No law firm is too small for a marketing plan

By Micah Buchdahl

IMA Archives, 2001

If there is one thing that is generally consistent among attorneys, it is a lack of focus and planning in strategically marketing a practice. A 20-attorney firm generally has 20 marketing opinions. A 300-attorney firm has 300 opinions. You get the idea. The nice thing for small firms and solos is that there are fewer opinions, and a better shot at actual success. You know who you are, what you do, and where you want to go. Now, create a strategy and follow through. Written in 2001, but still good today!

Planning, Time and Money

Before moving forward, it is best to establish a game plan, both short-term (one-year) and long-term (three, five, ten years out). Create a grid, showing the time you will commit to these efforts, along with a proposed budget. Leave room for flexibility in both. Follow it!

Good marketers know that all times are key times to market. If business is slow, all the more time to focus on non-law initiatives. If business is brisk, take advantage of the cash flow and high-visibility to better "establish your brand" (see the July 2001 issue of law marketing news, if you missed it). When a large settlement comes in, reward your practice with a jolt of marketing, to work towards the next big one.

How much time is the right time? The younger your practice, the more time you need. In your first year as a solo, a solid forty-hour week of marketing strategy should pre-date almost everything else. Selecting your office location, your furnishings, equipment, and staff are all part of the marketing plan. It plays a role in how you want to be seen. Once established, you are only cheating yourself if at least one hour per week is not set aside for marketing - whether it is to evaluate what you have done, plan for the future, take out an advertisement or update your web site. If you feel clueless about how to market, hire a consultant to guide you, and help create a strategy.

Many firms make the mistake of thinking that just throwing money at it can replace taking some "billable" time of your own, and working on your business development efforts. How many of you out there have hired public relations people to write your firm brochure, your own biography, and practice area descriptions, only to spend as much time editing it yourself later! Write it yourself, and then have a professional editor clean it up.

Spend only as much as you can afford. Establish a presence in your community, and build from there. Think about your target audience - a consumer in need of a divorce, an executive negotiating a separation agreement, a corporate counsel seeking help with a "slip and fall" - and figure out where you need to be present to compete for their business. Presence generally costs money.

Getting started

A number of colleagues of mine found that the key to opening a successful practice was location. And, I am not talking about swanky Center City Philadelphia digs. A pair of two-person firms of young attorneys picked locations where most people prefer not to wander, but where business opportunities were brisk. Just being in the right place, with little competition, proved fruitful. Another attorney selected an area where he spoke the language of the neighborhood, knowing that people would be more comfortable chatting with someone in their own native tongues. We are talking about sparse offices, little support staff, some advertising, but the right spot for success.

Inexpensive, but of great value is joining area business groups and your local chamber of commerce. These organizations have built-in networking events and are a great source of potential referral business. Becoming active can heighten your profile. The same holds true for the local and state bar associations, as well as organizations that relate to your area of practice - both legal and non-legal.

Do you pay for a yellow pages ad, and how much? I've been told that it is the key to gold, and others say it is a waste of cash. Clearly, firms see the high-visibility of certain ads as being well worth the expense. Nearly 100 percent of the time, those ads are for personal-injury firms, where it is easy to equate a new piece of business with ad placement. However, those non-descript locations tend to generate less success, and do not always recoup the cash. These days, there is no longer one yellow pages, but a plethora, lowering costs and increasing premium availability, but also providing a lesser audience. Many of us grew up with one yellow pages (and no cable or Internet). The other difficulty is picking where to buy space. If you are in a large geographic area, your client base could be spread over a dozen or more phone books. Spend what you can, but make sure you do more.

If I were to go solo today, I would begin by establishing a strong web presence. My office could be a shack; my secretary just me with a disguised voice, and my phone number a used cell. But, on-line, I can live and die by my credentials and experience. It is unquestionably the least expensive, most expansive marketing tool you can have, and your web site and domain name become part of every other aspect of marketing - the ads, the directory listings, your printed materials and business card. There is something wrong when you spend tens of thousands on ads, thousands on print and a few hundred on an Internet presence.

Being listed in established professional directories - on-line and print - help put you out there, and give you credibility among peers. Like joining organizations, select those places you want to be identified with. Legal Directories such as Martindale-Hubbell and Chambers USA are among the largest and most established. Local, state and national bars, specific to your practice group, and neighborhood are just as important.

Having some type of written materials describing you, your practice and credentials are equally important. If you get a lead, you want to then have the chance to put your message forward. I hate to repeat myself, but not enough attorneys put adequate time into this component. Once written, it can provide fodder for printing, web sites, CLEs and publications. They also create the core of a client newsletter or other direct-mail pieces.

Make sure your strategic planning involves good competitive analysis. For some firms, it is the lawyer on the floor above, or next-door. For others, it is someone halfway across the country with the same practice niche. How do you know the firms that you know? Is it from working with them, from seeing their ads, as adversaries, or other marketing efforts? Do not get weighed down with what others are doing, but you should always be aware of what they do, or don?t.

Further Development

Once your practice is established, it is often difficult not to forget about business development. For some, a few directory listings, a yellow pages ad and a holiday card mailing to clients constitutes the yearly marketing plan. I?ve often been told that you are way too busy for this, as well as for new clients... however, for some reason, you still write out a $35,000/year check to the local phone company for that large listing. There are good, inexpensive ways to promote you.

Personally, I enjoy speaking for bar associations and organizations, as well as writing for related publications. It is a win-win for everyone. While preparation time can be lengthy, the opportunity to meet other lawyers, get together with colleagues, and have a voice on changes in the practice, can be rewarding in generating business opportunities. There is always a shortage of members of the bar willing to write for the local chapter or volunteer for a CLE. The results are solid and cost-effective. Never underestimate the value of having a public relations effort, outside of traditional marketing.

In the end, be sure to follow your state's ethical considerations, especially in regard to lawyer advertising. And remember, that for the most part, good lawyering, client service response and competence in the profession will help make building your business development plan all that much easier.