Making it easy: Marketing & technology

by Paul Heeney, staff writer

The Law Society’s marketing rules can be summed up as follows: A lawyer’s marketing must not be false, inaccurate, unverifiable, misleading or contrary to the public interest.

The Benchers recently amended the rules to make them easier to understand. Some parts were deleted altogether — others were relocated.

The intent remains the same.

What is changing is the technology that’s used to get the message out. Technology that is evolving so quickly that there are now dozens of marketing options for law firms, both large and small.

Doug Jasinski and Marni MacLeod  
Doug Jasinski, a former lawyer, is the founder and principal of Skunkworks Creqative Group Inc., Lawyer Marni MacLeod is Client Services Coordinator with Skunkworks.  

“My initial reaction was, ‘It’s a weed.’”

Janine Thomas is laughing as she points to the logo on her law firm’s website. It’s a stylized dandelion.

“I did some research and it turns out it’s a wonderful plant. It’s medicinal. In Wordworth’s words, it’s ‘the harbinger of spring.’”

Thomas, a sole practitioner with an office in Yaletown, spent a lot of time thinking about what to put on her site.

“I wanted to convey that I was professional and approachable. It was important that readers knew they were making a connection to an individual — that there was a personality there — a chance for them to see if the chemistry is right.”

Because Thomas’ practice is focused on estate planning and estate management, she considered a branding name for her firm. “I was thinking of ‘Legacy’ or ‘Heritage’ or one of those, but Doug and his people made it clear, ‘It should be your name. It’s you.’”

Doug is Doug Jasinski, a former lawyer who founded the marketing firm, Skunkworks Creative Group. Jasinski says convincing law firms that a website should be a critical component of their marketing is not a hard sell. But reaching an agreement on the content of the site can take time.

“What makes a website stand out is a very clear vision. It makes a powerful statement when it’s done right. But I don’t see a lot of it.”

What is often missing is clarity.

To develop a focused message, Jasinski and his team sit down with clients and get them to talk about what they do particularly well.

“I’ll ask them, ‘If I were a potential client, why would I choose your firm over your direct competitor?’ That can help them sharpen their thinking on what makes their firm unique, and in turn will help us focus.”

Once the message is clear, Jasinski and the clients decide the best way to deliver it. The size of the firm, the type of practice and the budget will definitely be factors. Jasinski says there are no hard and fast rules, although the culture of a firm plays a big role.

  Janine Thomas
  Janine Thomas

“A personal injury firm focused on reaching a broad audience might feel comfortable with radio, television or bus ads. But a corporate firm might recoil, saying, ‘We don’t want to see our heads on the side of a bus!’”

You may not see its logo plastered above the bumper of a southbound White Rock Express, but the marketing department at Gowlings Lefleur Henderson LLP is using just about every other type of advertising vehicle to get its message out.

Pass through the bilingual portal of the firm’s website, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve mistakenly arrived on the home page of a media outlet. There are highlighted news headlines, links to “mini-sites,” as well as a media room where reporters on deadline can be put in touch with “professionals who are recognized as experts in their field.”

There is also something called the Gowlings Trendwatch, which promises “video forecasts on upcoming legal developments.”

And yes, for those who use Twitter, there’s an opportunity to receive Gowlings’ tweets.

“Things have changed — and they haven’t changed.”

Peter Fairey is a partner in the Gowlings Business Law Group in Vancouver.

Peter Fairey  
Peter Fairey

“I think the messages are similar, but as technology advances, there are more conduits to meet your audiences. And those audiences are more specialized. Some are very text savvy and others don’t feel comfortable with it at all. So it’s important, not only to tailor the message to the person making the decision, but also to tailor how they’re getting that information.”

Fairey says making sure that the nearly 1,300 employees at Gowlings get the information they need is a marketing challenge of its own. “You’ve got so many people you have to be able to disseminate information efficiently, not only to your own clients but to your own counsel, so you know who’s doing what.”

Luckily, there’s a team of approximately 30 employees who write and manage web content, come up with marketing ideas and help create business development initiatives.

“We work with them to try and identify growth areas, so some brainstorming goes on, trend watching, and that’s important not just for marketing, but for staffing and getting expertise to develop new marketing areas, and we’ve had some success by picking and choosing certain segments.”

And Fairey believes today’s soft economy is not the time to slash the marketing budget.

“Our philosophy is, in a down economy, you need to invest. Business development initiatives are all the more critical now. It’s important to keep public confidence, because when you help clients recover, you get to ride that wave forward.”

But how does a sole practitioner catch that wave?

Doug Jasinski reminds clients of his mantra: focus on what you do well … showcase your expertise … highlight your problem-solving abilities. And, he adds, if you’re comfortable with new technology, move beyond the web.

“Someone will write a speech for 30 or 50 people attending a conference. It gets parked in a binder and it’s done with. Ask yourself if it’s cost effective to create a powerful piece of content and then let it sit. Push it out through different channels — twitter, blogs, your website, legal portals. The additional cost of distributing to eight or nine venues is minimal. I don’t see enough firms taking advantage of that yet.”

Jasinski realizes some clients have yet to embrace social networking. Janine Thomas isn’t quite there.

“The difficulty with any kind of advertising, and a blog is advertising, is what material to put out there. Do you have an obligation to pull it down if it’s no longer current? It is very time intensive, and if you’re a sole practitioner you have to ask yourself if that’s an efficient use of time.”

Thomas prefers to spend that time marketing to a targeted group. She tries to deliver at least three speeches a year to an audience that includes professionals who might be in a position to refer clients to her firm. She also writes two or three chapters a year for CLE’s BC Probate and Estate Administration Practice Manual. Besides giving back to the profession, it’s a chance to keep in touch with some key players in a specialized area.

Thomas estimates 99 per cent of her business comes through referrals, but says the website designed by Skunkworks is essential.

“It gives you a presence; it gives you credibility. It gives people a sense of who you are and whether they’ll be comfortable with you. It even tells them where they can find parking. It makes it all easy.”

Doug Jasinski’s top 10 tips for websites
1. Plan your home page with care.

First impressions count. Website visitors will largely form their opinions in the first few seconds. Use compelling visual design, a clear message, and prominent call-outs to key information on your home page to set the right tone.

2. Hire a photographer.

Non-lawyers can write their own wills or represent themselves in court. That doesn’t necessarily mean they should. The same is true for your website photography. For professional results, hire a professional.

3. Write crisply.

Good web writing succinctly expresses key messages, and then links or expands to longer versions for those seeking detail.

4. Distinguish yourself.

If you compete with drycleaners, plumbers and bakeries for clients, marketing your firm with scales of justice and Greek columns perhaps makes sense. However, if you compete for work with other lawyers and law firms, it does not. All these symbols tell people is that you are a lawyer. Guess what? They already know that. Tell them something they don’t know — namely, whether and why you are the right lawyer for them.

5. Make contact easy.

Put your general phone number and email right on the homepage, and a contact button on your main navigation bar that is accessible from every page on the site, with a map, parking information and additional contacts for larger firms.

6. Link.

Increasingly you need to build your web presence in multiple places online. Use your website as the flagship for your online marketing efforts and link into and out of your site to other properties such as Linkedin profiles, blogs and social media sites.

7. Make being found a budget item.

If you want your site to work as a credibility check for existing clients and prospects, then building a solid website may suffice. If you want to use it as a tool to drive new business, then you need to take active steps to make yourself visible on search engines and elsewhere. This is an entirely separate (and ongoing) process from building a new site. Budget for it accordingly.

8. Keep your website updated.

You wouldn’t dream of setting up a new reception area and then leaving it un-staffed for three years at a time, so don’t do it with your website either. Think of your website like a produce market — fresh content sends a great message, stale content does the opposite.

9. Navigation, navigation, navigation.

Don’t confuse your visitors — use a simple, logical system and recognized terms.

10. With web design, less is more.

Web pages shouldn’t be too busy; best-practice design favours clear headings, use of white space and easy to read fonts — Arial, Helvetica, Verdana and Tahoma are all solid choices.