Marketing for Lawyers, Part I: Setting the Stage

This is the first of three blog posts on marketing strategies for lawyers.

Some Basic Ideas About Marketing

I’m going to start off by talking about some basic thoughts and ideas about marketing. These are things you might have heard about business development. We want to take a look at some of these ideas and see if they are true guiding principles or more like roadblocks.

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A. No Infallible Rules

It has been said that in the marketing of legal services there is one rule: that there are no infallible rules, or at least no guarantees that following any particular rules will lead to making rain. This truth points up one of the underlying problems that lawyers encounter when they try to figure out a productive marketing strategy. How do they know that the time they invest in business development will actually pay off? The uncertainty about how to achieve success can lead to ambivalence about how to proceed, and whether the benefit is worth the cost in terms of effort and time.

Even though it is true that business development efforts do not come with a guarantee of success, it is also the case that failure to develop and work on marketing activities in a consistent way almost always guarantees that a lawyer will not develop sufficient business to have power and options in his or her career.

I have counseled and coached lawyers for over 25 years now. I have had the opportunity to learn about the arc of careers in the law and how lawyers achieve success, partly by working with over 3,500 clients but also by observing the careers of many lawyers who are friends or past colleagues from the US Attorney’s Office, the State’s Attorney’s Office and other places. I have heard the stories of lawyers I have been on panels with or met over the years at conferences and seminars, as well as through two private clubs I have belonged to: Saddle and Cycle, and Indian Hill, where you find some of the best networkers in the city of Chicago. I have also read extensively on the topic.

It has become abundantly clear to me that lawyers who have had loyal clients have had far more opportunities to shape their careers and power at their firms. Without a portable practice you can become the service partner for a dynamic litigator, but in the process you are likely to limit your own growth potential and career options.

Think about this: law firms are really just a group of attorneys in need of clients who trust them. Every lawyer at a law firm who can bring in those clients sought by the firm will be valued by the firm. For these and other reasons we will discuss, it is imperative for lawyers to learn to be rainmakers if they do not come by those skills naturally. Lawyers need to invest time and effort in individualized marketing activities.

B. Developing clients is an art not a science

This concept is one that is very useful, I think. There is a need to customize marketing because each lawyer is different and has different strengths and weaknesses, lifestyle issues, niche knowledge within their practice areas, networking skills, innate sociability, chemistry with certain types of clients and so on. To have an effective marketing plan, those differences should be taken into account. One marketing plan does not fit all.

For example, I worked with a female litigator who had a strong, somewhat domineering personality and had successfully handled a number of “bet the company” cases. She created a marketing plan that enabled her to land those kind of cases in a variety of niche areas and with a group of companies that all were in the same connected neighborhood of Fortune 500 firms. Her marketing plan needed to be very different from another woman litigator I worked with whose strength was counseling and advising. That woman created a niche advising companies about how to avoid litigation. Her knowledge of litigation helped her to keep clients out of court.

C. Some strategies tend to increase business development

Even though marketing is an art and not a science, there are certain clear strategies that tend to increase the likelihood of success in landing business.

What are some of the strategies lawyers need to employ to develop business? Many of them are easy to learn ideas and concepts that you want to keep in mind and put to use as you interact with current clients, attend bar association meetings, plan to meet with key people at your firm or with potential clients, and set up your short term and long range plans for rainmaking.

Here are some of the concepts that you will want to understand and utilize for a successful marketing plan:

  1. How to allocate time between the various marketing activities you decide to engage in.
  1. When to employ a team rather than a solo approach.
  1. How to build networks.
  1. How to enhance your credentials.
  1. How and when to utilize person-to-person marketing.
  1. How to get yourself to follow thru on marketing tasks.

These are some of the concepts we will cover over the next few posts and you can use to set up your own personal marketing plan.

To succeed in the law these days you have to learn to play this game, but you can play it on your own terms. It is like playing tennis. You learn to hit the forehand, the backhand, the volley, the overhead and the serve, even though you will always hit these shots idiosyncratically. Every tennis player hits a serve to start the point, for example. But they all hit that shot somewhat uniquely, even though they follow a general approach that is similar. The only thing you cannot do if you want to get better at this game is not play it at all. If you don’t play it you won’t get more business unless the business is handed to you by a rainmaking partner, meaning that you become the service partner, or you have institutional clients, and even the firms that have traditionally relied on institutional clients are not able to do that anymore in this era of post recession bottom-line-oriented thinking.

D. Marketing efforts will make it impossible to have a balanced life

I would challenge that idea.

Many of my clients have yearned for reduced hours or flexible hours. Many of my clients have wanted to have greater freedom to call the shots in their careers. Some attorneys I have counseled have been able to do just that. Predictably the partners who enjoyed the most flexible arrangements with the blessing of their firms had a highly valued client or two or more. Some of these partners worked exceptionally flexible schedules without becoming second class citizens at their firms as a result of their loyal base of valued clients. This was true even for firms that didn’t have a fondness for alternative work time options. By watching those lawyers who got what they wanted in terms of work/life balance, and those who didn’t, I have come to the conclusion that the ability to market is so important, so crucial for career success these days, that it really ought to be taught in law school.

As a law student and newly-minted lawyer you learn to write, do research, and advocate for a position, but who teaches you to get business? And yet your career depends on it if you want to stay in private practice and if you ever hope to direct your career development. So as a matter of course I have been routinely teaching my clients to develop practice if they want to stay in the law. I teach lawyers who are outplaced so that they don’t get dinged again. I teach lawyers who want to open up their own practices. I teach lawyers who want to eventually work alternative schedules. I am brought in by law firms that want to create the next generation of business developers for the future of the firm.

E. You have to have an extroverted personality to build practice

This assertion is something I have heard a lot from clients: you have to be a “hail fellow well met” kind of person to be a good business developer. But it’s not true. We will talk about tactics for developing business. Some of them do require that you meet and greet other people. You can’t be a hermit. But if you can have good friends in your life, you can develop business. If you are willing to try some new ways of interacting with other people, you will be more successful as a business developer.

F. Attorneys, especially women lawyers, with demanding family responsibilities do not have the time to devote to marketing

Many contend that there are some difficulties that women face when it comes to marketing that men may not face, especially women with children or aging parents with needs. Demanding careers and demanding family responsibilities can make it harder for women to spend the time they know they should to build practice. There is a natural gravitational pull to fill unstructured time with family life. Why women are still the ones who tend to be the most responsive to the needs of the family is a cultural issue. But whatever the reason, it remains a common issue for women I have counseled. Yet I can say with confidence that it is even more important for women lawyers to learn this game.

G. It is said that marketing takes years to bear fruit

As Cory Amron of the ABA says, “It takes patience and persistence as well. It can be hard to see the positive results of ones efforts right away.”

This concept is probably more true than we all wish. But if my clients get too discouraged by this fact, it seems to keep some of them from engaging in marketing activities at all. It’s important to be realistic and pragmatic about marketing efforts, but keep up the effort.

In general you will see no direct immediate increase in business from many of your marketing activities. It takes time to get the word out about what you do. But on the plus side, many of my clients start to get the word out after about a year of effort. Much depends on the kinds of activities you engage in. You want the highest percentage shot if you can get it.

There is a lack of knowledge about what to do that will be likely to produce results. But if you learn what to do to get the results you want, you will have a better result.

For some, there may be discomfort with activities required for good marketing, such as knowing how to have a “sell meeting” with a potential client. You have to overcome those problems but there are ways to do that that are effective.

Some people mistakenly think that they have to do a big project to be an effective marketer. That is not generally true.

There can be a feeling of resentment about marketing that poisons a person’s will to do the work. Some of my clients say “Isn’t it enough that I work really hard just being a good lawyer? You want to add the burden of business development too?”

And, as mentioned, there is the gravitational pull of the family and their bottomless needs, as well as the “responsibility sponge” nature of most lawyers, men and women both. The combo can be overwhelming and can interfere with an investment of time in business development.

Marketing is thought to be a complex and difficult and very time consuming endeavor so many lawyers just don’t want to put in the time they have so little of anyways.

These are some of the problems we may want to address in our individual work because they can get in the way of “bearing fruit.”

Marketing: The Positive Side

I have also learned some things that help many of my clients get their head in the game:

  • Done right, most lawyers are surprised to learn that marketing is not only not hard to do once they know what to do, but actually a lot of fun for them.
  • Done the right way, it’s all about friendship and trust relationships and many attorneys are very good at developing these relationships.
  • Done right, business development acumen is your ticket to a better career, more control over your life, and greater security. What could be a better motivator?

There are some marketing consultants who emphasize the complexity and time consuming nature of marketing. Some insist that you have to spend 200 to 400 hours a year and 4 to 6 years to hit your stride in business development, or those who tell you that if you do not spend 30% of your working life on marketing you will fail. I think that assessment scares too many lawyers away from ever beginning to market at all. Who has that kind of time for an endeavor that seems amorphous?

From what I have seen, it doesn’t work that way. It’s just not that predictable. What matters more is that you are smart about how you spend your time so that you can maximize your efforts. It helps to think of your time spent on marketing activities as an investment in your future as a lawyer. You want to have faith that it will pay off, because it will.

First you usually need to learn and study up on the kinds of activities that make sense for you. We will cover those in the posts that follow. Next, you need to identify and design your plan, and your goals. These are promises you make to yourself. We will also review that. Next, you want to work to accomplish and achieve your goals. In the process of doing your business development work you may also need to refine your goals. It’s important to be flexible. If you plan to do this work and then set out to do it by putting one foot in front of the other without either frantic or scattershot marketing efforts, you are likely to achieve your goals. You need to be tenacious. It’s as if you plan and then conduct a quest.

I can tell when my clients have matured into effective business developers because they actually have a different way of thinking. They start to think about their businesses almost as if they have another child or maybe a very exciting new pet. This child or pet (their practice) is very interesting to them and they want to talk about it and help it to grow. A client’s mindset shifts from uncertainty, to interest and engagement.

Up next: De-Mystifying Business Development Activities