The Personal is Professional: Law Firm Marketing Focus Shifts from Brand to People

It took a long time to convince law firm managing partners that they were, in fact, not just managing their partners but also running businesses. Once they did, though, the notion really took hold, giving rise to a whole new category of profession: the non-attorney law firm manager. And this, of course, eventually begat yet another new professional category: the consultants who serve law firm managers. Many of those consultants worked hard to convince firms that they needed to take a more disciplined approach to traditional business practices, from cost accounting to recruiting. Some of this new discipline stuck; some of it didn’t.

Consistently, though, there was one area where the consultants’ “best practice” recommendations were carried out with enthusiasm: marketing. Law firms have, almost universally, come to think of themselves as having brands. The logic of the brand model in law firm marketing is compelling: why sell potential clients on the services they might get from one particular lawyer when you can sell the idea of the whole firm instead?

Indeed, it does make a lot of sense. Until you look at how real clients actually decide which lawyers to hire.

It’s a relationship business, based on trust. And while, yes, some brands do more than others to convey the idea of trust, as it might be defined by a certain segment of the market, the business owners, key executives and general counsels who hire the vast majority of attorneys in private practice tend to make their decisions based on the personal relationships they have with those attorneys on an individual basis. Indeed, when we look at the analytics of law firm websites, we see that new visitors (i.e. potential clients) aren’t spending much time on the “branded” content pages containing all that carefully consultant-shaped language about the firm value proposition. Instead, prospective clients go directly to individual attorney bio pages – and that’s where they stay. They’re not evaluating a firm; they’re getting to know a person.

Despite a couple of decades of expensive strategic advice to the contrary, as it turns out, selling legal and professional services is not like selling soap or breakfast cereal or widgets.

So, for marketing success, it makes sense to put money and effort into promoting individual lawyers. Certainly, their pages on the firm website should convey the quality of their work, the results they achieve and something about the personal traits that make them a valuable advocate and advisor. Their photos should show them to be competent, likable and influential. (In recent years, we’re seeing more natural light and softer poses in attorney photos, which is a start, but most firms have a long way to go to get to portraits that truly make you want to get to know their attorneys. Brief videos are the leading edge here and will become increasingly common.)

Beyond a firm’s website, which is, after all, not actively attracting new clients, just passively waiting to be accessed by those who might already be interested or curious, the most important way to support law firm business generation is to support individual and small groups of attorneys in marketing their practices. This doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complicated, but it does take some discipline.

First, firm leadership needs to define, agree upon, and communicate their vision for the firm. Their statement of strategy, whether it’s deepening relationships with current clients to cross-sell additional work in different areas of law or additional matters or seeking out new clients in key categories, functions as a guiding principle for the business development plans of individual lawyers.

Once attorneys understand where the firm, as a whole, is headed, they can articulate personal business development goals that align with the overall strategy. Associates can benefit from classroom-based support on how to set goals that are realistic, measurable, time-bound, and within their control. Some partners might need one-on-one coaching in goal-setting, especially if “rainmaking” has not been part of their role at the firm.

With goals set, attorneys can identify tactics for achieving them. So, if an associate sets herself the task of becoming a go-to resource for internal and external clients needing up-to-date information on healthcare anti-trust litigation, she might identify a bar association working group or committee she should join or a newsletter to which she should subscribe and, ultimately, hope to contribute. A partner, looking to build his book of business, might aim to leverage experience with food industry clients to take on more work on behalf of those kinds of businesses. So she might write an article for an industry journal, speak on a legal topic at an industry conference and host a series of dinners with current clients and their colleagues and contacts.

Law firm marketers who support these smaller scale, bottom-up activities, rather than focusing exclusively on the top-down activities (like large-scale events where all firm attorneys are expected to bring clients and network) will find that there are more projects to manage, but that their work is more easily accomplished than when they focused on only a few firm-wide initiatives. First, they’ll get more cooperation and buy-in from attorneys who’ll see more direct benefit from the marketing work they do and, as importantly, attorneys will be taking on marketing activities that play to their strengths, so their marketing colleagues can be helpful partners rather than enforcers and task-masters.

Law firm marketing continues to evolve. The first wave of changes made it more professional, bringing business discipline and brand strategy to bear on a market that had been both overly conservative and lacking in focus. Today, though, leading law firms are embracing the second wave of this evolution, making their marketing efforts more personal and, ultimately, far more effective.

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