Iowa’s strict rules on lawyer advertising were loosened Jan. 1, creating new opportunities that several of Des Moines’ larger law firms have taken advantage of by adding non-lawyer marketing experts to their payrolls.

The new employees have various titles, but their goals are all pretty much the same: use social media and other modern communication tools to bring in business.

“Marketing of legal services is changing very rapidly,” said attorney Stephen Eckley, chair of the marketing committee at Belin McCormick P.C. “We realize there are opportunities that exist today that did not exist before.”

So last summer, the 35 lawyers at Belin McCormick hired veteran trade association executive Ben Hildebrandt to, in Hildebrandt’s words, “tell the story of Belin McCormick, and also help tell the story of our individual lawyers.”

At roughly the same time, the 38-lawyer Dickinson Law Firm hired Bonnie Harris, a newspaper reporter turned public relations expert, and the 50-lawyer firm of Whitfield & Eddy PLC hired Renda Lutz, whose career has ranged from social worker to mobile journalist to business coach.

A handful of other metro area firms also have marketing departments, including the 78-lawyer Davis Brown firm, which has employed three marketing experts since 2006.

The legal marketing profession is new enough to Iowa that positions in that field “are like a lump of clay,” in that each law firm can mold the job into whatever it needs, said Lutz of Whitfield & Eddy.

“One of the things I’m responsible for is finding opportunities to get our attorneys in front of people; not just speaking engagements, but publishing, networking groups, young professionals, the whole gamut,” said Dickinson’s Harris.

Belin McCormick’s Hildebrandt compares the job to playing three-dimensional chess. “The thing I think about every day is: Whatever we do or do not do, how does it affect the attorneys in the law firm; how might it affect the clients; and how might it play out to the public.”

The profession’s national trade association, the Legal Marketing Association, was created in 1985. But there were no legal marketers in Iowa until the last decade, because the state’s rules on legal advertising have always been among the toughest in the nation.

Nonetheless, many of the state’s older, more established firms began working on establishing their brands well ahead of the Jan. 1 rules change.

They hired outside consultants to shorten official names, design appealing logos and tell compelling stories about their histories. Belin McCormick went from having five names in its title to two: those of the late David Belin, the firm’s founder and a prominent Kennedy assassination lawyer, and former Iowa Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormick. The Dickinson firm went from four names to one, which belongs to founder L.J. Dickinson, who served in the U.S. Senate during the Great Depression.

The immediacy of modern technology is driving many of the changes, while the payoff, in most cases, will be long-term, said Belin McCormick’s Eckley.

“The Internet opened up Iowa to a lot of competition from outside the state,” explained Howard Hagen, a bank law expert at Dickinson.

“Seven out of 10 Americans looking for a lawyer go online,” said Hildebrandt. “And more than 25 percent do it on their cellphones,” which means law firms need a second, less cluttered website for cellphone surfers.

The marketing experts help their lawyer bosses resolve issues ranging from blogging to client seminars and social media.

The changes are more about positioning law firms for the future and bringing in business down the road than they are about return on investment today, Eckley said.

“My generation views the changes as more for the lawyers who are going to be here for quite a while after people like me are gone,” he said.