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Marketing traps

Most legal marketing isn’t bad; it is just far less productive than it could be.

Similarly, most business development departments aren’t ineffective; they are just reactive. Yet both functions persist, despite contributing inadequately to the success or growth of the legal practices they supposedly exist to serve. Their contributions remind me of the legendary retailer John Wanamaker’s observation: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I’m not sure which half.”

For 35 years before I went to law school, I was a marketing executive and entrepreneur, which means a focus on business development writ large. As a result, the perspective I bring to the challenge of law firm marketing is influenced by my experiences as a client, a consultant, and a practitioner. And the message I deliver is mixed at best: most law firms are falling prey to marketing traps they need to avoid. Here are six:

1. An unwillingness to recognize the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Ask top executives at corporations, private equity firms, start-ups or investment banks what they seek in their lawyers — as I have while researching this article — and you hear the same characteristics repeated over and over again. Yes, they want their problem solved. But they also seek trust, confidence, and smarts from their lawyers. Now ask general counsels the same question. Again you hear the same words, plus two more: cost control.

It is no secret that the traditional law firm business model is in direct conflict with the client’s desire to control costs. Throwing bodies and hours against a problem may be necessary. But there is always the lingering frustration by the client that the problem could have been solved for less. One senior partner at a top 20 firm recently admitted that in every engagement conversation with a GC, the “discount discussion” emerges early on.

2. The risks of “me too” marketing can outweigh the benefits. Ninety percent of Am Law 200 websites look alike. In one sense, that is a safe play. It conveys, “We’re part of an elite club.” But looking like everyone else also reduces a firm’s perceived distinctiveness and memorability.

The more important question, however, is who is the site really designed for?  Most clients seeking a new firm do based first on a personal recommendation; second on “third party endorsement” — for example, a news story; third on an Internet search; and lastly based on advertising.  No channel can be ignored.  When a prospective client visits your site, how easy is it to find the information they are looking for? And what is conveyed by the words, the visuals, and the navigation experience?

Henry Luce, soon after he launched Time, told every employee, “What you put on the paper for the reader doesn’t matter. It is what comes off the paper into the reader’s mind that counts.” The same is true for law firm websites today.

3. Misreading whether communications really add value.  Most law firms send clients — and prospective clients — whitepapers, commentary, and/or legal round-ups. A rare few of these communications actually get read by the target audience. More often, they get filed and forgotten. Whether they help elevate top-of-mind awareness or reinforce a perception of expertise usually goes unasked.

Too few legal marketers track whether communications are opened, read or valued. Metrics may be available, but they are rarely used to assess the communications’ effectiveness — or how to improve them.

Occasionally, the recipient of a digital newsletter will respond with an e-mail to the author. There are three interrelated purposes for sending out these communications: first, to increase top-of-mind awareness. Second, to enhance a perception of expertise. And third, to increase the likelihood that a prospective client’s search on Google for a particular expertise yields the firm in the results.

Because a key purpose of all marketing communications is to help open doors, it is important to ask, “What added value is that newsletter providing to the recipient?” An analysis of the latest regulatory decision on the client’s business practices might be important. Speculation about the impact of Brexit may be interesting. An annual recap of deals-done could be an unused resource that sits on a shelf — until it is relevant. Legal marketers must be more rigorous in assessing just how much value their communications are adding.

4. There may be one decision-maker, but there are often lots of influencers.  The general counsel may decide which law firm to hire. But the CEO, probably a board member, perhaps the CFO, and often a young corporate attorney may be weighing in. Law firm marketers who ignore these other constituencies do so at considerable risk.

5. Treating marketing people as second-class citizens reduces their effectiveness — a lot.  Far too many law partners treat their marketing and business development departments as barely-tolerable cost centers. Many partners complain that pushy marketing people simply add to the partners’ already too-busy schedules. The marketers can’t knowledgably write about legal issues; and business development people can’t open doors.

They are right. But lawyers’ aversion to collaboration and their tendency to minimize the value of what marketers can do becomes a self-defeating prophecy. The more marketers and business development people are brought into the substance of the work, the more value they can add.

6. Succumbing to the not-invented-here syndrome.  I have seen few industries more insular than law with respect to considering marketing ideas from other industries. Recruiters often use previous law firm experience as a binary trigger when considering job candidates. Occasionally, that experience might be expanded to other professional services sectors. But limiting perspectives, ideas, and experiences guarantees a stagnant environment — less likely to withstand serious challenges or upheaval.

Big law may not yet be facing a perfect storm, but clouds are gathering. The American Lawyer recently reported a drop-off in demand for services.  So, while most legal marketing/business development departments are capable, hardworking, and creative, their contribution to a firm’s growth and success is being limited by traps that are surprisingly easy to avoid.  And smart law partners will recalibrate their approach to these departments to add greater value to their clients — and thus to their own fortunes.

Steve Cohen is a New York-based attorney and a member of the editorial board of the New York Observer.

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