Law Firms and Advertisements: Wake up please, Bar Council of India!


It is a hotly contested matter today whether legal practitioners should be allowed to advertise their profession. While those who favour the proposition say that there is nothing wrong with displaying your achievements and employing creative ad agencies to boost your image in the media, many (including the custodian of legal practice in this country, the Bar Council of India) still believe that Law is a noble profession that must not be tainted by commercialisation.

The BCI regulations mandate that practitioners of law in India must not advertise or solicit either directly or indirectly through the media. There has been a recent amendment to these rules, wherein law firms are allowed to set up websites. However, these websites must only contain only “basic information about the names and number of lawyers in a law firm, the contact details and areas of practice”.

On visiting the websites of over 100 top law firms, I have found that unless the words ‘basic information’ is interpreted extremely liberally, several of the firms are in blatant violation of the law. The screen-shots of the violations are available with me.

Most law firms’ websites go beyond providing names and numbers of the lawyers, by including their CVs, complete with professionally-taken photographs. The websites mention the areas of practice of the firm, but go much further than that by using colourful wording to emphasise the skill, ability and efficiency of their lawyers in each area of law. Perhaps the forerunner in advertising its lawyers is top law firm ALMT, which apart from providing ‘basic’ information, has biographies of each of its partners, often running into hundreds of words. Lakshmi Kumaran & Sridharan has a searchable database of all its lawyers, and also showcases elaborate biographies and professional photographs of them.

Many of the firms, like DSK Legal, Luthra & Luthra and OP Khaitan and Co. also devote prominent space in the home-page to displaying the various awards that they have won.  On the website of Nishith Desai Associates, each listing in the ‘Areas of expertise’ column opens into a new tab, where a PDF called ‘Statement of Capabilites’ is displayed. It elaborates on the experience and achievements of the firm, using typical advertisement jargon such as ‘customised to meet client needs’, ‘ incorporate best global practices’, ‘we adopt a 360-degree approach’, etc. Out of the 5-page PDF that is displayed for each area of law, only the last half of the last page is adherent to the law, as it mentions the names and contact details of the lawyers.

This is not limited to Nishith Desai alone. Firms like Fox Mandal and DSK Legal have downloadable PDF brochures available on the site, which squarely fall under the ambit of advertisements. The DSK Legal brochure uses phrases such as “when trouble arises, you will be glad to have us on your side”. Fox Mandal, as well as some smaller firms such as Agnihotri & Jha, CL Gupta & Associates, Singhania & Partners among others, has also creatively added a ‘Client Testimonial’ section to its website. One of the Fox Mandal client statements is a glowing testimony that says that the firm must receive more awards for its excellent service. Singhania & Partners, strangely, also boasts of a ‘Gallery’ section which has pictures of its lawyers on office trips and vacations!

The BCI regulations mention how an advocate’s sign board or name plate must be of reasonable size. This rule is presumably so that lawyers do not use attractive signboards to solicit clients. However, websites, which can be considered to be online sign-boards, do not seem to show any semblance of austerity. There appears to be intense competition among law firms in creating aesthetically pleasing websites, as can be discerned from visiting the extremely well-designed websites for firms such as Fox Mandal, O. P. Khaitan & Co, Luthra, J Sagar & Associates, H&B Law Offices, etc. Most of the attractive websites also contain photographs of the interiors of the firm, as if to convey grandeur and professionalism. It is difficult to discern how any of this information regarding a law firm can be deemed to be ‘basic’. While Vaish Associates Advocates has a ten-minute video on its homepage,  the website of Swamy Associates, a Chennai-based law firm, goes a step further from just looking nice, it even has catchy techno background music!

Most of the law firms attempt to absolve themselves of any liability by showing a disclaimer. All disclaimers read more-or-less the same, claiming that the information printed on the website is ‘merely for informational purpose’ and ‘is not intended to be a source of advertising’. Some law firms, like Luthra and Nishith Desai make the user say ‘I accept’ to the disclaimer before entering the website. It is quite ironic how once the user accepts the sombre-looking disclaimer, they are taken to a flashy website with colourful font, layout, language and photographs. On opening the website of Anand & Anand, one can only view a high-resolution picture of its impressive head office. In order to open any of the other pages that contain information about the firm, the user has to register themselves with a user name and password. Perhaps the firm believes that complicating the process will make the information on the website seem less like an advertisement. The website for Kocchar & Co. is not any different from the other heavily-advertised law firms, as it has client testimonials, lawyer biographies and a list of awards won. However, when one clicks on the ‘Practice Areas’ tab, the following message is displayed: Rules of the Bar Council of India preclude the Firm from providing information about its practice areas or expertise on the web. It appears as if the firm is selectively blind to the regulations. Some firms, big ones like DSK and O.P. Khaitan, as well as several others like CL Gupta, Daksh Associates, HK Legal, Global Juris, Advani & Co, Lexntech, etc. don’t have disclaimers.  

The disclaimers universally declare that the websites are not for the purpose of solicitation. However, many of the websites include a feature where interested parties can schedule a meeting with the firm online. KPM & Associates devotes a prominent portion of its website homepage to a box labelled ‘Arrange A Session’. It invites the user to enter their name and contact details, and choose a time for the meeting, one of the options being ‘Immediately’. In its bid to reach out to as many people as possible, an IPR firm called Krishna & Saurastri even appears to take the surrogate-advertising route. The website asks visitors to leave their contact details behind to receive a Free DVD on patent law (solely informational, of course). A picture of the DVD is prominently displayed on the site, and not surprisingly, the DVD cover has the name of the firm proudly displayed. It’s almost reminiscent of advertisements for club soda and “music CD’s”!

However, it is unfair to pin down all law firms for flouting BCI regulations. Firms like King & Partridge and Dua Associates have websites, but they adhere to the BCI standards by providing only what information is strictly necessary. Mundkur Law Partners has an especially solemn website, which doesn’t contain any information, but only politely invites visitors to email them with queries. The website of Mulla & Mulla & Craigie Blunt & Caroe also contains only a plain message on its website that it is not allowed to advertise. The message states- “While we may not be in agreement with this view, what we hold in high esteem, is to maintain discipline by following the Bar Council’s mandate”.

Also, some of the biggest firms like Amarchand & Mangaldas, AZB & Partners and Desai & Diwanji go on to prove that internet advertising isn’t a pre-requisite for success; they do not have websites at all.

In light of all the above discussion, there are some pressing questions that need be answered. By making visitors sign a disclaimer, are the law firms admitting to advertising on the sly? Can extravagant website designs, fancy wording and displays of accolades and testimonials be considered solicitation or influence on the consumer?  Either the Bar Council of India must open its eyes to this trend and clamp down on those who flout the regulations (who could make up nearly every note-worthy firm, apart from dozens of upcoming ones) or recognise the changing nature of the ‘noble’ legal profession and relax the rules against advertising. 

NB: I would like to thank Arpita Seth (NLIU, Bhopal) and Spadika Jayaraj (NLSIU, Bangalore) for their research on this post.

30 comments: (+add yours?)

Prateek Bhandari said...

"Advocates" are not allowed to advertise. Would "advocates" include law firms? It is not necessary that law firms appear before court. The act of hiring of law firm can just be a pure commercial exercise say for drafting of an agreementm, etc. In that case I dont see why law firms cannot advertise.

Pritam Joshi said...

now a days by the way of websites and their wordings they influence to clinets etc. and they have only showup but not having such qualification and not able to provide service about which they talks on their website.
ur work on this is very appreciable. BCI should take some step on this issue

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