4: 00 p.m.: Meet with marketing team. No, the young executive isn’t planning a rollout of Procter & Gamble’s latest plaque-fighting toothpaste or the successor to the iPhone (if there is any?). He’s marketing product of a much different kind—the large law firm for which he works.
Among the law community, the M word was once spoken only under one’s breath. Trolling for business was limited to those outfits taking on cases involving cosmetic surgery mishaps and falls on icy sidewalks. “Real” lawyers made it rain with a firm handshake and a round or two of golf.
But in an age where more firms are striving for global prominence, many are combining the soft schmooze with the razzle-dazzle of full-bore promotion and marketing.
According to BTI Consulting, which supplies research, analysis, and consulting services to law and other professional services firms, today’s typical law firm uses many of the same marketing strategies as Fortune 500 corporations to gain and retain clients.
What’s driving partners to engage in such, uh, naked commerce? Bargain-conscious clients shopping around for a better deal, for one. “Law firms now realize that no client relationship is safe,” says the former director of marketing and communication at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw. “Once these relationships might span generations.” Not anymore.
Clients also got smarter. Large banks and other companies once hired as many as 200 different law firms. Companies found out that working with fewer, larger firms gives them more leverage to negotiate fees, receive in-house training, and obtain ancillary services agreements.
Making the competition for clients even stiffer is the fact that in industries like financial services and telecom, companies are merging at a feverish pace, reducing the number of potential clients and “raising the bar for law firms that serve them,” adds the marketing director.
Being a universal “language,” marketing comes especially handy when a firm is trying to compete beyond U.S. shores. “An increasing number of firms are trying to establish their brands around the globe,” says the global director of marketing and communications at Baker & McKenzie. Not every firm is taking their brand in the same direction. Some mega-outfits are selling themselves as one-stop shops for clients while many smaller firms are branding their legal team as specialists.
While firms haven’t—yet—resorted to telemarketing or Saturday-morning infomercials to pick up clients, they have developed some aggressive strategies. Marketing is a kind of Air Force in the battle for law-firm market share.
Clients know that big firms have good lawyers. What they really want to know is how a firm’s expertise can add value in their specific legal context. My team goes in first and prepares the field with customer and competitor research and a clear branding message, and then the lawyers—the Marines and Army, so to speak—swoop in, close the deal, and take on the work.
Marketing departments are skilled at briefing lawyers on the latest trends in the legal marketplace. They also conduct research on potential clients, competitors, and industry movements and stay up to speed on new legislation coming down from Washington that could potentially ripen into business opportunities.
Law marketers also collaborate with the legal team to develop materials that showcase the firm’s thought leadership on key legal issues. Webinars are becoming a very popular way of communicating a firm’s abilities to clients.
Some older firms remain resistant to this race for legal tender. Soft, genteel pitches over fancy dinners and afternoons on the green keep their white shoes from getting smudged by the practices of marketing. It all depends on the culture of the firm and its leadership.
As senior partners develop a keener nose for the marketplace, though, marketing departments will undoubtedly be “just down the hall” at most firms. Those law-firm infomercials might be just around the corner.