The Psychology of Small Law Firm Marketing

You’re asking all the wrong questions.


No wonder, then, that the answers you’re getting don’t seem to make sense. When making decisions about marketing, you ask what it will cost. You ask if it’s been successful in the past. You ask if you can be on the first page of Google. Yet, with the exception of only a few of you (on average about 5% of audiences to whom I have had the honor of presenting), you don’t ask the only question that matters when deciding on your marketing:

How much money do you want to make?

You have to pick a number. What will the net income be for your small law firm? (Yes, you can choose this.)

Once you’ve decided on your number, you have to make it feel so real that not achieving the goal would feel like losing something you already had.

For most people, aversion to loss outsizes the opportunity to gain. In other words, the risk of losing something we already have if a far more powerful source of motivation.

This is an important concept for any attorney striving to grow a law firm. Why? Because growth comes on the heels of activities outside the usual comfort zone of attorneys: law firm marketing and business development.

As lawyers, we’ll come up with all sorts of excuses to avoid such tasks unless we do one critical thing: Make our goals for law firm growth so real in our minds that not achieving them feels as painful as a loss.

To make our goals real, we have to understand the why – why are we here?

The Three Types of “Why” in Law

When I was in law school, I saw three types of students.

The first type attended law school to make a lot of money. This type of law student courted big law firms, and some of my peers are still there.

The second type was the failsafe. Given the means to finance an expensive legal education, it’s the idea that one can accomplish anything with a law degree. And many of them are!

The third type, and I count myself among them, were more aspirational. We were driven by a few common beliefs:

  • We believed we could help people in a way that no one else could.
  • If we worked hard, clients would beat a path to us.
  • We’d make a decent living and have a high quality of life.
  • We could change the world, in big ways or small ways. We could make a difference.

In my travels around the country speaking with thousands of small firm attorneys, I’ve come to realize that most of them fall into that third category.

The hard reality is that the vast majority in this group are not living out that dream; not even close. Most are working way harder than they imagined they would. Far too many are bringing home far less than they would have described as a “good living.” Most troubling of all, however, is that they report feeling as if they are not making a difference in the world.

One attorney I spoke with recently said she was working upwards of 70 hours a week, for example. When I asked her why she was working so many hours, she responded, “So I don’t get sued.”

That’s a terrible reason to work so hard.

Somewhere along the way we’ve lost track of what the business of a law firm really is, and its purpose for existence.

What Is the Business of a Law Firm?

When I ask solo attorneys what is the business of a law firm, most provide answers that fall into themes such as to help people or to make money.

Those answers, while noble-sounding, are incorrect: the business of a law firm is to sell and deliver legal services. If law firms do not sell and deliver legal services, then we’ll neither help people nor make money.

The distinction is critically important. The function of a lawyer who helps people without selling legal services is called charity. Likewise, the function of a lawyer who sells legal services without helping people is called theft. We must remain focused on this as the business of a law firm, so that the law firm, and we, can help people.


What Is the Purpose of Your Law Firm Business?

Having defined the business of a law firm, let’s examine the purpose of the business.

When I ask attorneys the purpose of their business, the answers tend to fall into a few common categories: to provide jobs, support the community or improve the lives of clients or employees.

Again, while these are all admirable characteristics, they are not the purpose of a law firm business.

A small law firm exists for three key reasons:

  1. To satisfy the needs of the law firm owner and fund his or her ideal lifestyle.
  2. To give him or her the ability to live the way he or she wants to live.
  3. To achieve his or her professional goals.

That may seem selfish at first blush, but only on the surface. Digging deeper, we begin to understand the facts are clear: If an attorney wants to help people, if he or she wants to do pro bono work, or have more time with family, the path to doing that is by running a successful business.

What any business can earn for its owner is directly proportional to the value that business can create in the world. For lawyers, that value comes from helping people. The value comes from delivering to people a better future than they would have if they did not work with you.

What a lawyer’s business can provide to the owner is directly proportional to how many people that business can help, and how much it can help them. The more people the business helps, the more people it will employ (and help.) The more people the business helps, the more professional accomplishment it delivers for the owner.

These three reasons ensure that the law firm business owners remain focused on helping the most people as much as possible.

How to Identify the Ideal Small Law Client

Once we’ve accepted that fact that a law firm is a business with a purpose, it changes our frame of thinking. This enables the small law firm to make better decisions about growth.

Years ago, as a managing partner with a small law firm, one of my clients accounted for 35% of revenue. However, on a rating system, where our best clients merited a letter grade of “A,” this client was a “D.”

As a matter of policy, our firm fired clients with a letter grade of “D” or “F” once a year—and then marketed to replace them with clients with a “B” average or better.

This achieved two important objectives. First, it made more room for our ideal clients, and in the course of a couple years, this exercise dramatically boosted our law firm profitability.

Second, this process satisfied one key aspect of small law marketing: clearly identifying the ideal client.

Successful small law firm marketing brings prospects that match your definition of an ideal client, and in the right quantities.

But how do we determine the right quantity?

Determining the Quantity of Small Law Prospects

While it might seem counter-intuitive, the key to this question is nested in the introduction—making failure to achieve goals as painful as a loss. Decide on your profit number first, and then reverse engineer your marketing plan from there.

For the sake of illustration, let’s say your net income goal is $500,000 per year. With a profit margin of 50%, this means your small law firm needs to bring in $1 million in revenue.

Next, we determine the average case value, which in this example we’ll say is $10,000. To reach our revenue and profit goals, this means we need 100 new cases per year or 8.3 cases per month.

Of course, not every prospect you meet is going to hire you. Continuing this example, let’s say about half of all meetings lead to a new client or a 50% conversation rate. To meet the goal of 8.3 new cases per month, this means you need 17 prospects—not just any prospects, either, but ones that look like your ideal client.

Now with clear objectives, we can build a law firm marketing program to achieve 17 prospects per month that look like our ideal customer. Every month we do not achieve that goal, then we know our net income goal of $500,000 is slipping away. Your marketing must deliver those 17 prospects; it is the basis for that firm’s marketing plan.

Picking a number is a psychological shift in thinking that helps small law firms, particularly solo firms get focused. It’s a process of making our goals so real in our mind so that not obtaining those goals feels like a loss. And that is the beginning of a journey that allows you to do more of what you want to do—whatever that may be.

What’s your number?

About the Author

Christopher T. Anderson is a lawyer, national speaker and attorney professional development coach. He is the vice president and general counsel for How to MANAGE a Small Law Firm. Connect with him on Twitter @LawFirmBusiness.


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