Threading the Needle: Marketing to Small and Midsize Businesses

Vol. 3, No. 9

Andrew Greene is the President of Legati (, a fixed-fee litigation service offered by the Business Law Network, LLC. He has been a commercial litigator for 20 years, and is a principle in A&G Law, LLC, a trial and litigation firm based in Chicago, Illinois. Tim McClure is the Director of Strategic Marketing for Legati. Tim is a strategic advisor to entrepreneurs, executives, and investment firms and is a principle in Blue Oak LLC, a Chicago-based management consulting firm specializing in research, analysis, and strategy.


With limited projected growth in the legal market and increasing competition among lawyers, marketing and sales is quickly becoming an integral part of most law practices. Two years ago, the Business Law Network, LLC (BLN) began using traditional marketing techniques to approach the diverse small and middle market business (SMB) market.

This was no easy task, as SMB’s fall into a marketing gray area: some have the same needs as large corporations, but others resemble consumers. However, our efforts yielded a better understanding of our clients, and ultimately resulted in a decision to focus on high-end fixed fee services provided by experienced lawyers marketed through nontraditional techniques. Here is how we went about our evaluation, and some of what we learned.

Our first steps were to decide what to sell to, who to sell, and how to bring the two together. The what required defining our identity, scope of offerings, and unique value proposition in clear, specific terms. The who required profiling target client types, and understanding their needs, wants, and decision processes. How we would bring the two together meant identifying effective marketing and sales channels.


What: Identity and Value Proposition

We started by answering the what question, because our product would largely be defined by the BLN lawyers. Most of the lawyers were Big Law alum who continued to focus on complex business issues, but who had chosen to practice at platforms that were more efficient than their former firms. Given the collective skillsets and individualized cost structures, we decided that our product would be sophisticated representation from ad hoc groups of lawyers providing cost-effective service tailored to the specific needs of each client and matter. BLN provided an administrative platform that facilitated joint representation among lawyers from more than one firm.


Who: Target Markets

As to identifying target markets, we knew our current client rosters included many businesses that did not have in-house legal departments. We focused on those entities and conducted both formal and informal surveys of lawyers and their clients, as well as SMB’s that had no relationship with BLN or its lawyers. A few things we found:

  • Most clients still choose their lawyer based on a referral, but new avenues for identifying legal counsel were creeping into the SMB market.
  • Trust in the referral source (colleague, accountant, banker etc.) was key.
  • Many businesses, even smaller ones, use a combination of small and large firms, choosing a lawyer based upon their need for specific expertise.
  • Businesses have difficulty evaluating a lawyer’s skill and expertise on a given issue.
  • Even dissatisfied clients are slow to change lawyers.

Based upon our research, we created target client profiles, including size, annual legal spend, and frustration levels in hiring/managing outside legal counsel. From there, we could narrow our search for specific target clients.

One of the more interesting findings from our surveys was the feedback on fees. Many businesses expressed an interest in lower legal fees, but stated cost was secondary to other factors, such as expertise. Further questioning revealed, however, that fees were a much bigger factor than clients initially indicated. Our conclusion: clients do not like to focus on cost when choosing a lawyer, but are very concerned with cost once the engagement has begun.

This created a dilemma regarding one of BLN’s key value-propositions (lower-cost services). We needed to be cost-effective, but not cheap. This balancing act informs all of our marketing campaigns.


How: Analog and Digital Approaches

As to connecting with potential clients, we started with customary approaches: a website, marketing materials, membership in business organizations, event sponsorships, and networking opportunities. Through these channels, we communicated our message of a flexible, cost-effective network of high-end business lawyers for specific business needs.

These efforts generated business for BLN lawyers, but would clearly not be sufficient. Networking, membership in business organizations, and event sponsorships can be effective ways of developing relationships, but rarely will someone hire a lawyer based upon one meeting or even one event. As every lawyer who has tried to build business through networking has learned, these “high touch” techniques require repetition and time. When successful, the relationship builds to the point where the lawyer is the one the client calls when a need arises.

Such long-term efforts may be effective with large corporate purchasers, where a significant investment in one potential client can pay for itself many times over. They may even be effective for an individual lawyer who only needs to capture one new piece of business a month in order to make the time spent networking worthwhile. But BLN was targeting the SMB market, where a single client’s purchase of a particular type of legal service is relatively infrequent (e.g., a company that only experiences litigation once every two to three years). Further, BLN was not just marketing for one law firm, but for multiple, making the required return much greater. Finally, breaking through with our message was difficult in light of the growing number of former Big Law attorneys who were also marketing themselves as “sophisticated” yet “cost-effective.”

Clearly, we needed to reach a greater number of prospective clients without substantially increasing the investment of resources. The Internet was the obvious answer, but having a website, without more, rarely generates new leads. We took a hard look at the feedback we received and did two things: double-downed on our value proposition and expanded our investment into an Internet strategy.

Regarding the value proposition, we decided we could not just talk about being more cost-effective; we had to prove it up front. We therefore launched a commercial litigation service where the fixed fees are posted on the website, along with the backgrounds of experienced attorneys who handle the cases. This move gave us a much more differentiated value proposition.

In terms of an Internet strategy, we looked at techniques that have been employed with much success in other industries. Our primary approach would be search engine optimization (SEO), a long-term but cost-effective way to reach SMBs. Our research had found that business clients were increasingly willing to identify legal vendors through web searches, but that showing up on the first page of such searches was a challenge. Further, we needed to make sure that the site would establish trust with potential clients.

To establish trust, we developed a robust site that walks users through the litigation process, discusses the experience of the participating lawyers, and publishes the fixed fees for most litigation tasks. The message was one of transparency and experience. We then partnered with SEO specialists to identify likely keywords that might be used by a business with litigation and dispute resolution needs. The goal was to have our website appear on the first page of search results when such keywords were used. We learned that such a strategy takes a solid investment of time in terms of developing and constantly updating quality content, and takes months to begin seeing results.

We have also learned that coverage in the media can help build credibility (as well as, obviously, help increase website traffic). As a result, sustained communications with both traditional and online media are an important part of our efforts.

We experimented with search engine marketing (SEM), wherein we paid for ad space when users searched on certain terms. That process requires trial and error to be effective, and depends on such variables as the quality of your website, the amount you are willing to pay for each “click-through,” and the correlation between the content of your site and the search terms used by the potential client. We learned that potential clients obtained through our SEM approach seldom took the time to review our site and educate themselves about the litigation process. We would either need to adjust our ads to attract a different type of potential client, or modify the landing pages (the first page seen by someone who clicks on an ad) to address the clients we were getting.

Our efforts continue, and we are still learning much about how to connect with prospective clients on a broad and consistent basis. But we are on the way to having a reliable, systematic pipeline of new business prospects whose needs match the experience of our network lawyers.


Bottom Line: Prioritize and Commit

Through this journey we learned two valuable lessons. First, obtaining clients is ultimately about building trust. The traditional way is to cultivate relationships through face-to-face networking, which may be inefficient or insufficient to achieve your goals. Other methods of connecting with potential clients need to build trust in their own way. In our case, we chose to build trust through educational website content and transparent pricing that businesses can use to make intelligent choices about hiring and managing legal counsel.

The second lesson is that a sustained, well thought-out strategy is the key. There are no silver bullets, and doing anything just once or sporadically (a mailer, a commercial, a week of Google AdWords, even coverage in a national online magazine) is of little use. Any successful marketing campaign—whether it’s building relationships one-by-one or connecting with clients through digital means—requires a commitment, and needs to be sustained.


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