Marketing is about the client

Late last year, in my column at Slaw, I posited the idea of lawyers adopting a client partnership model based on’s customer relationship approach. One of my suggestions was to track a client’s use of the electronic newsletters that law firms send out and use the data to tailor their services to that client accordingly:

If a client receives a general business and corporate e-newsletter but only clicks on and reads the articles pertaining to entrepreneurship while ignoring the items on competition law, her copy of the e-news can be automatically customized to include more of the former and less of the latter. Not only that, but the client’s browsing interest is added to her profile and could prompt a phone call from the lawyer inviting her to a venture capital seminar.

I was pretty delighted, then, to read this article from Law Firm, Inc. this morning, which led off with an anecdote about a Houston law firm’s marketing director and her innovative use of the firm’s existing but underutilized Customer Relations Management software:

She set the CRM system so that whenever the firm e-mailed clients a newsletter, it tracked which articles were opened by which recipients. This enabled Horn to home in on the topics that were most interesting to specific clients. She then centered her marketing efforts around these hot issues — a client alert devoted to climate change, for instance, or a seminar on intellectual property. The result: The more focused her marketing efforts became, the more phone calls the firm’s partners received. “We’ve sent out more than 500 items this year — newsletters, invitations to conferences and so on,” says Horn. “At least 10 percent have directly produced work.”

But this innovation success story, unfortunately, was one of the few reported in the article’s comprehensive survey of the state of marketing and business development at the 200 largest American law firms by revenue. The overall sense emerging from the article is that most law firm marketing is like a car stuck in deep mud, with the Chief Marketing Officer pressing hard on the gas pedal but unable to make much headway. Here are some of the reasons for (and effects of) all the tire-spinning:

–> CMOs don’t stay in the job long, partly through frustration with bullheaded resistance to change, and partly through pressure from impatient partners who don’t understand that marketing and business development take time to show results.

–> CMOs have limited contact and influence with firm executives, while the partnership culture at most firms allows partners to ignore marketing recommendations; there is no top-down authority structure, and many managing partners are still carrying on active practices on the side.

–> CMOs find that the partners who are in the best position to spearhead marketing efforts never come to their seminars and never implement their ideas because they’re too occupied with billing hours.

–> CMOs have made limited headway instructing partners in the theory, operations and tremendous potential impact of tools like CRM software and business intelligence strategies. CRM in particular suffers because, like KM, it requires lawyers’ active participation in adding to the client information database.

It’s this last one that prompts the greatest frustration, because you could argue that the first three result from law firms’ traditional management structure and pressure to rack up billings and profits as fast as possible. Those are cultural obstacles that are very hard to shift, though not impossible, with time. But there’s no excuse for rejecting the use of tools and strategies that can bring a firm closer to its clients and provide more insight into and understanding of their world. A firm that doesn’t have the time or inclination to relate with clients deserves whatever befalls it.

Law firm marketing is nothing more nor less than client relations. It focuses on (a) improving relations with and getting more work from existing clients, and (b) raising awareness of the firm among, and getting new work from, new clients. Ads, brochures, websites, newsletters, article placement — all the things that most lawyers still associate with marketing — these are just the simplest tools with which lawyers connect with clients. There is a vast array of other techniques and strategies available to firms, far more sophisticated, effective, and client-centered. But lawyers resist them mightily.

Why? Because for many lawyers, marketing is about ego. It’s about self-promotion, self-aggrandizement — in a word, self. I know marketing officers whose primary contact with partners is a message ordering them to “get my name and picture in [Blank] legal trade magazine,” often because that lawyer’s chief rival was featured in the previous issue. These lawyers view marketing as a means to send the world this crucial message: “I’m an incredible lawyer. Bask in my glory.” They couldn’t be more wrong.

Marketing is not about the lawyer — it’s about the client. Marketing says: “The most important thing about me is that I’m interested in you — your work, your goals, your challenges, your environment, your needs. I’m so interested that I track your industry like a bloodhound, I check out your company’s share price daily, and I’m just as invested and passionate about your objectives as you are.” Good marketing is focused on the client, because good lawyering is, too. This is not a dazzling truth suddenly revealed today — it’s what lawyers have understood for years, but too many of us have forgotten.

That’s why, as the article suggests, law firm marketers’ best hope for allies and assistance lies not in the office, but outside it:

Indeed, client-driven changes may be the best hope for law firm marketing departments, pushing partners to raise the standing of their chiefs and the priority of their initiatives. Clients are … requiring a different kind of lawyer — an adviser who better understands their business, their industry and the challenges they face; lawyers who are always on top of industry trends and what the competition is up to; partners who serve, literally, as client partners. “This is a revolutionary change that is now hitting the industry,” says Schechter. “Law firms need to react by providing a more sophisticated marketing and sales culture.” 

Here’s an easy, reliable rule for a law firm to use when deciding whether to pursue a particular strategy or tactic. Ask: does it bring us closer to the client? And does it bring the client genuinely closer to its goals? If the answers to both these questions are yes, go with it. If not, try again.

And if you don’t have any strategies or tactics that fit these criteria, ask your client to supply some. Trust me — they have lots.

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