How Small Firms Can Win the Marketing Marathon

Published in Law Journal Newsletter: Marketing the Law Firm
Volume 27, Number 10, February 2012

The American Bar Foundation says that nearly two-thirds of America's 1.2 million lawyers are either solo practitioners or practice in firms with five attorneys or fewer. American Bar Association, 2011 Lawyer Demographic Summary,

All of these solos and small firms are inevitably competing to represent individual clients and small businesses in the same types of matters — real estate transactions, estate plans, personal injury lawsuits, and so on. Although clients may differ, each lawyer must convince a prospect to become a client. This is done using many tools aimed at creating a personal relationship that leads the prospect to become a client. At the root of marketing anxiety for small firm and solo lawyers is the perception that there are so many potential clients, so little time to reach them and so many options for pursuing them. Addressing this anxiety requires a narrow focus that identifies a firm's ideal client and develops a strategy for communicating with this target, not everyone. There is no "one-sizefits- all" strategy. Many cost-effective tactics exist, all offering the smaller firm lawyer ways to be memorable for potential clients and differentiated from other lawyers.

Defining the Target

A marketing plan should identify the people most likely to hire the firm for the work it wants to do, communicate with them to identify the services that the firm offers, and then develop close relationships with these prospects aimed at helping them achieve their goals. It requires defining the location, demographics, occupation, financial and other characteristics of clients who will provide the work desired. The acronym SMART describes the elements of an effective plan:

  • Specific: The real marketing issue is not getting more billable hours, it's what kind of specific billable work is most desired.

  • Measurable: Marketing efforts should be measured by specific number of contacts made, clients added and billable time gained. Achievable: Set near-term tar-gets that are realistic and continually raise the bar.

  • Reasonable: Don't pursue unreasonable expectations about potential revenue or number of clients added — that is a prescription for failure.

  • Timely: Set a timeframe for implementation that still imparts a sense of urgency.

Being Visible

The key to marketing success is building relationships with these targeted potential clients. Relationship development is a marathon, not a sprint, and it starts with getting into the public eye. There are many ways to do this that involve little, if any, expense:

  • Call friends, business associates or past clients and offer to help them with their problems within your area of competency.
  • Be prepared with an "elevator pitch," small brochure and business cards at all times.

  • Communicate with law school friends to discuss war stories and develop referral sources.
  • Get out into the public eye by writing articles and attending bar association functions.

  • Develop a "blawg" (weblog) that covers topics of interest to these targeted clients
  • Participate in social networking websites.

  • Check the local bar referral services for targeted prospect engagements.

The Internet deserves special mention. Online marketing efforts of small-firm practitioners must generate

awareness and get clients to initiate contact. Even the smallest of firms can have informative web pages, and their lawyers can interact with worldwide users of blogs and social networking sites. Of course, if the firm's target audience does not use the Internet or search the web on a regular basis, these tactics may not be meaningful to them or useful for the firm.

Guaranteeing Service Quality

No lawyer can ethically guarantee a result, but an effective marketing technique for small-firm lawyers is to guarantee exceptional effort — which does not violate Rule 7.1 (misleading communication), because it deals with factors within the lawyer's own control. Such a "guarantee" at the start of an engagement, especially when combined with a budget, reduces clients' feelings of risk, so that they feel comfortable moving ahead.

There are firms that affirmatively embrace such a "satisfaction guaranteed" approach. Chicago's Ungaretti & Harris has for well over a decade offered clients this assurance: "We cannot guarantee outcomes; we do guarantee your satisfaction with our service. If we do not perform to your satisfaction, inform us promptly. We will resolve the issue to your satisfaction, even if it means reducing your legal fees." Again, there is no ethical problem to guarantee that the firm will make every effort to satisfy clients — then stands behind and in front of that effort.

Establishing Alliances

A sophisticated, effective marketing strategy is an ongoing alliance with another small firm, with customized service packages and billing arrangements. An excellent example is how two small Chicago-area firms (nine-lawyer Varga, Berger, Ledsky, Hayes & Casey, and 10-lawyer Collins Law Firm P.C.) have for more than a decade partnered to represent plaintiffs in environmental pollution cases. "Pair of Law Firms Combines Forces to Battle Pollution," Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, 6/7/11.

Four key lawyers, two from each firm, have secured millions of dollars in monetary settlements and remediation actions for their clients. These lawyers call themselves a team, publicizing their capabilities together on their own website, Beyond such a focused alliance, firms can maintain joint retainer arrangements with allied lawyers for help if a need outside the normal field of expertise arises. Leveraging Trade Shows There is no better way to establish effective personal relationships with prospects than by researching and targeting attendance at industry trade shows and association meetings.

Such interaction with potential clients demonstrates awareness of their business, understanding of their concerns and seriousness in offering solutions.

Studies consistently show that clients and prospects (who can be surveyed online using LinkedIn or other social networking for events to attend) actively seek lawyers who know the clients' industries and understand their business. With the events identified, get the attendee list to evaluate and single out targets and invite them by e-mail to attend the firm's booth. Find out which trade publication editors and reporters are attending the event and make appointments to meet with them.

After meeting and pitching to potential clients, review every business card received and contact the person by phone within one week of the show. This builds on the personal relationships established.

Making Cold Calls

At some point, meeting potential clients where they are may involve the dreaded "cold call," but with the proper preparation there is no reason to dread. First, understand the ethics involved. Rule 7.3 prohibits "in-person, live telephone or real-time electronic contact [to] solicit professional employment from a prospective client" when the solicitation involves "coercion, duress or harassment," or when "a significant motive ... is the lawyer's pecuniary gain."

Within these ethical limits, use Internet research, trade association contacts, social networking and conversation with current clients to identify appropriate visits. Prepare a message showing the ability to handle what is important to the prospect and convey it with clarity, brevity and power. The goal of a cold call presentation is to create a bond with the prospect by providing value. This goes far beyond leaving a brochure and business card.

The first interaction, reflecting research for the call, should involve presenting background on key stakeholders and pressing industry issues, offering opportunities for training or a business needs assessment, or giving an open invitation to an entertainment or sporting event. That means an investment in time and expense — but it also means a cold calling effort that is more likely to bear fruit.

Winning the Marathon

As mentioned earlier, effective marketing is a marathon, not a sprint, because developing personal relationships takes time to build the differentiation for marketing success.

Differentiation gets attention and is the cornerstone of marketing. And marketing means educating targeted clients about the assistance the firm can provide.

In the end, it is the buyer of legal services who decides to reach out, not the seller. If the buyer is responding to an earlier marketing initiative, the seller must be prepared to close the deal when a call comes in. No marketing tactics will make up for calls missed or not promptly returned. Prospects that want to become clients are looking for attentive and top quality service. A firm earns the right to a client relationship by providing value, defined as outstanding service plus an understanding of what the client really needs. The proper approach to the marketing marathon identifies those needs and builds confidence that the firm can address them.

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