Burnishing an image that is bankable is what every professional tries to do–both for him/herself individually and for the profession as well.  Doctors take bed-side manners lessons, the NYPD are being instructed on common courtesies.  What about lawyers?  What do they do to bring out the gold?

From the looks of things, not much.

A Harris Poll annually asks the question “Who would you trust?” about various professions.   Doctors, teachers, scientists, police officers, professors, clergymen and military officers routinely end up at the top of the trust chart, garnering more than 70% of the votes. 

Lawyers are usually found settled at the bottom, where members of Congress, pollsters, trade union leaders and stockbrokers rank above them with 35% or less of the vote. There, in next-to-last place in 2006, lawyers sport 27% trustworthiness, one notch above the bottom-feeding actors, over whom lawyers are able to boast a one percentile advantage.

The recent portrayals of lawyers in mass media are evidence of how low the reputations of lawyers are sinking. Long gone is Perry Mason reassuring the wronged and bringing evildoers to justice.   Last season’s TV series about a lawyer was titled “The Shark,” which pretty much says it all from an image standpoint.  That series has been one-upped by this summer’s arrival of a lawyer drama entitled “Damages,” starring Glenn Close, who will always be remembered as one of our generation’s scariest persona—the man-eating, marriage-dashing, family unfriendly “Fatal Attraction” psycho.  Legal advice, anyone?

Then there are the real-life reports that manage to make these fictional scenarios look reasonable:  the senior partner who throws law books at associates, the criminal defense attorney found naked with an adolescent in the court’s conference room, the litigator who admitted to altering documents in a consumer class action, the tax lawyer who bribed IRS officials to accept tax positions, the partner whose language in court was so egregious the head of the firm flew in to apologize. 

Into this combustible scenario comes the question of whether law firms should be able to advertise in mass media, as do other professions, and if so, what they should be able to say. 

The recent back and forth in New York, New Jersey and other states about whether law firms should be allowed to tout their "Super Lawyers" or other commercially recognized stars on their websites, use testimonials from prior or existing clients in their marketing materials, use unidentified actors in their ad campaigns or even send emails that don’t clearly identify themselves as "soliciting" are no doubt reflections of the growing role that image marketing is likely to play for lawyers. 

A recent article in the New York Times heralded the arrival of professional-looking canned law firm television commercials that are affordable to "the smaller, more local firms for whom the most important thing is the message to their communities," according to Spot Runner, who is working together with Martindale-Hubbell to market the commercials.  While that approach may benefit a local firm whose clients and potential clients are individuals in the community, as the article notes, it is unlikely to be useful to large corporate firms.  And the unseemly associations with ambulance chasing still prevail.

So, other than mass advertising, how do we burnish our image in this modern era? 

Perhaps in the most old-fashioned of ways:  by building relationships, one at a time.  It does not produce a quick fix or an instant cache.  It takes time– both immediately and over the long run, so it’s not very efficient.  But building individual relationships is effective.

Clients say repeatedly that the quality they most want in their counsel is trustworthiness.  Not just someone who gets the answer right.  Or gets the answer right enough for the price.  But someone who the client can count on to look out for their best interests, provide honest feedback and reliably follow through. 

It’s an image worth the investment.