Thursday, 28 April 2011

"Hello - would you like to buy some legal services?"

What is the best way for law firms to market their services?  What's the secret to marketing success?  I'm not sure why as an in-houser I care enough about this subject to write about it, but for some reason I do.  Maybe it is because a lot of the advice I see given to external lawyers on how to market their services tends to come from people who do not appear to be clients of law firms.  Don't get me wrong, I'm genuinely sure they have a valuable perspective on this.  But, without wishing to sound immodest, I imagine that an even more valuable perspective comes from in-house lawyers, the potential clients of outhousers seeking to build up their client list.

So how should law firms go about winning new clients?  What works and what doesn't?  Is it the right thing to do at all?  I recently read something suggesting that lawyer’s time is best spent maintaining existing relationships, not on building new ones.  Maybe that is true in strict ROI terms, but that's a defensive strategy and not how to build a successful long term practice.  In reality, some time has to be spent as a loss leader in seeking out new people that want to work with you.

Successful law firm marketing means relationship building that results in winning work from new clients.  There are three simple principles which matter:

1. First impressions count;
2. Little and frequent is better than big one-off impact marketing; and
3. It’s a long game, not a short one.

I will explore each of these in turn.

First impressions count.  Obvious, right?  Yes, but so so easy to get wrong.  And to get it right also requires a wider consideration of what constitutes marketing.  About 2 years ago I telephoned the switchboard of a well known Silver Circle firm I had never instructed.  It was after core hours, but no later than 7pm.  I needed some urgent advice on an issue that a couple of partners at this firm are known to be expert in.  After a bit of polite back and forth with the switchboard operator in an attempt to be put through to someone, I was told, "you do know it is after 5.30 sir?".  Massive first impressions count failure.  A reminder for law firms, indeed all businesses, that often front office staff may be the first point of contact with a potential new client. 

The "first impressions" lesson obviously goes far wider than this.  As a newly qualified lawyer I remember going to an museum exhibition my firm (well, not literally mine) was hosting for clients.  Before we went, it was drilled into us by the partners that if we saw anyone on their own at the event, then we had to go and speak to them, it was unacceptable for anyone to be left alone.  As a newly qualified lawyer with very little to offer in the way of experienced business chit chat I was hesitant to put this into practice, but such was the 3 line whip on it, I did.  I still remember how pleased the client I spoke to was that I'd approached him for a chat when he was otherwise milling around the gallery on his own.  So much so, that he later mentioned it to my department head.  Again, obvious right?  But now I am client side, I can recall events I've been invited to where I've felt it is incumbent on me to introduce myself and even on one or two occasions where I've been the one left milling around the room on my own (could be my lack of sparking conversation I guess).  If you invite someone to something, make them feel welcome when they get there and make sure that your colleagues do too.  Your invitee will have a better time and a better recollection of the event they went to.

On the same theme, outhousers, if you are ever on the other side of a transaction or a dispute to an in-house lawyer, do regard this as an opportunity to make a good first impression, to show them what you are good at, you never know, you might win some work.  I've instructed someone in the past who was on the other side and did a pretty good job at making our life miserable but in a very nice way.  And I've also got a small mental list of firms I will never instruct because of the impression I got of them when being on the other side of the table.  You can do the best job for your client whilst impressing a potential client at the same time.

First impressions count massively.  I'm of the cynical mindset that law firms love potential clients more than they love clients.  If I don't feel happy after a first meeting when a firm is seeking to win my instructions, my view is that I'm inevitably going to feel less happy if I ever instruct the firm (and for that reason, I'm not ever going to do it).

When I think of the occasions that I have instructed a firm I've not worked with before, it tends to be outhousers I have known for at least 12 months, usually more, and who I have met a few times for an hour or so at a time - maybe a breakfast, lunch or even (preferably) just a quick coffee.  I don't seek out regular corporate beanos from external lawyers and I don't believe that big high impact marketing, for example Wimbledon tickets, results in very much other than stress at keeping up with the Blackberry.   So whilst such occasional days may be all very nice, I don't think they achieve more in successful law firm marketing terms than a simple cup of coffee can.  A few coffee meetings over the course of a year or so is far more likely to ensure that a particular lawyer is front of mind when an issue arises, than a single "big ticket" corporate event where inevitably you are mingling with a number of different people, not just the lawyer who would like the in-houser to instruct them.

Long or short?  Of course, it is a long game.  But I will say this to outhousers.  A lack of instructions over even a period of months or longer does not mean that those instructions will not come and that you are wasting your time trying to gain them.  It is likely that an in-houser will only agree to meet more than once if they like you and are considering working with you.  But it might be a year or two and several meetings later until a matter comes up that leads to an instruction.  And I will say this to in-housers.  Don't waste your time or that of our private practice cousins by playing out this form of dating game if you have no intention of ever going on a proper first date, even if you are not sure when that date might arise.  To do so is, in my view, unprofessional and unfair.

Marketing external legal services is difficult.  Outhousers are slightly damned if they do (or at least are damned if they market them in anything approaching a hamfisted way) and damned if they don't.  Clients and potential clients like to feel wanted to some degree, like to feel that their lawyers and would-be lawyers are interested.  But they don't want to feel bombarded.  Treading that fine line between too little and too much contact is hard.  I think most sensible in-housers recognise this.  What we're looking for is simple, because in reality there are not many differentiators between the top 50 or even arguably top 100 firms.

We're looking for people we like, who we can see ourselves working with, who display an interest in our business, and who are prepared to get to know us over time.  It's no more complex than that.  And by way of proof, earlier this year when I needed some urgent advice, I did pick up the telephone to an outhouser who had been in touch with me on the above “occasional coffee” basis.  We chatted and exchanged a few emails and eventually I was able to fix the problem without his help.  And better, he did not send me a bill for the half an hour or so he'd spent trying to assist.  Which of course means that next time there is a fire drill, he is even more likely to get a call from me.

Of course, if any outhousers disagree and think that big bang one-off marketing plays do work, then I'm happy to test the theory.  I tentatively suggest having a chat about it in an executive box at the European Cup Final at Wembley in May as an appropriate test-bed.  All in the interests of research, naturally.


  1. Really interesting post. But surely networking is about much more than one party seeking work from the other? So I disagree with the idea that in-housers shouldn't 'waste time' or that of their private practice cousins "by playing out this form of dating game" if they have no intention of ever going on a proper first date. There could be all sorts of benefits to two people meeting for a coffee. They might learn something from each other, while extending their contacts at the same time. Life works in funny ways. You never know what the future might bring. You might even become colleagues or find your roles reversed. Also, there are benefits I could get from having a chat with you - for example, it might help me to better understand the market. If you have time for networking with others, you might learn something of benefit to you, or find you are able to offer a piece of information which has far more value to the other party, than the scrap of work you have no intention of giving them. So, IMHO it’s certainly not "unprofessional and unfair" to have coffee with an external lawyer whose services you do not intend to engage.

  2. What I find interesting, and encouraging, is that tools such as Twitter allow these relationships to grow without necessarily relying on, at least as an opener, the tried-and-tested education or employment networks.

    As set out in the post, for me "little and frequent" over the long term is key. This mirrors simple psychology and applies not only to building new commercial relationships but to the formation of any human habit.

    What is also encouraging is the growing support for relationships as their own end, rather than as a direct means to more work. This need not be a naive viewpoint, if as Shireen points out, it turns out that the relationships are valuable in ways that are more indirect and difficult to quantify.

  3. I nodded along to so many stories in this post... To add another in-houser’s perspective:

    In my experience outhousers can sometimes get uncomfortably clingy if they see a glimmer of a hint of a hope of a possible instruction, so I tend to wait until I’m fairly sure that we’ll get along before I agree to meet, even for coffee. What irks me is if I make the first move, and it’s ignored – and that goes beyond the switchboard. One way I like to test the waters is to attend training presentations at lawfirms. Absurdly, some firms require you to have a key contact before they’ll let you register. Because however trite it may sound to anyone with an ounce of commercial awareness, some outhousers still don’t understand that “anyone who’s not a client is a potential client” and will gleefully turn me away to drag my sacks of gold to another firm where I’ll at least make it through the door. If you can’t handle your core business in a sensible way, why should I let you loose on my commercial deals?

    As for clients / potential clients being ignored at events, that’s not just bad marketing, it’s bad manners – and it’s rife. Again, if you can’t behave properly on your own turf, how will you behave in front of my internal clients when things start to heat up?

    And that’s really the bottom line, outhousers: I’m not shopping for my own benefit. I’ve been there, I understand the pressures you’re under - the all-nighters, exploding printers and screaming partners - and if it were down to me I might cut you some slack. But when I pick you, I’m sticking my neck out and telling my people that I’ve hired the best team for the job: everything you do (and how you do it) will reflect on me, so I need to trust you from the outset. Don’t let yourselves down before I even get to know you.

  4. Tim,

    Good post (and you have got great comments too). Building up on what was said: little, frequent, 2 way interest in the relationship, value oriented (win-win)...

    The critical point is - as you mention - drawing the line between being wanted/interested and being bombarded. Having established a relationship should not always result on getting an instruction, but as you mentioned, you shouldn't start a relationship with someone you would never hire.

    I never get upset if I receive valuable information, that follows up on an already started conversation ...