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July/August 2020


The Law Marketing Up/Down Drill

Micah Buchdahl

In the March/April 2019 Law Practice, I debuted the Up/Down Drill, based on my favorite morning-after column in The Philadelphia Inquirer after an Eagles game. It seems appropriate to utilize space in this Big Ideas issue to bring it back for discussion of topics that touch upon the hot, cold and trendy in the world of law marketing and business development. It is just as appropriate (and coincidental) to start with an area that invokes the game of football as it relates to the always hot topic of diversity.

Diversity End-Around: Down

The Mansfield Rule was first brought to my attention by a partner at a minority-owned law firm who questioned how a particular BigLaw firm could possibly be touting its diversity—in the signature block of its emails, of all places. He questioned the implications that it might have on truly diverse firms that were supposedly getting greater consideration for work in today’s corporate marketplace.

I found it particularly startling upon attending a few programs on the initiative that it was touted as inspired by the National Football League’s Rooney Rule. Established in 2003, it required teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. There is no hiring quota or hiring preference given to minorities—just the assurance of an interview. And if you follow the NFL, you know that it has been considered a bust. Unlike the legal profession, 70 percent of NFL players are black—yet there are only three head coaches who are African American. The only minority hire this past off-season was Ron Rivera, who is Hispanic, and sort of replaced himself—having been fired by Carolina late last season and hired by Washington.

So, if you want to compare it to Rooney, go ahead. It is probably accurate for all the wrong reasons. I did find it intriguing though to see the cooperation and involvement on both the BigLaw and in-house counsel side of Mansfield—because it sort of gets them both off the hook. We’re both trying.  But the reality is that it further hampers the growth and impact of organizations such as the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms that work on the law firm and corporate side of the legal business to increase diversity. Mansfield is better than nothing. But outside of being a great business venture, the endgame might make for a tie—at best.

Diversity initiatives are as much a part of my day-to-day as pretty much any other form of business development strategy. There is yet another end-around that has been problematic as well. Yes, corporations are doling out work to diverse firms. And, again, it is an improvement and better than nothing. Recently, however, I’ve heard repeated complaints at diversity conferences and programs that the work itself (and I won’t dare name any names, as I don’t want to bite the hand) is often low-end and low-rate—turned down by the high-level practitioner (who is diverse second, but a really good lawyer first). The corporation proudly touts the use of diverse counsel. But the work is far from the high end, and further away from bet-the-farm. A really good corporate lawyer billing at $800/hour is not super-interested in a few scraps at $300 per. It is a start and better than nothing, but needs to get better.

Law Firm Websites: Sideways

When I look back at some of the earliest websites I had my hands on, say (circa late 1990s, when it was still, before frustrated baseball enthusiasts’ voices were heard), I see a return to the beginning for many sites in BigLaw and a change in philosophy for midsize and smaller law firms. We started with early sites that were basically online brochures—locations, bios, practice areas. As time went on, we sought out “stickiness,” with the hope that content would draw the end user—with the holy grail being having your site bookmarked for repeated access and use.

But as large firms get larger, and even midsize firms change direction, sites have morphed back closer to the beginning, recognizing a few things. First, unless you interact with a law firm daily, you are unlikely to bookmark or peruse a website to learn the latest and the greatest. Second, the typical web visitor is there for locations, practice areas and most importantly, the bios (and related attorney contact information). Now those bios are much stronger and more powerful today than in the past because they do (or should) incorporate other core information in a website’s databases—bar admissions, representative matters, published works and speaking gigs. So, all that content does still matter, but how it is accessed and interpreted is different.

My third point is that powerful content is still critical and valuable. However, the route to finding it has changed. Let’s say you have written a sophisticated, nuanced client alert on changes in the tax laws. It is still a hugely valuable marketing piece. However, the readership is going to come from a few different places—and not from just visiting the website. It will flow from an organic Google search, a link in an email from you or your firm (via newsletter, alert or simply an FYI from you to me), or, often the biggest “referrer,” a social media share on LinkedIn or maybe Facebook. The law firm website is the directory and repository of such information.

Of course, if your law firm is consumer-facing, it is still far less about content (although having actual credentials remains a good thing for the sophisticated shopper) than just popping up and providing several “call-to-action” opportunities. We’ve properly moved and shaked with technology changes—but I’m just as likely to read a law firm newsletter off a tweet than perhaps anywhere else. And that is where, for the midsize law firm or specialized boutique, taking advantage of “sharing” and ground-leveling social media channels can be a powerful way to get someone to read a page on your website.

Billboards and Radio: Up

Unlike the Yellow Pages, which we think you can agree are dead, other old-time forms of advertising are still as effective in 2020 as they were in 1980. A recent Uber ride in South Florida played five different law firm radio commercials in a 30-minute drive. Back home in Philadelphia, businesses that are not law firms find that the price of premium billboard space along I-95 is driven up and often scarce because law firms have bought them all up.

Creating brand awareness and name recognition for your law firm in the consumer space—personal injury, workers’ compensation or the multiple billboards near the Fort Lauderdale airport targeting injured cruise ship passengers—is still an integral part of advertising strategies. You can also argue that in the crowded world of technology, getting your name and message to me in traffic is still a powerful thing. Delivery of video—commercials that may appear via commercial TV, a streaming service, YouTube or through Facebook—is probably a column itself, but ignoring many aspects of traditional marketing is a mistake.

Press Release Overload: Down

There is nothing I love more than a news release that contains actual news. I like to think the first one I ever penned—all by myself—announcing that Dick Patrick was named team president of the Washington Capitals (in 1982) was news. It was picked up in The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. I still have the original in my files (much to my wife’s dismay, and confirming her claims of me being a hoarder of sorts). But it was easy to determine what justified a press release.

Unfortunately, there are way too many law firms that have a skewed understanding of what qualifies as news—with examples such as moving floors in an office building, having someone named to a 40 under 40 list or simply stating that they are qualified to handle cases in such-and-such a practice area. Not news. In many cases, class action filings are qualified news items, as are certain lawsuits, settlements and truly unique accolades.

It used to be when I had a truly legit news item that I used a good, for-pay distribution service that would get in front of the eyeballs of the right media members. However, some of those services have now made dissemination of releases too cheap and easy to be effective. A family lawyer in San Diego must send one out at least weekly—touting every low-end award under the sun. It makes things difficult for a journalist to cut through the clutter. If you are a sole practitioner issuing weekly news releases, you must be Thurgood Marshall, Abraham Lincoln or simply wasting my time. A seasoned reporter will quickly identify your law firm’s “news” as qualified or ignored. Like the boy who cried wolf, when there is real news, you’ll fail to get traction.

ABA Resolution 115: Up

It is rare that a resolution in front of the ABA House of Delegates draws as much attention as Resolution 115 did when approved at the Midyear Meeting in February. In a nutshell, 115 encourages states to consider innovative approaches to expanding access to justice with the goal of improving affordability and quality of civil legal services.

Opponents understand that this can take money out of the pockets of attorneys. In many cases, those are clients whom the struggling Main Street lawyer counts on. It is an area—“access to justice”—in which “access” often means getting something akin to legal advice from a nonlawyer. That does not sound good for business.

Proponents realized that the train has left the station in many jurisdictions on this subject matter. And we (the ABA) can either be leaders and get in front of it or let various state legislators take it out of our hands. Sure, there are serious concerns about unauthorized practice of law, fee-sharing with nonlawyers and other real ethical considerations. But simply fighting it was not going to win. And for lawyers concerned with business development, it was important to be a part of the conversation rather than left out of it entirely. Innovation, flexibility and creativity are not always a core strength of the profession, but 115 shows an understanding of the direction that the market is taking.

Micah Buchdahl


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

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