Plan first: the key to marketing success

by Dave Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor and Elizabeth Cordeau, Public Affairs Manager

Practice Management Advisor Dave Bilinsky and Public Affairs Manager Elizabeth Cordeau discuss marketing fundamentals and the impact of technology at a recent workshop for lawyers in Victoria, one of several held this Spring.

"I can't go back to where I used to be / A whole new world,
With new horizons to pursue
I'll chase them anywhere, there's time to spare
Let me share this whole new world with you"

Words and music by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle

An old joke runs that when you are busy fighting off the alligators, it is hard to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp. It is a hard irony recalling that you wanted to take time for marketing when all your time is going just to cover the bills. For many lawyers, their marketing activity may be synonymous with the annual redesign of the Yellow Pages ad.

In the last 20 years, we have witnessed a law firm marketing revolution. This is due in part to increased marketplace competition both from inside and outside the profession, as well as the evolution of the more informed, and in some cases more empowered, client. In response, lawyers are attempting to attract and keep new clients by increasing efforts at identifying the marketing activities that work best for them.

What is marketing?

Peter F. Drucker, in The Practice of Management, says that "marketing is so basic, it cannot be considered a separate function of the business … it is the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result, that is, from the customer's point of view."

Given that definition, what is marketing for law firms … really? Generally speaking, it consists of product (the viability and quality of the legal services provided), promotion (how you tell people about the services you offer), price (how much it costs to buy your services) and place (where and who the buyers are).

There is, for example, a vast difference between marketing a $35 do-it-yourself will (available on the web or at the local bookstore) and marketing estate planning services that may result in a will. The $35 will is based on high volume, no input from a lawyer and instant delivery of a largely generic product. It is assumed that virtually no lawyer could make a living by doing $35 wills. Estate planning, on the other hand, results from a detailed interview with a lawyer and leads to the preparation of a customized will with trust clauses (or other documents), reviewed by the lawyer with the client in attendance. The products are necessarily different, the promotion should be different, the price is vastly different and the buyers of these services are different.

Making time for marketing

Why would you want to take the time and the money (and it does cost money) to increase your marketing efforts? There are many stated reasons:

  • To gain control — you can practise the law you want to practise and thereby get rid of the dog files (that is, unless your objective is to go after the dog files: see: where an American lawyer is specifically marketing his practice to give advice on dog bite law);
  • To gain independence — to meet your professional and financial objectives;
  • Enhance your reputation or develop a profile so you can go after the files that you want;
  • Improve skills or learn new ones and thereby move your practice into new areas;
  • Contribute to the continued growth of the firm or a practice group.

In many respects, marketing evolves from viewing your practice through your client's eyes — and making a commitment to constant quality improvement, client satisfaction and personal excellence.

Thinking marketing

It is very true that today's law firms have some form of marketing program in place, but most of the programs form the tip of the marketing iceberg. Indeed, research shows that law firms operate in reverse mode by spending most of their time on the promotional aspects of marketing, such as advertising and print communications, to the detriment of other elements of the marketing mix.

Traditionally, firms operate in one of three marketing phases. The first phase usually consists of Yellow Pages ads, community support and the usual assortment of banquets and brochures. The second phase includes all activities in the first phase, along with a combination of reactive and proactive activities, such as responding to requests for proposals and other selling opportunities, buying directory listings, doing some basic marketing training and target client research, engaging in various public speaking activities and, more recently, building the ultimate website.

What is traditionally the third phase should actually be the first phase for lawyers. It is based on a complete service delivery model, which includes evaluating the legal services marketplace, tracking trends and new developments in the law, identifying and confirming customer needs and expectations and then delivering those legal services at the right price to clients who can and will buy them. In other words, it consists not only of selling what a law firm has, but knowing that what a law firm has can actually sell. As mentioned earlier, this third phase is strategically the most effective and usually the most ignored. But because it addresses the whole of a law firm's practice, it is the most critical phase in ensuring a law firm's marketing success.

How to plan for marketing

So how does a law firm achieve the appropriate marketing balance? Planning is key. Because each firm, lawyer and practice is unique, a one-size-fits-all or one-dimensional approach to marketing may be expedient, but proves costly and counter-productive in the long run.

There are different aspects of marketing planning, but the most important one is the actual planning itself. Start with your own vision for your practice and your firm. To begin, consider not only where you are now but where you would like to be in one, five even 10 years. You will need a business plan as well to outline the resources that you will need and how to mobilize those resources. Last, your marketing plan will combine your strategic goals with your resources to produce a tangible road map to take you to your future. This strategic planning of who you are and where you would like to be lies at the core of your marketing. Your marketing activities will be the implementation of your vision and your strategic goals. In other words, you don't market simply to bring business to you — you market to bring to you the type of business, the type of client and the lifestyle that you desire. When you are preparing your strategic goals, business plan and personal marketing plan, a good place to start is by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What does my practice consist of? Is it the kind of work I want and that I'm good at? What do I have to offer?
  • Who are my clients?
  • Is my practice mix profitable, marginal or becoming obsolete?
  • What other work would I rather be doing? What are the emerging areas of law that I can focus on in the short, medium and long term? Are they profitable practice areas?
  • If I want to develop a new practice area or grow my practice, how capable am I of doing the work if I get it? Who are my competitors?
  • How committed am I and how much time do I have for marketing?
  • What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, both to my current practice and the one I want to develop?
  • How am I communicating with my clients, both when I am working on their files and when I'm developing new business?
  • What is my client service philosophy? What are the firm's client service standards?
  • What do my clients think of my work? My service delivery? How does that compare to other legal service providers?
  • How do my billing rates or final bills affect my clients' perception of the value that I bring?
  • What are the resources — in both hard costs and time — available to me for marketing purposes?
  • If I am practising in partnership, how do my goals fit in with those of the rest of the firm?

Although they take some time to answer, these questions form the foundation on which a marketing plan can be built, for they identify and answer the business fundamentals of a lawyer's practice. It is not easy to do and it requires time beyond getting the work done well. However, lawyers who examine the business aspects of their practice are then poised to make marketing decisions that are uniquely tailored to their clients' needs, and their own needs.

Next issue: Elements of a marketing plan