Wagering that legal expertise can be marketed like breakfast cereals and pain relievers, Howrey & Simon, one of the region's largest law firms, yesterday unveiled an advertising campaign created by the agency behind Cheerios and Tylenol.

The marketing blitz by Saatchi & Saatchi, best known for adding zip to consumer products, marks the first time that a corporate law firm has hired a top-shelf imagemeister. The campaign, which started this week and targets corporate clients, is built around the slogan "Where Leaders Go."

"Competition is heating up and so is the importance of turning our law firm into a brand name," said Stephanie Kuroda, Howrey & Simon's director of strategy and marketing.

Law firms like Howrey are scrambling for an edge in a profession that is quickly learning to play by a new set of gloves-off rules. Lawyers have been forced in recent years to learn the art of the sales pitch as corporate clients shop for lower fees. Few firms have mastered that pitch faster than Howrey. In 1991, it became the first corporate firm in the country to run ads, drawing gasps from rivals and attention to itself by boasting in legal publications about the the "Human Side of Genius." At the time, lawyer advertising was largely the domain of personal-injury lawyers trolling for new clients on late-night TV.

The stigma has hardly vanished, but the notion that lawyer advertising is unseemly and immodest is starting to seem antiquated. Today even buttoned-up firms such as Covington & Burling can be found trumpeting themselves in the pages of legal publications.

By hiring Saatchi & Saatchi, Howrey has again upped the ante. Law firms' ads are notoriously fusty and have earned tepid reviews from critics, who say the pitches are boring and often fail to distinguish one firm from another. A campaign by Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, for instance, centered on the catch phrase "A Tradition of Excellence." Howrey's previous campaign boasted "In Court Every Day," a claim that hundreds of firms could make.

For its new ads, Howrey tapped an agency known for burnishing the images of products such as Tide laundry detergent and Motrin pain reliever. Saatchi is the firm behind "Take Comfort in Our Strength," a pitch for Tylenol, and "Looking Out for Number 1," which promoted Toyota trucks.

For Howrey, Saatchi deployed one of the oldest tactics in the ad book: Play to the audience's worst fears. One ad, for instance, is aimed at executives worried that rivals will steal their intellectual property: "You've developed a polymer coating that withstands the blistering temperatures on Venus. But is it designed to withstand 5,000 hours of class action warranty litigation back in New York?"

According to Saatchi Senior Vice President Richard Holt, the ads are "meant to be very emotional, to touch a nerve and evoke a smile. The attitude is pretty much `Okay, you've developed a great product and a great business, but God forbid you get into a legal mess.' "

Legal consultants said yesterday that Howrey is again at the forefront of a trend, and predicted that other law firms will soon search for better advertising agencies of their own.

"It might not be terribly profitable at first, but there are going to be agencies who realize that this is a whole new category for them," said Biff Maddock, a principal at the legal consulting firm Altman Weil Inc.

"The dam has been opened."