February 01, 2018 Practice Management

Overcoming Marketing Challenges for Solos and Small Firms

By Terrie S. Wheeler

As you know, marketing is an integral element of a law firm’s success. From branding to networking, your marketing efforts have a direct impact on your bottom line—especially for small and solo practices. A new study from Thompson Reuters reports that sole practitioners and small firms face extra challenges when it comes to profitable marketing, which won’t come as a surprise to these attorneys. You didn’t seek out a solo or small practice because it was going to be easy. This article will explore findings released in mid-January 2018 by Thompson Reuters’ in its 2017 State of U.S. Small Law Firms (PDF, registration required; the survey is accurate within +/- 4 percent).

The 300-plus attorneys surveyed by Thompson Reuters spend an average of 40 percent of their time on tasks not directly related to practicing law, particularly administrative tasks. These responsibilities combined with marketing and business development efforts lead to time management challenges that ultimately impact your bottom line. Put differently, if attorneys work a ten-hour day starting at eight o’clock in the morning and ending around six o’clock in the evening, they don’t get paid for anything they do after two o’clock in the afternoon. Over the course of a year, this equates to working for free from July through December. I like to ask my clients, “What is the best and highest use of your time?” From there, we develop a plan of delegation and prioritization.


Survey Results

Overall, the survey reached four primary conclusions:

  1. The vast majority (64 percent) of attorneys say they are not addressing key challenges including acquiring new clients, administrative issues, and dealing with the increasing complexity of technology.
  2. By contrast, while sole practitioners and small firms that spent more on marketing and business development during 2017 over 2016 saw client acquisition and retention grow (93 percent), only one-third of firms (35 percent) in the study plan to increase their budget in this key area during 2018.
  3. Overall spending for both marketing and technology are likely to see increased investment during 2018, although the additional money will be spent mostly by firms the report defines as “highly successful”; firms described as less successful are not devoting more money or time to business development and tech enhancements.
  4. Adjusting to new technology quickly enough is becoming an operational necessity.

Expanding efforts and investment in marketing and business development, as well as adopting technology, are seen as the most productive areas of increased investment over the next 12 months compared with 2017—and provide the greatest challenge.


Technology Is Your Friend

Many of the lawyers I have worked with are a little slower to integrate the latest technologies into their practices. For whatever reason, all but a few lawyers I’ve known are averse to technology, thinking most technology advancements are simply fads. That said, all new technologies, no matter how fantastic the salesperson says they will be, come with a learning curve to fully integrate the new technology into your practice. There are a few technologies you must have to run your practice, including a practice management program, a time-and-billing system, and other technologies including:

  • E-communications: An e-communications program such as MailChimp or Constant Contact will enable you to communicate timely and relevant content to your contacts.
  • CRM: A customer relationship management (CRM) system such as Zoho or HubSpot can automate your “sales” process.
  • Content development: Blog writing and social media posts will keep your name recognition high with your target audiences.
  • Ability to electronically sign documents: Get access to an e-signature service such as Authentisign.
  • Snazzy signature block: Up your game with a professional, interactive signature block using a program such as HTML Sig.
  • Electronic invoicing: Start invoicing electronically through your time-and-billing software. At PSM we use a program called Harvest. You don’t need to send paper bills ever again.
  • Accept online payments: Give clients the ability to pay their invoices electronically through LawPay or MyCase. These services can be seamlessly integrated so your clients can pay their bills through your website.
  • Share your knowledge—host webinars! Webinar services are great and allow you to record new content or host webinars anytime. Content is king. Consider investing in a webinar program such as GoToWebinar.


Getting Clients Is Job #1

Attorneys practicing in large firms can rely on the often-massive marketing department infrastructure that takes care of everything related to business development—from developing dossiers on prospective clients and keeping databases current, to content creation and award submissions. But for attorneys practicing on their own or in a small firm, attracting and retaining new clients can be a massive challenge.

Not only is the “marketing infrastructure” usually entirely their own responsibility, seldom is there in-house expertise to bounce a business development idea off of, let alone create and manage a strategic marketing plan on the behalf of the attorneys.

This is a likely reason why sole practitioners state their two biggest business development concerns are (1) acquiring new clients (27 percent) and (2) rate pressure from current clients who demand more for less (21 percent).

While the concerns are the same for small firms, the numbers shift somewhat when firms with 11 to 29 lawyers are examined separately. Of this group, nearly four in ten (37 percent) say acquiring clients is the top issue.

Regardless of the size of the firm, almost universally the survey participants worry about spreading out the flow of client work to move beyond the “feast-or-famine” reality common to many solos and small firm practices. Yet few respondents make the connection between their personal and financial commitment to marketing and business development, on the one hand, and making their work flow steadier and more regular, on the other.


You’re Not the Only Attorney Who Is Frustrated!

The survey included an open-ended question where attorneys could comment on their frustrations.

Some sole practitioners recognize that they are dealing with marketing and business development on a haphazard basis, and that they pay a price for the lack of planning and discipline. “Developing a good marketing plan is an issue,” one solo wrote in response. Another, not recognizing that selling value can overcome many fee-related obstacles, claimed he was worried about “Competition from law firms in India that offer prices no U.S. law firm can match.”

Similar concerns were expressed in the answers from lawyers in firms with four to 29 attorneys. For instance, one such lawyer stated he has trouble doing “Efficient and successful marketing on a reasonable budget.”

Another felt frustrated by being unable to market new services, claiming a “need to expand into emerging areas of environmental law.”

Given this, it’s startling to see how few attorneys and firms are taking concrete steps to address their marketing challenges:

  • Only 37 percent say they have implemented changes to address the issue;
  • a miniscule 22 percent say they have a plan to address the issue but haven’t implemented it yet; and
  • an astounding 41 percent say they haven’t figured out how to attack the issue.


Find a Solution That Works for You

Based on a 30-year career working with small firms and sole practitioners, I know the gumption it takes to be successful. If you’re a sole practitioner or small firm, embrace it. You need to be strategic about your time management and open to the idea of integrating new technologies.


Terrie S. Wheeler, MBC, is the founder and president of Professional Services Marketing, LLC. She works with lawyers and law firms to help create low-cost, high-impact marketing plans and to provide the motivation and support necessary to achieve results. She serves as vice chair of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and teaches marketing and client service at two local law schools. Terrie has spent the last 30 years working with lawyers as an in-house marketing director, a marketing consultant, and a marketing coach. You can reach her with questions of your own at 320/358-1000 or terrie@psm-marketing.com. Jim Bliwas, PSM’s senior marketing and communications strategist, contributed to the article.