Burn your newsletters

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Ah, the law firm newsletter. The simplest and humblest of law firm communication vehicles – a collection of lawyer-written articles on new statutory or case law developments, bundled together into a stiff, saddle-stitched document that’s mailed out to clients on a regular basis (or more recently, placed online and e-mailed). What could be a safer and more broadly acceptable marketing tool? Well, there’s the problem, really.

The necessity and effectiveness of law firm newsletters have been long overrated. Partly this is because the content is written by lawyers, and is therefore a reliably tortuous read. Partly it’s because a general legal update is of limited interest and use to clients, who don’t really have time for FYI documents that don’t deal directly with an immediately relevant matter.

But mostly, I think, it’s because law firms have never given newsletters the attention, support and priority to be anything other than pretty mediocre and indistinguishable from one another (if I took the banner off two random law firm newsletters and switched them around, could you tell the difference?) That’s because firms don’t take newsletters seriously as publications in their own right.

Law firms sometimes seem to think their newsletters, print or e-mail, are competing only against other law firm newsletters for clients’ attention. They’re not. They’re competing against every business and industry publication their clients read, usually produced by large publishing companies with decades of experience. Unlike law firms, these companies don’t regard their periodicals as a sideline, a nice marketing tool – they treat them the same way law firms treat their work product, as the lifeline of their businesses. So it’s not surprising that in this competition, law firms are outgunned from the start.

Have you read any of the top publications in your clients’ industry sector? Gerry Riskin used to ask this question at managing partners’ conferences, and would get only a few hands raised in affirmation. If you did read them, and you compared them to the newsletters law firms produce for the same client audience, you’d feel embarrassed for the firms. The leading industry publications receive focused editorial direction and excellent quality control, are written by experienced staffers or freelancers, and are professionally designed and produced with high-quality magazine stock (or web architecture), art design and imagery. Law firm newsletters, it can safely be said, don’t and aren’t.

Jack Welch said that if you’re not #1 or #2 in a given field, get out of it altogether. Seth Godin says do the things you’re great at and let the mediocre stuff go. If you’re not producing truly great client publications that command clients’ attention and generate respect in the field, why are you bothering to produce them at all? Because you always have? Because everyone else is doing it? Drop them. Take the time and energy you’ve been sinking into these increasingly irrelevant publications and invest them in business development activities that have a chance of actually producing a worthwhile return.

Or … go the opposite route. Set up a separate Publishing Division within the firm, reporting to Business Development or the Management Board rather than to Marketing, and mandate it to create publications that can legitimately be mentioned in the same breath as the leading client industry periodical. In fact, aim to create the dominant trade publications in whatever areas you’ve identified as key to your business development strategy. Be the must-read information source for your clients, the one that your competitors are pitting their mediocre content against.

This is not an unrealistic goal. Top-notch editorial, graphic and web talent is out there by the truckload, often underpaid and underemployed – recruit it and retain it with the same intensity of effort you pour into finding associates who’ll be gone in less than three years. Strike deals with small printing houses that specialize in upscale, limited-run publications and outsource the production process. Strike an editorial board, drawn equally from your sharpest lawyers and your most valued clients in the industry you want to dominate. Give the project an annual budget proportionate to what you spend on law school recruiting efforts, which yield questionable return.

And then go make a great periodical or e-zine. Don’t make it all about your firm and what smart lawyers you have and what great deals they’ve closed and what big cases they’ve won. Make it about your clients – their faces, their competitors, their industry, their innovations, their problems, and their solutions. Feature your lawyers where appropriate, sure. But otherwise, simply do what the best publications in your clients’ industries do now: deliver important and relevant stories, told in a riveting fashion, to the highest professional standards. Create publications that demand your clients read them.

This applies beyond newsletters -– this applies to any information product you prepare and circulate to your clients. Want to create a blog function within your firm? Great. Get 20 lawyers who are passionate about practice areas important to your strategy, who can and will write frequently and engagingly, and let them charge their blogging hours as billable-equivalent time. Establish your firm as the authoritative blogging source for your clients, and reap the rewards that come from being the trailblazer and front-runner in an emerging area. But go into blogging hesitantly and half-heartedly, and you can expect a hesitant, half-hearted product and hesitant, half-hearted return on your investment.

The bottom line is: if your firm is producing anything that isn’t expected to be, and isn’t held to the standard of being, the very best, either stop doing it, or do it right. You wouldn’t send out mediocre, “good enough” legal work to your clients. Don’t pollute your brand by settling for mediocre, “good enough” client publications.

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2 Responses to “Burn your newsletters”

  1. Simon Carter

    Great to see some interest in publications — an area I’m banging the drum about here in the UK. I agree with all Jordan’s points in spirit, and have two further thoughts:
    – Get lawyers comfortable with the idea of telling clients what they think, and what the see in their specialist areas, and clients will be interested.
    – Low quality, low value-add publications are a risk to the firm’s reputation, and to client relationships.

    First, the solution may not necessarily be to hire in more, and more focused, resources. Another way would be to tweak the drab publication culture and help lawyers to see that clients are interested in what lawyers think and see, but not in low-comment ‘news’ — news they can get anywhere. In my conversations with lawyers I often find a concern that detailed comments on topical issues constitutes free advice (save me), and an instinct that the academic trumps the practical. Both are prevalent and wrong. In spades.

    If lawyers got out of their miserable publication rut then they could really engage client attention — in my research I’ve found that clients yearn to know what lawyers are seeing at the frontline, and are always on the lookout for practical pointers.

    Secondly, while publications are often a tragic waste of energy for the writer and the reader, they also represent real risk for the firm’s reputation, and for client relationships. The problem is as much that clients do read ‘em as that they don’t.

    As part of a recent piece of my own independent research I asked senior in-house lawyers and heads of legal: “If you read a publication that doesn’t seem to offer an insight or grip the issue, does it affect your view of that practice group?”. The answer was a resounding “yes” — not that surprising if you think of your own experience, but a topic I’ve not seen covered elsewhere…

    Reputation-and-relationship risk is another reason to consider turning of the publication-tap — to paraphrase mother’s advice, “If you can’t think of anything useful to publish, don’t publish at all”.

    Simon Carter http://www.onethreefour.co.uk

  2. Scott

    Good article.

    I need to say this though: clients do want this stuff. I’m sorry they do. I work in a law firm and we get requests every week for more client newsletters / updates not less of them.

    Yes, there are are professional publishers in their markets, but most clients are not spending money on periodicals covering legal developments – they expect their law firms to be providing updates, and doing so for free.

    A group of large law firms created an online publications database – The BLT Portal – after a request from a collection of global financial institutions, wanting to get all the firms’ updates in one place. In this world, first to produce an update wins – not best (although it can be both). Open aggregator sites such as Lexology and Linex Legal often show the same. (These are interesting as many larger firms are not keen on their content being seen next to content from smaller firms, in case it gives the impression that the firm’s are the same ‘quality’ – make me smile personally, that one).

    I would disagree with Jordan when he says:
    “If you are going to publish content, create a Publishing Division within the firm, and mandate it to create publications that can legitimately be mentioned in the same breath as the leading client industry periodical and become a must-read information source for your clients, one that your competitors are pitting their mediocre content against.”

    Publishing is not a core competency of law firms, and if it starts becoming one I would argue you should question the quaility and dedication to the practice of law of that law firm.

    This is not to say that the quality of the content could not improve. The problem of course is that firms are often scared/warry of taking a position on things as they don’t want to risk alienating either existing or future clients, which is why many of these update are often so dry, and shirk away from taking a wider view which relates more closely to the clients interests and problems etc.

    I wished more firms used blogs for much of this content – got a view out there asap and then be prepared to discuss it (short of providing free advice obviously). The problem is many clients are still not using rss/following blogs and are still tied to getting a ping in their email inbox (thankfully hard copy mailing of these publications is disappearing in most firms).

    Anyway, that’s my two cents worth!

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