The Evolving Tactics and Strategies of Law Firm Marketing

The Evolving Tactics and Strategies of Law Firm Marketing

By Micah Buchdahl, HTMLawyers and Jamie Diaferia, Infinite PR

ALA Legal Management Magazine, November/December 2007

Once upon a time, and not very long ago, the concept of marketing, marketers and a marketing department was foreign to law firm management—regardless of firm size, practice or geography.

At many small firms, this responsibility fell squarely on the heads of the firm administrator (assuming there was even one of those). At midsize firms, responsibility often fell to the person drawing the short straw. And, at many of the largest law firms, you were directed to the librarian. After all, he or she handled the firm’s attorney directory listings, so it was a natural fit, right?

Times have certainly changed in thirty years. According to statistics published by American Lawyer Media (ALM), the largest 100 firms spend an estimated $9 million annually; the second 100 spend approximately $3 million a year. Depending on the firm’s practice-type and market competition, it is not unusual to see some of the nation’s smallest firms with significant six-figure investments. While firm management has a better understanding today of the need to invest in business development, the struggle is more with the “how” than the “why.”

Building a team; setting a budget

There are those pesky “rule of thumb” statements that I often make. Rule #1 – One full-time marketer for every 30 attorneys. Rule #2 – Devote between 2 and 6 percent of gross revenue to create your budget number. And, rule #3 – Both those rules might not apply.

The reality in setting a budget should not be tied to the size of your firm, or necessarily to how much revenue you generate. It is about the marketplace, and where your firm sits when it comes to market share—which might be based on geography, on practice, or on uncontrollable aspects of the industries or client types you serve. I encourage firms not to pay attention to what “they” say in law firm marketing circles, but to follow what is being said in “corporate” marketing arenas. There really is no such thing as “law firm marketing.” There is marketing and there are law firms. Unfortunately, most attorneys have been unable to digest this concept. There is not “beer” marketing for Anheiser-Busch or “car repair” marketing for Aamco; no “doctor” marketing for physicians or “money” marketing for accounting. Learning how to read a market and create an effective strategic plan to attack and win should be your focus.

For a small to midsize firm, dynamics and time often limit how extensive your marketing operation becomes. A one-person department needs to focus on the basics well before racing off to create sideshow initiatives. This person is often left to respond to the important day-to-day fire drill requests—get this on the web site, get me a brochure, update this listing; I need an ad to accompany this sponsorship, etc. I often preach the importance of building a solid foundation before spending time and money on ideas that might not be crazy, but simply unworkable due to the aforementioned constraints.

From a tactical standpoint, it is wise to develop a rather rigid budget and plan at the start of the year, avoiding going off-track with the “opportunity” to buy lots of self-serving advertisements and honors that do not truly impact the bottom line. An attorney had demanded he be able to spend a few thousand bucks on an ad touting his “great lawyer” honor. He followed that up with a request that the firm purchase 1,000 reprints of this ad and honor for a few thousand more. When asked what to do with the reprints after the fact, I suggested his grandmother might enjoy it. The firm had spent a lot of money on something that would not have any successful impact on our marketing efforts. While a larger firm can afford to flush away some cash each year to appease some egos, too many wasted dollars at smaller firms will lead to total ineffectiveness of your efforts.

At larger firms, the strategy is often guided by the juggling act—directives from key partners with different agendas, offices spread across the globe, the ability to “service” more than lead. In an ideal world (and regardless of what some say, there is not a law firm CMO that truly has this authority, even if she or he says so), the lead marketer would create the plan, budget and execute, providing occasional updates to a managing partner or small management committee. The game plan would have nothing to do with egos, or appeasement, but an expert understanding of attacking the market.

Instead, most marketing operations are high-level Kinkos—with the ability to get a muffin delivered to the breakfast briefing, run a seminar at the Westin, respond to an RFP, provide articles to publications or get 100 umbrellas to a trade show. An exception to the rule is the use of public and media relations—until recently, an underutilized tool, but perhaps the easiest to evaluate ROI, monitor and succeed with. It is an aspect of marketing relevant to every firm size and any practice area.

Market Factors

If the resources devoted to marketing are not dependent on firm size or revenue generation, what are the market factors that should be considered, you might ask. Consider the following:

  • How long has your firm been around? In standard marketing circles, there is an expectation that you will need to spend more in your first few years of operation—when you are getting the name out and building a book of business—than later, when the revenue is flowing more freely. Many firms work in reverse. Have you ever heard the term, it takes money to make money? I thought so.

  • Who are you marketing to? The biggest budgets in the U.S. do not belong to the biggest firms. They belong to firms in “consumer competitive” spaces such as personal injury, family and criminal law. If you just look at dollars spent per attorney, you will find that there is a higher level of true marketing going on at smaller firms. The target audience is a key factor.

  • Anything new? When a company launches a new product, changes a name or undergoes a significant structural change, it is usually led by an extensive strategic marketing plan. The same is true when a firm merges, acquires or starts a new practice group, opens a new office, or decides to target a particular industry. Have you heard this one? The horse is already out of the barn. I thought so.

  • Where do you want to be in five years? When asked about my own career, I often give the same answer that I get from law firms—I have no idea. It is not smart for me to not have a path, goal and plan…and the same goes for the law firm. Have you ever heard the phrase,

  • What is everybody else doing? This is the trickiest of all. First, if you are doing something really great and it is working for you…do not write articles about it! Do not have your marketer speak at a conference and tell your competition what is working great. Keep it to yourself. That is called business strategy. And along the same lines, do not just follow what other firms are doing. Most of them are doing it wrong (albeit with the best of intentions). Study your own business; hire smart people; spend the right amount of money…but do not just duplicate what you see elsewhere. Have you even heard the phrase, don’t throw good money after bad?

Media Relations

Thirty years after Bates v. Arizona (see side bar), the stigma associated with attorneys proactively generating media coverage has disappeared while competition for space has increased markedly. Not only are there legal-focused publications in each major market, but there are legal-beat reporters at newspapers and business magazines across the country that are barraged daily by law firms of all sizes seeking attention.

We talked earlier about effectively using media relations as a business development tool, but who is actually doing the work? Larger firms with few exceptions have an agency on retainer to supplement their in-house marketing staff—both of which are typically luxuries to smaller and mid-sized law firms. Regardless of size, law firms have important decisions to make about how to allocate their time and dollars to pursue valuable media coverage.

There are a few basic activities that firms of any size can take advantage of with almost no associated costs:

  • Editorial calendars. With few exceptions, every legal, business and trade publication has a calendar of special sections outlined a year in advance, and it is designed to solicit ideas and bylined articles from outside sources. Lawyers should monitor all relevant calendars and submit ideas for the sections in their strike zones. It’s important to note that these publications typically have deadlines that are months in advance of the actual publication date.

  • Conferences. There are myriad conferences that focus on virtually every imaginable area of law with an equally diverse number of audiences. Competition for speaking slots is stiff but there is a great deal of upside. Attorneys should identify one or two conferences where the audience is comprised of prospects and contact the conference organizers with a timely and useful topic—one that will also be timely when the conference takes place several months later.

  • Lists. All of the legal trades and many of the business publications/vertical trades have awards and lists (July through December is a particularly busy time for submissions). Your firm should aggressively pursue these honors because while it's often difficult to make the cut, the benefits are tremendous in terms of validating the impression that the firm is a player in a particular area. Many of the lists have a place for smaller firms, so participation is not limited to the AmLaw 100.

  • There are additional activities that firms can try including pitching third-party commentary and reporter meetings, although they are often done by a PR agency due to their contacts and experience working with the media. These efforts are not exclusively the domain of larger firms with the resources to hire a consultant, but it is typically the case.

  • Third-party commentary. Reporters covering business and legal issues often like to accompany their stories with commentary from impartial specialists. If Wal-Mart is sued for overtime wage violations and your attorney has handled similar cases—on either side—it is worth researching the case and contacting relevant reporters with useful commentary. As with all PR efforts, it’s useful to alert clients and prospects to your best media placements through low-tech means such as e-mail. Article clips provide a good opportunity to re-connect.

  • Reporter Meetings. Developing a good rapport with journalists is one of the most important things you can do. Track what reporters are covering, contact them by email to request a coffee or lunch meeting, and go in with a plan—have a few story ideas in mind that dovetail with the things like they to cover. Publications are comprised of an ever-changing cast of characters, so persistence is important.

Regardless of your firm’s size—from solo practitioner to 1,000-person conglomerate—it’s important to allocate your marketing dollars and time wisely. Staying focused on reaching your target audience of prospects and clients requires intelligence about what they are reading and watching—a question that is typically answered with a guess rather than actual feedback. Equally important is using the work your attorneys are doing and their specialized knowledge about an area of law or business to best appeal to the media. Armed with both sets of information, there’s no reason why firms of all sizes and means can’t generate quality media exposure.