Evolution of the Marketing Function
Law firm marketing began an evolution that has become an essential part of the legal industry and will become even more valuable in the future. To understand what’s ahead, it’s important first to understand how legal marketing began.
Not even one-quarter century ago, around the same time cellphones and the internet became musts, the marketing department of a law firm consisted of just one or two people, if it existed at all. The first marketers were often lawyers who looked to step back from their law practice while remaining involved in the firm or who drew the short straw when volunteers performed necessary marketing tasks such as pitches and annual newsletters.
Then in the late 1990s, with literally tens of millions of dollars at stake, law firms started hiring marketing professionals. As the COO of one Am Law 100 firm back then said when interviewing candidates for its first director of marketing and communications, “We want our lawyers to focus on being lawyers and we want professionals to do our professional services work.” That proclamation included not only marketers, but also in-house recruiters, HR pros and technology gurus.
Legal marketing in its early days was mostly reactive, responding to RFPs, press queries and partner requests to organize firm outings for clients, such as dinners and golf. Today it is a proactive function—more substantive, more strategic and more of a value add.
Building a Brand
Legal marketing, above all, comes down to building and maintaining a brand. The main consideration for marketers will be whether they are enhancing or diluting a firm’s brand. Their job is to raise a firm’s or lawyer’s profile and strengthen their reputation, making it easier for prospective clients and lawyer recruits to identify and recognize them. Clients then feel much safer when hiring a lawyer, and other lawyers or law students prefer to work with a lawyer who has a strong, well-known brand. The importance of a law firm brand can never be underestimated and will only increase in importance.
Effective Marketer Characteristics
Today, law firms of all sizes and regions are actively seeking business development and marketing professionals to build the brand by adding considerable value through their own initiatives. It’s all about providing the extra value by being proactive, not just being a tactical person who simply carries out orders.
The most valuable legal marketers are those people who come up with substantive ideas to target new clients, enter new markets or approach current clients in innovative ways. It is critical to thoroughly understand the landscape the firm and its lawyers are trying to navigate.
Successful legal marketing professionals need to demonstrate an intellectual curiosity about what their firm’s lawyers are doing. That means creating a fluid line of communication that involves approaching lawyers not just when necessary, but speaking to them regularly about their work, their concerns and their clients. Legal marketers will need to know as much as possible about their firm’s clients, each client’s own business, the client’s industry (everything from trends to competitors) and the key people at the client organization. The more marketing professionals know, the more they can help their firm’s lawyers demonstrate value to clients.
Proof Points Corroborate Experience
Key in how lawyers develop new business is their ability to distinguish themselves and their firm’s capabilities from competitors. Legal marketers play a critical role in defining and articulating those differentiating characteristics. They must collaborate with their lawyers to offer proof points as to why a client should hire their attorney or firm to handle a legal matter.
Many firms’ pitches or introductions feature bios of their lawyers that read like straightforward resumes. Far too often they begin with “John Smith is a partner in the private equity practice at XYZ Law Firm. He graduated from Columbia Law School cum laude.” Credentials important to lawyers typically mean very little, or nothing, to prospective clients.
A bio offering proof points, as clients desire, would read something like “John Smith has played a key role in raising more than $400 million in private equity funding over the past three years, enabling clients to expand their business revenues by an average of 40 percent annually while becoming major players in new markets.” One litigator’s bio we have seen proudly proclaims that the lawyer has not lost a case in court over the past 10 years. It will increasingly become incumbent on legal marketers to push for proof point bios to demonstrate that the lawyer can achieve what the client needs and make them stand out from the heavy competition for new business.
Proof points are a key focal point of websites. When law firms first produced their own websites, the homepage looked like an online brochure. In some notorious cases, it was the paper brochure! Some even tried using the same images on the screen as they did on paper.
Modern Content is Pithy
Fortunately, law firm websites have evolved along with our desire for meaningful content. How that content is presented is as significant as what the content itself says. Legal marketers need to guide their lawyers to write briefer, more pithy copy that gets directly to the point and offers proof points.
Peter Shankman once asked an audience of professional communicators, “What is the average attention span?” After guesses of “30 seconds,” “20 seconds” or even “10 minutes,” Shankman simply stated, “140 characters.” Even though Twitter is now 280 characters, the point is well-made. We now live in a society where you must grab someone’s attention at “hello,” if not just “hi.”
A large and fast-growing percentage of company executives, including general counsel and key decision-makers, have grown up in the social media age when sound bites of 10 seconds or less dominate the news. They are used to consuming information succinctly and directly. Writing expansive descriptions of practices and highly detailed bios is therefore likely to be less productive.
Law firm communicators can provide considerable value by condensing content. Many lawyers are trained to include as much detail as possible. While this may be valuable for litigation matters or deal documents where a lawyer needs to cover all possibilities, it is not valuable for marketing content.
It’s not just the words that are important. We are now more focused on visuals as a society. Pictures, graphics and logos capture our attention. Law firm marketers use graphics and other visuals often and effectively—a trend that will continue to grow.
A firm’s visual presence should be unique and appealing to the eye. In this instance, a picture is (truly) worth a thousand words. Law firm graphics, including colors, fonts and imagery, are becoming more distinctive and can serve as a substantial brand builder.
One law firm senior partner said he wanted his firm’s logo to provide the same connection as does the Nike swoosh. Firms will need to figure out which elements in their design will be both unique and easily recognizable. Many firms now employ at least one graphic designer. Some have their own graphic design departments.
Law firms used to depend on stock photos to illustrate their websites, which often resulted in generic photos of people posing as lawyers or buildings that simulated where the firm was located. Legal marketers now push for their firms to use original photography, allowing them to populate their firm’s website and written materials with pictures of their own lawyers in their own settings. Some firms even use their photos as metaphors to illustrate the messages they want to communicate.
Infographics are becoming a stimulating part of law firm communications. They can be used to announce everything from honors and accolades to new partners and offices on many different platforms, including the firm website and on social media, and also in press releases.
As some studies show that we relate more to videos than still pictures, firms are moving in that direction. Firms increasingly depend on videos to market their lawyers and their practices or firms. Some firms include videos of lawyers giving their bios. Others are starting to use video to showcase their firm’s work, particularly pro bono, while others are employing it successfully for thought leadership.
We will continue to see law firm websites evolve into destination sites where interested parties will check in on their own to find articles, blogs, videos and podcasts, often in coordinated campaigns. The goal is to lure readers back to the website regularly to find out what the firm has to say about certain topics, be it a short-term matter such as a new regulation or a long-term concern such as a burgeoning field like cryptocurrencies. Law firm marketers ensure that a firm’s website will be a repository for knowledge, not just basic firm information. That’s a long way from an online brochure.
Websites are just one part of digital marketing. Some firms have almost sworn off printed materials and gone all digital. Having a deep understanding and broad vision of the digital world is essential for legal marketers. Progressive firms will rely on all forms of digital communications to market their services and differentiate themselves.
Email can become a critical marketing component. Legal marketing professionals can teach their lawyers to produce emails that resonate with readers, while promoting the firm and its lawyers without seeming to be selling something.
While texting has not yet become a common form of law firm marketing, it soon will be. Many recent college graduates say they consider email to be old-fashioned, compared to texting. While texting has its limits, savvy marketers will figure out how to break through those boundaries to position a firm or lawyer in front of a specific target audience. Even emojis are likely to become a common part of legal marketing.
No aspect of the digital world is expected to become more important to a law firm’s external communications plan than social media. So many people already get their information through social media—everything from personal announcements to global politics. Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook have now grabbed hold of almost everyone’s attention. Legal marketers who know the social media landscape and understand what works effectively will provide great value to firms that compete for top-of-mind attention.
Social media has broadened the audience for firms and suddenly opens the entire world to them. It is a direct opportunity to get in front of prospective clients. Law firm marketers will use social media to share news, videos, podcasts and infographics and even to stage live events.
One of the most prevalent forms of digital communication over the past two years has been video calls. Zoom, Webex and Microsoft Teams have changed the way we interact with each other and will play a big role in the future of law firm marketing. Client events, which used to be planned far in advance, can now be held virtually on almost a moment’s notice, regardless of where in the world anyone is located (as long as there is an internet connection). That immediacy can increase your lawyers’ value if they can immediately discuss a key development of interest to their clients, perhaps a significant new regulation, court decision or business combination.
Law firm marketers can support such activities with everything from subject matter research to creating guest lists to sending out the meeting invitation and the collateral materials. Virtual events cost almost nothing compared to in-person events that often involve renting space, fancy food and staff overtime.
There is hardly anything legal marketers do now that does not involve or cannot be improved by using technology. Law firm marketers must embrace technology and not be afraid of using it.
For instance, it will not be enough to simply know how to send out an invitation with the link for a webinar. Marketers should be able to handle a variety of virtual events and take advantage of all features, such as breakout groups, chats and polling.
The emphasis on technology and digital marketing will expand even further as the next generation of law firm leaders takes hold. The Baby Boomers who have led the majority of firms over the past two decades are being succeeded by younger partners who grew up with digital devices and digital communications. They, like their peer group of C-suite executives, are accustomed and receptive to receiving constant brand reminders on their cellphones, tablets and laptops throughout the day.
Law firm marketing departments must use technology internally at least as much as they use it externally, especially to track business development (BD) activities. Essentially, you cannot manage what you cannot measure. Marketers use technology to determine if what they are doing is successful and what adjustments need to be made. They must understand analytics and learn how to use the data they gather.
Firms need to find the right technology platforms to capture the firm experience, handle customer relationship management (CRM) and track pitches. The entire process of producing pitches and RFPs is shifting toward automation so lawyers can instantly find the right combination of materials and information to put in front of the prospective client.
Diversity is More Important
Diversity has become a significant factor in law firm marketing and client relations. Clients are asking for more information about a firm’s diversity and inclusion. They want specific details, including how many lawyers come from diverse backgrounds, what diverse elements they represent and how much of a role diverse lawyers will play in their matter. Clients will likely ask for more statistics about diversity than in the past.
The Marketing Department of the Future
So how should the ideal law firm marketing department be structured as we move forward? There is no cookie-cutter approach. First and foremost, the structure, resources and talent should be aligned with the firm’s strategic plan. For example, if a firm is focused on marketing its industry experience (such as health care, real estate or consumer products) then it should build its marketing team with BD managers who are well-versed in those industries and can best support that industry-focused strategy. The same approach holds true for firms whose strategic plan revolves around practice areas such as M&A, litigation and tax.
The marketing department needs flexibility as functions change and priorities shift. Support will come from professionals who focus on specific marketing capabilities such as internal and external communications; digital marketing; client development; and tactical technology such as CRMs, proposal management and experience management. The marketing team should be able to support lawyers in all of the firm’s offices, regardless of city or country, and they should be familiar with the unique nature of each geographic market.
The No. 1 skill for any legal marketer will continue to be communication. The ability to write and organize a well-thought-out email or draft compelling content can never be underestimated. The presentation is often at least as important as what is presented.
Alongside communication skills are listening skills. Marketers who pay attention to what lawyers and clients are telling them will be in a far better position to succeed than those who do not.
A productive law firm marketing department needs strong leadership. The importance of a quality chief marketing officer (CMO) will continue to rise as we move forward. Firms will need to lean on CMOs who offer substantive experience in all areas of responsibility including business development, client relations, communications, technology, team building and a willingness to be innovative in a business where “This is the way we’ve always done it” is too often the prevailing mantra. CMOs will occupy an even more important seat at the table as a marketing-oriented generation of firm leadership takes hold.
Many lawyers and firm leaders have a renewed appreciation for their marketing departments thanks to the pandemic. During the early days of COVID19 when firms literally shut their doors, lawyers depended on marketing professionals to continue their BD, client relations and communications activities without interruption.
Law firms are increasingly recognizing the competitive pressures they face. It is no longer enough to rely on friendship to win large, sensitive business. The pie is only so big for the types of matters where clients need high-level legal services and are willing to spend to get it. There are only so many companies each year that are faced with bet-the-company types of matters.
Trained marketing professionals are ultimately the ones who are best suited to help lawyers get that kind of business and meet the challenge of standing out from the pack by differentiating them in a seemingly generic profession. Law firm marketers thus will need to—and will— find increasingly creative and sophisticated ways to position their firms and lawyers in the best possible light. That light makes the future for law marketing professionals very bright.