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Law Firm Marketing: A Practical Approach

Copyright ©2003 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

by Jeffrey Geibel, APR

[Author's note: We wrote this a few years ago - and it appears to be as timely now as when it first appeared. We'll be adding more articles from our archive soon - so be sure to check in from time to time.]

With the announcement of the demise of the Boston law firm of Herrick & Smith, new attention has been focused on the ability of law firms to survive in a new, competitive environment. Perhaps the Boston Globe said it best:

"The fall of the law firm of Herrick & Smith is a story of a law firm trying to cope with the pressures of surviving in a legal marketplace that has changed dramatically in recent years. What was once a gentleman's profession has become a highly competitive arena in which firms must battle to keep old clients and find new ones." [The Boston Globe]

The problem seemed to be an inability of the partners to market the firms' services. Why, on the other hand, do other firms and attorneys flourish in this new environment? How is this done?

Successful attorneys have a keen understanding the marketing principles that pertain to legal services, and how to develop a marketing program and style that is unique to their firm and to them as an individual. This can be accomplished while still maintaining the special professional aura that is attributed to those who practice law. How to develop and implement such a program for a law practice is the focus of this article.

What is marketing?

A resistance to marketing by older partners was cited as one of the contributing factors in Herrick & Smith's problems. This resistance is somewhat typical, resulting from a misunderstanding of marketing and the role it plays in every professional's life. Whether you realize it or not, every time you bring about a successful transaction, you are marketing yourself. Successful attorneys recognize this, and utilize marketing principles intuitively. In the past, practice development was often left to partners who demonstrated an intuitive flair for it. However, marketing is a discipline, which can be learned (much like the practice of law). Few professionals grasp the fact that marketing is essentially a communication process. In a professional context, this communication includes the following elements:

Reflect for a moment on your recent professional contacts. How much of your effort was directed to the above-mentioned tasks? Probably the majority. This indicates how significantly marketing is (or should be) interwoven into your professional behavior.

Within the marketing communications context, successful attorneys strive to accomplish several mutually-reinforcing objectives:

Marketing has a significant planning element, which serves to separate it from what is commonly referred to as 'selling'. This planning element involves an understanding of the following factors: how to structure your offering of legal services, the major benefits (to the client) of those services, and the determination of who would have the greatest need for your unique 'bundle' of services.

One of the advantages of marketing professional services is that the individual who is marketing the service is often also the provider of the service. This gives them the powerful option to respond in a tactical sense to the expressed needs of the client. That is, you can expand, modify, clarify and otherwise custom-configure your offer to each and every client. Few other service marketers have this advantage. They deal with a fixed commodity, with little flexibility.

Let's examine each of the four objectives mentioned above, and show how they are accomplished, and by inference, how the 'old boy network' served to accomplish the same ends.

Showcase Your Talents.

This is simply making sure that potential clients know about you, what you have done, and by inference, what you are capable of. In the marketing context, this is accomplished by writing articles, commenting on current issues, granting interviews with the media, sending out reprints or a newsletter, or any other manner of communicating with the potential client. Granted, you might have to translate sophisticated legal issues into laymen's language, but if a potential client reads your comments and understands them, you have accomplished part of your communication goal. If, on the other hand, your comments are accurate from a scholarly, peer-group standpoint but make no sense to the potential client, you've failed. Among professionals, this tendency toward peer-group communication is the single biggest obstacle to effective marketing.

Build Familiarity

There is a simple fact in the business world: people don't like to do business with someone they don't know. They want to know what to expect in terms of personality, professional approach, and fees. In short, no surprises. The more you share with potential clients your past accomplishments, the more they will accept that as predictive of the future (e.g your client/attorney relationship with them). In a professional context, you should accept the fact that your first several contacts are to build familiarity. If your marketing program is functioning properly, seldom should you have the goal (or need) to 'close' the client on the initial meeting. You'll have enough fire-fighting missions without having to look for them. Again, this is where the planning element of marketing separates it from sales. However, have a specific objective or goal each time you communicate with a potential client: review some current work that greatly assisted a client, discuss a current legal topic and its implications (to impress them with your grasp of the law), or mention another specialty of the practice that they might not know about.

To Keep You In Mind

Business people have notoriously short memories. Yesterday's headlines are forgotten tomorrow. If you want to make sure that you, your firm, and your talents are not among them, accept the fact that continuous contact is necessary when cultivating a potential client. By taking the time and trouble to establish and maintain contact - and sharing ideas - you will naturally come to mind when the potential client has a need, or hears of a need (more on referrals later). Remember, the potential client doesn't have to have done business with you to make a referral - just to know about you and what you do.

Provide Evidence That the Services Were a Good Value.

When you perform well as a professional, there is a strong tendency to believe that "these truths are self-evident". You would probably be surprised as to how seldom that is the case. To many business owners and managers, the practice of law is somewhat mysterious. If for instance, your superior advocacy resulted in litigation against your client being set aside, it's worthwhile to communicate that thoroughly to the client, along with the estimated savings in legal fees, damages, or whatever (the entire benefit, tangible and intangible). It also worthwhile to communicate your (or your firm's) successes for other clients (suitable sanitized, for client confidentiality, of course) to your clients. Remember, no one is going to know of your successes unless you tell them. And this is especially important if they are paying hefty retainers and fees. It is simply good business sense.

To some attorneys, to techniques outlined above would seem to be overly ambitious, perhaps as was felt by some of the partners at Herrick & Smith:

"A lot of partners did not go for the new ideas," said one partner. "They didn't think it was the way a Boston lawyer should conduct himself. They felt that the best way to get business was the old-fashioned way - by doing good work and hoping a client would recommend you to someone else."[ibid]

This technique simply doesn't work anymore - and the partners at Herrick & Smith found out "the old-fashioned way" - they went out of business.

Consider referrals to be what they are - the spin-off gravy of a well-conducted marketing program. But don't expect that they can be depended on for planned growth. The reasons are simple:

The marketing of legal services is a critical element of the survival and growth of any law practice. Marketing is a discipline, which can be understood, learned and developed like any other discipline. It is separated from the tactical nature of sales by a high degree of planning and strategy. It is not dependent of personality or appearance, but on a keen understanding of the services that you provide, the potential clients who need those services, and how they perceive the benefits associated with those services. Once these marketing principles and practices are understood and mastered by the legal professional, he/she will enjoy the ultimate professional satisfaction - to be both self-sustaining in billings and to bring in additional work for the practice.

© 2003, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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