Some of our biggest firms are exploiting the Volkswagen crisis. And why not?

After spending much of the last two weeks at home in front of the television, I can say with some certainty: lawyers are everywhere.

But not just, as you might assume, in PPI or personal injury adverts (though the Gladstone Brookes jingle seems to be on a permanent loop through my head).

Instead, lawyers are reflecting on - and often making - the news. Lawyers raising their firm’s profile has been happening for some time, but the VW emissions story has sent this into overdrive. Lawyers have been on every news channel, radio station and current affairs programme going, raising the profile of their firm without spending a penny in advertising revenue.

The big boys are, as you’d expect, most prominent. ‘Slater and Gordon VW’ appears more than 4,500 times in Google news searches, and the firm has been relentless in its coverage of the story on social media, with 24 Volkswagen-related tweets in six days. The firm is fond of a soundbite or two, and even coined the issue as the motoring equivalent of the Libor scandal (it’s no coincidence the firm’s PR team is packed with former journalists).

Leigh Day has been equally proficient. Whether with lawyers debating on morning news shows or the firm feeding newspapers thinly veiled advertisements on possible legal action, its name is synonymous with the story.

But law firms have to tread carefully when attempting to secure business from events high on the news agenda.

Everyone in charge of their firms’ social media output will have shuddered at the tale of the tweet sent out in the immediate aftermath of the Alton Towers crash by a firm from Sheffield. The backlash was fierce and largely justified, though given how quickly the unfortunate victims found legal assistance it’s safe to assume other firms were ‘pitching’ for the work – albeit with more sensitivity.

The comments under law firms tweeting and talking about VW are often damning: 'parasites', 'money-grabbers' and 'ambulance-chasers' (slightly mixing up their vehicles) are some of the milder-mannered responses. There is a school of thought that this type of marketing is grubby and casts the profession in a bad light.

Is it fair to call them parasites? They are certainly latching onto a crisis and seeing profit in it. But how is that any different to Magnum advertising during a heatwave or Benylin advertising during a cold snap? Lawyers need to be savvy and ruthless to attract claims – if that means being proactive, then so be it.

The legal world has changed and work won’t arrive through the front door. Exploiting a crisis to your advantage is just as much a hallmark of a good firm as the standard of advice you give.

John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor