Social Activities and Marketing Plan for Law Firms

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With a little forethought and planning, social activities can assist an attorney's overall business-development efforts. Both attorney-sponsored and community-sponsored events in which the attorney participates can build good relationships with existing and potential clients. But social activities have a value for the client-focused attorney only if the attorney truly enjoys them.

The importance of establishing a clear purpose for attorney social activities, how to plan for and carry out a successful attorney open house, and the value of joining and participating in community-sponsored social activities are discussed in this article.

Most attorneys engage in social activities. Rare is the individual or firm that does not at some point entertain one or more clients in a social setting. Socials range from casual lunches to formal open houses, from an invitation to a sporting event to a holiday party for friends and spouses.

Attorney-sponsored social activities are those that are initiated, organized, and paid for by the attorney. They differ from community-sponsored social activities which are organized by someone else (and which are also valuable for marketing purposes). Attorney-sponsored social events are activities where clients, referral sources, and potential clients are invited. Examples include holiday parties, open houses, meet-the-new-partners receptions, fishing trips, golf tournaments, and so on.

Establishing a purpose

Social activities are by definition designed to create an atmosphere of friend ship, warmth, and goodwill. But the attorney can also gain more specific benefits by seizing the opportunity provided by social events to lead to future work. The key is to define clearly the purpose of an event in terms related to business development. If this is done correctly, planning for the event will include specific actions before, during, and after that more directly benefit the attorney.

One 22-attorney firm held an "open house" each December in its penthouse offices. Clients, close friends, referral sources, and colleagues of the firm were invited, as well as their spouses and significant others. Formal invitations were sent a month in advance. Elaborate food and refreshments were catered by a nearby exclusive restaurant. It was always an elegant affair and about 200 people attended every year. A post-event review by the firm had everyone agreeing that the event was a "success."

But was it? Each partner was well known to a few clients and during the two- hour event, each small group of clients, spouses, and the attorney talked to each other. The firm associates, who had little client contact and therefore did not know them, talked to each other. Referral sources such as bankers and other community business leaders also spent most of the evening talking to each other, because each had little contact with more than one attorney and did not know other people at the firm.

A more careful post-event analysis by the attorneys revealed that little meaningful interaction occurred among attorneys and guests who did not previously know each other. Associates felt that they were cut off from meeting clients. Referrals talked with the attorney who invited them but met few other attorneys from the firm. In view of all this, the event could be called a failure because the attorneys missed opportunities to establish new relationships and impart new information about the firm and its services to the invited guests.

Planning ahead

In the foregoing example the firm had a purpose ("show appreciation to our clients and friends") but it was too short sighted and narrow. The same event, structured slightly differently, could have had a more meaningful objective such as "cross-sell partner services and introduce associates to clients." In doing so, specific actions could have been incorporated into the events. If these attorneys had stated more clearly their purpose beforehand, they would truly have had a "successful" event.

Even fishing trips and spectator sports at which clients, referrals, and attorneys are mixing in a relaxed environment can be used to ensure that marketing information is provided by the attorneys to clients and others.

Community-sponsored social activities

Back in the old days of business development, the single most popular activity for attorneys was club memberships and similar social activities. It was the days of Good OV Boy networks and country club marketing. It was easy and comfortable, and it worked. Those were the days when clients hired attorneys because of a personal relationship. That was all that was important. Trust was implicit.

Today, personal relationships remain at the heart of attorney practice development. The only difference is that in the total business development picture, these relationships are no longer sufficient to maintain and build a personal relationship to:
  • Establish a business-development purpose for the event and announce it to all attorneys. Impress upon attorneys and staff that the open house provides not only an opportunity for developing more personal relationships but for introducing clients to each other and to other attorneys.

  • Announce the purpose of the open house in the invitation so that guests will anticipate the evening's agenda. This can be done by saying "The law firm of X, Y, & Z cordially invites you and your guest to an open house at (date, time, location) for the purpose of meeting our new partners and associates, recently added to increase our capabilities in the areas of corporate taxation and labor law. Please join us to celebrate this holiday season."

  • Require an R.S.V.P. in the invitation (telephone is usually appropriate).

  • Assign attorneys to be "greeters" at the door to direct the guests to the reception table. Rotate this assignment every half-hour or so.

  • Prepare handwritten name tags and have a supply of blank ones for unexpected guests (try to have the same person handwrite all name tags).

  • Ensure that specific attorneys are introduced to specific guests, depending on the guests' legal needs and the attorney's capabilities. A lead attorney can easily say to a good client: "Frank, I'd like you to meet Tom Johnson. He's in our tax department. You mentioned to me once that the new capital gains taxes were very confusing. Tom here does quite a bit of capital gains work."

  • Even If no specific business relationship is known among attorneys and guests, ensure that each guest meets each attorney. Do not let cliques of attorneys, their friends, and spouses develop. Encourage attorneys (associates especially) to make self-introductions ("Hello, you must be a friend of the firm. We haven't met, but I am an attorney here. My name Is . . .").

  • Follow up with thank you notes to all guests, referring to at least one element of business discussion. This shows that the attorney Is not only courteous but also sensitive to others' needs. It portrays a willingness to listen and an eagerness to assist as needed. What client could ask for more?
Community-sponsored social activities will always be exactly what they are--opportunities to relax and enjoy the company of other people in a completely non-business environment. Activities range from attendance at ballet openings to neighborhood "block parties," from participating in a non-profit telethon to joining a runner's club. The environment is a meeting hall and a golf course, a downtown opera house and a neighborhood storefront theater.

Many articles on marketing for attorneys discuss social activities as a route to effective networking and ultimately new clients. But as with formal club memberships, social activities have a value for the client-focused attorney only if the attorney truly enjoys the company he or she keeps. In other words, the attorney should ask him or herself: "Am I joining this organization simply because I enjoy it?" The answer must be a resounding "yes" or else the marketing value of the activity is wasted.

Seizing the opportunities

There is a great degree of camaraderie and fellowship to be enjoyed in groups ranging from Rotary Clubs to alumni associations, from golf clubs to Masonic Lodges. But without a plan to incorporate this activity into an overall business-development program, their value is often overrated by marketers and by the attorneys themselves.

If clients are members of the same organizations to which an attorney belongs, those joint memberships improve the personal relationships of all concerned. The attorney receives a bonus in improved working relationships and no doubt stronger client loyalty.

The joining of groups and social activities is not a mandatory part of marketing. But since they are so commonplace, it is clear that opportunities open up through social activities and that some sort of plan to follow up on these situations is appropriate. Involvement should be voluntary. The value lies in the building of relationships --a lengthy process that will not occur if the attorney is participating out of a sense of obligation. Other consideration for attorneys is that community-sponsored social activities can be very time consuming. Further, the attorney may find it hard to "stand out" among several competitors who are also involved in the same activity. Because of the large number of other activities that are probably just as enjoyable and potentially beneficial for the attorney, a re-evaluation of these activities is in order.

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