What Does Your 2021 Marketing Plan & Budget Look Like?

At this point one year ago, you should have had your marketing plans in place for 2020. Typically, a well-oiled law firm would have already approved individual attorney business development plans, practice group marketing goals, and firm-wide initiatives for the coming year, tied to a corresponding budget.

However, as often is the case, “life happens,” and those plans don’t always play out as orchestrated. But never like this. Chances are pretty good that most of those strategies and the corresponding dollars went unused. Now it is time to dust off the plan to see what will still work and what won’t.

It was what I refer to as the very first business day of the pandemic era—Monday, March 16—that “given the current new reality” was the e-mail lead from a midsize law firm in the Philadelphia suburbs letting me know our business development arrangement was “canceled.” While I was mildly annoyed at that moment, it did turn out that the midsize, general practice law firm was going to suffer more than some others. In the months to follow, many business-oriented niche boutiques continued to prosper, and sometimes grow. For every law firm that has seen a slowdown, others have profited greatly over the last year. Big Law has done an about-face, rescinding budget cuts, and often doling out additional bonuses—because the “slowdown” in the need for lawyers didn’t really happen. For many, it ramped up big time. Big Law was the biggest beneficiary of all businesses receiving PPP loans in many states, while also finding this a good time to jettison some unneeded people, parts, and offices that underperformed. In the end, you could argue that many were stronger from the pandemic than weaker.

Never Stop Never Stopping

As the title of the forgettable Andy Samberg 2016 film, Popstar, says, “Never stop never stopping.” In other words, regardless of whether you are a struggling solo or midsize, or a healthy boutique or mega-firm, this is no time to stop—marketing. Maintaining visibility and brand awareness did not stop. And with the limited places to “be seen,” you want to stay on the radar of clients, referral sources, and prospects. Just make sure you are putting your time, money, and energy into the right places.

Beware of Bad Optics

At many law firms, we’ve debated when it is safe to schedule something that involves in-person interaction. Whether it is a social event, a breakfast briefing, or a CLE seminar, you need to be wary of the widely varied philosophies of your target audience. I’ve never used the term “optics” more in a year, but how you and your firm are perceived will outlast this uninvited timeframe in our lives and careers.

It is also important to exhibit sensitivity and compassion when communicating through e-mail newsletters and client alerts. Some people are doing great. Others are not. The lead feature in this issue of Law Practice Today discusses the touchy subject of social justice in the legal profession. Be sure to know your audience and recognize the temperature of the market when promoting various messaging—internally and externally—from your law firm. The last thing you want is to appear being out of touch.

Backload the Budget

While I’m no Dr. Fauci, it appears you’d want to start investing in many marketing initiatives in the second half of 2021. The usual “use it or lose it” fears from prior budgeting years are unlikely. Instead, you should game plan on going heavier later—that includes a resumption of lunches, golf outings, and some travel. The second reason for backloading is simply likely effectiveness. A combination of online content overload and virtual meeting/conference fatigue will continue with the New Year. Almost all of our budget spending has been redirected to a variety of finite online resources.

Beware of Online Fatigue

This was the first time I have ever encountered resistance from some publications and programming providers to quality “pitches” on behalf of some law firms. Not because they weren’t interested, but because they were inundated. The world of podcasts, webinars, and social media has become oversaturated. I’ve been just as big a part of the problem. We simply have no choice but to market through online channels, with client and networking lunches, travel to conferences and firm events effectively out the window. I’m in no way discounting the importance of your website, search engine optimization effectiveness, and self-published content—but a ton of it is out there.

Law firms and organizations see a little less fatigue from creative online events for clients and contacts. The virtual happy hours were fun—the first time, like last spring. Firms have successfully been able to network and interact with clients—not necessarily with a substantive CLE webinar or podcast—but with a comedy show, wine tasting, or cooking class. Moving some marketing dollars to a fun event in the coming months will be welcome and remembered as we wait out a vaccine of our liking.

Strategic Planning is Less Strategic and Less Planned

Practice group and firm-wide planning for 2021 have been difficult. You typically do not get all of the voices together in a room to discuss a practice’s plans for the coming year right now. For the firm as a whole, there is a lot of “status quo”—simply taking the 2020 plan and changing the last digit to make it 2021.

Individual attorney business development planning is much easier, and sometimes more effective. While my one-on-one BD planning meetings is through phone or video conferencing instead of face-to-face, we can still at least make a plan. Many of these plans have been altered based on your ability to get good child care (or if you are “homeschooling” a younger kid through Google Classrooms) if you go into an office, and how well your law firm is able to still mentor, professionally develop and function. An important part of BD planning in 2021 is having an acute understanding of the individual—and his or her place in the firm.

Hard Copy Woes

Many law firms are awash in stacks of hard copy publications and related mail that is not tied to a client or a matter. The harsh reality is that many of these will never get read. Online might be saturated, but it is also where you are getting your news and information. I’ve never hesitated to contribute to a hard copy magazine, but understand that the readership right now is not the same. And the same goes for law firm advertising dollars in print publications—the real eyeballs are going to be lower than usual. I’ve avoided most hard copy advertising until people are back in offices on a somewhat regular basis. It is also a consideration (although you are reading this in mid-December, so it is probably too late) when sending holiday cards and gifts to an office—where they may languish. I’ve tried my best to see if home addresses can be located, especially for gift sending at the holidays.

Dual Edged Sword

For organizational involvement, the all-virtual/no-travel timeframe that looks like it will last in earnest about 18 months has had its pros and cons. On the con side, losing in-person networking and meetings definitely takes away a lot of the business development value of being part of a club. Many people in leadership roles (me included) have lamented that the pandemic environment has led to a lot of non-responsiveness from committee members. Somehow, not having the pressure of meeting in person and being held accountable has led to a lot of “dropping the ball” in expected follow through. For me, seeing my colleagues in fun cities is the best part of these volunteer roles. So the combination of Zoom calls, e-mail and conference calls doesn’t really cut it.

Of course, all-virtual has a big upside as well. Not everyone loves the social aspect. But more importantly, the time and money commitment to chairing a board remotely is extremely minimal. If, for example, you chair a significant board in an ABA section or division, a typical year would often include a minimum of four business trips—to fall and spring meetings, ABA Midyear and Annual. Figure those alone account for more than a weeks’ worth of billable (and family) time, plus a few thousand dollars. The commitment is much smaller and the visibility in your role is mostly the same. I’ve had some younger attorneys’ ramp up association involvement this year for just that reason.

In your 2021 marketing plan, there is no reason not to either keep your association involvement status quo or increase it. You’ll have carved out a role and territory for later on. I’ve budgeted for in-person conferences again starting in September—basically Q4 2021 for a return to those fall meetings.

Conference & Meeting Expenses and Sponsorships

As just stated, I’ve advised planning on a return to “in person” in the fall. While some organizations have not yet canceled spring or summer meetings, most are leaning toward it. There will be some smaller organizations that are braver and will try to push something out in the summer months. But those will still require very small attendee numbers. And sponsors will not follow as quickly—both because they are all working virtually, and because they’ve taken financial hits that lead to cutbacks in advertising and sponsorship.

For in-person conference attendance, plan on traveling and budgeting for those in September/October (few are ever held in November/December, but perhaps a few will try to push back into typically open travel spaces in next years’ holiday window of November/December). That sounds sad being nearly another calendar year away from now, but that’s reality.

As for conference sponsorships, unless the price points are quite low, I’ve advised against most “opportunities” for remote events in the coming year. While many people may register for conferences (with relatively low fees), most are not fully engaged. Having your law firm logo pop up on a PowerPoint slide or showing up on a website has some, but not a lot, of branding value. Of course, sometimes we are simply sponsoring out of the goodness of our hearts, to support an association. In that case, your help now may very well be rewarded later. If you’re making a decision based simply on pure marketing value and return on investment—hold the cash for the future.

Many organizations are eager and anxious to get those sponsorships for the end of 2021 in the books. So a good buy may be a sponsorship package for the fourth quarter—when many members will be chomping at the bit to get back to an in-person event—just for the simple luxury of grabbing a beer at the hotel bar.

Keep Doing the Simple Things

It’s more about time than money, but don’t stop doing the things that are simple and expected. Maintain your website, blogs, and social media presence. You still should be doing some combination of webinars, podcasts, or related CLE programming—either self-produced or through a third-party provider. Complete RFPs and RFIs that make sense. Publish something somewhere. For consumer-facing firms, the marketing is much more status quo—prospective clients are still slipping and falling, getting divorced, buying houses, and dying (needing wills, I mean, perhaps now more than ever). Don’t let a little distance and uncertainty keep you from maintaining or growing your position in the marketplace.

Putting together a 2022 marketing plan and budget will be here before you know it. In the meantime, never stop never stopping—while staying safe and healthy.

 About the Author

Micah Buchdahl is an attorney who works with law firms on marketing and business development and is a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. Micah is the associate editor of Law Practice Today’s Board of Editors. He can be reached at micah@htmlawyers.com or 856.234.4334, and on Twitter at @mbuchdahl.

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