There is something ironic in Lord Saatchi being linked to a law firm with a specialty in medical negligence

The ability to switch off completely from work after a long hard day in front of a computer screen is a truly impressive skill. Many of us, regardless of our profession, will spend the hours between leaving our desks at dusk and smashing our alarm clocks silent at the crack of dawn thinking about what we have to do the next day, or indeed the day after that.

For me, dear reader, the trek from SJ Towers to the warm embrace of home, via overcrowded tubes and delayed Southern trains, is interspersed with researching potential stories for the next day. That research can involve anything from reading embargoed press releases to scanning social media for something I may have missed during the day. Journalism is hardly a standard 9 to 5, and while some stories can take time to coalesce in your mind, others can end up slapping you right in the face.

Glancing up from my Twitter feed, as I climbed the escalator at London Bridge station last week, I was greeted with an advertisement which made me do such a fast double take that I’m still suffering from the effects of whiplash. The backlit poster from one of the UK’s largest law firms, Slater & Gordon, showed a worried young woman beneath the tagline: ‘You’re about to divorce. You want a top lawyer. Call us before your ex does.’

Every legal service provider has its own way of advertising. Some get actors, like Billy Murray, to feature in its commercials, while others will employ the services of what I’ve always assumed to be adeformed Morph figurine voiced by everyone’s favourite high-pitched comedian, Joe Pasquale. Yet this latest offering from S&G might be the most controversial since another London firm ran the mouth dropping ‘Ditch the bitch’ and ‘All men are bastards’ ad campaigns in 2001.

In just a few short years, S&G have gobbled up several of its rivals including Russell Jones Walker, Fentons, Pannone and Goodmans Law, as well as the PI arm of Taylor Vinters. In addition, the firm has made no secret of its desire to become a household brand name by shelling out more than £1m on TV, print and digital advertising with M&C Saatchi (not to be confused with Saatchi & Saatchi, of course).

Most of its previous ads have been as humdrum as this TV spot from 2013 for victims of personal injury, and it is debateable as to whether or not such campaigns will have any more resonance with Joe Bloggs than InjuryLawyersForYou or the National Accident Helpline. But this latest attempt to capture the public’s imagination may have a greater chance of success, but not necessarily, I might add, in a positive way.

S&G’s head of marketing and business development, Kalle Amanatides, told me that the advert was supposed to convey a “strong and confident negotiator on your side” and that they were always looking for a better outcome for the client. She added that the ad was not intended to cultivate fear.

The vast majority of advertising by law firms is often seen by the public as either distasteful or laughable, and probably everything else in between. But if daytime TV spots have simply enhanced the perception of personal injury practitioners as ‘greedy ambulance chasers’, then S&G’s may well increase the idea of divorce lawyers as ‘blood sucking vultures’ which would surely be counterproductive to the business of law.

Having said all that, Amanatides told me that recent polling of the public, both independently and privately commissioned by the firm, suggests that S&G is now the second best known legal brand in the UK. So perhaps this advertising is striking a positive chord with potential clients after all.

You’ll have to forgive the tenuous link here, but potentially objectionable law firm media campaigns aren’t the only reason I wanted to talk about the advertising powerhouse of M&C Saatchi in this latest blog post. There is something ironic in the peer and advertising supremo, who is intent on limiting the scope of medical negligence law, also helping advertise the services of a firm with a specialism in such cases.

Any keen follower of the parliamentary process will know that today, Friday 23 January, is the third reading of Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill in the House of Lords. The debate over the Bill has been more than a little divisive and definitely controversial, with both sides weighing in on fundamental issues of law and patient care. While, Lord Woolf, one of the Bill’s most prominent supporters, has been lambasted by the legal profession for failing to answer a simple question, Dominic Nutt from the Saatchi camp has argued that the legislation will stifle an explosion of NHS litigation. Neither side look willing to give any ground and the knives have no doubt been sharpened again as we prepare for the latest Lords debate.

For example, a recent article was brought to my attention which suggested M&C Saatchi, of which Lord Saatchi is a director and shareholder, had reported a 5.2 per cent rise in revenues in 2013, partly as a result of “getting back into pharma”. M&C Saatchi boasts such clients as Reckitt Benckiser, and Bristol-Myers Squibb’, as well as Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis. Is the very astute and successful businessman, Lord Saatchi, set to gain more than just a potential cure for cancer with his Act?

Commenting ahead of the third reading, John Spencer, president of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), said: “We’ve heard a lot of expert voices from the House of Lords with concerns about the impact of this Bill on patient safety. If peers pass the Bill on Friday, it’s critical that we see detailed scrutiny when it reaches the House of Commons. MPs must listen to the recommendations from experts within the medical, patient, research, and legal communities, as despite the work of many peers, essentially, the Bill still allows doctors to do whatever they like.

“This Bill does not even achieve what Lord Saatchi set out to do, yet parliamentary time has been spent having to discuss how to protect patients from its consequences. There is no evidence that Bill is necessary and MPs must not allow its undoubtedly laudable aims to be a passport to bad law. The patients they serve deserve no less.”

Unfortunately for Spencer, and other opponents of the Bill, the hope that the House of Commons will give this piece of legislation more than a cursory glance would be optimistic at best, especially if recent examples, such as the passage of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, are anything to go by.

This blog post was first published in Solicitors Journal on 23 January 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission