September 2003  Volume 29, Issue 6
ABA Law Pracice Management Magazine, September 2003 Issue
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How to Avoid Random Acts of Marketing
by Ann Lee Gibson
Effective marketing is long-term, strategic and disciplined. The hit-or-miss approach just won't bring your message home. All your marketing activities need to be focused on four central goals if you want the longed-for return on your investment.

Intellectually, it's an easy leap for lawyers to recognize that marketing themselves, their practices and their firms isn't best achieved through random one-shot marketing events. Nonetheless, many lawyers continue to question why specific marketing activities don't seem worth their time and energy. They wonder, Why didn't that speech I gave at the bar association produce new business for me? Why didn't our booth at the client industry trade show attract qualified prospects? Why hasn't our new brochure demonstrated a return on our marketing investment?

The ultimate evaluation of specific marketing activities depends on more than how well designed and executed those events are. It also depends on how well aligned they are with a larger, tightly focused marketing strategy. Activities that are well executed but that don't align with your key messages and your key audiences can confuse the marketplace about who you are and what you want to be known for.

Is Your Marketing Tasty? Six Hiring Criteria Business Clients Look for in Outside Counsel
by Ann Lee Gibson

Qualitative research conducted by the author shows that corporate clients of U.S. business and corporate law firms are looking for outside counsel that meet these hiring criteria:

  1. Clients hire lawyers to solve real business problems.
  2. Clients look for lawyers who are specialists in their fields and are good at what they do.
  3. Clients hire lawyers they already know and trust or who are recommended by people they trust, such as friends, colleagues and business associates.
  4. Clients primarily hire lawyers, not law firms.
  5. Clients don't trust what lawyers say about themselves or their skills.
  6. Clients hire and retain lawyers they feel comfortable with on a personal level.

The good news is that lawyers and law firms are planning and behaving more strategically than ever about marketing themselves. The current economic climate is motivating them to connect the dots between their marketing goals and activities. They're asking essential questions like, What do we want to be known for? Whom do we want to serve? What are our prospective clients' marketing contact points? Where do they get their information about which lawyer or firm is right for their needs?

Many firms are now engaging in market research and marketing planning to answer these questions. The resulting answers help lawyers and marketers design and execute activities that achieve the longed-for return on their marketing investment.
Marketing plans developed on the basis of those answers should be developed to contain only the marketing activities that accomplish these four goals:

  • Reinforce what you want to be known for--and nothing else
  • Actually reach your key audiences of clients, prospects and referral sources
  • Offer a "taste" of what it would be like to work with you
  • Lead naturally to successive marketing events and activities

Marketing Events Should Reinforce What You Want to Be Known For--And Nothing Else
Some lawyers assume that any marketing activity is a good one. "I just need to get out there more," they believe, "no matter what I'm doing."

Wrong. Clients who need legal services want to know what special skills and expertise you offer to solve their specific problems. If you do "everything," you cannot be a specialist and, therefore, you will be perceived as helpful to no one.
Another strong reason to engage in only marketing activities that reinforce what you want to be known for is that most lawyers have limited marketing time and energy. Why waste it on activities that are unlikely to bring the desired return?

The following story illustrates how you can convert a potentially unproductive marketing activity into an opportunity for communicating your expertise to your marketplace.

The leverage that Jack built. Jack is a litigation partner at a midsize law firm in Chicago who wants to become better known by his clients and prospects--large, commercial architectural and engineering firms--for his capabilities in dispute resolution.

A conference organizer invites Jack to be a speaker at an international construction conference in Sydney, Australia. Although people from all over the world will attend the conference, it will primarily attract private practice and in-house lawyers and construction project managers from Australian and Asian construction companies. Jack (along with three lawyers from Australian firms) is invited to speak on the topic "Public Works Design-Build: Can It Be Done in Auckland?"

Jack is flattered by the invitation and would certainly enjoy a trip Down Under. However, he realizes he will never be hired to resolve construction disputes in Australia. Being a positive thinker, though, he knows that large Australian and Asian construction companies have projects going on around the globe--including in the United States--and that this conference really could be a useful marketing opportunity for him.

After confirming which companies will attend the conference and that they are prospective clients for him, Jack proposes to the conference organizers that he is better suited to speak on a new topic, "Avoiding Construction Disputes in the U.S." He also proposes to co-present on this topic with two in-house lawyers at large Australian construction companies that frequently participate and invest in large U.S. construction projects. He makes a strong case for his new topic, focusing on the financial benefits of avoiding or quickly resolving disputes in construction projects. His new proposal is accepted.

Jack has now leveraged this invitation into something that really does shine a spotlight on his core capabilities--the dispute resolution skills for which he wants to be known.

Marketing Activities Must Actually Reach Your Key Audiences
Kenneth Mays of Outsource Marketing, who is also a marketing instructor at the University of Washington, writes about how marketers must battle and overcome "infoglut," a term he uses for the information overload from which we all suffer. According to Mays (in "Get Back to Basics to Battle Information Overload," Puget Sound Business Journal, January 17, 2000): "You must use the contact points that your prospects and customers use for your product or service category. If they get their information from their mothers, then you must figure out how to deliver your message via mothers."

Connecting the Dots with CRM Software
by Ann Lee Gibson

Some of the strongest evidence that law firms are now planning and behaving more strategically than ever about marketing is their increasingly sophisticated use of client relationship management (CRM) tools. These tools, and the marketing cultures that encourage them, promote the reality that effective marketing is a long-term, coordinated process. The newest versions of popular software like Interaction, ContactEase and others make it easier than ever for lawyers and law firms to create and track their contacts with prospects. These tools also help firms to connect the marketing dots by finding strategic connections that were invisible before.

Ideally, your firm encourages lawyers to spend off-the-meter time with key clients to learn more about their businesses, needs and buying habits. One good question to ask during these meetings is, "Where and how do you get information about law firms and their capabilities?" Another question to ask is: "What information about law firms and their capabilities do you ignore or find to be unhelpful?"

You may hear some answers that surprise you. They'll tell you what they think about law firm brochures, Web sites, newsletters, seminars, ad campaigns and presentations. You'll learn what publications they read carefully, which ones they don't subscribe to and those they never heard of. You'll learn the names of industry publications and conferences you never heard of.

Be alert, though, to the fact that clients' answers to these questions can change over time. Recently, for example, a general counsel attending a Counsel to Counsel roundtable organized by Martindale-Hubbell asked the nearly 20 other general counsel assembled at the table to guess how many law firm newsletters he had received on the subject of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. After several guesses, all of which were too low, he said, "Eighty-two!" His colleagues laughed, acknowledging their shared information overload. "And guess which one I actually read--the only one that was actually helpful to me?" he asked. This time his colleagues knew the right answer: "The first one," several called out.

Marketing Activities Must Offer a Taste of You
In general, compared to written materials that describe your skills, marketing activities that offer prospective clients a face-to-face encounter with you provide them with better evidence of what it would be like to work with you.

To illustrate how you can accomplish this, let's look closer at Jack, the construction litigation lawyer we met earlier. In conjunction, let's also look at the six hiring criteria against which corporate clients measure prospective outside counsel, which are laid out in the sidebar below. How will Jack's presentation at the Australian conference--a face-to-face encounter with prospective clients--position him relative to those six hiring criteria?

  • First, even the title of Jack's new topic drives home the value of avoiding construction disputes, which certainly resolves a real business problem of this target audience.
  • Second, this topic lets Jack shine in the area of resolving construction disputes and demonstrates (not just tells) that he is a specialist in his field.
  • Third, the two in-house lawyers who are Jack's co-presenters (and exactly the kind of clients he would like to have) will most likely be collegial with Jack throughout the presentation-particularly if he can organize their collective presentation to be more like a conversation and less like three separate talking-head presentations. This will demonstrate, at least socially, their trust of him.
  • Fourth, Jack is clearly a real lawyer, not just a faceless member of a law firm, whom his audience can evaluate on a stand-alone basis.
  • Fifth, Jack's presentation will focus on the issues he has helped his clients resolve, and the processes he has used to help them avoid business problems. He will tell stories that focus on the solutions and benefits he has brought clients--from the clients' viewpoint. To do this, he will quote his clients and others involved in the events, rather than simply give an "all about me, me, me" presentation.
  • Sixth, this presentation offers Jack's audience the opportunity to gain insight into what Jack is like as a human being and what it would be like to work with him day in and day out. After the presentation, Jack's audience will consider him to be a known quantity.

Referrals and references. Another highly reliable way that prospects get a "taste" of what it would be like to work with a specific lawyer is through referrals. Simply put, there's no information source as useful to us as a trusted colleague who has already worked with someone we're trying to learn about.

To get your own taste of what your clients will tell others about you, ask this question during your client feedback and satisfaction interviews: "What do you like most about working with me and others at our firm?" Most clients will pause to consider carefully how they're going to answer. When they do reply, or when you probe gently for specifics, they are also rehearsing the language they will likely repeat when they recommend you to others. Their answers give you a preview of what your prospects have likely already heard about you when you meet them for the first time.

Your Web site and directory listings. The easiest-to-find written information about you and your capabilities is on your firm'sWeb site and in widely used directories like Martindale-Hubbell. Your site and directory offerings can offer clients a strong, clear taste of you and your firm--or they can offer bland, tasteless fare that fails to display what you want to be known for. For some excellent suggestions on how to better integrate your Web strategy with your marketing and business development plans, see the sidebar " Cover the Bases for a High-Impact Web Strategy."

Marketing Activities Are Long-term and Lead Naturally to Successive Activities
In The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (Harper Business, 1994), marketing mavens Al Reis and Jack Trout describe their Law of Perspective quite simply: "Marketing effects take place over an extended period of time." To underscore the concept that marketing must be long-term, Reis and daughter Laura Reis go even further in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding (HarperCollins, 2002). Their Law of Consistency posits that, "A brand is not built overnight. Success is measured in decades, not years."

The length of time it takes to establish a position in a marketplace depends on factors such as the size of that market, the number of competitors and the speed at which the market is growing.

It is, however, reasonable to expect that three years of disciplined commitment to the right number and types of coordinated marketing activities should reward you with higher visibility, an elevated position and a recognizable brand.

Your marketing efforts will bear fruit more quickly in emerging marketplaces where few lawyers and firms have captured leadership positions. The obvious implication is that marketers--and lawyers who want to become effective marketers of their own practices--should work hard to identify quickly emerging markets that are being defined by new companies, new technologies, new products, new law and new or changing regulatory environments.

Promoting yourself and your practice requires that you become a long-term member of the communities and marketplaces where your clients and prospects gather and that you become "of service" to these communities.

For example, if one of your client industries has a trade organization with both a national and local chapter located near where you live and work, it is imperative that you join the organization and become active by participating on legal task forces, the program committee and other working units of the group.

Another way to add a long-term component to your marketing plan is through online communities. If, for example, your prospective clients gather to trade information and converse in an electronic discussion group, it may be wise for you to join that community.

A couple of caveats about electronic discussions: Pipe up only on topics for which you want to be known--otherwise you will confuse the marketplace about what expertise you can offer. You must also understand the "netiquette" of this community and be excruciatingly careful about what you say and how you say it; once you click the Send button, a message might haunt you forever.

Advertising campaigns. There are major long-term ramifications to investing in advertising as a marketing activity. In advertising circles, "effective reach" is defined as the percentage of people in the target audience who receive the advertising message frequently enough (usually five times or more in a year) for it to have any impact on them. Therefore, effective advertising campaigns in mainstream publications are beyond the reach of many law firms' marketing budgets, although advertising in client industry publications may be affordable.

If advertising is critical to your marketing plan, you must predict with painstaking accuracy whom you're trying to reach, what you want to say and where your audience is most likely to see your message. As the saying goes, and it's particularly relevant to advertising campaigns, "Guessing is free--but to guess wrong can be really expensive."

For an example of how one law firm carefully targets its advertising, see the sidebar " Send a Message Clients Can Use."

Is It Working Now? The Self-Audit
Okay, now you know the whys, whats and hows of long-term, strategic and disciplined marketing. But do you know if, or which of, your current activities in fact align your messages with your target audiences?

Lawyers and marketers can audit their own marketing plans to see how well their individual activities align with their larger marketing strategy. Simply make a list of all the major marketing activities you have engaged in during the past year or two. Then critically evaluate each activity in terms of these questions:

  • How well did this marketing activity reinforce what you want yourself or your firm to be known for?
  • Conversely, in what ways did this activity confuse the marketplace about what you want to be known for?
  • How well did this marketing activity actually reach your key clients, prospects and referral sources?
  • How effective was this activity at offering a sample or taste of what it would be like to work with you and your firm?
  • How well did this marketing activity lead naturally to successive marketing events and activities? That is, how well was this marketing activity preceded by other marketing activities that set the stage for this particular activity as a logical next step?

This simple analysis will help you refine your current and future marketing plans to make them more long-term, more strategic and more disciplined. From here, you and your practice are in a much better position to achieve the longed-for ROI on your marketing investment.

Ann Lee Gibson, Ph.D. (, is principal of Ann Lee Gibson Consulting in Taos, NM, and a member of the Law Practice Management Editorial Board.