Volume 19, Number 3
Marketing Magic for Lawyers
By Jim Calloway
Mention legal marketing to a group of lawyers and you will notice a wide range of reactions. Some lawyers tend to get a bit queasy discussing legal marketing. Many of us would definitely agree to turn the clock back to the good old days when lawyer advertising was prohibited. Other lawyers will go into enthusiastic detail about their law firm marketing plans. Large law firms may have marketing departments and a director of marketing. Many small firm lawyers examine marketing only once a year, when the representative from the Yellow Pages comes to call.
In addition to the numerous hats that you already wear, sole practitioners also serve as directors of marketing. Lawyer advertising still just doesn't seem that professional to many in our profession, even those who believe that they are forced to do it. The rules seem a bit puzzling at times, too. Why is in-person solicitation of clients prohibited but direct mail and other advertising methods allowed?
Unfortunately, we all have to realize that lawyer marketing is here to stay. In fact, it is important to the success of any law firm of any size to have a focused, well-thought-out, and business-like approach to marketing.
Marketing Yourself and Your Firm
One of the reasons why many lawyers tend to disdain marketing is that they mistakenly equate it with advertising. Marketing is the process by which a business attempts to inform potential customers of its products and services and motivate them to purchase the same. Advertising can be a component of marketing, sometimes a very important component. Heavily advertised commodities like motion pictures, for example, spend millions of dollars on media junkets and product tie-ins. Lawyers need to understand that advertising is at most one component of an overall marketing plan; for many types of law practices, it is the most expensive and least effective method of marketing.
The primary marketing lesson for lawyers can be summed up in four words: Marketing is not advertising. The truth is that long before the Bates v. State Bar of Arizona decision in 1977, lawyers were engaging in marketing activities. Advertising certainly was prohibited, but lawyers worked hard to develop clientele and develop a solid practice. Young lawyers just opening a practice attended family reunions, neighborhood gatherings, and civic association meetings with gusto, passing out business cards with every handshake. Older, established lawyers frequently entertained wealthy business contacts at country clubs and business lunches. Criminal defense attorneys gladly crossed the street to visit with bail bondsmen, law enforcement personnel, and, in particular, members of the local bar who did not practice criminal defense law.
Even though lawyers in the "old days" professed that they did not go out and seek clients, everyone understood that getting new business was an important consideration for all law firms. An outstanding rainmaker in any law firm never had to be concerned about whether he or she was on the partnership track. Indeed, the term "rainmaker" is suggestive of how things work in the real world. Some lawyers sit around expecting clients to appear-in effect waiting for the rain to happen. Others, a dynamic few, have perfected the art of acquiring clients, the talent of making it rain.
Professional and appropriate marketing has always existed in the legal profession-it is advertising that was legalized only a quarter-century ago. A convincing case can be made that lawyer advertising has been a huge boon for the advertising industry in general. It also has contributed, however, to an overall negative public perception of the legal community.
The first chapter of Marketing Without Advertising, by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry (Nolo Press, 1997), is entitled "Advertising: The Last Choice in Marketing." The authors ruthlessly attack the idea that advertising generally helps small businesses. As a case in point, they cite what is perhaps one of the most recognizable advertising campaigns in the history of advertising, the famous Dancing Raisins campaign in the mid-1980s. Most all of us remember the raisins dancing and singing "I Heard It Thru the Grapevine"-and generating nearly $200 million in sales from related dolls, toys, and even a children's television program.
Amazingly, however, when the promotion was canceled after four years, raisin sales were lower than they had been when the promotion started. This raises many questions, considering that most of us still remember the ads.
My point is not that lawyers should completely avoid advertising, even though many lawyers do so. What I believe is that you should place advertising in its proper context and develop a marketing plan and a marketing budget before you meet with the advertising salesperson.
Another thing to bear in mind is the economics of advertising. Suppose you run a great advertising campaign that brings in $25,000 in new business-billed and collected. Suppose you paid $15,000 for the advertisements. The advertising campaign made you $10,000, right? Absolutely wrong! What the advertising campaign did was to allow you to make $10,000 by doing $25,000 worth of work. If you bill at a rate of $150 per hour, you spent 100 hours working for the ad agency before you made a penny.
But the analysis doesn't stop there. We all have overhead and unreimbursed costs associated with our cases. If your overhead averages 25 percent of your gross (and most lawyers would envy this rate), and you kept $10,000, the overhead associated with this $25,000 worth of work was $6,250-making your "true" net $3,750. Who in their right mind would want to do $25,000 worth of work to keep only $3,750-before taxes?
These numbers are subject to interpretation, of course. Some would argue that advertising builds name recognition that may pay off in future years. Others would point out that many of the overhead costs are fixed anyway, so the extra work did not really increase the overhead by $6,250. But none can disagree that you have to pay for the advertising out of the fees you earn. No one can argue that we all have only a finite amount of time. Instead of working to pay the advertising vendor, the lawyer might have worked to develop additional business or honed the efficiency of the practice-or spent more time fishing.
Some types of practices primarily involve those people who have never needed a lawyer before and who might be hesitant to ask friends or family members for a referral. Clearly, DUI, personal injury, and bankruptcy cases can be developed through Yellow Pages advertising.
However, anecdotal evidence suggests that many of our problem clients are acquired through advertising. They have no connection to you and see you as a part of a legal system that treats them unfairly. They often have no idea of the actual price of legal services, taking their cues from advertised rates for routine matters. There are exceptions, but, overall, clients developed through advertising are not your best clients.
Where do the good clients come from-those who accept instructions, trust your judgment, pay their bills, and, later, refer more business in your direction? We all know the answer-they are typically referrals from other satisfied clients. Referrals come into your office, smile, and say, "You represented my dad a long time ago and my Uncle Harry, and they said you did a good job for them. Now I've got a problem I want to talk with you about."
So, if you accept the premise that referrals from satisfied clients and other professional sources produce the best clients, and that advertising produces…well, more problem clients; and if you then consider the cost of advertising: Where should you be focusing your marketing efforts?
The Golden Rule of Effective Marketing
Do everything possible to produce satisfied former clients, for they are your ambassadors and marketers for years to come. Your grandfather's lawyer had this part figured out exactly right-a lawyer's business lives and dies by reputation.
The first focus for effective marketing is the same as the first rule for avoiding bar disciplinary processes, which is also the first rule of having a financially rewarding practice, which is also the first rule of reducing your stress at work: Do a good job for your clients, and communicate with your clients about the job you do.
Most lawyers do a good job on the client's legal work, but many are less successful at communicating the details to the client. Failure to communicate is the No. 1 source of client complaints and frustration. It is critical to return phone calls from the client promptly. All this takes is commitment and discipline. Remember that the client may spend the next ten years telling anyone who asks, "Joe did a good job for us, but we were always nervous because we never knew what was going on." One thing people don't want in a difficult legal matter is their own lawyer making them nervous.
Clients tend to base their perceptions of their lawyers on many things that simply were not covered in law school. Whether your brief was letter perfect while the opposing counsel had two misstatements of law and three dangling participles will probably go unnoticed by the client. But if the receptionist is rude or you always sound like you are too busy to talk when you are on the phone with them-they will remember!
My grandma had some good rules to live by, one of which relates to successful client marketing: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."
Look around your office, your building, your entry, and your reception area. What messages do these rooms send? Professional or second-rate? When first walking inside the reception area, what impression would a stranger get? Is the furniture appropriate and comfortable? Does the receptionist warmly greet clients when they enter? Does someone clearly communicate when the lawyer will be available?
Does this look like a place that you would trust if your life depended on it? For most clients, especially those seeing a lawyer for the first time, the case may involve the most important things in the client's life. Being sued by another business, getting divorced, getting arrested, being injured, dying-these matters are monumental.
Give the same once-over to your own office. Sit in the client chairs and note what you see. Do piles of client files give an appearance of inattention or disorder? Is the desk overflowing with files and paper, causing the client to think, "How could this lawyer ever keep track of anything?"
Behavior in front of clients or potential clients is very important. If you are walking down the hall with a client about to start an interview and your receptionist says to a caller, with a wink and a smile, "I'm sorry, but he's out of the office now," you can bet that this client will never believe you really are out of the office when she calls. On the other hand, if the receptionist says, "I'm sorry, but she is just starting an interview with another client and cannot take your call right now," a basis for trust is established.
Marketing is in large part a continuing commitment to excellent client service. Take care of your clients, and they will take care of you. Many lawyers who do an outstanding job for their clients still fail to communicate that to the client. Sending the client copies of all correspondence and pleadings, providing detailed billing statements, promptly returning telephone calls, and delivering work in the time frame promised and at the cost discussed-these are the hallmarks of true "marketing magic."
For suggestions about specific steps you can take-starting today-to develop and implement marketing activities, see the sidebar "Developing a Marketing Plan".
The very best high-tech marketing tool involves something you should already be doing to maximize the efficiency of your practice: Use the latest version of your office word processing software, and make sure you and your staff really know how to get the best out of it. You can use your computer to do many marketing projects at little cost.
File closing letters. There is no better chance to remind satisfied clients of the many services you provide than in the file closing letter, which should be sent soon after every matter is concluded. If a client is less than satisfied, this may not be effective, but you still can make the effort. There are far worse messages to send than, "I helped you once and would be willing to help you again." Always conclude the letter by listing all of your practice areas: "We appreciated the opportunity to assist you with this legal matter. Our law firm also handles antitrust litigation, complex environmental matters, and international law."
Firm newsletters. One of the best marketing tools to remind former clients that you still exist is a firm newsletter. It doesn't have to be done that often-certainly no more than four times a year. Include interesting developments in the law, information about recent noteworthy activities, and perhaps something of local community interest. Many word processors have predesigned newsletter templates, so all you have to do is fill in the text.
You can distribute your newsletter via e-mail to those clients who are online. Simply add their e-mail address to the proper mailing list and click on the attachment button. (The software takes care of making sure that every name entered into the group gets the message.)
Assuming you already have Internet access, doing an online newsletter is essentially free advertising. You save printing and mailing costs; your only investment is the time spent typing and sending the newsletter. Don't forget to ask clients how they would like to receive their newsletters-most clients enjoy getting something free from their lawyers! And be sure to offer an "unsubscribe" option for those who don't.
Brochures and booklets. While your clients are sitting in your reception area, take the opportunity to provide reading material of your own creation-an article you wrote or updated information that ties in with your practice area. Brochures easily can be prepared using your own computer, software, and printer. Booklets are a bit more complex, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover how easy it is to print booklets using Corel WordPerfect (Microsoft Word seemed somewhat more difficult).
Marketing does not have to be a scary proposition for solo and small firm lawyers. It requires only a continuing commitment to excellent service and a dedication to good communication. The investment is likely to get you the clients that you want.
Jim Calloway is director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.