What’s Up With All Those Billboard Ads For Lawyers?

From commuter traffic to copycat behavior, here are six reasons why lawyers advertise on billboards along the Illinois-Indiana highways.

Curious City Lawyer Billboard Illustration
Photo illustration by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Curious City Lawyer Billboard Illustration
Photo illustration by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

What’s Up With All Those Billboard Ads For Lawyers?

From commuter traffic to copycat behavior, here are six reasons why lawyers advertise on billboards along the Illinois-Indiana highways.

Jay Panandiker lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood but he often hits the road for Cincinnati to visit his family. And on those trips, he’s observed something unusual along the interstate south of Chicago.

“When I’m driving on the highway I always see a lot of billboards for lawyers and law firms, and it seems like a disproportionate number of billboards compared to other businesses,” he said.

Jay said these billboards seem to be concentrated on Interstates 90 and 94 in south suburban Chicago and across the Indiana border.

So he wrote into Curious City to ask why so many lawyers seem to advertise their services on this stretch of the highway.

Curious City took a road trip as well and counted 98 billboards representing 24 different law firms in the area Jay asked about. The billboards included ads for medical malpractice lawyers and family law, but the vast majority were ads for personal injury lawyers.

So Curious City reached out to attorneys and advertising experts to find out why so many lawyers want to advertise there.

“There’s multiple factors that make up the reason why there’s lawyer billboards there,” said Howard Ankin, a personal injury attorney with a background in marketing.

These factors include everything from the effectiveness of billboard ads to the types of clients these lawyers are trying to reach. We’ve put together a list of the top six, here:

Car illustration lawyer billboards
Billboards are hard to miss

Billboards are a low-tech, relatively inexpensive way to reach anyone driving along the highway.

“When you’re driving down the highway, you’re not on your phone, you’re looking around you,” Anna Bager, president and CEO of the Out of Home Advertising Association of America explained. She said having a message embedded in the physical environment makes it easier to notice and nearly impossible to avoid.

“You can’t block it, you can’t skip it,” she said. “It’s not like an ad on the internet that will swish before your eyes and then disappear. This is always there.”

According to Bager, as advertising in local print, radio, and television stations has seen shrinking viewership and listenership, it’s become harder and harder for advertisers to reach individuals at scale. But even during a global pandemic people still commute, so billboards, which are there 24/7, remain a relatively cost-effective way to reach the audiences lawyers want.

“Lawyers have found that the medium works really well for them,” Bager said. “The whole industry [of outdoor advertising] has grown quite steadily in the last ten years.”

Billboards can reach a lot of people over and over again

Lawyers are selling a service, not advertising a brick-and-mortar store, so they want to pull from as wide a range of clients as possible. Billboards are an effective way to do that, according to Dave Westburg, co-founder of the outdoor advertising news website Billboard Insider.

“This isn’t like a McDonald’s that may want one billboard off of Exit 17 because that’s where their store is,” Westburg said. “An attorney wants to draw from anyone in a metropolitan area.”

Lawyers also tend to buy a lot of billboards, Westburg said. “Attorneys will say, I want dozens or hundreds — or I can think in one case of an attorney that buys thousands of billboards.”

Having so many billboards keeps the lawyer’s name at the front of your mind, said Westburg. And building name recognition makes it more likely for clients to pick that lawyer when they start looking for an attorney.

These ads capture potential clients across state lines

Interstates 90 and 94 have a lot of commuters traveling between Illinois and Indiana — many of them living in one state and working in the other.

Entrepreneurial lawyers will get licensed in both states to better serve these kinds of clients. And then they’ll buy a billboard (or a dozen, or a hundred) to advertise their services in Illinois and Indiana.

So there are lawyers who say “we’ll represent you where you live but help you in a market where you may have been hurt,” attorney Howard Ankin explained.

Curious City illustration worker with hammer
Lots of blue collar jobs means a potential for injury

Heavy industries, especially steel, have a large presence near this section of the interstate — which means lots of jobs that require physical activity.

In December 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 33,900 people were employed in manufacturing jobs in Gary, IN while Chicago had 398,600 manufacturing jobs.

Along with manufacturing, lots of people in this region are also employed in transport, utilities, warehousing and healthcare.

If you’re a personal injury attorney, all these physical jobs are a potential source for business.

“Typically people that have blue collar jobs are more in need of a workers’ compensation lawyer or a personal injury lawyer,” Ankin said. “It’s the nature of lifting heavy, odd objects all day versus sitting at an air-conditioned and heated desk behind a computer.”

People in these jobs can fall, or hurt their back (or neck, knees, or ankles) “from twisting the wrong way or lifting something,” Ankin said. An attorney might be needed to help recover lost wages, medical expenses, or rehabilitation costs.

Local governments can benefit from highway advertising

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act into law. “I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America,” Johnson said.

The Highway Beautification Act called for strict control of outdoor advertising and signage along the burgeoning Interstate system. But, through legal back-and-forth and lots of red tape, outdoor advertising ended up being primarily under local jurisdiction instead of federal. And not every city wanted to limit their advertising in the ’60s — nor are they inclined to now, according to Joseph Schwieterman, an expert on transportation and professor at DePaul University.

“Look at areas south of the city [Chicago], near the Indiana border, you’ve got local governments that haven’t made beautification a huge part of their agenda. They’re often fighting other problems such as economic decline and de-industrialization. And in some cases they’re eager for any business that they can get,” Schwieterman said.

Curious City Lawyer billboard illustration
Competitive Copycats

There’s one more reason for all the lawyer billboards — lawyers are competitive. Personal injury law is a very crowded field. If one lawyer is doing something that seems to be working, others will follow, said attorney Ankin and other lawyers Curious City spoke with.

“In lawyer marketing, there’s a herd mindset,” Ankin said. “Once one lawyer’s doing it, and other lawyers perceive that that lawyer has success in their career, then other lawyers are trying to follow that lawyer’s lead.”

It’s both sharklike and sheepish at the same time. But who started the trend?

Our intrepid Curious City reporters found the lawyer who claims to be the source of it all. You might recognize him by the huge fedora hat he wears in his ads, jutting past the top of the billboard’s frame. It’s Kenneth Allen, an Indiana-based personal injury lawyer.

“I started doing it decades ago,” he said. “And every year, more and more seem to do it.”

Allen said he’s proud of his ads, but even he’s been surprised by how many lawyers have copied him. “I may have inspired some Frankenstein-ish behavior,” he said.

More about our questioner

Jay Panandiker
Photo courtesy Jay Panandiker
Jay Panandiker lives in Lincoln Park and works as an accountant for the firm PwC. The Chicago transplant is originally from Cincinnati, where he frequently returns for family visits (it was one such trip that inspired his question about lawyer billboards).

Like many people, Jay’s been spending a lot of time indoors during the pandemic. “Obviously it’s no fun to be at home all the time, but it could be worse,” he said. “I’ve been doing all the stereotypical things, just staying in and baking bread and things like that.”

As for his question, Jay is delighted to finally get the scoop on those lawyer billboards. “I’m glad I know!” he said. “Now I’ll always be able to tell people why there are so many, and I won’t wonder about it when I’m driving around.”

Steven Jackson is a senior producer for Curious City. Get in touch with him at sjackson@wbez.org.

The digital version of this story was produced by Natalie Dalea, Curious City’s multimedia intern, and digital and engagement producer Maggie Sivit.

Mackenzie Crosson contributed additional reporting for this story.