How to Build a Better Marketing Mousetrap

Although the origins of the phrase are disputed, everyone seems to know the old phrase: “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” Nowadays, the phrase is often used to illustrate the mistaken belief that simply producing some new and superior product will automatically lead to new customers “beating a path” to the doors of your business. But is that thought process true for law firm marketing?

In the legal profession, the standard mousetrap is the traditional, lawyer-centered marketing model for small law firms. That is, a lawyer builds a reputation and markets their services individually. The strategy depends primarily upon the strength of the reputation of the individual attorney. The lawyer accumulates a cache of clients, which continues to grow based upon that reputation and the skill of the attorney. Eventually, the attorney acquires more work than one person can handle, and brings on additional attorneys to assist with the overflow. Conceptually, it is similar to a silo in which accumulated grain is stored until it overflows, and additional silos are built. Over time, those additional silos, or attorneys, may begin to earn their own clients through reputation and skillful practice. A firm grows around the collection of these bountiful silos.

The benefits of this silo system are that it is easy and relatively straightforward. It relies generally upon the brand and the ability of a single attorney to attract and manage the work. The value of an attorney who can fill up his or her own silo is clear. Some may additionally argue that it is “fair.” That is, the attorneys most skilled at marketing develop the largest silos and, presumably, participate in a greater share of profits earned from that silo, enjoying the fruits of their labor.

But is there a way to build a better mousetrap for legal marketing? Or, if not, at least improve upon the current model? In today’s legal marketplace, clients’ needs often go beyond what one individual attorney can deliver. To achieve greater success, it makes sense that a legal brand extends beyond the individual to embrace the collective knowledge and experience of the firm as a whole. To that end, law firms are increasingly exploring marketing strategies that are “firm-centric” as opposed to “lawyer-centric.”

Looking outside the legal arena, the Mayo Clinic is a good example of a marketing strategy built around the institution. Generally, patients do not go to the Mayo Clinic because of a single physician. Rather, the reputation of the institution as a whole draws people. Patients go to the Mayo Clinic because they know that they will receive the highest level of care, regardless of the physician who sees them. If a patient is treating at the Mayo Clinic and a particular physician leaves, that patient is less inclined to follow the physician, but rather may stay at the clinic, trusting the level of care and resources that can be brought to bear by the institution generally, rather than the skill of any one particular physician.

This firm-centric model could prove to be useful in law firm marketing as well. Consider a firm in which the reputation of the institution as a whole surpasses the reputation of any single lawyer. Clients choose the firm knowing that whoever handles the case is going to be eminently qualified, and the resources of the firm guarantee superior representation. In that system, the lifeblood of the firm is not tied to any single individual, but rather the institution as a whole. In my own context, for example, a purely personal brand might highlight my own legal knowledge and experience in health law. But if a client needed help on a regulatory or litigation matter outside of my “brand,” I am increasingly rolling the dice on whether they decide to call me, or simply hit the “easy button” in the form of a Facebook or Google search. On the other hand, if my own brand is made a part of the wider “firm-centric” brand, I’ve increased the likelihood that my client stays with me and my firm for all their legal needs.

In the traditional “silo” model, simply too many variables are left to chance to ensure the long-term, continuing success of a law firm. The founding partner will someday retire or become incapable of practicing law. When that happens, the other attorneys are left scrambling to fill the void, and hope that long-term, lucrative clients do not choose to take their business elsewhere because the founding attorney is no longer practicing. Or, a younger attorney who has developed his or her own full silo of work and is feeding others may decide to set up a new shop or leave for other opportunities, taking that silo of clients with them and leaving a large void in firm revenues. The traditional model places a significant amount of leverage in the hands of the attorneys who are successful marketers, sometimes at the expense of the security of the firm. In a firm-centric model, lawyers can come and go as they choose, without jeopardizing the stability of the firm as a whole.

The firm-centric model recognizes that the reputation upon which an attorney relies is inextricably tied to the fact that they are a member of a larger group with resources that allow that attorney to provide excellent representation. The firm-centric approach rewards, in part, the many hands at work behind the scenes that allow a lawyer to market and attract clients.

A firm-centric model relies upon a commitment to excellence throughout that firm. Clients are relying upon a strong chain to support them, and that chain will only be as strong as its weakest link. That excellence is fostered over time by assuring high-quality work product and the use of best available methods and technology to provide representation. Clients need to perceive that a firm is on the cutting-edge of legal representation and committed to demanding lawyers adhere to a higher standard. This requires investment in technology and the training of all attorneys within the firm. Moreover, senior partners must make the leap of faith that transitioning work and allowing others to share in the interactions with the clients will work to the benefit of the firm and their own personal interests.

Some may view firm-centric marketing as an attempt to “build a better mousetrap,” while others see it as an improvement upon the existing branding model. In any event, firm-centric marketing is the natural evolutionary step for any small firm looking to establish long-term viability.

About the Author

Ian Hennessey is an attorney with London Amburn, a law firm in Knoxville, TN that focuses on health care matters.

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