselves, many successful law firms were selling their brand long before this ruling came into play. These firms understood their differentiators, and provided this information to consumers –they just couldn’t do so using mass-market advertising tactics. So, in one sense, nothing has changed since Bates vs. Arizona – successful firms are still selling their brand. What has changed is that consumers now demand that same level of information and transparency from law firms that they get from other businesses, and If you aren’t providing the types of information that consumers require to make their decisions, you probably are losing out to those that are – whether you advertise on television or not.