No! Not at all. Although much has changed over the years, one constant has prevailed over time, without a substitute. It is the difference between a typical law practice and a thriving one, and usually, it costs nothing.
Marketing Time Capsule
Before the 1980s, law firms did little marketing or advertising. Many bar members had difficulty with this phenomenon. About half of them thought legal services were a product requiring some form of promotion. The other half thought it was unprofessional and not worthy of the profession. This latter half even thought marketing might cross ethical barriers and skirt client matter confidentiality. Both agreed, however, that marketing legal services should take a different fashion from traditional business initiatives. This agreement marked the beginning of a marketing constant that has not changed over the years: the essence of law firm marketing is developing a business relationship between the lawyer and the client. This constant is essential and historically has marked a difference between a typical law practice and a thriving law practice. Clients choose lawyers because of a cultivated business relationship. It has always been that way, and it is very much the same today.
An early highlight of law firm marketing was the “branding” era when law firms began to differentiate themselves from their competitors to stand out. This was the time when slogans were developed, new logos were created, long firm names were shortened, formalized pitches and proposal systems were developed, and emblems were pressed on desk items and trinkets to promote the brand of a given firm. This was an effort to become more like business corporations and to be identified as an emerging, contemporary law firm. The era was successful, and those techniques continue to be used today. However, all the branding in the world has not curtailed the need for individual lawyers and their firms to develop close and trusting relations with clients. The product of a law firm is professional time, and each product of time has some unique characteristic that matches only the client being served. Clearly, this relationship makes the product of law firms unique to business corporations. There is not a perfect match between business corporations and law firms, and it is good that this is true.
Perhaps you remember the era of developing an “elevator pitch” that provided even strangers a dose of a lawyer’s skill and qualifications, all in the name of marketing to develop new business. While this taught lawyers to speak quickly upon a perceived opportunity, it lacked the notion that a lawyer must develop a trusting relationship to get new business. Prospective clients may not think as much about the skill and qualifications of a lawyer as they do about the desire for a viable lawyer-client relationship. Their greater interest is having the confidence that the lawyer is more interested in client needs rather than recording billable hours. The time-tested marketing constant emerges again to exclaim that a business relationship, not an eloquent elevator pitch, is the connection with people and businesses that purchase legal services.
Modern Marketing Approaches
Today, lawyers have a plethora of marketing vehicles and tools. They include the ever-increasing power of social media, cyber connections, mass media transportation of content, and many forms of artificial intelligence to search and find opportunities to market a practice. These light-speed opportunities have substantially changed the role of marketing in law firms. Aside from the internet power available today, law firms have found awesome marketing directors, advisors, consultants, and in-house leadership for supporting and administering marketing initiatives. There are so many positive marketing changes for law firms today, and change is not only inevitable but also necessary to advance our firms. Why resist when the opportunity to embrace this marketing power that is so readily available?
Despite all the advantageous marketing tools that have developed, the criticality of developing trusting business relationships is as much of a need today as it was in the beginning days of law firm marketing. Fulfilling that relationship need is a process, as the result is usually never instant. These tools, combined with social media, bring prospective clients to the forefront for attorneys to develop such essential relationships. Again, having these relationships is the difference between a typical and a thriving practice. The pending question is how to develop them.
Developing Business Relationships
Where are all the prospective clients for developing business relationships? Do lawyers need to schedule more lunches, shake more hands, or sponsor more cocktail meetups to find them?
The answer to the first question is that prospects are all around you. You probably passed some of them at a recent meeting or noticed them participating in online legal forums. Maybe they are even in your saved emails. Perhaps we have incorrectly assumed that we must develop relationships in the traditional person-to-person fashion. That works, but these other opportunities are working as well in our modern era of law firm marketing.
Candidly, some lawyers showcase better online than they do in person. Imagine being at a lunch table with a lawyer on assignment from a marketing committee who lectures during most of the lunch about his services and the greatness of his firm. That boredom is outdone if the lawyer concludes the lunch by presenting an outdated multi-page firm brochure to be carried back to the office without apparent usefulness. No doubt and sadly, that expensive (and even beautiful) brochure was dropped into the valet station.
The second question is best answered with “no.” Lunches, handshaking, and cocktail gatherings are nice, and at times productive, but so are short and complimentary webinars, or even responses to emails and text messages.
One suggestion about developing relationships is to remember that interactions with prospective clients are not the same as selling cars! No one must drive one home today. It could take a few interactions over time to form the relationship. Prospects will contact and ask the lawyer meaningful questions about a legal issue once they feel comfortable and connected to the lawyer who has substantive expertise in what they need. This is a process, not an action. After many repetitions on the part of the lawyer, it should become a lifestyle. With passing time, a practice built in this natural way can thrive, and new business and referrals will almost feel organic… like they just happened.
Here is an example of marketing expectations without a developed relationship. Imagine that a lawyer decided to publish an article in various media outlets hoping to develop new business. The article was well-written and posted to the firm website and then copied to one of the author’s social media accounts. Other attorneys of the firm even went to the social media account and ‘liked’ the article and left positive comments. Moreover, the article was forwarded to several other people to increase exposure. Let’s also imagine this scenario occurred last Friday and today is the next Wednesday. Is it surprising that no one has requested legal services from reading the excellent article? Not surprising at all. This scenario has good marketing, but it lacks the business relationship that is the steppingstone to opening new matters. It is, however, a start.
It’s Not About You
Another relationship-building suggestion is to remember that the process is not about you, it is about the prospective client. A prospect’s greatest interest is themself… not you. So why force your own agenda onto the prospect? Sometimes, to say less about yourself and ask more questions about the other person opens the business dialog a lawyer seeks. Be yourself, rehearse less for new introductions, and bring out the good of each prospect. As a result, you will find a process that almost makes your legal services irresistible when needed.
To further expound on relationship building, here are actual comments I received from clients about their expectations regarding developing an attorney relationship:
- Hear and understand what I’m saying before drawing conclusions about what I need.
- Make me feel that what you’re doing for me is about more than just you earning a fee.
- I need to be confident that I can trust you completely.
- Sometimes, I may only want your opinion or I may want to run a thought by you for your feedback. Not every request I may send to you is meant to be turned into a major legal project.
- Should I make a reasonable complaint, it is not intended to represent a crisis in our relationship.
Since marketing was introduced to law firms, it has continuously changed at an escalating pace. Today, we have the ever-increasing power of social media and the Internet that is further supported by excellent marketing talent from marketing directors, legal administrators, and other professionals. These resources can help lawyers find and connect with the client prospects that are all around you, wherever you go. This is a wonderful era that should be embraced.
Not everything has changed about marketing in law firms. The root ingredient is the same today as it was in the beginning: the ability of lawyers to form meaningful and trusting business relationships. This means a lawyer cannot totally outsource the growth of a law practice. Even with marketing technology and human marketing talent, it is still the lawyer that must connect the dots. Basically, it is a decision to make the connections and, when that happens, a process that differentiates a typical practice from a thriving one. This process can begin today.
About the Author
Bill McCallister has been working with lawyers and law firms for three decades. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the effects of strategic planning on law firm growth and profitability, and for the last 13 years, has been with the Mateer Harbert law firm in Orlando, FL where he claims going to work each day is still fun. Contact him at Bill@Mateerharbert.com.