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.