September 2003  Volume 29, Issue 6
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, September 2003 Issue
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Marketing: Put Ideas into Action
by Sally J. Schmidt


Good marketing ideas are everywhere. The legal industry is filled with sources of inspiration, including other law firms, vendors to law firms and legal marketing professionals. Plus, firms that dare to look outside the profession can adopt, with little or no adjustment, marketing strategies being employed with great success by hospitals, accounting firms, consultants, manufacturing companies and even car dealers.

Finding ideas is simple. If only implementing them was that easy. There seem to be two major obstacles that law firms face in translating potentially effective ideas into effective actions: closed minds and an inability to execute.

The first issue is difficult to overcome. In the long run, however, firms that fail to accept new ideas will probably drop out of the competitive race anyway. So the greater, more challenging issue is simply putting ideas into action.

Reasons for Inaction

The level of frustration with marketing implementation was reinforced to me recently in my work with a new law firm client. In preparation for a marketing retreat, I had circulated a questionnaire to the firm's lawyers. In response to the inquiry, "What marketing- related questions or issues would you like to see addressed at the meeting?" one lawyer responded, "Why we have a different marketing expert address our firm every three years or so with no discernible results."

Why can't law firms implement their marketing ideas? There are several different reasons.

Time. Most lawyers would say that finding time to engage in marketing is their number one obstacle.
Culture and systems. If a firm's culture doesn't encourage, recognize or hold people accountable for marketing, it is unlikely to be integrated into the lawyers' professional lives.

Overanalysis. Perhaps people make marketing too complex. Don't get me wrong-marketing is a very strategic function, and deciding the direction of the firm's marketing efforts clearly requires research, analysis and calculation. Still, there are many small and relatively painless activities that can make an indelible mark on the program.

Magic-bullet thinking. Some lawyers are looking for a way to delegate marketing, or for an activity that will produce a phenomenal return with scant investment. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a return usually results from sustained hard work.

Key Areas to Examine

Is your firm having trouble implementing its marketing ideas? Experience indicates that many firms need to examine their practices in the following areas, all of which can contribute to an ability, or inability, to execute.

Plans for specific goals and activities. A Yale study revealed that 3 percent of the graduating students that year had written goals for life. Twenty years later, that same 3 percent had acquired wealth equal to that of the other 97 percent combined.

The fact is that having a plan will help you get things done.

Depending on your firm, marketing plans might be completed by individual lawyers, by practice or industry groups, by offices or by all of these individuals and groups. An annual marketing plan should outline what will be done to make the following happen:

  • Build relationships--for example, by expanding networking activities and making new contacts.
  • Build credibility and visibility--for example, by writing articles and speaking at seminars.
  • Build a book of business--for example, by cross-selling to an existing client and making a pitch to a referral source.

Keep in mind that effective plans will include both long-range goals and short-term activities-and they will contain a level of specificity that makes it possible to measure the results.

Accountability for implementation. Most firms lack ways to hold lawyers accountable for marketing. Even firms with plans often fail to use them as an accountability tool. If your firm has marketing plans, you need to institute a critical review of them, ask for periodic (perhaps quarterly) updates on the progress, and factor the implementation into the lawyer review and evaluation process. If your firm does not have marketing plans, you can still put in place some simple methods to hold people accountable and, at the least, make marketing more visible. Here are sample methods:

  • Require people to report on their marketing efforts at partner meetings.
  • Ask lawyers to record all their time, not just billable time.
  • Put marketing on every practice group meeting agenda.

The power of authority. To get people's attention, marketing must have "power by association." In other words, there must be a person of significant clout within the firm who serves as the marketing champion. This might be the managing partner or chair of the executive committee, a marketing partner or a strong chief marketing officer. The question is, who will effectively provide the "hammer" when people do not conform?

Rewards for marketing. It's a simple fact that compensation drives behavior. A firm, therefore, needs to examine its system of rewarding lawyers to determine whether it provides incentives, or disincentives, for marketing. For example, if a firm's compensation system basically rewards for production, and a lawyer has a choice of whether to bill two hours or take an accountant to lunch, most lawyers will opt for the activity that will be measured.

Even firms that reward lawyers for bringing in business can face problems. Depending on the weight of the factor or the structure of the system, for example, origination credit can discourage working on other people's clients, cross-selling to existing clients or engaging in a team effort. Perhaps you can't or won't change your system--but you can put in place other components that compensate for its weaknesses, such as a bonus pool or recognition program.

Recognition tools. For some reason, many lawyers undervalue recognition. Yet providing "atta' boys" for lawyers who engage in the right marketing behavior can go a long way toward propelling further action, particularly when the compensation system doesn't reward marketing directly. You can, for example, send a congratulatory memo about the solid marketing efforts of a team-oriented practice group, hold a reception to celebrate the acquisition of a new client, or single out an entrepreneurial associate at a meeting.

Support and training. Finally, providing lawyers with proper support and encouragement can assist marketing implementation. This might include mentoring associates in marketing; setting up promotional, such as entertainment, accounts; providing marketing skills training; and even establishing expectations per lawyer. (For example, each five-to-seven-year associate should spend x hours per year on business development.)

Does Your Firm Need a Tweak or an Overhaul?

Unfortunately, there is no magic compensation system or one-size-fits-all marketing plan. Any practices adopted must take into account the firm's size, culture and infrastructure as well as the status of its existing marketing efforts.

In most cases, law firms can "tweak" existing processes, procedures or systems to better encourage marketing without making major overhauls or dramatic changes. In fact, the more marketing becomes part of the fabric of your firm, the more successful you will be at finally turning your ideas into action.


Sally J. Schmidt ( sallyschmidt@schmidt-marketing.com), President of Schmidt Marketing, Inc., has counseled more than 300 law firm clients over the past 15 years. She was the first president of the Legal Marketing Association.