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By Kevin Wheeler
Pre-2008, when the market for legal services was booming, lawyers threw money and resources (marketing staff) at promoting their firms. As a relatively new business discipline – let’s remember, The Law Society only allowed lawyers to advertise in 1986 – few partners really understood the “science” of marketing, but this didn’t stop them going overboard on advertising, sponsorships, brochures (and more latterly websites) and, of course, corporate hospitality. At the time, most of this marketing looked like it was more about boosting the partners’ egos and allowing them to have a good time, rather than identifying client need and positioning the firm to win future business. But when instructions were pouring in and everyone was busy, few stopped to question what was being done and why.
When the credit-crunch came and the market for legal services went over a cliff, the folly of law firm marketing came home to roost. As Warren Buffet remarked of those businesses that failed to adapt to the new economic order, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked!” And this was particularly true of law firm marketing. That partners didn’t understand the importance of marketing – strong businesses usually increase their marketing spend in a downturn – and were doing the wrong sort of marketing, was evident by the speed with which firms slashed marketing spend and reduced marketing staff headcounts.
In today’s legal markets, firms need to adopt a completely different approach to marketing and business development. That the money isn’t there for the profligate spending of the past is not actually an issue, because effective law firm marketing has and always will be about how lawyers use their valuable non-chargeable time to engage in effective personal marketing.
In low growth markets, the first priority of any law firm should be to protect its existing clients by better understanding their needs, assessing how the firm’s performance is viewed by clients and correcting any failings identified (and, please note, this feedback has to be collected by an independent third party to be objective), and aligning the firm’s resources to client need in a way which adds maximum value to the client’s business. This is not easy in most firms where departmental silos and protection of client relationships by individual partners cuts across attempts to institutionalisation the client relationship.
The second priority for any firm should be to have a clear strategy for the business, which sets out how the firm is to be positioned in terms of services, markets, client types, resources, and service delivery and pricing models. In marketing parlance, this “brand proposition” should then be the basis for all the firm’s marketing and business development activity. Unfortunately, few firms undertake a rigorous enough analysis of their true strengths and market need to formulate a really robust business strategy. Too many firms fudge key decisions to appease different factions within the firm and ultimately you get too many compromises. As a result, “me too” strategies proliferate the legal sector with many undifferentiated firms and few that stand out as being brave enough to do something different.
Finally, the “broadcast” promotion of a firm’s capabilities has to be replaced by a more subtle and focused thought leadership approach: demonstrating to a client that the lawyer/firm understands the issues it is facing and has the resources and experience to provide solutions to these. Investment in research to understand these issues and partner time to meet face-to-face with clients to discuss the implications are key components of such an approach. Playing a round of golf or taking the client to the cricket at Lord’s have no place in today’s more sophisticated approach to legal marketing.
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Kevin Wheeler has been advising professional services firms on all aspects of marketing and business development for more than 30 years. As a consultant he helps firms to manage and grow their key clients as well as to win new ones. As a Meyler Campbell qualified coach he works with partners and those approaching partnership to improve their BD skills.
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