FindLaw Speaks with Law Marketing Guru Silvia Coulter

Silvia L. Coulter, Director of Marketing and Business Development at Dorsey & Whitney, is an expert in the field of legal marketing management and sales. She is the immediate past president of the Legal Marketing Association, and the 2003 Legal Marketing Association annual conference co-chair, and Editor in Chief of "Law Firm Partnership and Benefits Report," published by American Lawyer Media. Silvia, a noted lecturer and author to the legal industry, has spent the last 16 years working with law firms to help them pursue their strategic marketing and sales initiatives. She is the co-founder of Coulter King O'Neill, a law firm marketing consulting firm, where she served as President prior to joining Hale and Dorr in 1998 and Dorsey & Whitney in 2004.

1. In your estimation, what percentage of law firms have taken the first step and embraced the Internet as a means to market their practice?

70%, with the large firm marketplace has a higher percentage. There are still some large firms out there that have not embraced the Web. Today, many small firms understand the value of the Internet and e-commerce as well.

2. How many have taken their Web presence to advanced levels, by enhancing their site and creating knowledge centers?

At the most 5%. Most firms have so much work just trying to keep site itself fresh with daily information. That challenge alone is tough to meet; it's a commitment. We feel it's important, as it's our face to the world. Firms' sites have to have senior partner commitment, which makes it unacceptable for attorneys to be "too busy" to give content to the site. This content has to be accurate and reflect current trends of the market. Attorneys need to consider their firm's site a part of practicing law -- the firm's face to the world, so to speak.

3. What is the biggest barrier that firms encounter when trying to establish a web presence?

One major barrier is the lack of awareness about the importance of technology to the mainstream consumer. Not everyone in a law firm is comfortable using the web as a tool, and this lack of comfort translates into a belief that the majority of people do not use the web to find attorneys or to visit the firm's resource center.

It seems basic, but is worth repeating: The right time to initiate an online presence is not when every other firm is doing it. Establishing a commitment to a firm site sends a clear message to your clients and prospects that you're ahead of the game. With so many firms using their sites as marketing tools, they could leverage the opportunity to really stand out from the competition.

4. What do you think the buyer expects from a law firm?

Buyers should expect what they pay for. For example, if a business buys Dorsey & Whitney, it should expect a full service firm that will provide significant resources to ensure the client's business success.

Many firms think they know what their clients want, but haven't asked them. One way we keep in touch with the needs of our clients is to sponsor about 50 seminars every year. Before scheduling the seminars, we survey clients (via mail or email) to gauge their interest areas. We let the market guide our topics instead of sponsoring seminars that we think they want. It's important that all information related to the seminar is reflected on our website. Shortly following the seminar, we use Zoomerang to gather clients' feedback.

5. Do the current rules that regulate attorney marketing impinge upon lawyers' ability to participate in effective marketing campaigns?

No. If someone wants to develop business by joining associations, making phone calls, and building a referral base, they will figure out a way to be mindful of the rules that govern their state.

6. How does a web presence fit into a firm's overall marketing strategy? Is it the focal point, or merely one aspect of a marketing arsenal?

I think it's a key part of a marketing strategy, primarily because it's one place a prospect or client can go to receive a consistent message and obtain valuable information. Assuming, of course, that the firm's site has been set up as a resource.

The distribution of other traditional forms of marketing, like brochures, requires an effort on the firm's end to mail or circulate the materials. With a website, your visitors can go online to view information at any time. Also, a website can be used for two-way communication with clients via an extranet or secure sections of the site. This is an added value to client service, which in turn strengthens client relationships. All these marketing strategies compliment one another and fit together to create an overall strategic marketing message.

7. Often, law firm marketing initiatives focus on what an organization can do to increase client relationships. Should attorneys take steps independent of the firm's initiatives to bring in business?

Yes, definitely.

8. What should individual attorneys do to increase business for the firm?

Individual attorney initiatives can be separated into two areas: 1) sales to new clients; and 2) client support. Generating additional business from an existing client is a support add-on. The relationship is already established, and although it's not easy to expand the business from a client, it's much easier than getting brand new client.

In terms of finding new clients, attorneys should utilize the partners within the firm as referral sources. It's also good for attorneys to keep in touch with clients who are no longer active by going through their Rolodex, mailing list, etc. The call will be appreciated. Contact everyone you've ever done business with!

9. What are some current trends in legal marketing?

The role of the CMO/Director of Marketing is changing. Strategy and accountability are now very important. Now, more than ever, marketing is being tied to revenue. Judging the ROI (return on investment) on specific initiatives is difficult, so we're moving away from experimenting with marketing little initiatives that may or may not work. Instead, we're working with senior partners to ensure that all marketing programs are part of the firm's goals, and support a larger competitive strategy.

Sales is another trend in the legal marketing community. In this highly competitive landscape, firms are looking to differentiate themselves from one another. Having high-level sales people that are familiar with the business functions of their prospect, and how their firm meets and exceeds those goals, will become more prominent. The sales professionals will work closely with the rainmakers and key client support partners of the major accounts at the firm.

10. In 5 years, how do you envision the legal marketing landscape?

I believe we will see sales organizations of some size within law firms. Maybe not as big as the sales teams within accounting firms. I think these teams will be separate from marketing organizations. Another change coming, it hasn't really been 5 years since the Internet exploded. Therefore I feel e-commerce will impact the way in which the legal world delivers its services and communicates with clients. Clients will come to rely on the sharing of information with their law firms, which will only strengthen relationships between the two parties.

11. Many attorneys complain about the 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?

That statement would directly relate to their generation. Word-of-mouth is a compliment to web marketing. Most businesses and people deal with more than one firm. Why would they necessarily refer yours over another? This market is too competitive, and buyers are influenced by new firms everyday. It is not wise to rely on other people to do your selling for you, including your clients!

Attorneys often have no idea about the return on their Web investment. On what are they basing those assumptions?

12. Is it possible to isolate the effectiveness of Web marketing compared to traditional methods of client generation?

It's difficult to identify in particular as it's part of a total approach. Traffic reports and monitoring the visitors can be a good indication, but it all fits together. We have one key senior partner who does most of his marketing via the Web and the rest through in-person sales. He would say the Web has been very successful. He is also instrumental in working with us to keep the Web current and cutting edge in terms of what it delivers to visitors.

13. Free marketing giveaways - effective, or a waste of money?

Effective. At tradeshows, they are one of the reasons visitors/prospects come to the booth -- that's effective. Then, how you leverage the giveaways is where the rubber meets the road in terms of client development.

14. What are some of the more creative giveaways you've encountered from law firms?

We try to give things they will use at their office instead of give to their kids. One firm here is Boston came up with a Patent Bar made out of chocolate, which I thought was clever, but once you eat the chocolate, the reminder is gone! I tend to lean toward giveaways that will continue to promote the firm's name long after the seminar or the trade show. In the end, they win over cute and creative.

15. In a tight economy, why should law firms continue to spend money on marketing?

Because of the axiom: Out of sight, out of mind. If you're not out there, someone else will grab your sponsorship opportunities, etc. There's too much competition and law firms should never stop marketing. I believe the market will remember who was still out there when times were tight. There's a competitive advantage when a firm remains consistent in the market's eye.

16. In a tight economy, what are some effective ways that firms scale their marketing budgets without completely stopping all initiatives?

One way would be to cut seminars that haven't been market driven, as they are very expensive. Another would be to do breakfasts instead of expensive lunches and dinners. You could cut mailings, utilize the web and electronic media more. The important thing is to redirect marketing efforts, but not stop them altogether. When one firm stops marketing, another competitor will be right there to grab the dropped opportunity.

17. What types of marketing activities give firms the most value for their dollar?

Anything face to face! Including seminars, sporting events, direct sales, lunches, key client on-site visits, etc.

18. Does legal marketing differ on a regional basis? (ex. California vs. Florida)

No. I don't think there is much of a difference -- people are people. The economy can change in different regions, but relationships between buyer and seller generally don't change. Not every practitioner believes this, but if you take a strong rainmaker, drop him/her off in a new area of the country, they will, without a doubt, be developing business before too long. If you are aware of people and their behaviors, marketing programs and individual efforts will be rewarded anywhere.

19. Discuss how a firm can take steps to market its individual attorney experts.

Either hire a top notch, in-house communications person with agency background, or top rate PR firm to help promote the experts within your firm. Make efforts to showcase the expert in publications, seminars, trade shows and other public opportunities, as thought leaders in an area.

20. What one basic concept would you impart to attorneys assessing their online marketing campaigns?

Keep it fresh! Create a situation where people aren't going to "change the channel." When creating information to be displayed on the website, imagine the viewers have a clicker in their hands. In the end, the buyer is concerned about how the services impact him/her. Also, keep it brief. No one has time to read on and on. Short "sound bytes," as our communication expert at the firm often reminds us, are all there is time for. Everything should always be market oriented. It's about them, not us.