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Survey the legal landscape of the past two or more years and you’ll see a lot of litter. As we all know, several very prestigious law firms have gone belly up. In other firms, lawyers have lost their jobs. Revenues are down. Growth is stagnant. And budgets have dried up—including marketing budgets, with many law firm leaders having taken an ax to business development efforts as a way to cut spending. That is, the shortsighted ones have. The more sagacious firms, on the other hand, saw the economic downturn as an opportunity.
Instead of laying off marketing staff and killing outreach campaigns, these firms’ leaders have been spending resources both to enhance relationships with existing clients and expand their client bases. In short, they’ve essentially said, “Damn the recession, full speed ahead!” and differentiated themselves from those who have circled the proverbial wagons. Some, in fact, have done it to remarkable effect, growing their client base, their lawyer ranks and their profits while their competition falls flat. Here’s a look at three firms whose business development strategies offer salient advice you can take away to put your own firm back in the full-on marketing game.
Seizing a New Opening: Shifting the Practice to Grow
If you’re a law firm in a troubled economy, you sometimes have to do different things, like going after lower-rate work you wouldn’t necessarily seek out during boom times. But cultivating clients who have matters for which you can’t charge your top fees is better than no fees at all, right?
Yet when Chicago’s 11-lawyer Levin Schreder & Carey recently changed its targeted client base, it wasn’t because the partners were scrambling after lower-fee work. Au contraire. This trusts and estates boutique has shifted its practice toward what must be described as an upgrade. That is, while previously the vast majority of its clients were individuals, the lawyers now represent some of the biggest corporate trustees in the country and have relationships with every major bank that has a significant presence in the Chicago market.
The strategic thinking behind this repositioning was simple and logical to the partners. “Representing individuals is a one-off practice, whereas representing a corporation can be a nice, continuing relationship,” says name partner James Carey. “Plus, the fiduciary litigation practice is a growth area.”
Carey characterizes the shift in emphasis during the recession as a result of the firm seizing opportunities. “We saw an opening among banks and corporate trustees to get ourselves in the door,” he says. “We also discovered that there was terrific legal talent that had come to the market from big firms and these lawyers saw a better opportunity in a boutique practice.”
As a result of that forward-thinking mind-set, Levin Schreder’s practice has grown 50 percent in the last year and a half—and it has hired some impressive lawyers from such firms as Reed Smith, McDermott Will & Emery, and Schiff Hardin.
Levin Schreder lawyers understand that they have an advantage over the bigger, high-priced general practice firms. Banks and other corporate entities view the partnership’s rate structure favorably and appreciate that they’re retaining a boutique focused only on their needs; the lawyers aren’t trying to sell them on another practice area.
“They also like the way we staff a case,” Carey says. “We don’t throw bodies at cases. We staff effectively. And because of the economic realities that law departments are facing, they’re more willing to give us that first interview, that first shot.”
But to get that first chance to impress, of course, the firm has had to market its expertise. To do this, they’ve spent a lot of time and resources introducing themselves. “We’ve put together materials of our representative cases and shared those with them; we’ve told our story,” Carey says. “We’ve done that through lunches or meetings and spoken with groups of trust officers in educational formats. A couple of the banks have continuing education for their trust officers and we’ve volunteered to be a part of that program, for three different banks.”
Their marketing efforts have been very focused, designed to reach the exact people who make decisions about what outside firms to hire. One example of this is the firm sponsoring the ABA Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law’s 21 st Annual Spring Symposia this May. “We knew that trust counsel would be there,” Carey says. “It lets trust counsel know that, while we may be a small firm, it’s safe to hire us because we have a national presence.”
In some ways, it seems Levin Schreder has hardly taken note of the recession, at least within its office walls, and that reflects an upbeat attitude. Attorney David Lieberman, who came to the firm last year, elaborates on this: “One of the features of this firm is that there wasn’t much of a change. When the economy cratered, certain practice areas at big firms that were hot suddenly were slow to dead. So there’s a lot of turmoil when parts of a colossus of an organization are suddenly floundering. But when you’re inside the doors here, you really don’t know that there’s a recession going on.”
The firm also has a policy that may, indirectly, help with generating new work. It’s called circulating “the pinks.” Every substantive e-mail, letter or memo that the lawyers send to the outside world gets copied, on pink paper, every week and is distributed among the lawyers. “So if I see that something someone else is working on is similar to what I’m working on,” Carey says, “I can go talk to that person.” This sort of internal communication sharing breeds goodwill and trust and helps foster creative ideas about how to further build the client base.
“We’re very collaborative,” Carey says of the firm’s culture. “And we agree about one crucial point: During the downturn, we’ve all felt it’s very important to keep on marketing.”
A Perfect Time to Open Shop: Using the Personal Touch to Establish a Healthy Client Base
Think back to February 2009 when some 800 associates and legal staff were let go on a single day. Or to the following month when about the same number in the United States and Great Britain combined were let go, again, on one day. At the height of this layoff mania, most lawyers felt lucky simply to have a job. You certainly didn’t want to leave a successful practice at a stable firm and start your own partnership.
Unless, that is, you’re Daralyn Durie, her husband Ragnesh Tangri, and Clement Roberts and Ryan Kent, who were all practicing at San Francisco’s flourishing 60-attorney Keker & Van Nest. The four, along with Stanford law professor Mark Lemley, who was of counsel at Keker, left the security of that firm to found their own litigation boutique, Durie Tangri, in February 2009—with a prime goal of focusing on providing highly cost-effective services.
“A core group of us went to law school together and talked 20 years ago about starting our own firm,” Durie says. “We’d gone off on our various ways and then wound up working together at Keker & Van Nest, which was and still is a fabulous firm. But we were still interested in starting our own partnership.” But in the middle of a recession, at the same time major law firms were shedding personnel like dead skin? Sure, why not, Durie says.
“We decided that this was the right time in our careers to do this,” she adds. “In a lot of ways it was the ideal time to start a smaller firm because clients were willing to look at alternatives. We thought clients might be more willing to take a risk and hire a new firm, one that wasn’t established, at a time when they were watching their legal budgets.”
And from the get-go, they’ve gone about spreading that word to their market. “When we came out and opened our doors, we made a concerted effort to connect and reconnect with lawyers and inside counsel that we’ve worked with,” Tangri says. “We let them know we were doing our own thing and that we have a different model [in terms of alternative fee-structures] than a lot of bigger firms, and one that takes a team approach.”
“We met people for lunch or coffee or drinks after work,” Durie says. “This all takes time. We certainly put a lot more time last year than in any preceding year into that effort. Simply put, it was essential marketing.”
It hasn’t taken the San Francisco firm long to build a healthy client base despite the economy, as evidenced by the fact that what began as a sixlawyer firm (the five founding partners plus one associate) doubled its ranks to 12 attorneys in just one year.
Of course, it certainly helps that Durie Tangri’s lawyers have had deep, rich experience at other well-heeled firms like Morrison & Forster, Cooley Goodwin and Perkins Coie—and that they’ve represented such heavy corporate hitters as Google, Comcast, Intel, Genentech, NetFlix and Ticketmaster. They’ve been able to maintain relationships with people at these companies, and in some cases retained them as clients.
But the firm has also marketed itself to appeal to new, emerging companies, in the Bay Area and beyond. In doing so, its lawyers draw on what they share with such businesses. “With start-up clients, we have tried to get the message out to them, with some success, that we, like they, are a startup business,” Tangri says. “Although a lot of firms might say, ‘We understand start-up businesses,’ we like to think we’re unusually well-positioned to understand the sort of pressures they’re up against, the constraints and challenges they face because we’re going through the same things they are.”
Durie Tangri continues to reach out to clients and potential clients in personal ways. They’ve e-mailed, phoned and offered meet-up invitations to scores of people since they launched the partnership. The firm’s lawyers also speak before groups as often as they can, putting their names out there and demonstrating their expertise in everything that matters regarding commercial litigation in the 21st century.
“We’re quite proactive at speaking at conferences to get ourselves in front of people,” Durie says. “I gave about a dozen talks last year in various venues—all to let people know who we are, a collegial group of lawyers who have a top-quality practice in a small firm setting that can be more flexible with financial arrangements with clients.”
Maybe Pigs Can Fly: Putting the Spotlight on Service with a Colorful Branding Campaign
Shortly before the economic meltdown, the St. Louis law firm Sandberg Phoenix & Von Gontard decided to jump-start its marketing efforts. The 65-plus-lawyer firm has three principal practice areas: health-care defense litigation, products liability litigation and representation of closely held companies. Managing partner Michael Forster and other senior partners wanted to find a unifying theme to market these three very different groups. “It’s been hard to find something common about us, other than we all work hard and watch our fees,” Forster says.
But then, when the firm’s marketing consultant, Ross Fishman, interviewed the firm’s people for feedback, the answer because clear—all the attorneys pointed to the partnership’s long-held guarantee of service satisfaction for clients. “It seems to bind the firm,” Forster says. “We’ve been doing it for 20 years but never got any publicity about it. And in that time we’ve only had one or two clients say we haven’t lived up to our guarantee.”
Highlighting this service guaranteein the firm’s outreach efforts seemed a natural. Then the recession hit, begging the question: Should they pull back, save some money and postpone the creative, colorful campaign they had in mind? No way. In fact, they didn’t even give that option much thought.
Instead, they moved ahead with a clever branding program, including a new tag line of “Seriously Unbelievable Client Service.” And among the marketing materials featuring their guarantee over the past couple of years is a series featuring this headline: “A law firm that offers a service guarantee? What’s next?” In one ad viewers see a flying pig, in another a tree that grows money, and in yet another a newspaper with the headline “Cubs Win World Series, First Title in 100 Years”—with the latter sure to draw eyes especially among the locals, since the Chicago Cubs are the St. Louis Cardinals’ long-time archrivals. “That Cubs ad has caused some controversy around town,” Forster says gleefully.
But the firm’s business development efforts go beyond just the branding materials. It sponsors various seminars; Sandberg Phoenix attorneys and marketing staff send legal updates via e-mail; and they’re also producing a series of video mini-seminars, which will be accessible through the firm’s Web site. “People seem to be more video-oriented these days,”
Forster says. “Plus the videos give us a chance to connect with the viewers, giving the sight of a person from our firm rather than just cold copy.”
And, extending on their Web-based initiatives, they’re now developing outreach efforts for social networking to help drive business. “Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter are all featured prominently by the search engines so this will be an extensive social media campaign,” says the firm’s marketing specialist Jason Riley. “Whatever we post to our Web site also creates content for social media sites.”
Currently the firm’s lawyers are being trained in social media technology and encouraged to use it when this marketing apparatus is in place. “What we’re after is as much personal contact with people as possible and using communication methods that are modern is key,” Forster says. “And, our potential clients—the people who are responsible for obtaining legal services—communicate via social networking.”
These concerted marketing strategies are paying significant dividends. Sandberg Phoenix has been growing its lawyer ranks even during the recession, hiring additional staff to help Riley and his marketing department, generating more revenues and expanding its regional presence, and, in the case of its products liability practice, its national reach as well.“We are continuing to spend money on marketing; we’re increasing our budget in this area,” Forster says. “We feel that a bad economic environment is not the time to stop promoting yourself. It’s the time to market even more.”
Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning freelance writer who covers many topics, including those within the legal profession.