The marketing planning process: aim before you fire

by Dave Bilinsky and Elizabeth Cordeau*

The firm has been asked to buy an ad in the local Chamber business directory. The Yellow Pages ad needs to be revised. You've been asked to respond to an RFP. You're speaking at an industry seminar. And, yes, the firm is building a website.

While all these activities are marketing-based, chances are they are being done on a one-off basis. This reactive approach to marketing — "fire, ready, perhaps not aim" — should be cause for concern. How do you know that Yellow Pages ad is paying for itself or even necessary? Is the RFP for work that will produce the return that you desire? Do you really want to speak in front of an audience that may contain your competitors or attract clients in areas of practice you may not desire? Is your website only going to be an electronic version of your firm brochure?

The fact is, a lot of law firm marketing is done in reactive mode. And if the above scenario sounds at all familiar, you and your firm may be guilty of the number one sin of marketing: having no real plan for your marketing activities.

The key to successful law firm marketing is planning. Whether it is a one-page outline of action items or a 20-page planning document for each practice group, every law firm should have a marketing plan. This plan should be developed from answers to a number of strategic questions we outlined in our previous article (see May-June Benchers' Bulletin issue, page 10). While these questions take some time to answer, they will prove to be an invaluable resource as you develop your marketing plan.

Elements of a marketing plan

Once you have conducted an assessment of your practice and have identified your strengths and weaknesses, your target group of clients, the threats and opportunities that you foresee and how you will measure your success from a profitability viewpoint, the next step is to take that knowledge and use it to develop a marketing plan. Each plan will be tailored to the practice, market and resources in which a firm operates, but they generally consist of the following elements:

Goals

Each firm should have some overriding reasons for marketing — recognizing that the only two groups whose strategic goal is to make money is the Canadian Mint and counterfeiters. All of the rest of us have to deliver a service or a product. Making money is the result of implementing a successful business strategy and, although relevant, is not a goal in and of itself.

(Collins and Porras, in their classic text "Built to Last," examine what it takes to build landmark companies that stand the test of time. They state: "Profitability is a necessary condition for existence and a means to more important ends, but it is not the end in itself for many of the visionary companies. Profit is like oxygen, food or water and blood for the body; they are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life.")

Ask yourself: Are you pursuing the right goals? Are you seeking to provide distinctive services that meet client needs and bring satisfaction — financial and otherwise — to the members of the firm? Does your firm need to reposition itself in the marketplace? Does it currently lack visibility, or are there any particular practice areas for which the firm wants to be known? Does the firm wish to develop new areas of practice, or is there a need to improve existing client relationships and create better marketing support materials? For example, your firm may want to increase its visibility in the business community or develop a reputation for doing good estate litigation work. These goals will drive the rest of your marketing plan.

Action/Implementation items

For each goal, actions need to be identified. Take the example of a firm wanting to increase its estate planning and litigation work. Action items could include: public relations, organizational involvement, speaking engagements, articles, seminars and client mailings. For each item, specific steps would be identified such as: what is being done (status updates), who is responsible to complete the action, what is the timetable for completion. Depending on the size of the firm, action items may range from local and simple to broad and complex in scope.

Resources and budget

Whether your implementation plan is simple or complex, it will take time, energy and money to accomplish. As a result, it is important to assign tasks and take on new projects with resources and a budget in mind. Say, for example, you want to centralize the firm's disparate mailing lists and turn them into one organized marketing database. What kind of software will be purchased? How are you going to compile all the disjointed bits of contact information housed in various Word documents, Palm Pilots and other programs? Who is going to input the data and check for correctness? As many marketing projects are similarly labour-intensive, it will be important to decide who does the work and how much it will cost to do it right.

Timeline

Each marketing plan should emphasize the timeframe within which any action should be completed and, if the action is significant, it should include milestones for checking on its status. For example, if the firm plans to develop a website, it is imperative that the timeline for its development include milestones such as storyboarding, design, testing, client beta testing and going live.

Tactical issues

What is in the marketing arsenal? There are many types of tactics available to firms but they will only be implemented successfully if they meet the needs and resources of the firm and its client base. For example, one law firm might need to advertise in the Yellow Pages while another firm might be more successful by networking with account managers within the local banking community. The tactics you choose depend highly on your practice, your strategic goals, your resources and your willingness for others to take a hands-on approach. Tactical approaches can include:

Research, surveys, other client feedback programs

The best source for new work and a great way to assess whether or not a firm is providing good service is by asking clients how the firm is doing. Formats can include formal or informal interviews, questionnaires, new client relationship interviews and post-file performance evaluations.

Relationship-building and managing expectations

Perhaps your clients would benefit from in-house training on new updates in the law. Or you can build a relationship with a client by visiting his or her new warehouse. Or one of your clients has expressed cost containment concerns and wants to be kept up to date on your fees on a monthly basis. Lawyers can build tremendous relationships with clients by listening and learning about their clients and understanding more about their existing and future needs.

Client entertainment: yes, it still exists

From fundraisers and golf to tickets to the rodeo, clients and prospects can be wined and dined. But some clients aren't allowed to take gifts, others may be cocktail partied-out and still others may not be comfortable with the whole aspect of entertainment — after all, this is the lean and mean 2000s. The key to successful client entertainment is making it fun, productive and meaningful for both the firm and the clients or prospects. Having a strategy is also important … for example, many companies like IBM and Xerox are sending their senior executives on a week-long course on marketing on the golf course.

Marketing communications materials

These materials are a necessary evil in law firm marketing, and after partnership points allocations, their development can be one of the most argued-over issues within a law firm. Marketing communications materials include general firm information, practice group descriptions, lawyer biographies, detailed transaction lists and matters litigated, client lists (with permission), newsletters, practice updates, letterhead, request for proposal templates, client-friendly retainer letters, customer service standards and specific information kits (like a wills kit or a guide to the litigation process). Successful marketing communications materials are well-designed, in plain language and answer the questions: "Why should I buy from you?" and "Why should I care?"

Advertising and directories

Do you need to buy ads and spend significant dollars on Martindale-Hubbell or Lexpert? Maybe, maybe not. Before you buy advertising and directory listings, ask yourself who your audience is and why you need to be in a certain publication. Then get yourself a good designer — tombstone ads are passé. And although "branding" is a big issue for many firms these days (positioning a firm by using tag lines and doing things like taking out one-page ads in major dailies), remember that branding is about the total experience a law firm provides to its clients — from the point of initial contact to final bill payment. A tagline promise may not deliver or, worse yet, be perceived as being transparent or a facade, so proceed with caution.

The web

Is your website an on-line brochure or do you have a website that projects a powerful "client comes first" overall message? For example, client-only web areas, where clients can see all the documents sent and received on their file, are becoming more prevalent. Further, many of the firms developing client extranets are not big firms, but they are distinctive. The internet is all about information and access — aim to build a site that meet the needs of your clients. If you are not sure what they need from your site, ask them.

Lawyer skills training

Sad but true, not all lawyers are natural marketers. Some may be great at working a room, others are better writers than speakers. Many marketing plans include committing resources and time to teach lawyers good marketing skills, from effective communications to presentation skills.

Media and publicity

Proper use of the media is an excellent way for lawyers to build profiles in their areas of practice. Journalists often seek knowledgeable lawyers to interpret a new piece of legislation or to comment on a specific justice-related issue. As a result, lawyers with savvy media skills can gain good name recognition in their communities. All high-profile lawyers should obtain media training — and all law firms need to know what is and isn't newsworthy. Press releases ought to be written by a communications expert.

Referral marketing

Many firms get work from other lawyers, other business colleagues or professionals within a specific industry. Lawyers should market both to and with their referral sources and form alliances along specific industries or client types. For example, if you do personal injury work, you may want to develop a referral network of doctors, rehabilitation consultants, psychologists or occupational therapists.

Sponsorships

Firms are often asked to sponsor sports teams, athletic events and community and cultural initiatives. Sometimes the number of requests can be overwhelming. Before agreeing to a sponsorship, ask yourself if the opportunity is meaningful to one or more partners (i.e., they are personally involved) or to current or prospective clients. Will it generate goodwill? Would it reflect badly on the firm not to be a sponsor? Will attendees at these events be the type of clients you are seeking to attract? Sponsorships can be expensive and their benefits intangible — but they can assist greatly in increasing firm visibility and demonstrating the firm's philanthropic spirit.

Writing, publishing, seminars

These are great ways to establish credibility in a practice area. As the law is about knowledge — and using that knowledge on behalf of others — clients and prospects will make some assessment of lawyers based on demonstrated expertise as writers or speakers. A few rules of thumb: choose your markets carefully, target your publications, craft your articles with care, and ensure that your presentation skills are first-rate and directed at the right audiences.

The importance of marketing

Whatever form your firm's marketing plan ultimately takes, real success will not be achieved unless and until all lawyers are prepared to commit the time to making it work. A balanced approach is required: lawyers must be given the leeway to engage in non-billable activities without guilt in recognition that short-term investments lead to long-term gains. Marketing is part of the practice of law and it should accordingly be given proper understanding, respect, resources and time.

* David Bilinsky is Practice Management Advisor for the Law Society; Elizabeth Cordeau is a consultant with MarketForce, a Hildebrandt Company, and is former Public Affairs Manager for the Society.