You’re Out of Order: Law Firm Marketing

The marketing of professional services firms is tough stuff. Whether it is accounting, advertising, architecture, or consulting firms, you name it, there is tons of competition and finding a unique position for the business is elusive. How about law firms? There are over 50,000 law firms in the United States with two or more lawyers, 173,000 solo practitioners, and 1,315,561 licensed attorneys. That is a big category folks.

A category that has historically and currently wrestles with the very idea of marketing. I am not talking about those tacky accident lawyer ads on TV or the calls for people to join class-action lawsuits that remind us of a John Grisham novel. Nor I am not talking about firms who think a logo and a website is all the marketing they need or those that buy ad space on a few city benches and wait for the phone to ring.

This hopefully helpful bit of writing applies to firms of size who would much rather focus on the practice of law rather than the perceived hell and distraction of marketing. Having worked with over 12 law firms on branding and marketing, I have noted a handful of challenges that are universal.

Marketing is a Dirty Word

This is a profession that was once not allowed to market. It was, in a word, illegal. I always thought that was cool. An industry forced to function on referral only. The concept was … do great work and more will come. Legal services was the purist form of business natural selection ever. All law firms had to use was a three person name (Smith, Jones & Smith), state they had been around for decades (Since 1933), and support the local community (Member of the Chamber of Commerce and The Elks). And, for a time, it worked.

Of course, times changed. When marketing became fair game, law firms put a partner in charge of promoting the firm. This was a short-term experiment because the partner knew nothing about marketing. Around the turn of this century, firms hired professional marketers from consumer product companies. I loved witnessing this epic failure. Cola and soup marketing do not translate well to legal services.

The last ten years has seen law firms flirt with every manner of marketing. Some experiments have worked but the vast majority has not. Marketing is still being grafted on law firms and that is the problem. Grafting is not enough. Marketing must be a core skill.

Precedent Versus Differentiation

This is a quick one but an important one. The entire legal profession is based on precedent. Think of your favorite legal movie or TV series. The characters reference past cases and judgments. The profession is trained to reference and hold up what has come before. That is why there is so much me-too law firm marketing. Precious few break out and do really different stuff. Instead the category is incredibly incremental. Precedence trumps differentiation.

No Shared Story

Brand needs stories. There are lots of reasons why legal brands have no real story behind their brand. They either draw on tales of century-dead partners or a few current stars. Then there is the confidentiality of the profession. What can law firms really talk about? We are now at a pivot point for law firm brands. It is time to tell a story that humanizes the firm but provides comfort that you are in safe, yet, confident and discreet hands.

Tactics in Search of a Strategy

All businesses are struggling with the proliferation of marketing tools, techniques, channels, content and more. Law firms are not immune. However, they are among the most lost. I consulted to a firm that spent an inordinate amount of time and effort on partners updating their LinkedIn profiles. Not a bad idea in a microcosm but it did not satisfy any defined strategy. Law firms need to figure out the strategy first then execute.

Afraid to Ask, Scared to Close

Marketing drives awareness and gets prospective clients interested. However, it does not succeed without closing new business. The firms I have worked with are a collective of diverse professionals. Some are excellent tax lawyers or amazing litigators. Yet, these legal eagles are horrible salespeople. They do not know how to position, present and ask for business. They are sharp but passive professionals. Selling is not a natural trait and hiring a professional marketer does not solve this challenge. So why spend money on marketing when no one in the vicinity can close?

These five challenges of law firm marketing raise more questions than answers. The value comes in being aware of them so your firm does not waste any time or resources on what does not work. To discover what can work, ask yourself four questions.

WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING TO SOLVE?

Guess what? Most often we discover it is something more complex or entirely different than first thought.

WHAT DO YOU HAVE THAT IS UNIQUE?

Guess what? What you have is often undifferentiated, irrelevant and important mostly to you.

WHO WANTS OR NEEDS IT?

Guess what? You are probably not attracting and keeping the most desired clients.

HOW DO THEY LIKE TO BE COMMUNICATED TO?

Guess what? Most communication approaches are “tactics in search of a strategy”.

The marketing of law firms has to take a giant leap of faith. It has to bust down century old stereotypes of dusty volumes of books, supposedly irrefutable sage advice, and stodgy interaction. Lawyers practice law but are also business consultants, therapists, strategists and thought leaders. The firm that claims a new space, humanizes the practice of law, and markets smart rather than traditionally will have a hard time keeping up with the business they will attract.

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