Marketing Lessons from High Growth Law Firms

What works in marketing is what clients dictate. Yes, the ordinary and the not so ordinary consumer preference is the starting point of charting sound marketing strategy.

Historically, law firms have been slow to adapt marketing strategies and practices to hew to current consumer expectations. However, the economic downturn of the early 1990's cured many law firms' reliance on this old pattern and rocketed management up the marketing learning curve. Thriving firms noticed (1) the marriage of work and home, meaning that what people learned at work, e.g., to negotiate sharply with vendors, they applied to their own purchase decisions (2) the need to become professional business managers and competent leaders, and (3) the 'visualization' of information. Does anyone but us lawyers really read?

What's ahead? A look at high growth firms is telling. These firms' marketing practices necessarily presage the road ahead. After all, they wouldn't thrive without anticipating the expectations of their clients, consumers all. In speaking with these firms representing the gamut of size and practice areas, two trends are apparent: well managed, tried and true practices still work exceedingly well, and innovative new marketing tactics based on close inspection of client needs allow these firms to push the envelope of growth.

Marketing is Not Magic

Michael A. Snapper is a partner and the chair of the marketing committee at Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey, P.L.C., a 100 + attorney business and corporate law firm headquartered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The systematic management, coaching and accountability of the firm's marketing efforts through practice group development mirrors best practices in the corporate world -- well managed, multi-level, cross functional teams deployed through practice groups.

Over a year ago, the firm's management asked all attorneys to become members of at least one practice group; there were some nay-sayers. There are approximately 20 to 25 interdisciplinary practice groups (e.g., employment, manufacturing, hospital) and in reality, most attorneys are members of more than one. Each group member is accountable for a marketing action plan complete with deadlines and responsibility assigned; the action items are reviewed quarterly and an annual score card is linked to compensation. Associates are fully integrated into the groups. By using a carrot, not stick, approach to coaching attorneys and groups, the firm has had one of its best years in history.

The employment group is a good example. It publishes an employer's desk reference and holds an annual update meeting. Clients are given the new supplements; non-clients can buy the desk reference materials and updates. The firm has one senior member on the board of directors of the Employers Association and teams of partners and associates rotate meeting attendance so that Miller Johnson has a constant presence.

In developing successful teams, Snapper tends to narrow the scope of action items because as he points out, focusing on a few critical activities yields far better results. New management issues for Snapper this year reflect his steady, concentrated approach: continue to develop the practice groups, survey clients on quality issues, and finish the new marketing database. Not magic. Good management.

Helping Clients Be Successful

Some traditional marketing tactics, such as the client seminar, thrive with a new twist. For Sylvio L. Dupuis, executive director of New Hampshire's Mc Lane, Graf,Raulerson & Middleton , P. A. law firm, one of the largest firms in New England, the new dynamic meant creating a client showcase luncheon at which an invited CEO client talks about his or her business and the industry, and the partners and associates listen and ask questions. Dupuis found the standard seminar and luncheon with speaker becoming hackneyed.The new format translates the firm's stated mission of 'helping clients be successful' by demonstrating the client's primacy to the firm, and allowing associates to meet and talk to clients they've worked for but have never seen.

When was the last time your law firm invited you to breakfast with the presidential contenders? McLane, being a New Hampshire, a political firm, runs the McLane Forum prior to the presidential elections. Ten important clients are invited to breakfast with the candidates; 50 to 60 clients then hear the candidates speak.

Leveraged technology can also play a part in helping clients be successful. Ann Roberts, information services and marketing director at Richmond's fast growing McGuire, Woods, Battle & Booth has a license plate that reads 'mwbb.com'. The highly touted website that she helped create has unique features that benefit clients and other important marketing audiences. The speakers bureau section was created to let clients know the firm could help them with attorney speakers for CLE type programs, trade associations and retreats. The site even lets people register and pay for firm seminars and materials via credit cards. The Energy Group's Merchant Power Scoreboard has been quoted in trade publications, and the site 'pushes' e-mail news from general and specialty lists. One subscriber reported forwarding the employment news e-mail to all plant managers. There are, as well, private chat rooms that are password protected.

One year ago the firm had some 380 attorneys. Today it is at the 500 plus mark. Naturally, the web site supports lawyer recruitment in the usual and unique ways. If you want to know what it would be like to work for the firm's Chicago office, you will receive chamber of commerce' type information on Chicago including a link to the Bulls.

Not just big firms leverage technology. The Rene Larson Law Office in Thunder Bay, Ontario (www.renelarson.com) is a 2 person firm. Larson and his associate do a 90 second radio show called the 'Legal Minute' and you can hear it on his website. The subjects are listed and the immediacy of hearing the attorney's voice and seeing pictures of them and their staff on the site is dramatically effective. Larson reports that he gets two files a week from the radio show.

Mark Pruner of Web Counsel, LLC (webcounsel.com) points out that effective website development starts with analyzing the site's target audience, then developing a site that serves the audience as a resource center, and finally marketing the site. Resource centers created by law firms, such as deregulation.com (website of the law firm of Robinson & Cole) delivers value that works for site visitors -- utility deregulation information, a discussion group and even downloadable presentations. This is a few steps beyond putting up sites as static 'electronic brochures'.

What's ahead? E-lawyering. Yes, websites delivering unique working value to lawyers and others such as cybersettle.com, a site Pruner describes as one of the first dispute resolution service for insurance companies and plaintiff's attorneys. If any one of three bids submitted by either side are within 30% or $5000, the disputed claim settles for the average of the two bids.

No Replacement for the Personal Touch

John Maroccia from the eponymously named Camden, NJ firm gets 85% of his business through referrals and he is a master of personalized marketing techniques. Nine years ago, much to the amusement of his colleagues, Maroccia was one of the first lawyers to produce a cable tv show, "The Law and You". Maroccia's show delivers practical education about law related topics including auto insurance, a simulated DWI arrest, and the use of private investigators in divorce cases.

Because Maroccia believes that everyone you meet is a potential client, he mails out 3500 newsletters 3 times a year to his contact list, is immersed in groups in his community, and, if you send him a client, you will receive a handwritten note. Even though his multimedia approach now includes a web site, Maroccia contends that the personal touch embedded in his marketing tactics have set him apart, successfully.

A picture is worth...how many clients? Steven L. Kessler of Kessler & Kessler in New York City, defends clients in state and federal forfeiture and RICO cases. Kessler gets 100% of his clients from other attorneys, many of whom recognize him at courthouses because he always includes a head shot with his column as the editor of the New York State Bar Association's General Practice Section newsletter.

Writing has been Kessler's primary marketing tactic since an early law journal article on NY's forfeiture statute in the mid 80's. He's written chapters, state and federal treatises, and his latest book on NY civil and criminal forfeitures including narcotics eviction proceedings, is forthcoming. Writing has led to speaking engagements, expert commentary in the print and broadcast media, and ultimately to a short, carefully managed list of attorneys who cross-refer, what I call a 'key club.'

This 'key club' of other attorneys, Kessler's target audience, is backed by personalized care. When a prospective client asks whether Kessler knows of an attorney who does what he does not do, and who doesn't, Kessler invites the prospective client and his lawyer colleague to meet in his office.

Common Themes

All of the marketing strategies I have discussed have a significant common underpinning. Each one tightens the connection between the firm and the client and delivers unique values well beyond the mere delivery of legal services.

While this evolution toward positioning the "personalized" client at the heart of the marketing process takes place, it would be unwise to be blind to the roadblocks ahead. As other professional service providers, namely accounting firms, nibble at the borders of the legal market, the competitive strategies I have outlined will fade into the realm of the mundane in only a year or so. Down the road, successful firms will be those that play to the audience in new ways that outperform the competition every day.

This article is reprinted with permission from the April 13, 1999 issue of The National Law Journal Copyright 1999. NLP IP Company.