“Big Tips for Small Law Firms”
The following article was published in the October, 2009 edition of "Law Practice Today," the American Bar Association's monthly electronic magazine.
Big Tips for Small Firms
By: Jamie Mulholland
I began working in legal marketing ten years ago for a mid-size New Jersey firm, one with a global practice but solidly set in the shadow of larger practices in Philadelphia and New York. Noticing the marketing efforts (or lack thereof) of even smaller firms than mine actually moved me to go the freelance route four years ago. Since then, I’ve noticed some common areas where such firms can harness more business development power of their own and avoid wasting time and money.
“The one that got away…”
This may be a no-brainer, but small firms often miss countless opportunities for free press, not realizing their many newsworthy happenings:
- New attorneys, or appointments to management or department chair positions
- Attorney involvement with a board/committee/event for a school, nonprofit, bank/utility, professional organization, or government task force/authority
- Speaking engagements
- Involvement on the editorial board of a publication
- Participation/sponsorship of seminars/events
- Awards of any type (but not “Super”-type listings - there is not enough ink in the world for your local newspaper to highlight every attorney in their market with such honors)
I worked with a firm who initially thought such efforts a waste, since they didn’t “directly bring in business,” but came to appreciate the power of regular media mentions (and the ability to recycle that news into other vehicles - a newsletter, the website…). Like advertising, seeing a firm’s name repetitively in the news will have readers equating you as a leader in your market.
You know how when a couple wants to put that “za za zoom” back into the relationship they plan a second honeymoon or “date night” to a special place? A date with the mate is great, but it doesn’t a good marriage make.
When a firm wants that “za za zoom” back into business development but can’t afford one-on-one training and brings in a speaker to talk to attorneys (or sends them offsite to one or more sessions), chances are, like “date night,” you may not end up with someone falling in love with business development all over again but rather, a big bill and some dead flowers.
Training and education DO work for attorneys IF the lessons are carried beyond the classroom. After the session(s), do one-on-one follow up with participants. Have them submit a “what I learned” report that is developed into a short list of major, yearlong goals, and work them into weekly or monthly initiatives. And follow up to see if those goals were achieved.
I once worked for someone who, if you cited a personal opinion (or one of a coworker or friend) on a marketing initiative, would chide, “NO brother-in-law research,” meaning, ‘go outside your comfort zone to get input to help you produce the best product possible.’
Because you know or are related to a graphic designer doesn’t mean they should be the firm’s graphic designer. This should be common sense, but unfortunately, it’s not. Worse, it’s detrimental to a firm’s marketing efforts.
I met with a firm who shared a marketing plan they were considering submitted by a local agency with no law firm experience. Reading it, I was shocked: first at the sticker price, then at suggestions that had no business in a firm’s marketing efforts and would do nothing to grow business. Asking how the proposal came to be solicited, I discovered the agency owner’s daughter babysat for the managing partner. Another firm showed me their “website in development” at our first meeting which was, ironically, done by the managing partner’s babysitter.
In creating such a tool for your firm – a website, brochure, logo – it is good to have a level of trust and familiarity with the vendor, but too great a level will blind you to developing a strong vehicle with an objective mind. Even if the vendor you know may be the best possible choice, if you do not explore several alternatives from a creative and financial perspective, you risk of being left with someone who does not understand your industry, someone you will be afraid to say “no” to, or – worse - a tool that does not achieve its purpose.
“A Watched Pot Never Boils”/“Out of Sight, Out of Mind”
After making an investment in such tools, it is important to revisit them periodically to reevaluate their effectiveness, but also important to give them a period of time to see how they work. I’ll offer two converse examples to this effect.
I worked with one firm to create a website that afforded them the ability to change content on certain pages and, in the process, worked with leadership to develop copy for the site. The website made its debut with great fanfare and everyone was pleased. Until the following week, when a senior partner had the secretary with the site password change copy on a couple of the pages (she was afraid to refuse him). A week later, another partner did the same thing. When a third partner printed out the entire website, marked up all of the pages and delivered them to the secretary, she called me in a panic, “What do I do?”
Certainly, the excitement at this fantastic new branding medium and the ability to easily tailor content was commendable, but not to the end that you do not give the medium a chance to succeed in its original, unanimously-planned format (not to mention the importance of keeping continuity in messaging between the firm’s site and printed materials).
On the other hand, once you’ve completed such a project, you can certainly take it off your priority list, but don’t remove it completely from memory. When I began work with another firm, I reached out to their present vendors - printers, designers, etc. – as the new go-between, as I always do. I very much enjoy such relationships, as the vendors are delighted to work with someone who understands their work, and I expand my network for the benefit of other firms. This instance, however, was different.
This firm’s “webmaster,” a small company who had designed the site several years prior (and who was billing the firm monthly as part of their design/hosting/maintenance contract, which included “submitting terms monthly to search engines”) initially refused to speak with me, citing “confidentiality.” After the managing partner assured them I was legit, I asked for the specific terms they were submitting to those search engines. They replied they would “check their files” for the information. After two weeks and three follow up calls they told the firm, “We cannot work with this person. It’s her or us.” Turns out, the contract had expired two years prior to my call and the firm had been paying an inflated bill for, among other things, “optimization” that was not happening. We then moved quickly to establish in-house hosting for the firm at a fraction of what they were paying.
The moral of the story
The point of these examples is certainly not to dissuade small firms from undertaking such efforts, only to show where they might have worked better with a different approach. The bottom line is if you are undertaking any marketing effort at ALL, you are doing a good thing. Investing in the future of your practice, no matter what vendor, product, or method, is a step in the right direction, one that can lead you to success.
Jamie Mulholland assists small firms with PR and marketing efforts as part of her consulting practice, Jamie Mulholland Marketing. She is the 2009 President of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association.