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March 15, 2014

To be a better marketer, act like a lawyer.

The following article was published in the March 15, 2014 edition of "Law Practice Today," the monthly webzine of the American Bar Association's Law Practice Management section. The webzine offers articles on current information and trends in the legal industry from administrative professionals in the field of law.

To be a better marketer, act like a lawyer.

It was either a beautiful creation or a Frankenstein. All I knew was that the small-ish project I took on for one practice area had grown into something that was affecting my work for other teams.

It started out as a partnership with a local college before I even worked for the firm, a symposium for a single classroom full of attendees with a review of current issues in casinos and gaming law where one of the partners participated in a speaking role. After a couple of years, the college no longer wanted to run the thing, and the involved partner had an idea: what if the firm took over the symposium? They could pay someone to run it, invite all of the industry’s leaders to participate and expand it into a full-day event? Brilliant!

And it was. In the firm’s (well, the management company’s) first year running the show, it was quite a success, drawing close to two hundred attendees, dozens of expo vendors and quite a bit of media coverage. Then, the partner had another idea: if the new marketing director ran the conference, we wouldn’t have to pay someone else to do it! Brilliant!

It being my first year at the firm and in legal marketing, I was anxious to make my mark, and I lobbied for the project to come in house.

And it was fine at first. But when the amount of vendors, sponsors, attendees and geographic reach continued to grow, it demanded daily attention. After two years of managing the event, I went to the firm’s Chief Operating Officer and explained my dilemma. “How much of your time does this take?” he asked. “Um… a lot?” I offered.

In marketing, people often lament how difficult it is to always be able to draw a straight line from a business development activity to actual business coming in, and how certain things are just not measurable. But in this instance, the value of the conference was a no brainer in terms of exposure and branding in a core practice area. But how could I emphasize the value of my time when I wasn’t even sure how much of it I was truly expending?

So I decided to track my time on the conference, which was relatively easy, as I had always kept a “To Do” list in MS Outlook; now, I simply printed it out each day and physically marked up the sheet for the time spent on the event and totaled it each week. One year later, I marched in with the figures. In a stroke of irony, for the life of me I do not remember the figure. What’s important here is that when I presented it, the COO was surprised that it was so high, and (silently) I was surprised that it was lower than I perceived.

What’s even more ironic is that my goal for presenting this figure was a reassignment of some of the duties related to the conference. What I got was a bonus. A nice one. A “thank you” from the firm and the partner for contributing to the success of the event. Something that the firm generously bestowed each year until I left to establish my consulting practice.

This was my first lesson in timekeeping. The second came when I made that move into consulting and finally came face to face with one of the greatest struggles attorneys must deal with each day. We all hear about billable goals and monthly hour requirements for attorneys but it was when I went to work for myself that I finally understood the biggest workplace divide between lawyers and administrative staff.

In admin, when you come in to work, get a cup of coffee, check email and chat with colleagues (not to mention the multitude of personal tasks that find their way into the day), you are still getting paid. When your primary responsibility is billing time, none of those things count as part of a workday. In short, if you ain’t billing, you ain’t working. So in my first month as a billable being, I realized that all the years of me encouraging attorneys to ‘Volunteer for a committee!’ ‘Speak at a seminar!’ and ‘Attend networking events!’ translate to some attorneys’ ears as, ‘Don’t work!’ ‘Don’t work!’ ‘Don’t work!’

So let me pose this: as an administrative professional in a law firm, if you tracked your time, even for just one week, what will you “bill?” Will you be delightfully surprised to see how you are spending your day? Or painfully mortified?

Go ahead. Give it a try.

If you hold an earlier version of Outlook, there is a “Journal” feature that allows you to track time on projects (note: it’s been removed from the main navigation bar in the 2013 edition). Still, if you keep a “to do” list, electronically or scribbled on a notepad, it’s as simple as leaving space to write in start and end times on items, which you can categorize into one of three areas: “practice area” (or attorney), “admin,” or “personal.” Set weekly and monthly reminders to total your times and keep them in a running document on your computer that you can easily open and edit. Personally, I keep a spreadsheet in MS Excel. I have tabs to record my work for each month, and then create an additional tab for yearly totals.

Of course, there are a multitude of actual time tracking software options out there but the goal here is not to scrutinize down to the minute, just identify gaps and glaring opportunities for improvement. I can’t guarantee compensation, but I know you will also receive a “bonus” of sorts: the gift of knowing you improved yourself and became better at your job.

Other good things lawyers do.

There are plenty of other attorney practices that we may encourage but not perform ourselves that are worth considering:

  • “I just called to say…” One plaintiff’s attorney I know calls clients once per month, even if there’s nothing major to report - just to check in, say hello and stay in touch (as some of these cases drag on for years). Now think about your firm: which team or attorney just doesn’t seem to want to do any marketing? What if you set a reminder to check in once per month no matter what? Tell them about something another attorney or department is doing. You never know what ideas it will spark.
  • “A shoemaker’s house is the worst shorn.” For busy attorneys, I’ve always encouraged a palatable commitment to marketing activities even if it’s a goal of just one (one speaking engagement, one article, one networking event). But we as marketers often forget to market ourselves. If you make it a point to set the same goals for yourself that you help attorneys set for their practices (and calendar monthly reminders to re-read your list or your personal marketing plan) where will you be one year from now?
  • “Leaders aren’t born, they are made.” Attorneys are mandated to attend a certain amount of CLE programs each year. When was the last time you attended a professional development event? Forget that the firm’s not paying for it. Any money you personally spend is still a write-off, and if it’s in a 70-degree city in February, even better. Often, firms will cut a deal – they’ll pay for the conference if you pay for the travel, or not deduct personal or vacation days from your time for attending. Rarely will you leave such a forum saying, “This was a total and utter waste of my time.”
  • “Make new friends (but keep the old).” We encourage attorneys to network. Do we? Association lunches often occur smack in the middle of the workday, sometimes a distance from your office and are wholly inconvenient. Or are they? The legal marketing community is one of the most open and cohesive groups of professionals I’ve known. I have rarely reached out to someone who works for another firm for advice and had them say, “Buzz off, Mulholland.” Attending these events gives you the opportunity to connect with dozens of other people who do the same work as you and who can be a valuable resource when you need them.

As legal marketers, we are so busy. There’s so much in our days that it can seem overwhelming at times. But in trying new things and being open to new approaches, we can inject renewed enthusiasm and spirit into our professional life.

Jamie Mulholland is a law firm marketing consultant based in southern New Jersey with a roster of clients spanning the northeast region.