October 23, 2012

Law Practice Roundtable: Experts Talk Trends in Law Firm Marketing

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Marketing Trends

Ross Fishman, Facilitator

What's hot in law firm marketing? What are the top firms doing that you're not? What should lawyers know about professional legal marketers? Some of the top folks in the know put their heads together to discuss tips, tricks, trends and traumas for firms of all sizes and descriptions. Take a look at their advice, grab a firm hold, and then grab a hold of your firm.


What do you see as the hot new thing in marketing for law firms? Some particular tool, trend, tactic or strategy?

Ross Fishman: I see a few things. Technology continues to change how we interact with clients and, as long as you start out skeptical, cutting through the noise, you can identify the tools and tactics that will last.

There's a chance that RSS (Really Simple Syndication) will turn into a significant new marketing vehicle because it's wrapped into something genuinely useful—information that keeps executives informed in real-time. I particularly think RSS could turn into a powerful and cost-effective advertising vehicle. One progressive IP firm, Washington D.C.'s Sterne Kessler Goldstein & Fox, is already testing its advertising message there with good results.

Also, as the more sophisticated law firms have come to understand the power of differentiating or branding their firms, it's becoming easier for other firms to see the value in it. This strategy has been hot for a few years now, but I see it getting even hotter as the competition increases and there are more good examples for marketers to show even the crustiest marketing committees. Differentiate or die.

In addition, firms have begun bifurcating their marketing efforts like corporate America, creating a defined "sales" function that many are calling "business development." Some have six-figure sales professionals doing extensive research on individual clients and industries, engaging in deep competitive research, and picking off the best business from the best clients.

And, of course, everything old is new again. Client-service-oriented marketing training—which is consistently growing in popularity—typically involves listening skills, investing in the relationship, spending nonbillable time learning about clients, visiting their facilities, being more proactive about helping them solve their problems. In other words, firm leaders want their lawyers to learn how to act like everyone did 25-plus years ago. In some ways, it's an unfortunate commentary on the state of the profession, in that some lawyers have to be taught that it's okay to care about their clients.

Terri Pepper Gavulic: Another hot strategy is teamwork—what a concept! Despite a strong preference for autonomy and years of practicing as more or less confederations of solos, many lawyers are now learning the benefits of teaming up to win work and to service clients.

But with this comes many challenges. People have to learn to play nice in the sandbox. Just deciding to work in groups and teams isn't enough—the groups and teams have to pay as much attention to their group's dynamics and development as they do to the work at hand. My money is on the firms that are training their teams in all aspects of operating as a team.

Nat Slavin: I find that trends in law firm marketing are cyclical and are only occasionally driven by the needs of the client. The past 15 years have seen a series of trends—from recruiting initiatives, both laterally and from law schools; to outsourcing, with legal departments being replaced by law firms, then offshore services; to good old-fashioned one-on-one schmoozing (in the past called entertaining, now called business development). Without being overly cynical, law firms still haven't learned to listen to their clients—and for the most part they fail to adapt to their clients' needs. They try and confirm their needs to the clients.

Two things are currently hot: tightly focused messaging of capabilities and an opposite strategy—proving that bigger is better. Smart firms are getting "vertical" in their marketing efforts. The simple concept is efficiency. The highest possible ROI is to have the most qualified and targeted opportunities and delivering a message that resonates. Firms are trying to contextualize their initiatives so that they are actually important to their clients today and tomorrow. The international firm Orrick did this with its "O" campaign. That was the best campaign I've ever seen. It had a global brand and could be imported to the most vertical of markets.

On the other end of the spectrum, the large international firms continually attempt to figure out how they can actually create meaning for the message that bigger is better.

And then, of course, there are blogs and podcasts, offering immediate and unfiltered information on a variety of subjects. As firms keep rolling out blogs, the challenge will remain: How will clients filter the information? Whoever proves their information is better than the competition's will win. The only way to do that is to have first-mover status, daily updates and actual solutions, not theories.

Lisa Dutton: I'll add that whether it's business, relationship or competitive—or all three—enough firms are working with actual information and looking at the true drivers of their business that "intelligence" could officially be called a hot new thing.


Things that are hot one day can become pretty cold the next day. What's being talked about a lot today that you don't think will amount to anything?

Fishman: Technology products are going to come and go. Some will change our lives, and others will simply take change out of our wallets. Podcasts? There's lots of buzz surrounding them, but I don't see clients clamoring to get law firm seminars on their iPods.

Blogs? For the early adopters, small firms with niche practices or individual lawyers in larger firms with a specialty, a blog can be a remarkably powerful tool. However, doing one effectively requires an enormous time commitment, and that's difficult for most lawyers. When it's hard to get many lawyers to write one 500-word article every five years, it's unrealistic to expect many to write twice a week or more and to sustain the needed pace over time. Unless they happen to be frustrated novelists.

Gavulic: I have sort of a backwards answer to the question. I've heard a lot of talk about how many RFPs and new business competitions are useless, that companies don't really base their decisions on them, and that firms are trying to find ways to by-pass the RFP process or make it go away. But this likely won't happen in the near term, at least if you ask corporate clients. They are desperate to get a better deal, and the RFP process sets up a competition among law firms that enables the client to make stronger demands. Plus, those who make decisions in client organizations have an increasing level of responsibility for their company's bottom line and, therefore, need to make sure they have the best provider for the work at hand with as many cost-efficiencies built in as possible.

Also, we're seeing an increase in the number of "neutrals," such as procurement departments, involved in the decision of which law firm to hire, and they don't have relationships on which to base their hiring decisions. Written proposals and formal pitches help them evaluate one firm against another.

Slavin: Because there's a decreasing number of law students, we are in the midst of another talent war. From 1998-2001, the last time we saw the demand for lawyers force firms to compete for talent with their wallets, the demand was so high that mediocre lawyers were doing work they weren't prepared to do. There's nothing earth-shattering here, but it is important to understand marketplace dynamics to explain why firms react, and invest in, various marketing initiatives. The talent wars will always exist, and right now it is important. Too often, firms react and don't plan.

As for particular tools being hyped today, client relationship management (CRM) at a global level is still 10 years away from yielding business efficiencies. It's a simple function of history and tradition. Law firm partners typically resist change. It's the younger generation of associates and junior partners who get the importance of information sharing—mostly because they have never known a work life in which it didn't exist. Members of the "older" generation, who have had technology thrust on them, are confident in their historical way of working and, therefore, remain nonparticipants. Until they move on, and the generation of lawyers who know the importance of sharing information to grow the business are in charge, the hype around CRM will never be realized.

Dutton: Bill Flannery, a legend in the legal marketing field, used to talk about "timing the high jump," and there is a lot of that going on right now. Everyone asks, "How many ads did we run? How many people came to our seminars?" Both good to know, if you're in the ad-running or seminar-hosting business, but not so useful in determining if the marketing investment you've made was worthwhile and worth repeating. It's really easy to do the thing wrong, and then claim it was the wrong thing to do. I think that's what will happen with metrics, another tool that's being hyped today.


Are law firm marketing professionals influencing the direction the legal profession is taking? If so, how?

Gavulic: Although to date there are no seismic shifts that marketing professionals can take credit for, there are a few rumblings—such as their helping firms to switch emphasis from promotions and communications to direct business development and sales. Also, marketers are pushing for the development of strategic planning, or at least the setting of a strategic direction, within their firms.

Dutton: No, but markets are going to influence the direction of the legal profession. In some cases, marketing pros will be there to act as an airbag for either side, but that's about it.

Fishman: I think that in the past decade, marketing has had a significant impact on the legal profession—just as The American Lawyer arguably helped change the legal profession into a business 15 to 20 years ago by widely distributing the partner compensation of competitive firms.

Terri raises a good point with strategic planning. Many firms don't have a strategic plan, and others don't pay much attention to the one gathering dust on a credenza shelf, which means that the firm's marketing director's marketing plan becomes the firm's de facto future plan. This might not be true of the very large firms, but it's what's happening at small and midsize firms across the country. Law firm marketing staff may not be members of the executive committee (although many are), but the best of them are making at least a C-level impact on firm strategy.

Slavin: Let's concede that marketing, communication and business development are all one basket of tools that law firms use to grow their businesses by better identifying who their best clients and prospects are. If we concede that, then marketing absolutely influences the direction of the profession at large. However, because the legal profession is slow to move, the more the practitioners can learn to rely on the marketing pros, the more they will get out of their efforts.

Consider that in most businesses, narrow expertise is rewarded. That is also true within practice areas in law firms. IP attorneys don't do restructuring, for example, and trust and estate lawyers don't do labor and employment. As soon as the lawyers recognize that they should let the professionals run the show when it comes to the firm's marketing and business development, the more effective the firm's marketing professionals will be.


If you could get lawyers to understand one thing about marketing, what would it be?

Fishman: Make your marketing professionals your friends and they can make you rich. Many routinely come across opportunities for publicity, new business and hot prospects and they have the discretion to direct these opportunities to anyone in the firm.

Slavin: Lawyers get hired to practice law. Marketers get hired to market. They won't tell you how to do your job, so why should you tell them how to do theirs?

Dutton: How about this: "Nobody wants lousy counsel." Seriously. Do the math.

Gavulic: Lawyers must learn to see things from the perspective of the client (or prospect). This sounds simple, but there is strong evidence that although people pay lip service to this concept, they don't actually get it. If they did, there would be far fewer firm marketing pieces or pitches that start with, "We are a high-quality, well-educated, client-service-oriented law firm with 35 practice areas."


To finish our discussion, how about finishing the following sentence: "I couldn't believe it, a lawyer actually…"

Fishman: said, "Doing good work is the best marketing." Sorry, but today that's not a differentiator. It's the price of admission—all your competitors are perceived as doing good work, too. The question for the client becomes, "Of all the smart, skilled lawyers I can select among, which one should I call for this particular matter?" Perhaps the one with the best reputation? Or the one whose firm offers the most CYA protection? Or the one who is best-known for this narrow specialty practice or industry?

Slavin: asked for help.

Dutton: I'm too old to find myself in a state of disbelief!