Mary E. Vandenack is a founding and managing member of Vandenack Weaver LLC in Omaha, NE. Mary is a fellow of the American College of Trusts and Estates Counsel, a Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy from the American College of Financial Services, and is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. She is vice-chair of the ABA Law Practice Division and is active in the ABA’s Real Property Trusts and Estates Section, where she serves on the Planning Committee, Section Council, and as co-chair of the Futures Task Force, among others. Mary received the James Keane award from the ABA for e-lawyering and has been named to the ABA Women of Legal Tech. Mary is a commentator for Leimberg Services, and is a frequent writer and presenter on tax, trusts and estates, law practice management, and technology. She also hosts the podcast “Legal Visionaries.”
Mary is an advocate for wellness in the profession. She teaches mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and Pilates, and writes a column on wellness for SpiritofOmaha.
Sharon Nelson (SN): Tell us a little about how your firm began and how it grew: Was marketing a big factor?
Mary Vandenack (MV): I graduated near the top of my class from law school, but turned down many opportunities to join a family firm. My dad was 62 years old at the time, and I concluded that if I was ever going to practice with him, I needed to do it then. So, I turned down big law offers to practice with my dad and two brothers. My father died five years later from cancer. One brother and I were going through divorces. The workload and stress of running the law firm at that life moment was unmanageable, so I joined a large firm while one brother went in-house for a client, and another became a wealth strategist. When I joined a law firm, I learned about culture and how important being part of the right culture is. In a matter of five years, I joined and left three large law firms. There were great lawyers at each of those firms, but I simply wasn’t a cultural fit. I had grand plans for technology and innovation, and struggled with the slowness of the legal profession to adopt change.
My path through three law firms helped me understand different ways to develop a client base. A mentor said to me: “When your values and your lifestyle (including career) are aligned, you will be happy, but if your values and lifestyle are not aligned, you will be miserable.”
When my partner and I started our own law firm, we identified our core values and how we wanted to pursue building a practice from a marketing perspective.
First, it was very important to us to build relationships rather than invade the relationships of others. We chose to focus our business on helping clients who were starting and growing businesses and needed legal support in that process. We sought to offer more than just legal support and be a resource in many ways to new businesses.
Second, we wanted to work with clients who fit with us and our core values. As a result, we sat down and identified our core values, which include integrity, innovation, community, wellness, cutting-edge legal knowledge, people, accountability, diversity, and industry forefront.
Third, we identified our personal passions. For example, I am passionate about wellness.
We then developed a marketing strategy that involved connecting with potential clients who were starting businesses that aligned with our core values that we could find while pursuing our personal passions. By way of example, I taught fitness classes for many years at several gyms in my hometown. Many of those who came to my classes became my clients. I am passionate about well-being, and often teach yoga or mindfulness and write a column on the topics. My interest in meditation and developing emotional IQ often results in connections with like-minded individuals who end up being clients or referral sources.
SN: What is (or was) different, either about you or your firm, that has allowed you to become a successful rainmaker?
MV: As to my firm, we set out to be a boutique with a specific focus. We became a tax, business, trusts and estates boutique serving closely-held businesses and their owners. We used technology to deliver services differently before other firms were doing it, and we continue to evolve in that arena. We changed the model about how we bill. We stopped charging for many of the things that law firms historically charged for. We discuss fees upfront and regularly, so there are no surprises. We identify “ideal clients” for our firm, and we don’t take on clients that don’t fit the description.
As to me, it helps that I am a natural extrovert who loves getting to know people. I am also passionate about what I do. I chose a practice area that aligned with my personal values and found clients that also align with my values. When you do that, rainmaking is easy. I join organizations and participate in activities that are related to what I do. I enjoy going to the activities because I am engaged. I also advise my new associates that the best rainmaking comes from doing it on a path that you are already passionate about.
SN: Has the pandemic and/or the current work-from-home environment changed some of the ways in which you market?
MV: The main change that we have made in marketing due to the pandemic has been focusing more on providing current topical information related to how the pandemic affects our clients’ needs. We have used more email and social media than in the past. We have never been big on attending events where 10 people sit at a table and listen to a program. We think that has little interaction potential. We did host online participatory Q&A events during the pandemic that were well received.
SN: How much time do you spend on marketing each week? Do you reserve time for marketing activities?
MV: I make marketing part of my daily life. While I have someone else do my social media posting for me, I do review posts daily for relevant information and to keep up on what is going on in the worlds of my contacts. I was taught that “One key to referrals is that you are present on the mind of the referral source.” Staying in touch with someone is important. While I often comment or share great content on social media, going through the posts reminds me of who I have failed to connect with recently, and I often send an email requesting a connection.
As a firm, we have a weekly Business Development Huddle to encourage everyone with respect to business development. We share ideas and legal issues (so we can cross-sell) and encourage each person to find the approach to rainmaking that works for them. For example, the introverted person might be a better fit for publishing than personal meet-and-greets.
We also meet weekly with our outside marketing strategist to routinely coordinate as to whether we are marketing in a manner consistent with our brand and core values and to consider opportunities.
SN: Do you engage outside professional marketing services? If so, please describe what kind of services you use.
MV: Yes. We have a primary marketing contact, but we believe in getting different perspectives. Our primary marketing company owner is our strategist and handles oversight and certain projects. We discuss what can best be handled by additional resources. Our social media author is a separate outside representative. We may engage a LinkedIn specialist to provide firm training on best practices for LinkedIn. We routinely consult with different providers and attend CLEs to ensure we are staying on top of trends in marketing.
SN: Do you have a dedicated marketing person at your firm? Or some kind of marketing support from staff?
MV: We do not have a full-time dedicated marketing person at the firm. We do hire interns and use various staff members for various marketing efforts. Because we are small and prefer to have the benefit of different perspectives and experience, using outside marketing consultants has proved more effective from both a marketing perspective and a cost perspective. We do have a CEO with a strong business development background.
SN: How do you measure your return on investment when you spend monies on marketing?
MV: We do detailed tracking of sources of incoming projects. Our billing system is structured to allow us to track sources of referrals, including web intakes. Because we are growing, we are working on a more sophisticated structure, but we currently look at the amount of revenue resulting from different sources and the profitability of types of work. We also recognize that intangible factors are difficult to measure. For example, I co-presented with a young woman I was trying to support and mentor at a state bar event. I wasn’t trying to market, but rather trying to support a young lawyer. As a result of that, I got referrals from several women lawyers I didn’t even know.
SN: What is your favorite marketing activity and why?
MV: This is such a hard question because I love all of them. I love writing and presenting because I love sharing about what I do with others who are doing it, in hopes of supporting others on a path I love. Currently, I most love presenting with someone else whose path I am trying to support. I also love supporting organizations that are engaging in activities that matter to me. We have been very involved in supporting health care organizations and mental health and well-being organizations. We are also active in organizations that support startups. Having practiced for a while now, many of my early clients are looking at business exits, so we coordinate with companies that can help with that process.
SN: How did you get your very first client? And your most recent client?
MV: Rather than sharing about my first client, I am going to share how I got one of my very best career-long clients. When I was a young lawyer, I represented a construction company and worked closely with its accounting firm. The lead accountant was great but super busy. I noticed that a young accountant was really doing great work for my client. I told my client that he should tell the senior accountant to keep the young accountant on his team because the young accountant was doing great work. As a result of that, the young accountant got a promotion that ultimately led to a CFO job. He called me one day and said “I have been wanting to refer you a big client for a long time to thank you for what you did for my career, and today, I have that opportunity.” I happen to love supporting good people on the path. I never did it for marketing purposes, but it definitely has that effect. In addition, I think it contributes to wellness, so support people sincerely.
My most recent client was referred to me by a financial advisor that I met in a class where we received Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy designations. The advisor and I connected on yoga, mindfulness, and meditation as well as collaborative planning as the best approach for clients.
SN: How did you get your best client?
MV: Oh dear, I just told that story so I’d best add the “first client” story here. The first client that I obtained other than as an internal referral from another attorney was by giving a presentation on trusts and estates at a church.
SN: What obstacles have you overcome to build your book of business? How did you overcome them?
MV: The main obstacle I have had is that I took on too much. As lawyers, we are always worried about where our work is going to come from. I had difficulty saying no and thought I should take care of everyone who called me. I learned that the concepts of “ideal client” and core values were crucial to having a book of business that made sense for me.
SN: Knowing what you know now, if you were starting over as a lawyer today, what would you do differently?
MV: I would focus from the beginning on developing the exact practice of representing ideal clients. Early on, I took almost anything that came my way and got spread too thin in too many practice areas. I would also hire others sooner and go for capacity instead of being overloaded, because I was worried about running out of work.
SN: Any predictions about the future of marketing for law firms?
MV: Marketing changes by the minute. I think the most important change will be a shift to a focus on what consumers really want in terms of type and how services are delivered. Historically, some firms and attorneys have focused on what they want to sell rather than what customers want. We ask this question: “What can we do to help people?” We market accordingly. I think this is the change you will see.
SN: What, if anything, do you plan to do differently with respect to marketing your services in the future?
MV: We are in a growth and innovation phase, so we are seeking more marketing experts in different areas. I am personally focusing on writing and presenting, as well as a podcast that is consistent with my personal brand (which is synonymous with our firm brand).
SN: Any parting words of wisdom to lawyers still struggling with the best and most cost-effective ways to market their law firms?
MV: A positive social media presence and a well-structured website are the two basic and cost-effective ways to market. Additionally, engage in activities you love and be willing to talk about what you do with passion and enthusiasm. Pick a practice area that you excel at and love and talking about it is easy. Clients will be drawn to your enthusiasm. Also, make clients feel safe, advocated for, and protected. That matters.
About the Author
Sharon Nelson is the president of Sensei Enterprises, a cybersecurity, managed IT services, and digital forensics firm in Fairfax, VA. She is a frequent author (including 18 books published by the ABA) and speaker on legal technology, cybersecurity, and electronic evidence topics.