There are an infinite number of ways that law firms screw up marketing. The list includes hiring a marketing director without defining the job. Spending a dumpster of money on advertising without a "call to action" in the ad. But 10 dumb mistakes stand out time and time again:
1. Focus on yourself, not on your clients. This is the traditional approach to law firm marketing: describe your practices on your Web sites and printed marketing materials. Detail your internal administrative structure. Let's call this "marketing your organization."
A Midwest firm fell victim to this mistake, marketing itself as having three practice areas: real estate, real estate taxation, and tax practice. Think about it: these distinctions can only confuse clients. They can't tell which practice they should choose, and besides, clients don't think of themselves as customers of a practice group. Instead, focus on how your clients think: they see themselves as members of an industry. Present your firm according to the industries you serve.
This approach, called "organizing around the market," is done well by two firms: Foley & Lardner and Hale & Dorr. (Full disclosure: I advised both firms.)
2. Don't mention representative clients. Partners have been known to recoil at the suggestion of revealing whom they work for, saying they thought it was creepy and exploitive. They are appalled at the idea of having to ask clients for permission to use their names. But failing to list whom you represent is stupid, because it is one of the first things a potential client wants to know. Your clientele reveals who you swim with and answers potential clients' question about what kind of business you draw.
In the old days before the Web, it was a common practice for firms to list representative clients in Martindale-Hubbell listings. Somehow, this got lost in the electronic age. As the saying goes, GMTA: great minds think alike. Spelling out your client roster is an excellent way for a firm to distinguish itself, and to flag appropriate clients. Don't be shy about asking your best clients to show the flag-- they may well be honored to be asked, and delighted to be listed. Your clients are in business too, and understand the power of client lists and testimonials.
3. Failing to list success stories. Most firm marketing falls into the category of throw-away brochureware, because it is nothing more than general blandishments about the firm's "tradition of excellence" or "adherence to the highest level of ethics." This fails to offer prospective clients examples of what you've achieved--a key point of information and an excellent way to distinguish your firm.
Lawyers are known by their reputations, so hiding the firm's record undermines its marketing. The problem, of course, is getting lawyers to write down their accomplishments, and generally the most successful lawyers say they have the least time available to write. But this is no excuse. This information is easy to get by simply looking up the firm's public cases using Westlaw or Lexis, or transactions using Thomson Financial.
Or take the time to interview each of your partners--even if just for a half-hour-- which also can have a side benefit of improving relations between the marketing staff and lawyers.
For example, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw recently won the Your Honor Award from the Legal Marketing Association for publishing Retrospective 2002, which offers 23 engaging stories about successful cases from the client's point of view. (See Here)
4. Institutional Mistakes. These are the marketing errors a firm commits year after year because "We've always done it this way." For example, buying tables (that go empty) at a charity event, or mailing out thousands of holiday cards that nobody reads, or sponsoring expensive annual parties that attract freeloaders but no new business. You can usually find the fingerprints of a high-ranking partner behind these decisions. For example, one firm bought ads in a university football program book because the managing partner went to law school there. It was a vanity project that had no marketing purpose at all. Institutional mistakes are all a waste of money.
How can you combat this? Argue that all expenditures must have a return on investment. Your ammunition: Tally current marketing expenditures and collect so you can see--and show the partners--the damage. To measure R.O.I., tie each item to a result: the name of a new client or the total revenue generated as a result of effort. If there is no result, each item needs to be justified by meeting a specific goal of the firm. Otherwise, kill the project.
5. Having no marketing strategy and focusing instead on tactics. When I begin working with a firm I always ask for a copy of its marketing plan. I am repeatedly astonished to hear that the firm doesn't have one. The strategy may exist in the mind of the managing partner, but it's not written down. Firms typically have many marketing activities, but they're not connected or organized in any way. This is like having an orchestra where the musicians can play whatever they like at the same time.