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One of a Kind

10 Maxims to Make Your Law Firm Marketing Better

By Jay Harrington

Law firm marketing strategies. It involves a mindset shift.

In the classic ’80s comedy “Brewster’s Millions,” Richard Pryor plays a minor league baseball player who has to spend $30 million in 30 days in order to inherit $300 million from his great-uncle. Predictably, he goes on a wild spending spree (for example, he purchases a rare stamp and uses it to mail a letter) in an effort to exhaust his budget.

Sure, You Can Buy Attention …

Times are good for many law firms. Revenues and profits are up. There is a margin to spend on marketing. While most firms do not engage in wild spending sprees, in times like these things tend to get a little loose. When the coffers are full, it’s tempting to invest in large-scale, attention-grabbing marketing campaigns.

For example, you can buy attention by spending $500,000 on a national advertising campaign. And if you do this frequently and consistently enough, it will work — if what you want is broad brand awareness. While it’s almost impossible to measure the actual ROI of this type of marketing, it feels good to have your firm’s logo splashed across print publications and airport kiosks.

But what about for everybody else? And what happens when things turn south?

Unfortunately, instead of doing something different, many firms make one-off investments (a single, full-page ad in the local business journal) meant to mimic their larger counterparts. But this doesn’t result in the type of sustained business success they’re seeking.

But You Can’t Buy Trust

Yes, you can buy attention. But no matter how much you spend, you can’t buy trust. And trust is the most valuable form of currency needed to sell sophisticated professional services.

Effective marketing that garners both attention and trust must be built on a foundation of strategy. Developing an effective strategy requires an investment, but not merely writing a check. It involves listening, understanding, being empathetic, and putting in the labor necessary to truly know who your audience is and what matters to it. Only then can marketing tactics be deployed that will lead people to enroll in what you have to say and then open the door to your business development overtures.

Laying a strong foundation for effective legal marketing and business development is hard work. It requires a mindset shift. It involves thinking unconventionally.

These Maxims Are Not for Everyone

What follows are not tactics. Rather, these are 10 maxims that will help you frame the decisions and, yes, make the investments necessary to make an impact with your legal marketing. These are principles. And they’re not for everyone.

Undoubtedly, many lawyers and law firms will continue to do things the way they’ve always been done: establishing a budget, outsourcing marketing and checking the box.

This is for the rest of you.

1. Clients don’t care about you.

Of course not — they care about themselves. So why is so much of your marketing focused on facts, figures and features about your firm? Stop fixating on the utility of what you do, and understand that clients — like all consumers — act based on how they feel. The story you tell, not the services you provide nor the accolades you’ve earned, is what creates emotional resonance and engenders trust.

2. Clients don’t buy legal services — they buy outcomes.

But not the outcomes you think. Sure, your plaintiff-client wants to win the lawsuit. But she brought the lawsuit because she felt overlooked, disrespected and cheated in some way. She wants redemption. These feelings keep her up at night. What she’s really buying is a good night’s sleep. Are you focused solely on the lawsuit? Are you spending more time corresponding with opposing counsel and the judge’s clerk than with your client? Or are you giving her what she truly seeks: comfort, security and confidence that she’s entrusted her peace of mind to someone who deeply understands what matters to her?

Don’t conflate your own ambitions with your client’s desired outcome.

3. The status quo is your biggest competition.

Most people and businesses who are in the market for legal services are already clients of other lawyers and law firms. Your job, therefore, is not to offer a marginally better option. Despite what’s taught in undergrad economics class, consumers are not rational actors. They don’t weigh options equally and always make the better choice. They’re gripped by inertia. They view change as risky, despite the availability of a better alternative. They’re beholden to the status quo. And so are you.

4. You have to give them a reason to change.

Because consumers are gripped by inertia, you need to formulate and articulate a significantly superior offer if you hope to shake prospects free of the status quo. You have to craft a compelling story that demonstrates the value of change. This will gain you attention. And gaining someone’s attention will give you the opportunity to earn their trust. Consistently build trust by making and keeping promises with a sense of urgency, and the change you seek will happen.

5. Forget mass markets — focus on one person at a time.

Most marketing is focused on reaching mass markets. Why not reach everyone you can? Because, if you try, you’ll reach no one. Your message will be watered down and, therefore, ignored. Mass marketing is lazy and is based on the conceit that large numbers of prospective clients will be interested in what you have to say. Focus instead on reaching a minimum viable market. Before shooting for 50 new clients, aim for five. Dial-in on a small group of people. Serve them. Delight them. Then they’ll tell a friend. Their word-of-mouth recommendations to others in the small group you hope to serve will be far more valuable than any message you can broadcast to mass markets.

6. Tactics are not strategy — they serve strategy.

One of the most common questions I get this time of year, as law firms plan for the next one, is: “What do you see other firms doing that is working?” At the root of this question is: What tactics are generating buzz and business? In my experience, the only tactic that works is eschewing tactics altogether until strategy and story are dialed in. Your website, email marketing, social media, print ads, podcasts, videos … the list goes on and on. Those are just the means of distribution. They’re just channels. Forget tactics — at least for now. Craft a great story that you can tell a distinct audience. Then, and only then, use tactics to spread your message.

7. Thought leadership is generous (which is why it works).

Thought leadership marketing involves freely sharing informative, educational, and inspiring content in the marketplace of ideas. Many lawyers are afraid to engage in thought leadership marketing. They don’t want to give away the “secret sauce.” This type of thinking is misguided. Clients aren’t looking to do it themselves. They’re looking for the right expert for the job. If your ideas resonate and help your prospects to understand that you have a solution to the problems they face, you’ll distinguish yourself from other lawyers who are leading with their bios. If you consistently show up in front of your target audience and generously share your thought leadership, you’ll be rewarded. The people who matter to you will start to view you as an insider who can be trusted, not as an outsider who is held at arm’s-length. If you’re hesitant to share your best ideas with those you hope to serve, keep in mind that one (or more) of your competitors is already doing so.

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8. To achieve big success, start by thinking small.

Having a niche focus is important for many reasons. A principal one is to establish yourself as a thought leader. It’s almost impossible to be a thought leader and not have a niche. To have insights and ideas that breakthrough and change the conversation, you need to have a focus. You need to commit. You need to aim for depth, not breadth. An unexpected, counterintuitive (and wonderful) thing happens when you commit, and shut down all the distractions, side projects, “what-if” and “just-in-case” initiatives. More opportunities come your way when you do less but do it better than anyone else. Want sophisticated, high-paying clients with interesting projects? These types of clients are looking for a result, not a bargain, and are willing to pay for the best alternative out there.

A lawyer who merely dabbles across a number of domains will almost certainly not achieve the thought leader status required to be in the running for this type of work. The same goes for speaking and writing opportunities, and opportunities to build relationships with other thought leaders. Less leads to more.

9. First impressions matter more than you think.

Think about the last time you interviewed a job candidate or a vendor for a project. If you’re like most people, you made a snap judgment (positive or negative) within the first few minutes of meeting the person. The rest of the conversation was merely polite chitchat. Your prospective clients do this, too. The problem lawyers and law firms face, however, is that it’s almost impossible to know the point of first impression for most prospects. In some cases, it’s a chat over coffee. Other times, it’s an opinion shared by someone who has had prior dealings with your firm. These days, it’s likely to be an online interaction involving a prospect doing due diligence via a firm website or lawyer LinkedIn profile.

So what to do? Audit and improve your points of first impression. Make each potential touch-point as meaningful, welcoming and relevant as possible. First impressions matter greatly. And the challenge you face is that many are being formed without you even knowing it.

10. Your best prospects are those you already serve.

It’s exciting to develop new business from new clients. But trying to get new business from new clients is the wrong place to focus your marketing resources. Depending on which study you reference, acquiring a new customer or client is anywhere from 5 to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one. And research from Bain & Co. suggests that increasing customer or client retention rates by 5 percent increases profits by 25 to 95 percent. Don’t chase. Dance with the one that brought you.

Now What?

If you made it this far, you may be thinking, “What am I supposed to do with this?” That’s kind of the point. You’re not supposed to do anything, at least not yet. First, you need to think.

Ask yourself: 

  • Who am I trying to serve?
  • What matters to them? How do they see the world?
  • What do I have to offer that is new and different?
  • What small steps can I take to gain the attention of a small group of people, and break through the status quo?
  • With that attention, how will I build trust?
  • How can I serve my audience?
  • How can I build the capacity (time, discipline, resilience) to show up, and be generous, over and over again?
  • How can I keep the promise of my marketing by delivering even more than what was expected?

The answer to all of these questions is something other than: write a check, place an ad, outsource it to someone else. Struggling and grappling with these issues is the hard work of marketing. If you want to grow your practice, it’s one of the best investments you can make.

Updated July. 2020. Image ©iStockPhoto.com.

Categories: Law Firm Marketing, One of a Kind
Originally published December 25, 2019
Last updated September 7, 2022
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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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