The summer is that time of year when most folks, even clients, take some time away from the grind.  So, it’s not a bad time to plan some marketing efforts to undertake, either now or when everyone gets back into the swing of things after Labor Day.

Allison Shields over at Legal Ease has a few suggestions (in addition to collecting your account receivables and firing some problem clients – a subject I’ve talked about on occasion here and here).  She offers the following marketing tips to consider during the summer (with my own twist of course):

  • Touch base with former clients to reconnect and possibly pick up some business,
  • Update clients on the status of matters, helping to ease their emotional concerns,
  • Think of something special to do for your clients to build on the relationship,
  • Touch base with referral sources for the same reason,
  • Assess your marketing activities to determine what is working and what isn’t, and
  • Oh Yeah, don’t forget to take that real vacation yourself to recharge your batteries.

As a result, you should be in great shape to undertake a fresh approach to your business development efforts come fall.

What the heck is a Mastodon, you ask? I didn’t have a clue myself until I looked it up. It’s an extinct mammal related to the elephant family.

The point relating to legal marketing? Simple. Small firms and solos have hope of seriously competing with larger law firms thanks to the Internet. That is the message conveyed by Mike Dillon, general counsel at Sun Microsystems on his blog, The Legal Thing in a post he calls “The Way of the Mastodon.”

A big thanks to Patrick Lamb at In Search of Perfect Client Service for his great post summarizing Dillon’s main points. Here’s my take:

  • Traditionally (read: in those ancient days prior to the Internet), companies in need of a specialized lawyer would turn to their regular law firm, leaving it to them to find that specialist;
  • Law firms got larger as the law became more complex, and they needed to hire more lawyers to meet those specialized needs (read: increasing costs, and requiring higher and higher hourly rates to pay for these additional “costs”);
  • Along comes the “ole” World Wide Web, and now companies can find really smart, qualified, specialized lawyers in small firms who are just as good and are much more cost effective. How do they know that they are really smart and qualified? Simple, GCs are reading their blogs;
  • Big, expensive law firms will be challenged to stay relevant or go the way of the Mastodon.

As Dillon sums it up: “My point is that the epoch of the current law firm model – which derives its profitability from growing scale and raising hourly rates – will soon be over.”

The new model will definitely increase opportunities for smaller, efficient, niche law firms.

As a follow up to my last post about “branding,” I wanted to mention a conversation that Valeria Maltoni at Conversation Agent had with Gerry Lantz, a very successful marketing, advertising and communications executive (and now consultant). In this conversation about branding, Lantz tells a couple of stories about how two expensive branding campaigns failed. 

One involved BP’s brand overhaul in its attempt to come across as more “green” by seeking “alternative energies and be(ing) environmentally friendly.” They changed their logo, colors and slogan to “(B)eyond (P)etroleum” in that effort. Then, they experienced a major oil spill and a refinery explosion causing death and injury. Both events were attributed to ignored warnings and the lack of inspections, according to Lantz. The consensus as to why the campaign failed: BP didn’t push its brand story all the way down to the operational level.”

The other involved an ad that invited the public to generate their own ads about Chevy’s 2007 Tahoe SUV. Apparently, a number of ads where extremely critical of the vehicle, and the campaign was a “bloody fiasco,” according to Lantz, and lead to Chevy pulling their ads. Some of the public ads can still be found on YouTube.com. As Lantz says: “Don’t invite a conversation if you don’t want to listen.”

Tying this back to my post on seeking feedback from clients on what “word” best describes the firm’s brand, not only should your firm be prepared to listen intently to what the clients’ have to say, but make sure that all the attorneys and staff at the “operational level" are aware and buy-in to the firm’s intended brand.

If your clients were to describe you (your brand) in one word, what would it be? Well, ask them. That is what John Jantsch recommends in his current e-newsletter (free subscription available here). And he suggests a simple question:

“What’s the ONE word you would use that best describes what we do well?”

Could the word be: results, caring, fast, responsive, smart, effective, good communications (okay, okay, that’s two, but you get the idea), or might it be dependable, expensive, inexpensive, fair, quality, etc.? Then ask your clients to expand on what they mean by the “word.” 

After you have done this exercise with at least your top clients, consolidate the messages as much as possible to the point of reaching the most common elements among the information gathered. This pretty much will describe your brand (or unfortunately brands, if disparate groups within the firm are sending different messages).

Finally, ensure that every person in the firm (staff and lawyers) understands the “brand” you wish to project beyond the mahogany walls, and encourage them to live and breathe it to all those they encounter every day.

So, what word describes your firm?

In response to my question as to what its legal marketing strategy was, the managing partner of a 400-lawyer firm said “to grow to 1500 lawyers in five years.” He explained that he wanted to expand to both coasts, the Midwest, as well as internationally. Conceding that this may be an interesting goal, it wasn’t particularly strategic, since there was no plan in place to implement such a vision. Five years later, the firm had grown by approximately 50 lawyers.

Considering that most geographic areas are all well-served by existing law firms of all sizes, one has to ask the critical question when it comes to thoughts of expanding the firm: WHY?

Often the answer is that if we were bigger, we’d do better. Wrong. Growth for growth’s sake, in order to reach nirvana, just doesn’t work.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to grow a firm. Three good reasons for expansion include:

  • Meeting existing clients’ needs in current marketplace or elsewhere,
  • Shoring up gaps in the firm’s practice areas to meet current or anticipated needs, and
  • Present marketplace is stagnant or dying, and firm needs to move into growing areas.

So, whether it’s adding individual lawyers, or expanding the firm’s geographical reach (by opening an office or merging with a firm elsewhere), make sure that the reasons for doing so are strategically thought through. Many firms have done so only to close the office or shed lawyers later.

For some very good reasons why some small firms choose to stay small, take a look at the article by Stephanie Lovett that appeared in The Legal Intelligencer and on Law.com’s Small Firm Business

By that I mean, don’t have one or even two clients account for too high a percentage of your or your firm’s revenues. It could potentially set you up for disaster. A sound law firm marketing principle involves broadening and deepening your client base in order to minimize the potential of one or two clients bringing the firm down, if they choose to leave. Their departure could be based on any number of reasons, ranging from dissatisfaction to merging with a larger company, whose existing law firm would likely end up doing all the legal work.

LeBeouf Lamb Greene & MacRae, an international firm of 700 lawyers and 18 offices worldwide, may well have wished they heeded that advice, at least for their Pittsburgh office, which closed February 1st, according to a story that appeared in Small Firm Business and The Legal Intelligencer. The demise of the firm’s Pittsburgh office was due apparently to a too big a reliance on one client, Alcoa, Inc.

In response to the question of what percentage of a firm’s revenue from a single client should start raising serious questions within the firm, “the most common answer was 10 to 15 percent” among legal industry experts and lawyers themselves, according to the story. I tell clients they should shoot for 5%.

Obviously, the event for a firm the size of LeBeouf Lamb is not devastating. But, how about your firm? If you have a client or two or three that account for a percentage of revenue you are not comfortable with, then you really need to give serious thought to expanding your legal marketing and business development efforts to ensure you have a broader client base.

The more you distinguish yourself or your firm from others, the more effective your law firm marketing efforts will become. Too many firms still sell themselves as generalists, especially smaller firms, or at least capable of handling a wide range of legal matters. Unfortunately, that only continues the problem potential clients have in differentiating one firm from another.

Niche marketing is not a new topic for this blog (as you can see from earlier posts listed below). What got me thinking about the topic again is an article I read by Paramjit Mahli of Sun Communications Group entitled “Know Your Niche” that appeared in the New Jersey Law Journal this month.

Not only does she identify reasons to narrow your niche so you stand out in a particular field or practice, but Paramjit points out that your legal marketing dollars will be better spent. The more you know about the potential clients in a niche market, the better you can direct your lawyers’ business development activities. There just isn’t the time or dollars available to accomplish this in the broad marketplace for an individual lawyer or small firm.

See earlier posts on the topic:

"More on Niche Marketing "

"For Effective Legal Marketing – Focus, Focus, Focus"

"Do You Have a Niche, and What Are You Doing About It?"

As the New Year approaches, it’s time to give some more thought to the legal marketing benefits of practice groups. But, I am not talking about forming groups based on areas of law that we learned in law school. Rather, your practice groups should be client-focused; i.e., structured in terms of the needs of specific clients and their industry. As I mentioned in a post I did nearly two years ago, your practice groups should be organized based on the needs of specific client types, for example:

“Your practice groups should be multi-disciplinary in nature. For example, in the health care area, a group should consist of lawyers with expertise in administrative law, employment, environmental, business entities, contracts, real estate, tax, estate planning, litigation, and so forth. In other words, structure your practice groups to meet the needs of a client segment whatever your firm’s size.”

Joel Rose, a law firm management consultant, spoke recently on practice groups at a gathering of marketers at a Philadelphia Bar Association-sponsored meeting. His remarks were reported by Barbara S. Kaplan in an article on Law.com. I totally agree with the comment:

“In the majority of financially and professionally successful law firms, practice or industry groups are inherent to client development Rose said.” (emphasis mine)

For Joel’s “(c)ommon identifiable elements of those firms” see Barbara’s article.

With the baby boomers coming of (retirement) age, law firms need to seriously start planning for the future. Not only in terms of firm management, but legal marketing as well. Even though lawyer marketing has been openly discussed and actually implemented in some firms for more than twenty years, business development is still primarily accomplished with relatively few rainmakers … and they’re often baby boomers.

As mentioned the concerns are more than just marketing issues. Since I am a believer that everything a law firm does relates to marketing, management factors relating to succession planning are relevant here as well, and worth mentioning. Ellen Freedman, law practice management coordinator with the Pennsylvania Bar Association has an article in this month’s issue of Law Practice Today that spells out a number of things that need to be met as firms prepare to say goodbye to their baby boomers, Ellen topics include:

  • Leadership & Strategic Planning (not only to run the firm, but with vision for its future, which will need marketing talents to execute both internally and externally),
  • Revenue Generation (requiring willing and talented rainmakers),
  • Transition & Servicing Clients (client retention and relationship enhancing capabilities are the main business development skills needed here),
  • Retirement Funding (with rainmakers leaving, you will need to replace them not only to sustain the firm, but to fund the boomers’ retirements),
  • File Retention (here she is talking about physically dealing with client files that need to be retained and only destroyed with clients’ consent. The marketing implications relate to a request for files you cannot locate, creating an unhappy client),
  • Staffing (valuable staff are not only hard to replace, but likely have developed excellent relationships with certain clients which also have marketing implications), and
  • Solo and Small Firms (it’s easier for larger firms to absorb the loss of important rainmakers; and in the case of solos, according to Ellen, they will need to associate with a larger firm, or find a willing buyer for their practice to ease their transition).

If you have baby boomers closing in on retirement, you might want to read Ellen’s article in its entirety.

Let’s face it, many law firms don’t conduct any formal legal marketing planning ever. And the reasons that a lot of firms don’t is because they don’t know how to begin, what they should do, who should be involved, and what they hope to achieve in the process.

Some firms that do plan, approach it as a major undertaking. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be depending on what your goal is. For instance, not much planning is involved prior to a few partners deciding to drop into the local pub for a few cold ones with a client, while planning to grow your 10-lawyer firm into a 1500-lawyer behemoth with offices in all the major world capitals is likely to take a bit longer.

Presumably, to most firm’s marketing planning is somewhere in between. Bruce Allen at Marketing Catalyst agrees that firms have difficulty getting started with planning. He offers us a chart that lists some of the factors that should be taken into account in doing strategic marketing planning. I like Bruce’s list because it’s a good one. However, I think it requires a lot of (eventually necessary) work that I don’t think all firms, especially those not tuned into planning, are ready for.

So, if you’re not ready to dig into Bruce’s excellent list, I would offer what I call my “Five Simple Planning Steps To Stop Random Marketing” (I didn’t say the title was simple). Here goes:

1.Assess client base (accounting can do a lot of this for you) -Break out "key" clients by industry, type of company, geographical area, revenues, etc; identify clients that are profitable; list work you do for key clients; compile list of current referral sources; and determine profile of clients you want.

2.Determine firm’s key practice areas – identify profitable practices, and preferred practice areas.

3.Identify marketing targets (includes clients, referral sources, and prospects) based on assessment of current clients and preferred practice areas.

4.Develop action items that work for you/firm aimed at specific targets by name – e.g. speaking, writing, networking, client feedback, entertainment, joining organizations, client visits, Internet, etc.

5.Get off your duff and do it – pick one or two action items at a time, set time schedule for actions and measure progress.

This isn’t the be-all and end-all of legal marketing planning, but for those who haven’t been into planning previously, this is a fairly simple way to get started.