Why Law Firm Marketing Plans Fail

Does your firm have a marketing plan? When was the last time it was reviewed? How well do you follow your marketing plan? You’re not alone if your marketing plan is collecting dust in a drawer, hidden somewhere on your firm’s server, or simply hasn’t been implemented effectively. But why do these plans fail so often?

Marketing is generally outward-focused, concentrating on your clients, their wants and needs and the services you provide to help them reach their goals. But in order to be truly successful when it comes to actual implementation of the marketing plan, you must look inward to determine not only what you are committed to accomplishing, but also who will accomplish it and how it will be accomplished. Then you’ll need to communicate your expectations on an ongoing basis and follow up. Unfortunately, these are the areas in which most law firm marketing plans fail.

Failure #1: Undefined or unclear purpose

What is the purpose of your marketing plan? Why are you undertaking these initiatives? Attorneys assume that the best way to grow and sustain their business is by getting more clients, or by getting new clients. That isn’t always the case. More clients don’t always translate into more profits. Other objectives might include increasing your client base in a certain practice area or niche, expanding into a new practice area, generating new business from existing clients, increasing the quality of your client base, increasing your exposure to a certain target audience, generating more leads, creating a better sales pipeline, or allowing you more freedom, among others

Your marketing purpose must be closely tied to your main business goals for the same time period. Think carefully about why you are embarking on a marketing plan. If you’re working in a firm, make sure all of the key players are on board with your purpose. 

Be sure that you develop a purpose not only for the overall marketing plan, but also for each individual marketing tactic or activity undertaken to further the plan. What role is each piece of the plan expected to play in the overall goal? How is each piece integrated into the plan as a whole? How will the pieces of the plan work together?

Failure #2: Insubstantial plans 

The previous failure is one of the factors that lead to insubstantial plans. Without specific objectives, creating a specific, targeted plan is nearly impossible. A plan isn’t an intention – it has to incorporate your intention to implement and how that implementation is going to occur. Ideas are one thing – execution is another.

Make it concrete. A plan is specific and tangible, not merely conceptual. What will this look like on a daily basis? How does this plan integrate with the way we service our clients now on a daily basis? How will we communicate the efforts we are making to avoid disjointed marketing efforts? Who is going to carry out your plan? Have you defined specific roles, tasks, expectations and deadlines?

Failure #3: No benchmarks 

“Get more clients” isn’t a good marketing goal, or a solid foundation for a marketing plan, particularly if you haven’t taken the time to find out how many clients you have now, or how many you worked with last year, what their lifetime value is to the firm, and whether those clients fit into your ideal client profile. You must know not only what your ultimate goal is, but where you are in relation to that goal now.

The only way to determine how to get from here to there is to begin by pinpointing where ‘here’ is.

Failure #4: The plan is created by those ‘at the top,’ but not effectively communicated to those ‘in the trenches.’ 

Your marketing plan is implemented every day, day in and day out, by every single employee of your firm, from your receptionist to the managing partner. But some law firms forget that their associates and support staff are an integral part of the marketing effort and don’t effectively communicate the plan. 

If they do share their marketing plans, many partnerships simply recite he plan itself, leaving out the strategy and reasoning behind the plan, or they neglect to clearly define and lay out expectations and action steps, assigning individuals or groups to complete each. This hinders implementation. Define the outcome to be achieved in a way that is understandable for the players involved. Define roles and expectations.

Regular communication should continue throughout implementation to keep the momentum going, to continue the progress of the plan and to obtain feedback. Ongoing communication during implementation also ensures that all of the players know what is happening, who is doing what and when. 

Although lawyers may be meticulous about tracking substantive legal correspondence or conversations with clients, documenting the file and billing for it, lawyers are notoriously bad at tracking or documenting the other contact they have with clients. While this is a mistake even for solos, the mistake multiplies with the number of attorneys and staff within the firm who have contact with a particular client, and can lead to embarrassment (or worse).

Failure #5: Inability to demonstrate why others should commit to the plan – what’s in it for them?

Communication of the plan itself is one thing, but getting the commitment of the participants is more difficult. As we’ve seen, it is the entire firm that implements the plan. That means that each of the players must understand how this plan relates to – and benefits – them as individuals. 

What is the connection between following the plan and individual incentives, whether those incentives come in the form of compensation, advancement or a sense of contributing to the firm’s growth? What does each person’s contribution lend to the effort as a whole? How does it advance firm-wide and individual goals?

Marketing is a non-billable task, and for firms that compensate or advance attorneys based on their hourly billings, it is difficult to motivate lawyers to focus on marketing if they can’t see how it will help them individually. When participating in marketing initiatives such as visiting clients or writing for the firm’s blog take lawyers away from billable activities, they need to see the reward. When they see attorneys who do not participate in marketing being compensated the same or more with no detrimental effects, they won’t see a reason to commit themselves. 

Failure #6: Focusing on the plan itself and not on the implementation

One reason why law firm marketing plans fail is that once the marketing plan is created, it is largely ignored. Lawyers act as if the plan is the work, not merely the blueprint for the work. They focus on creating the plan and then think the job is done, or they take a ‘break’ and never get to execution of the plan. Recognize at the outset that the planning is just the beginning. The magic happens with the execution, not the creation of the plan. Build your plan so that implementation begins immediately by including not only action steps but deadlines and accountability.

Failure #7: Lack of commitment to/ownership of the plan

The larger the partnership, the greater the chance that the ultimate marketing plan results from compromise. Not everyone will be completely happy with the marketing plan at all times. But, as with any strategic decision, the firm’s leadership must build consensus and commit to the plan that emerges. When leadership fails to demonstrate their commitment to the plan by carrying out action steps themselves, or when it appears to the firm that its leaders are merely paying lip service to the plan, interest quickly wanes and the plan is doomed to failure.

Law firms define new initiatives, assign responsibility and define specific accountability steps, incentives and consequences, and yet they still fail. Why? Because they fail to stick with the plan. They ignore the new protocol for client contact, or don’t require accountability. They let deadlines go by the wayside. They don’t make marketing initiatives a priority. Not only does this hurt the initiative itself, but it hurts their credibility. The next time the firm leadership wants to initiate something new, the next time they set forth expectations, they won’t be taken seriously. They defeat themselves before they start because the firm knows that they won’t stick to their guns – they have no integrity. If your firm has faced this problem in the past, you must be even more diligent about execution and enforcement.

Failure #8: Disjointed implementation

Even when a firm thinks it is doing everything right and the individuals and practice groups are behind the plan, it can still fail if implementation is not properly coordinated among individuals or practice groups. Too often, lawyers or practice groups take the marketing plan and run with it, separately interpreting it in their own way, without communicating with the rest of the firm. 

Clients and prospects may have contact with more than one lawyer or practice group, and if the firm is operating as independent individuals or separate silos rather than a cohesive whole it becomes clear to the client very quickly. This leaves a disjointed and inconsistent impression of not only your marketing efforts, but also your client service and overall firm reputation.

To be effective, your marketing must be an integrated process, built over time, involving a number of different marketing tactics tied together by a marketing strategy. But even with a strategy, sometimes unexpected marketing opportunities arise. Take advantage of those opportunities by learning how to integrate them into your overall marketing plan.

Failure #9: Lack of follow up 

Who is going to keep this going and how? What are the incentives and consequences? Who are the right people for the job? What kind of accountability is built into the plan? When and how will follow up occur? Where should participants turn for help? How should follow up be accomplished (meetings, progress reports, email, etc.) All of these should be incorporated into the plan, as you have seen above. But it can’t end there with writing it into the plan. Someone must consistently follow up with those responsible for action steps. Someone must check in, particularly as deadlines approach.

 Failure #10: Acting as if marketing ends once you get the work

A lot of marketing and business development occurs after the client retains your firm. Happy clients are loyal clients, and they refer other work to you – or deflect it from you if they are not happy with their experience. Never take clients for granted. Be sure your marketing plan includes ongoing initiatives to improve service and communication with existing and former clients, and that responsiveness is an integral part of your marketing plan and the day to day services you provide to your clients.

Build a better marketing plan. Incorporate a concrete purpose, establish your existing position and benchmarks, determine your means and methods, assign roles and responsibilities with action steps and deadlines. Commit to the plan, communicate effectively and get others involved. Then follow up to assure that your plan is executed and continue your efforts once your firm has been retained.


  1. Allison:
    Once again your insights are right-on. Most lawyers are not believers in the salience of marketing and are uneducated and unenthusiastic when they create a plan. As you note, it’s all about effective implementation and buy-in.This relates to Failure # 5, that marketing must be marketed to the firm’s employees. I would like to add four additional considerations. First, understanding and using marketing research is vital in plan creation. Second, creating relevant [sometimes customized] metrics will encourage rational thinking lawyers.
    Third, it would help to include a decision process for evaluating and selecting outside vendors. I have discovered that lawyers often quit marketing because they don’t have the necessary expertise. Finally, including a comprehensive budgeting process will help put marketing in perspective. I hope this is helpful.
    Keep up the great work.

  2. Bravo, Allison! Great piece and every firm should read this before they start any business or marketing planning.

    “A plan isn’t an intention …” is spot on and is one of the most important concepts firms should accept before embarking on a planning process.

    John Burnett’s comments above are good additions to your article and when working with firm’s on their planning initiatives I always use supporting data for two key reasons: data analysis informs and directs the marketing strategy in an intelligent manner and lawyers can get behind facts and buy into the plan more easily when supported.

    Well done, Allison!

  3. Great points Allison; I especially like your point #9 (lack of follow up). It’s important to remember that marketing and sales = offense. Regular follow up is the key to any sales or marketing process. Along those lines, I also wanted to let your attorney readers know about the marketing tools available on Rocket Lawyer. Rocket Lawyer empowers attorneys to market and manage their law practice online. After creating a free attorney profile, attorneys can enable Smart Referrals which allow potential clients to find them. They will be matched with clients who have submitted an intake form based on matching criteria to pair them with their practice and receive an e-mail alerting them to the potential client within moments. For attorneys who are very busy, the great part about Smart Referrals is that clients will actually find them. It’s still up to the attorney to follow up and provide prompt service.

    The lawyer directory is also a great way for clients to find attorneys. This is a complete listing of all the lawyers who have profiles on Rocket Lawyer. The more complete the profile is and the more active the attorney is in the Rocket Lawyer and Web Law Office community, the higher they will rank. Along with blogging and email marketing, these law firm marketing tools will definitely help attorneys get new clients. My name is Matt Kaufman and I’m a Senior Product Manager and Assistant General Counsel for the company.

  4. For the most part this is an interesting and rather on-target article.

    One thing you did not mention is the natural aversion of attorneys to most things “sales and marketing”, not in the sense that they do not need it, but in the sense that someone else should do it. The primary reason for this is that an attorney is comfortable in his or her environment – the law – and they know or believe that they are an expert in the practice areas they have chosen. Many believe they can delegate the development of a sales and marketing plan to a staff member (generally a legal assistant or paralegal) and then wait as it filters back up. Once it hits their desk it is likely to be treated as any other document hitting their desk and not as the blueprint for future success. There are also rules and regulations that must be followed and sometimes it is easier to just maintain the status quo. This is critical and tied to your failure #6 and failure #9 points above.

    One other thing that was not mentioned is quite important and that is the marketing plan must take into account expansion, contraction and succession, because at each phase of the continuum there are differing focal points.