FindLaw Speaks with Law Marketing Guru Carl Whitaker

Carl Whitaker is the President of Whitaker Communications. With 25 years of law firm experience, including 10 years as Marketing Director of Morrison & Foerster, Carl advises law firm clients on the design and implementation of their marketing, public relations, and client development initiatives.

What are your biggest challenges?

Most firms make the mistake of not including marketing as an integral part of the strategic planning team and business within the firm. The profession has made great strides in the last few years in terms of raising the profiles of senior marketing people and giving marketers a seat at the table in strategic planning. However, getting that seat at the table is still a threshold issue for most marketers. Marketers need to gain the respect of senior management and prove that they can add value at the highest level.

What special issues do multi-office firms face?

To be truly national or international, firms need a local strategy for each office. Every firm has grown up in one location and even a firm with offices in many cities will still be known as a "Los Angeles firm" or a "New York firm." But because so much of the law is local, it's challenging to effectively market a firm in multiple regions. You can't do it in a cookie cutter way. Not only do you need a local plan but you need someone who can carry it out. Unfortunately, because resources are limited, most of the time the home office gets the majority of marketing support.

Does legal marketing differ on a regional basis?

Yes, because the law remains a local business in many ways. For example, developing a marketing plan in New York is very different from developing a plan in San Diego. In San Diego, there is a very tight knit business community with a strong technology focus. It has some powerful local trade associations and if you want to be a player in San Diego you need to establish a profile in those organizations. If you do so, you've laid the groundwork for a successful marketing program.

In a place like Los Angeles or New York, it's not so clear where you should be spending your time and how you can build the firm's reputation in the face of strong, entrenched local competition. Even in smaller markets, you may find that the business community is not so focused and so it's necessary to develop programs that address the various niches that exist. You can't just sit back and rely on the national brand -- most local clients are going to judge you based on the strength of the lawyers in that regional office and you will have to develop your marketing plan accordingly.

What do you think of sales in a law firm?

Sales programs have a place in law firms and are very popular right now. However, we are not selling computer software. We are selling personal service. Yes, there is a place for law firm teams selling the firm. However, much of the work is driven by individuals hiring lawyers. Therefore, your typical corporate sales process does not apply directly to law. One of the most important things that drive sales for a law firm is building attorney reputations through writing articles and speaking. Without the lawyers doing the background reputation building, it will be very difficult for them to close a sale. Marketing professionals arrange sales coaching for their attorneys and that's useful but equally important is helping the individual lawyers develop their careers and reputations so when the lawyers make their sales calls, they can be credible.

Many attorneys complain about a lack of return on their Web marketing investments, and assert that the majority of their business comes from word-of-mouth referral. How do you respond?

There is no arguing that word of mouth referral is your strongest marketing tool. But when someone gets the referral and then comes directly to your website, the site needs to present the right image and effectively communicate about your experience and expertise. The same thing applies with print collateral. No one will hire a firm solely because of the collateral, but the firm needs well-written materials to back up and support the good buzz on the street.

ROI in this context is a red herring - every firm needs to make a reasonable investment in its website and other collateral. It's not much different than paying for stationery and business cards - what's the ROI there?

Of course, I'm not saying that a marketing director can ignore ROI. It's important to clearly articulate the department's goals and the yardsticks to be used for measuring success. I think it's important to include clients and potential clients in the evaluation process. Asking clients how you're doing or potential clients what they think of your firm seems like an obvious thing to do, but most firms under invest in this area. I believe that a key part of any marketing program must be getting accurate client feedback.

What makes up a well-rounded marketing program?

Law firm marketing directors are not immune to trends. For a couple of years it was all about branding. More recently, there's been a lot of attention focused on "sales" and business development at the marketing department level. I have nothing against either branding or sales, but you don't want to lose sight of the big picture. Start with your firm's strategic plan. The eventual make-up of your marketing program is going to depend a lot on your firm's current stage of development and the competitive environment. There are, of course, some basic elements that every marketing plan should address, including client relations, individual lawyer career development, public relations and other reputation-building outreach activities, consistent electronic and print collateral, and so on. But don't forget about the customer -- you can't go wrong by focusing on the client.