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The Cost of Doing (Marketing) Business as Usual

Most businesses – especially law firms – must market to some degree. And they do. They have a website. They print business cards. They make sure the logo is used on tombstone ads and sponsorship programs. So law firms spend some money on marketing, and some of their lawyers even spend time on marketing – taking people to lunch, playing golf, attending a board or trade function, perhaps hosting a client seminar. Year in, year out it’s pretty much the same. They base their marketing spend on what they spent last year (perhaps with a bit of a bump). They do the same things – more or less – that they did last year. If it isn’t broken don’t fix it, right?

Actually, it is broken, although that would suggest that it was fixed at one point and I’m not sure that’s the case for most law firms. Despite any progress we’ve made (and we made a lot of progress), one thing stays the same: it is incredibly difficult to convince firms to move beyond a snail’s pace in evolving their marketing practices.

There was good reason for this initially.

As one of the longest (I refuse to say oldest) law firm marketers in Canada, I can tell you that when I started in this industry we weren’t allowed to use the “M” word. Instead we were called the Client Service Department. In fact, marketing was against our Law Society rules. I’m not making this stuff up…it really was.

With the pace of a sloth, law firms (and the Law Society) slowly accepted the concept of marketing as an acceptable business tool, and we were actually allowed to do radical things like place ads. Mind you, the ads weren’t allowed to say anything. Name, location and logo. Headlines and calls to action were frowned upon. Printing out points of differentiation was a fast pass to an ethics review board hearing.

You’d think the marketing role would have been easy in those days, there was so little we were allowed to do. (In fact, I was labelled the “cocktail queen” because about all I could do was host client events and print our logo on napkins). But it was a tough gig because I knew that law firms were years behind virtually every other industry, and I wanted to push my firm to leap frog over our competitors by waking up first. So I pushed the firm hard: to establish practice groups; to actually track revenue stats by those business units; to have the firm set targets for lawyers and practice groups so we could better budget (both revenue and expenses); to develop documented business goals for the firm each year; to send regular surveys to our clients to track how we were doing; to develop target client lists and pursuit plans; to create a client service program; to identify and maintain our referral sources, and target and pursue more of them. The list goes on.

Mine was one of the first firms in Canada to have a formal marketing department, to bring in coaches, to require all lawyers to have annual personal business plans (that aligned with the annual practice group plans), and to do formal client audits. But while we were the first on so many fronts, our competitors realized they needed to keep up and they worked hard to do just that. And this evolution didn’t happen overnight. It took twenty years to go from cocktail queen to marketer/strategist, commensurate with the firm’s tolerance for change.

Now, as a consultant, I find it no easier to convince firms to embrace marketing techniques they haven’t explored before. It’s ironic, because I’m generally brought in to improve business. And we all know the definition of insanity. And yet, firms are reticent to make the changes required to create different results.

Law Societies are no longer a barrier. Enough of them have re-written and simplified the marketing rules to make it very easy for law firms to do creative and assertive marketing. And while law firm marketers used to be few and far between, there’s a worldwide industry of us now, so there’s no lack of access to marketing talent.

I believe it all boils down to the lawyer personality and their aversion to risk and change. It’s understandable and human, but can be very bad for their business.

  1. I recall speaking with a Toronto lawyer from a big firm about his practice. It was in the IT industry. The firm wanted me to work with him on development of a business plan. But when I tried to do this, he assured me it wasn’t necessary. “Heather” he said, “my practice is just scooping up diamonds. I don’t need to market”. Later that year the tech bubble burst and two years later he was scouring the city looking for work.
  2. I’ve also worked with a lawyer in his last ten years of practice who, for various reasons of marketplace shift, found himself abysmally underperforming. His entire career to that point had been as a heavy producer, so this dramatic change in his practice and status was devastating. (It took a couple of years but we were able to turn it around).
  3. I’ve worked with many lawyers from smaller firms who were attempting to prepare for retirement, but found they couldn’t because their firm wasn’t “sellable”, and they hadn’t thought to train someone up to replace them. (Hint: it takes more than six months to train someone to replace a stellar lawyer, business manager and rainmaker).

To be honest, I make a living helping firms and lawyers who didn’t monitor their situation closely enough, or didn’t react fast enough, and need help in recovering. It would be in my own best interest to say “no problem, don’t worry about evolving. Don’t focus on a marketing plan. Just spend your regular budget, do your regular events, and call me when the financials start to look like they might be in a tail spin”. But I’d far rather encourage everyone to plan ahead, and thrive in the future. Get that inoculation. Start that RRSP. Buy that insurance policy. And take the basic business steps that are required to promote a healthy and sustainable business – even if that means you have to change a bit.

Here are the “marketing” steps to improved business health:

  1. Develop a strategic plan. Look for my prior posts to learn more about what this is and how to develop one.
  2. Based on that, create annual business objectives.
  3. Build a business implementation plan and a marketing plan aimed at accomplishing the firm’s business objectives.
  4. Ensure the marketing plan action items start from the goals you want achieve and don’t begin with a list of what you’ve done in the past.
  5. Create an accountability process – usually a regular reporting process so those with action items are held to task.
  6. Do regular reporting on the firm’s stats: client in-take, revenue by practice area or matter type, origination (where the client came from), etc. This will help you to (over time) measure the effectiveness of your marketing initiatives.

In most successful organizations, marketing is on the right hand of the President and CEO. That’s because unless you have a market to sell to, you have no business. And the marketplace is fickle. It can shift with the wind (or rather, with legislation, caselaw, changes in the competitive landscape, merger and foreclosure activity, etc.) Reacting takes constant adjustment, and regular scrutiny of your stats so you can see how your firm is reacting to all of these changes and your resulting marketing strategies.

You can probably rely on some key internal people to do this work for you: your firm administrator, or your marketer if you have one. If not, think seriously about hiring outside help, at least to do the initial diagnosis, planning and implementation.

Most importantly, focus on changing the mindset of your partnership to embrace marketing evolution within your firm.

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