Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to them.
Jessup: You want answers?
Kaffee: I want the truth!
Jessup: You can’t handle the truth!
-A Few Good Men (1992)
This infamous exchange between Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise is often imitated, intentionally or otherwise, in conversations between various managing partners and me numerous times each year. Of course, the managing partner assumes the role of Col. Jessup, although he or she typically ranks as more of a five-star general, and I’m just the lawyer guy, nearly the same age as Cruise, but a little less handsome and wealthy.
In my case, while the topic is not life or death, as it was in the movie, it’s close. It’s about money. For quite a number of years, law firms’ investments in marketing and business development efforts were small enough that nobody really paid too much attention. The main problem was simply trying to get a proper line item in the budget report. Today, while most firms still do not spend close to the commonly recommended amounts—which run the gamut from 2 to 10 percent of billings, and closer to 20 to 30 percent when launching a new firm, office or practice—the money is significant enough to draw attention.
Regardless of whether your firm spends $1,000 or $10 million annually on marketing efforts, the presumption is that you are spending it the right way. There’s also that crazy assumption that marketing is actually adding something to your practice. Nonetheless, the next firm I audit without some wasted and misguided spending will be the first.
In addition to the commonly voiced need to buckle down and tighten up fiscally over the last several years, the pressure to develop and successfully implement a proper marketing foundation for most law firms has increased. First, cut staff and spending. Second, get more business. Today there are so many avenues for lawyer exposure in the marketplace that it is literally impossible to do it all—regardless of marketing team size and allocated resources. So, what do you need to do?
Conducting an objective, independent audit every year or two is important. It cannot be conducted by anyone with a vested interest in the operation, including most attorneys, certainly not marketing or administrative staff, or vendors and consultants that are among those line items in marketing spending. The auditors need to know what things cost and who the suppliers are, what the probabilities of success are, and where the firm is coming from and looking to go. There likewise needs to be a specific understanding of the law practice itself: plaintiff or defense, consumer or corporate, as well as specific understandings of practice area functions, be they litigation, business law, labor and employment, personal injury, environmental law, or the like. Of course, a nonobjective audit conducted by firm personnel is better than nothing at all.
WHY SELF-AUDIT YOUR FIRM?
The purposes of the audit process differ among firms. Most of those that I have conducted for Am Law 200 firms have been used as a way of advising firm leadership and management about the effectiveness of current marketing efforts. Is your budget too high or too low? Do you have the right staffing in place? Where can the firm get the best bang for its buck? Is the reporting structure correct? What areas of marketing is the firm strong in and, conversely, what needs improvement? Why do we seemingly have so many failed or stalled efforts in this area of your business model? In some cases, an audit can be a precursor to a merger or major structural change.
Midsize firms often go through the audit process before changing or expanding marketing resources. For small law firms, the audit is more about advancing a business development road map for spending valuable time, money and resources. Firms of all sizes, practices and regions have benefited immensely from undergoing a periodic audit of marketing efforts.
WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?
Auditing is not an exercise for the insecure. Yes, it is part J.D. Power and part McKinsey & Company, but the goal is improvement, not head rolling. Recently, an attorney told me that his large law firm’s marketing director had fought vigorously to prevent an audit. She said that the objective was to throw her under the bus, and she did successfully prevent the audit. Yet within two months, she was gone. A few months later—guess what?—the firm was gone, too! There clearly was a reason for the insecurity.
There are simply so many initiatives today—ranging from social media to ratings and rankings, websites to media buys or individual attorney coaching to client development databases—that the resource pool requires prioritizing. In many cases, proper staffing and hiring for these positions is out of balance. Some attorneys force marketing departments into time and spending decisions that hamper the firm’s overall success. It is important to stop, evaluate and gauge the return on your investment.
WHEN IS THE RIGHT TIME?
There are a few times where an audit makes the most sense and offers the biggest benefit. Most naturally, one comes before developing the next year’s budget and/or updating the firm’s strategic plan. Another is the segue between marketing staff hires, especially chief marketing officers and marketing directors. Other key moments would be before or after a merger, with the addition of significant new offices or practice groups, or when anointing a new marketing partner. While an annual undertaking is probably overkill, every two to three years is ideal. Right now, a lot is changing in a short amount of time.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?
Numerous areas are ripe for auditing. Depending on the depth sought and the auditor’s expertise (i.e., understanding of business, marketing and the actual law practices), you might look at:
- Reviewing all law firm marketing initiatives, strategies, expenditures and materials
- Analyzing marketing staffing, including budgets and salaries, credentials and responsibilities
- Reviewing the firm’s online portfolio and the use of technology for marketing functions
- Comparing spending with client revenue, attorney and department billings, and rates.
- The process might also include client interviews, ethics compliance and the hiring and/or restructuring of marketing roles.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WITH THE RESULTS?
Share the results with the firm’s key stakeholders. In many cases, from a sensitivity and performance standpoint, you might offer up various edited versions—what I refer to as the need-to-know editions. In almost every case, you will identify opportunities to cut spending without losing any benefits. The leadership feels better about funding marketing projects and increasing resources. The partners stop looking at the marketing department as spending their hard-earned take-home cash. And in most cases, every function operates feeling better about themselves and the chances for long-term success.
CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?
I’m reminded of a managing partner who pulled me aside at an ABA reception a few years ago. He said that his marketers, administrative staff, consultants, vendors and lawyers kept telling him different stories—sometimes pointing the blame at each other—on many of the business development efforts the firm was engaged in. He whispered, “To be honest, I have no idea who is telling the truth and who is full of [expletive deleted]. Can you take a look and tell me what is what?” In his case, he could handle the truth.
Recently, I conducted an audit where the firm’s managing partner insisted on sitting in on every session. He told me, “We are a family here. Nobody is afraid to speak their minds.” After a 10-hour day of meetings where nobody spoke his or her mind, I slammed my pen on the conference room table and mumbled something unprintable. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “What did I tell you?” was my response. What I should have said was, “You can’t handle the truth.”