July/August 2003  Volume 29, Issue 5
July/August 2003 Issue
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Feature: Sell Yourself: How to Conduct Effective and Ethical Marketing
by Micah Buchdahl
In the 26 years since Bates, sales and marketing have never been more important to the health and growth of a law practice. From bucking the trends, to hiring skilled staff, to adhering to ethics rules, make sure your business development programs will really make your firm fruitful.

Selling yourself -- it is about learning how to ethically and effectively market your services in a time when some firms struggle to maintain revenues -- and others struggle just to survive in a world of megamergers and downsizing. Lawyers and law firms of all shapes and sizes are faced with the increasingly difficult task of competing at full force. In this environment, finding a way to grow and succeed through development of a sales and marketing culture is more than a good idea. It is a survival necessity. You know you have to do it. But you want to do it the right way.

How Does Your Garden Grow? The Lawyers Make the Rain
Your first instincts might tell you to latch on to the latest marketing trend. If so, you might want to think again. Here's food for thought: It was only a few years ago that the New York partner at a major international law firm instructed me not to worry about what the Midtown Manhattan law firm neighbors were doing but, instead, to focus on the Big Five accounting firms that were eating into law firms' profits. Today, that same lawyer relishes the Enron-type debacles hindering the multidisciplinary practice competition that was such a threat.

And it was only a few months ago that Brobeck Phleger was the poster child for aggressive business practices that led to tremendous growth and exposure. Today, it is the poster child for poor decisions and inaccurate business predictions.

At about the same time that other firms were trying to figure out the trends, however, 350-lawyer Patton Boggs, based in Washington, D.C., determined there was value in having a more coordinated business development effort overseen by a partner. The firm's general approach would stay the same -- identifying client needs, giving quality presentations to potential clients, writing proposals, pricing, coaching and forming alliances. But the key to competing, the firm realized, was having an experienced lawyer at the firm turn from billing and casework concerns to a management position.

In the end, regardless of the program specifics, the partners make the rain. The business development staff, for its part, is responsible for providing the tools, lessons, preparation and guidance to take the key case and client generators -- relationships, referrals, credentials, resources, successes -- and turn them into increased profitability.

"Any culture can work," says Mark D. Cowan, the Patton Boggs partner who was handed the business development reins. "It is the programs that need to be modified for the type of firm and its culture. Law firms need to remain competitive and need a system in which lawyers can take full advantage of their ideas and relationships, while continuing to practice law."

In what will most likely go by as a trend that fizzles fast, some firms have gone another route: hiring non-lawyer sales directors to increase firm revenues. It is a reminder that not everything is worth trying. Can you imagine having a sales representative call on the general counsel at a key corporation? Or having someone other than the lawyer you do business with engage you in a client satisfaction survey? The tools are the responsibility of marketing professionals; the action is the responsibility of the practitioner.

Skilled Marketing Personnel Help Build Lawyers' Skills
Many equate a law firm's size with its need for marketing personnel. One successful small firm that bucks that belief is Boston's Ruberto, Israel & Weiner. Five years ago, the firm invested in a marketing director and has since doubled in size to 30 lawyers. "The firm has always recognized the importance of marketing," according to managing shareholder David Baer. "You need to devote resources and time for individuals to pursue business development. For us, the culture needed for successful business development is to be entrepreneurial. You need to have the desire to win and keep the business."

That's the kind of thinking that led Ruberto Israel to hire Catherine Alman MacDonagh as its marketing director. Her experience as a lawyer, coupled with sales and marketing experience, helped her as she entered the professional services marketing industry. MacDonagh pieces together both her legal and marketing background to teach and train partners and associates alike.

"The training is personalized and tailored to the individual, depending on the lawyer's strengths, experience and interest," Baer says. "It ranges from high-level coaching to assisting in putting together an annual marketing plan and budget."

Peter Krakaur, chief knowledge officer for 650-lawyer Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco, believes that a key to successful client development efforts is a dedicated marketing staff working closely and directly with individual lawyers, preferably organized by practice group. He says, "The marketer needs to be viewed as part of the 'team' by practice group members."

Even When You're Making Rain, You Have to Heed the Ethics Rules
Despite today's competitive market, ethical issues and considerations still scare some practitioners away from pursuing marketing efforts. Others simply ignore the issues, hoping missteps never catch up with them. The far better course is following the American Bar Association Model Rules and all appropriate state bar regulations. They will help you avoid saying or doing the wrong things in your business development programs.

In addition, lawyers must remember that the onus for obeying the regulations rests with them. Non-lawyer personnel cannot be expected to understand and obey the rules of professional conduct, especially in regards to the way they interplay with casework and other client concerns. The ignorance rule does not work in defending your clients -- and it will not work in defending your firm.

On-the-ball firms have an attorney liaison responsible for program overview and approval. In many instances, it falls into the lap of the marketing partner. In others, an associate is responsible for monitoring changes and opinions rendered for the appropriate states.

Another concern is the many vendors-including Web site providers, online advertising services, traditional ad agencies and other marketing consultants -- that tout special knowledge of the legal landscape. In your contracts with such providers, consider putting liability for ethical responsibility on the vendor's shoulders. If a state disciplinary board contacts the firm, make the vendor flip the bill for the cost of resolving matters. Numerous advertising campaigns by major law firms violate ABA rules.
Krakaur points to the Model Rules for advertising (MRPC 7.1-7.5), client confidentiality (MRPC 1.4) and conflicts (MRPC 1.6-1.8) as key areas to monitor, along with focusing on the jurisdictions in which the firm and its lawyers are licensed to practice.

Krakaur has operated Legalethics .com since 1995, a well-known Web site providing rules, cases, opinions and helpful information about ethical quandaries. He advises that, "Members of the firm's risk management committee or the firm's counsel should discuss the applicable rules with the staff and be regularly updated on marketing initiatives that might raise ethical issues."

Be Hale and Hearty for Years to Come
With each passing year, lawyers are improving on what is still a very green topic: law firm marketing. As long as you keep an eye on the ethics rules, and focus appropriate time, budget and resources on business development, there is no reason that you shouldn't be successful, fruitful and still in existence come the next decade. n

Micah U. Buchdahl ( micah@HTMLawyers.com) is a lawyer and President of HTMLawyers, Inc., a marketing consulting company providing lawyers and law firms with programs and services to improve business development. His Web site, InternetMarketingAttorney.com, provides lawyer marketing advice. He can be reached at (856) 234-4334.

Sales Culture

  1. Make it mandatory. The term "optional" suggests to some lawyers and practice groups that they don't have to go along for the ride. Management needs to make it clear that developing business on a firmwide basis isn't an option-it's a necessity.

  2. Think Tom Sawyer. Remember how Mark Twain's young hero got the gang to paint the fence? Nothing gets everyone moving toward the same page more than seeing one lawyer's or practice group's successes up in lights. That might mean distributing a press release, providing Web site play, headlining a seminar or doing a media interview. The rest of the gang will follow eventually.

  3. Hire skilled marketers. You get what you pay for. And you get the skills that you hire. Many firms are opening wallets a little wider and grabbing seasoned lawyers with a business development spin, or hiring high-level professional services executives from way outside the legal world. When they lead the charge, practitioners avoid getting the "you're not a lawyer so you don't understand" pushback. And marketing executives can point to how their companies have outraced the law firm business. These firms are also using recruiters from outside the legal profession to avoid getting the standard fare.

  4. Spend smarter, not harder. Many small firms spend too much time lamenting their size. Instead, they should think like small businesses and spend an appropriate percentage of revenue on retaining current business and getting new clients. In large firms, the budget is usually on target, but the money may be spent foolishly. Are you doing something because it makes business sense, or because it's a political reaction to the wants of one or a few? You know the answer, don't you?

  5. Since you can't change the culture, change tactics. In sports, they say that you can't fire the players, so you fire the management. The same goes for the lawyers. Remember what Patton Boggs partner Mark Cowan has said: Create programs and projects that work within the framework of the firm's existing culture. That is your best shot at winning.
    - Micah Buchdahl

Books & Other Resources

For other valuable information on boosting your marketing, turn to these ABA Law Practice Management Section resources:
· Women Rainmakers' Best Marketing Tips , 2nd Edition
· The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet , 2nd Edition
· Marketing and Legal Ethics: The Boundaries of Promoting Legal Services , 3rd Edition
· The Complete Guide to Marketing Your Law Practice
· Go to www.lawpractice.org/catalog for details or to order these books.