Age Over Beauty? Marketing a Law Firm’s Anniversary

Volume 40 Number 4

By

About the Author

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on business development initiatives. Based in Moorestown, N.J., he is president of HTMLawyers Inc., a law marketing consultancy. He is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division (LP).

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2014 | The Annual Big Ideas IssueTHE QUESTION used to be, Jay Leno or David Letterman? Not anymore. When you read about late night television ratings, it’s all about the advertiser-sought 18-to-49 demographic. It’s not about whether you actually win the ratings race but whether you capture the audience that translates to dollars. Leno was forced out of his host chair on The Tonight Show at 63 in favor of Jimmy Fallon, 39, and his younger audience demographic. David Letterman, at 66, the same age that Johnny Carson retired, is the “most experienced” and has the longer-running hosting gig, but he finds himself competing with Stephen Colbert, 49; Jimmy Kimmel, 46; Jon Stewart, 51; Conan O’Brien, 50; and Seth Meyers, 40. (Letterman announced in April that he will retire in 2015, with Colbert poised to take over the show.) The market is splintered into networks, cable channels, television online and streaming videos.

The law firm landscape has many similarities. The market is both fragmented and segmented. It is not what it once was. Competition comes from all directions—large firms, boutiques, niche solos, midsize—making the choices numerous and the decision-making differentiators more important. Is it about being the oldest or biggest, or focusing on a particularly valuable demographic in the client pool?

All of this intersects at the corner of age/experience and clients/prospects. I often write in this column about topics that seem to come up repeatedly. The concept of the value of marketing a law firm’s anniversary often presents itself. We all hit various milestones that now range in the U.S. law firm market from one year to well over 200. In recent years, we’ve seen well-established firms of 100 years and more seemingly disintegrate overnight. What did their centennial celebrations get them? A tombstone in the annals of their legal space.

I’ve seen law firms design commemorative announcements and press releases celebrating one year. Seriously? Do your clients and prospects really need to be reminded of such a noteworthy moment? That is like having a graduation party because your kid got out of first grade. Sure, it’s a positive. But it isn’t something to necessarily brag about. I always interpret this as being more of the firm members reminding themselves that they haven’t folded—yet.

The February issue of the ABA Journal included a feature about the oldest law firm in the United States. Philadelphia’s Rawle & Henderson dates back to 1783. Rawle rubbed shoulders with the likes of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Unfortunately, both are long out of the “referring legal counsel” game.

WHO CARES?

My 5-year-old son loves to respond, “Who cares?” to many of my thoughtful and experienced remarks about life in general. So your firm is 1, 10, 25, 50 or 100 years old. Does anyone care? And does it really matter? In recent years, I’ve watched some venerable law firms (i.e., “old”) shift their brand messaging away from “We’ve been around a long, long time” to a more modern, skip-the-age approach—similar to what I now do in regard to my own age. Highlighting 100 or 200 years is not going to play a huge role in selecting counsel. You are still here. We get it.

I pressed a 10-year-old law firm about its constant refrain in all marketing materials about “celebrating 10 years.” I politely suggested it simply was not that big a deal. Why are you leading with that message when you’ve got some great clients, results and attorney credentials to publicize, I asked. They responded that perhaps the celebration was excessive but were happy to have “made it.” It was really much more of an internal celebration. Probably the way many married couples feel when they hit the 10-spot.

Lots of law firms have been around for a while. O’Melveny & Myers is the oldest firm in Los Angeles. Shutts & Bowen is more than 100 years old in Miami. Omaha’s oldest firm is over 140. Delaware’s Potter Anderson checks in at 188. Firms with beginnings in 1786, 1805, 1862 and 1939 litter Google search results for “oldest law firms.” But is age a positive or negative? Many of the oldest firms mention longevity in their “firm history” or in an overview but avoid leading with it on the home page. Probably because a 42-year-old general counsel not only does not care; he may see it as being “too old.” Which brings us back to demographics and the Leno-Letterman/Fallon-Kimmel comparisons. Who are you trying to attract?

At one law firm, a senior partner scoffed at the idea of celebrating 50 years when a bunch of firms in town were well over the century mark. “Big deal,” she said. In this case I did think that reminding people that the “new kid in town” was actually now 50 was worth promoting.

The marketing question about a law firm’s age is whether it matters, and if so, what do you do with it?

CELEBRATING A FIRM ANNIVERSARY

My philosophy for law firm marketing of “big numbers” is similar to the way I handle an “important” family birthday or anniversary—it’s a chance to reflect and a reason to celebrate. Some components of the celebration should be invested in
and others potentially skipped over. And big numbers are really relative.

The commemorative logo. Some design-oriented marketers might push you into developing an entire line of logo-driven materials and merchandise, from the website home page to the letterhead. You might put stickers on your invoices or order logoed L.L. Bean apparel. In general, an appropriately planned logo celebration is good for a solid three years of use. You can begin promoting the date one year in advance and continue the party for one year after. Anything more than that is simply dated. Just make sure you don’t invest in a lot of marketing and promotional material with a logo that will not look good beyond that “sell date.”

An excuse for a party. For most law firms the central component of marketing a significant anniversary is a lavish party. You might limit it to attorneys and staff. You might add family members. Or include only attorneys and clients. You might put everyone on a plane to the Bahamas (where you will talk business briefly and write the whole thing off). I’m not a party planner. I’ve attended a good number of these functions. They are almost always fun and enjoyable. If you show a client or staff member a good time, it’s a positive marketing event. It also allows for a celebration that is not simply part of the holiday party calendar. (A tip: Don’t combine the two, or it loses its luster.) If it’s an anniversary celebration, it should stand alone as such. If the whole anniversary thing is just about the logo, don’t waste your time.

The giving fund. Many law firms generate good press and marketing capital by tying what might be perceived as a ho-hum anniversary to charitable and community giving. These organizations are often the happy beneficiaries of the law firm anniversary celebration. For public relations purposes, the celebration is positioned along these lines: Instead of being self-indulgent, our firm is using this commemorative time in our history to give back to those in need. So we will make all sorts of donations to worthy souls in the name of our law firm’s anniversary year. This is never a bad idea. The media may not be interested in your anniversary, but charitable organizations often encourage press coverage of a law firm’s philanthropic efforts.

One for the history books. A favorite pastime for many law firms is to commemorate an anniversary by self-publishing a detailed, hard copy history book. I had a potential client who handed me one such book at an introductory meeting a few years ago. As would anyone soliciting new business, I took it home and read it cover to cover. It was so boring, but I felt obligated. When I proudly told some firm partners that I had accomplished that task, they laughed that none of them did, or would, bother to read it. Ancient history.

The truth or reality is that the only people who thought the book was a good idea were some of the firm historians, i.e., the oldest remaining partners. I’ve seen these books attract dust in coat closets and litter coffee tables in reception areas. Outside of that, nobody is going to read them—ever. The time and money would have been better spent with either the aforementioned party time or charitable-giving segments of anniversary celebrations.

SO WHEN SHOULD FIRMS CELEBRATE?

My grandparents were in fine health when my parents decided to throw a blowout 45th wedding anniversary party for them at Sardi’s in New York City. My mom and dad were never sure exactly what prompted them to blow the budget on the 45th. But it was a great, memorable celebration for everyone involved—the guests of honor and the honored guests. On the 50th anniversary, unfortunately, both my grandparents were no longer with us. The moral of that story for me was always not to wait to celebrate later, in case later isn’t there.

If your firm wants to celebrate 1, 5, 10, 100 or 200, do it. Maybe it will have a marketing punch in your market and maybe it won’t. You might gain a client along the way that is impressed with your longevity. You might lose a client along the way that thinks you are too old school for their blood. In the end, commemorate as you see fit. But if the goal is business development, think about the age of competing firms, your client base (that demographic again!) and what you are really looking to accomplish in putting a spotlight on age. Make sure your expectations match reality. Because what you seek is relevance in the practice, not being part of ancient history.

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