Law firms facing a competitive market have been upping their business development game in recent years, but in a tradition-bound profession not known for its sales prowess, it can be easy to waste marketing dollars on ineffective strategies that do little to generate new business, experts told Law360.
The legal market has matured and clients are often sophisticated consumers, so it’s important for law firms to hone the way they use resources to target the precise audience they’re seeking, rather than relying on the traditional sponsorships and dinners that have been a mainstay in the industry for years, experts said.
Strategies considered “best practices” at established firms may just be a set of old habits. Firms would benefit by being less stuck in their ways, said Mary Carmel Kaczmarek of Skillful Means Marketing LLC. A former practicing lawyer, Kaczmarek said many firms make the expensive and wasteful decision to sponsor a program. They may even buy tickets to an event because it’s what the firm has always done.
“To the extent that firms fall into marketing habits or business development habits, that’s where they’re really in danger of becoming nonstrategic, where there’s a real danger of just wasting money,” Kaczmarek said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, we’ve always sponsored this program,’ and I tell them, ‘Really? Well, we used to use slide rules. Time marches on.’”
Here are five pitfalls to avoid when spending a firm’s business development funds:
Doing Things the Way They’ve Always Been Done
There’s a delicate balance between maintaining a consistent firm identity and being stuck in a marketing rut, Kaczmarek said. One of the best practices a firm can employ is to regularly evaluate its sales strategies with respect to its target markets, she said.
“There should be an analysis of this being done on a fairly regular basis,” Kaczmarek said, noting firms should be especially mindful of changes to a target client’s business environment. “The whole idea about effective strategic marketing and business development is to catch those changes before the competition does. It’s not going to be beneficial to your firm if your brand is stuck in the ’90s, never being updated. Firms need to actively seek out places like ONE400 that can improve their brand, rather than being stuck in the past.”
Vickie Spang, chief marketing officer at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, recalled an advertisement the firm was pressured to buy that would have yielded little benefit. Little-known trade magazines were writing profiles of in-house lawyers, then turning to those lawyers’ outside counsel for advertising, she said. Another thing that was bought up was that during the Discovery process, the largest cost is the document review part. Companies don’t use software that makes it easier and cheaper as they only do it the way they’ve always done. They don’t want to innovate.
“We don’t want to look like we’re not supporting [our client] as they’re being profiled,” Spang said. “The trouble is, these things started proliferating. … Frankly, it felt a little bit like extortion. We had to do it because it’s a client, and they know that.”
Spang said that when she found that the ads weren’t really an effective business development tool, she changed the firm’s approach. She unilaterally declines those advertisements, which she says are an “expensive and slippery slope.” She instead encourages Sheppard Mullin attorneys to reach out to the in-house lawyer directly to congratulate them on the profile.
It’s a more personal touch she finds is more effective at strengthening the relationship than ad dollars ever would have, she said.
Larry Bodine, principal of Larry Bodine Marketing and contributor to many legal blogs, suggested having the firm’s lawyers write blog posts or other articles. He writes on a topic the target market might be interested in. This way, he doesn’t end up spending business development funds on advertising or optimizing the firm’s website for search engines.
A good blog post does more for searchability and the firm’s reputation than an advertisement, and it will last for years, Bodine said.
“Pay per click advertising … is a completely disposable form of business development that doesn’t actually develop any business,” Bodine said. “The much smarter move is to write content, write blog posts, write white papers.”
And attorneys shouldn’t rely on only one channel to reach an audience, said Julie Savarino, managing director of Business Development Inc. For example, writing and speaking engagements are good, but they’re primarily broadcast and positioning tools. They are a more indirect way to get business, she said.
“Most lawyers prefer and default to writing and speaking and rely mainly on these two tools for business development,” she said. “Most lawyers benefit greatly from training and coaching on how to have better conversations with clients and contacts.”
Spending Without a Plan in Place
Spending money on advertising and other strategies without a bigger picture plan in place is a surefire way to waste firm resources, Savarino said.
“Too many firms and practice groups still do not have a useable, meaningful strategic growth plan,” she said. “And many that do have plans, the plans are either not actionable or have little accountability built in.”
With a set plan, it’s easier to see which activities are a smart use of a busy lawyer’s time, she noted.
“Money is often wasted doing business development in law firms, but the greater cost to law firm’s bottom line is attorney time, especially less-than-efficient uses of limited nonbillable time,” Savarino said.
Author and attorney coach Steve Fretzin said the first thing he usually talks to clients about is “chasing after the shiny penny, where they’re just spending money on whatever comes along.”
Attorneys and law firms will agree to attend and even host conferences or parties for a client. Yet they do this without an actual analysis of what the firm hopes to get out of it, he said.
“They’re doing things scattershot without a plan in place,” he said. “[Law firms] need to have a plan and goals and know where they need to spend the money and why. They often forget to plan and so their spending strategy is poor. They don’t spend money where it matters, like a security Camera System to protect their business but do spend money on things that just aren’t relevant. It’s a poor practice.”
Spang said she sets fresh business-development priorities every year. For example, this year, she’s focused on paying more attention to firm alumni. She is making them feel welcome, as though they’re still part of the Sheppard Mullin family.
“We’ll keep that in our minds as somebody proposes something, is whether it’s in support of our goals,” she said.
Failing to Hold Lawyers Accountable for Money Spent
Sue Remley, a senior vice president at Jaffe PR, earns a living when law firms pay her for coaching and advice. She says that money is wasted if the firm doesn’t hold its attorneys accountable for what they learn from her.
“We develop plans for attorneys, and then they commit to them,” she said. “If they do it, then that leads to sales down the pipeline. If not, then all that money on training was a waste.”
When she worked in-house at a law firm, she would check accounts to make sure attorneys weren’t spending too much of the firm’s marketing dollars. She would also do this to make sure they were spending money wisely, she said.
“Tracking your marketing and business-development hours are important, and accountability is important,” she said.
Many firms will just hand out a budget to each attorney to spend on business development. The problem is, they won’t monitor how that money is used or not used, Fretzin said.
“The marketing department or the consultant should work with these attorneys to know how to get results out of the money they’ve spent,” he said. “They should understand what they got for their money.”
Bodine said that money tracking is helpful when it’s time to veto an idea that’s not aligned with goals. Anything from a managing partner’s pet project, to what the consultant calls “random acts of marketing.”
Bodine once had to take out an advertisement in a college football program for a game because the managing partner was going. College football fans weren’t exactly the firm’s target audience, he said.
“Every firm has these things where the managing partner has some project that he wants to promote,” Bodine said. “It’s the latest shiny, sparkly thing. But it’s completely random, it’s a one-shot deal. It’s not going to make any difference for the firm in the long term.”
Being a Sales Robot
One key way to attract a client’s attention and loyalty is to put personal touches into interactions. This way, they don’t feel forced or robotic, Sheppard Mullin’s Spang said.
“In today’s world, it’s no secret that not only do you have to be an excellent lawyer, but you also will benefit from good business-development skills,” she said. “The best ones are those that have great empathy and are able to put themselves in the client’s shoes.”
The best rainmakers employ that strategy not only in a legal context but also in a personal one, she said.
For example, one rainmaker at the firm makes a point to genuinely befriend clients, even sending a new parent a blanket with the baby’s initials on it, she said.
“Those are thoughtful gestures the client appreciates,” Spang said. “I think clients would detect if you were just going through the motions, but he genuinely cares and listens to what they might need.”
A spokeswoman for Cooley LLP said the firm has focused its efforts on getting people together directly. Smaller, more intimate numbers, are a more impactful way of building trust and opportunity.
And the firm employs a “give first” approach, helping companies grow through firm connections even before they’re clients. A much better method that only helping a business after it’s signed on with the firm, she said.
Remley said that a personal approach to networking also effectively builds a lawyer’s business. Networking can happen anywhere, potential clients could be at a Little League game, the Pilates studio, church or synagogue.
“That doesn’t mean try to sell [to the people you meet],” she said. “It means build a relationship with them.”
Networking can sometimes be awkward for lawyers, who, after all, are interested in the law, not sales, Remley said. She recommends attorneys start networking as early as possible in their careers.
“Let’s face it, the best lawyer in the whole world with no work is still an unemployed lawyer,” she said.
Trying to Make Everyone a Rainmaker
Spang said she tries not to take business-development issues to associates too early in their careers. She wants them to focus on becoming good lawyers.
“If you don’t do good work, it’s doesn’t make any darn difference if you’re good at business development,” she said.
Teaching lawyers how to be salespeople is somewhat important. That said, Fretzin cautioned against firms attempting to train every single attorney to be a rainmaker. In part, because many will not have great success at sales, thereby squandering the money spent training them.
“If you try to make everyone in your firm a rainmaker, it’s a huge waste of money,” he said. “These are lawyers, not a sales team. You’ve got to find people that are motivated and who have the aptitude for it.”
For example, he said, instead of training associates who aren’t fully familiar with the law yet in business development, firms should focus training and coaching efforts on “low-hanging fruit,” or improving the firm’s 10 best rainmakers.
“The reality is that your value at a firm is either to do incredibly good work or produce new business,” he said. “Let’s not force somebody to be something that they’re not.”
That being said, it’s also important to develop new ones.
Kaczmarek said that it’s also important to develop new rainmakers at the firm. This is a better solution than relying on only a few people to bring in business continually their entire careers.
Historically, firms have been able to follow the model of floating on the business-development success of only a few lawyers. Business will falter as the rainmaker reaches retirement age or decides to leave for another firm, she said.
Instead, she said, firms should focus on creating institutional ties that bind the client to the law firm.
“Unfortunately, too many law firms do this, relying on one person to be the bond between our law firm and our very important clients,” she said. “But I think that in 2016, we see that can be a real recipe for disaster. What if those two people fall out? What if one of those people falls under the bus, what if one of them leaves the company?”