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Marketing Strategy: First, Ask the Right Questions

So often, law firm marketing discussions go something like this: “Billings are down, we should be doing more marketing” or “The associates aren’t busy, they should be marketing themselves” or “We need to grow the firm, we have to get out there and market.”

OK, good, fine, now what? The most common response is to leap straight to tactics: “Let’s do a seminar!” “We need a brochure.” (Yes, some lawyers still say that.) “The website sucks, we need a new one.” But without a strategy, these tactics are random, uncoordinated acts that will end up costing a lot of money, time, and stress, with very little to show for it.

For example, let’s say your firm is doing fairly well in small commercial real estate and midmarket corporate/commercial law. You also do litigation (mostly for the firm’s real estate and business clients) and some employment law, but that practice is fairly new. Some members of your corporate/commercial group think the firm should be reaching higher and they want to compete with bigger firms, while your real estate group is quite content where it is, thank you. Your litigation group wants more and is taking on quasicriminal work that some partners feel is not the way the firm should be going. Meanwhile, your employment group is struggling to gain a foothold in a competitive market.

See the problem? If each group goes off on its own course, their marketing efforts will look like they come from four different firms. Unless you look at where your firm’s work is coming from at present, you don’t know what you can leverage and you can’t work together to capitalize on your strengths. Once you have an accurate picture of your current situation, it becomes much easier to define a marketing strategy.

To develop a robust marketing strategy for your firm, you must first answer these seven questions:

  1. What does our firm do?
  2. Who do we do it for?
  3. Where are our clients located?
  4. When did they first come to us?
  5. Why do they stay with us?
  6. How much do they pay us?
  7. Who refers work to us?

In this article, I’ll focus on the first two questions.

What does our firm do?

The firm in our example might say, of course we know what we do—we practice real estate, corporate/commercial law, litigation, and employment law. That’s how you’re organized, not what you do.

Think about your strengths—as a firm, as practice groups, and individually. You might collectively have many connections in the midmarket, and/or in particular industries, and/or in certain types of deals. Knowing your strengths helps you decide what you’re going to market. Marketing your strengths gives you a good story to tell.

Now, which are your profitable practice areas? Everyone thinks they know, because it’s right there in the billings, isn’t it? Not necessarily. Billings may be high, but so may be the costs—in staff, equipment, outside services, overhead, handholding and unpaid bills. When you want to make decisions about where to spend marketing dollars, knowing profitability helps you decide. If you have a growing practice area that has been under the firm’s radar screen, but shows up well in profitability, it might be time to turn the marketing spotlight on it.

In marketing, you’re always looking for differentiators, those things that make your firm different from others. If you have a niche, it singles you out and makes marketing easier. I once asked one of my clients how she became the go-to person in a large firm on a certain kind of deal. She said a colleague approached her asking if she’d ever done such a deal and she diffidently answered that she’d done three. Her colleague responded: “That’s three more than I’ve done, can you help us out?” Once you’ve developed a niche, you can market it as a differentiator.

Who do we do it for?

The 80/20 rule is frequently quoted in law firm marketing: 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients. Whether this is actually true or not, knowing which are your top 20 clients is very helpful to your marketing efforts.

It might surprise you to find out who your top clients are. Perhaps your legacy clients, once number one, are now part way down the list. Perhaps that startup that you took on several years ago is taking off bigtime. Either way, once you know who your top clients are, you know who to concentrate on in marketing, because it’s easier to get more work from the clients you have than to get new clients. Are you getting all of your top 20 clients’ legal work? Which areas can you cross-sell to them? In our example, the employment law group should be thinking through what they can offer to the firm’s top 20 clients and getting their colleagues to introduce them.

What’s happening in their industries? Clients always like you to know this and it helps you communicate with them. But much more than opening conversational gambits, it helps you figure out what other legal work they might need and who else might need exactly the same kind of work.

And remember: times change. Are a number of your Top 20 clients in a dying industry or one that’s growing by leaps and bounds? A growing industry offers lots of legal scope, but so do dying ones if you offer restructuring, bankruptcy, and insolvency services. Either way, if you know the industry outlook of your top 20 clients, you know what you should be thinking about for your firm’s future.

More to come in my next column.

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