How to Avoid the Top 10 Law Firm Marketing Mistakes

  • October 22, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

If your law firm is not getting the tangible results from marketing that you expected, chances are you’re committing one (or several) of the many mistakes that are all too common in legal marketing today. These 10 tips will steer you clear of these common missteps, and help you and your firm become a successful marketing machine:

1. Develop a Strategic Marketing Plan

Random acts of marketing don't work. It’s natural to slip into tactical mode—“let’s run some ads, print a brochure, host a client event, etc.”—but it’s a misguided, short-term approach to marketing. Isolated activities rarely generate the results you need or expect.

Next time someone announces a “good idea,” muster up the discipline to ask, “What are we trying to achieve?” Of course people want to feel progress—that's why we often feel the urgency to carry out marketing activities. But hold your horses! Maybe you’re not inclined to write a comprehensive marketing plan (which, incidentally is the surest way to stay on track, maintain a budget and keep all those wandering cats focused on the ball), but at least have that tough conversation and take some notes to share with others. Ask yourself:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. How can we get there?
  4. How can we measure our progress?

Pull billing stats to help with questions one and two. Who were your top clients for each of the past few years and which were your most profitable? This means calculating the effective rates for each lawyer: hours billed divided by total bill. Which clients are currently dazzled by you? Consider asking for more of their work or a referral while the iron is hot.

Is there a new niche area of work on the horizon? Alternatively, is there a sunset area that needs refocusing? Take an objective look at the performance of all practice groups.

Once you’ve defined your goals, consider what it will realistically take to achieve them. Are you equipped or do you need to bring in outsiders to assist with planning and implementation? With a plan in place you can more easily identify efficiencies and stretch your budget for maximum impact.

Everyone in the firm, including office services, needs to know where the ship is headed. Stand on the deck, point out the destination and describe the route you’ve mapped out.

Measuring marketing activities is a perennial challenge; not everything can be measured with scientific accuracy. There is a significant residual effect with marketing and the benefits of your efforts may not be realized until long after you’ve walked away from the podium.

You'll be able to gauge short-term impact through your Web site (check specific page stats), feedback mechanisms (“call, write, fax for more information …”), and volume of files, billings, expressions of interest, etc. Your plan should include proposed measuring sticks—just keep in mind that the results of marketing are cumulative effect and may not come to bear for some time.

2. Keep Your Image and Marketing Materials Current

If you’re still wearing wide ties, please just skip to #3. Lawyers need to stay up-to-date and current on legal trends—clients expect it of you and it’s one of the necessities of conveying your message effectively. Your corporate image—your logo, corporate stationery, Web site, etc.—show clients where your firm stands on all things now. If your firm’s image says yesterday, that’s where a client sees you practicing.

Appeal to your audience, but project a current look. If your clients are primarily in the technology sector you may be willing to go with an avant-garde look, but if senior citizens represent the majority of your business, a traditional (but still current) look is more appropriate.

Take a critical look at all the materials that a client receives. Spread them out on your boardroom table. Now, consider your fax cover sheet—possibly the most common item clients receive from you. Is it cluttered and difficult to read? Is your logo prominently positioned and surrounded by blank space? What about your letterhead? If you list lawyers’ names at the top, consider moving them to the bottom. Put the client’s interest first (the content of the letter) and create some valuable visual space for your logo at the top of the page. Try different things and see what looks and feels right.

If hand-stamp your envelopes with your return address, stop doing so immediately. At the very least get some clear mailing labels laser printed—hand-stamping went out with DOS. And if you still have a DOS operating system, you too should skip to #3.

Same goes for your reception area and washrooms—both should appeal to your clients. And please, no hand-written signs anywhere.

Your corporate image should be valued and revisited every five years.

3. Leave It To the Experts

A lawyer-prepared ad is always easy to spot. It lacks creativity, it’s bland, introspective, copy-heavy and blends right in to the publication where it’s suppose to stand out and draw attention. Same goes for most lawyer-created Web sites, brochures and newsletters.

Sure, go ahead and draft the content or sketch out the layout if you must, but then leave it to a pro to do the fine tuning. Stick to law and leave the marketing to those who will bring you results. Yes, it may look easy and you’re loath to pay someone to design/write/plan something that you feel you can do. But please, leave the heavy lifting to the experts. Just look at what happens to clients who draft their own agreements.

Some firms spend many wasteful non-billable hours on marketing activities that are not on strategy, are weak in presentation and ultimately damaging to their image. Instead, keep non-billable time to a minimum and establish a productive relationship with a talented designer or marketing consultant who knows your firm well and can respond quickly.

Set a budget; ask where you’ll get the most value; establish non-billable time limits for each marketing project and bring in a consultant during key decision-making meetings. If you’re running an ad and the publisher offers free layout services, have them design your ad, but leave plenty of time to have it redone if it’s not up to par.

4. Be an Innovator, Not a Follower

Innovation is one of the cornerstones of a successful business. This can be found in the product or service itself, in its delivery, the branding or the impression. Innovation and legal services are often mutually exclusive. Lawyers are trained to follow precedents; marketers are trained to ignore them. Therein lies the challenge.

By its very nature, successful marketing stands out from the crowd. Now I know standing in the light is uncomfortable, but this is corporate communications and favorable attention increases the bottom line—blending in could be costly.

In the law firm environment, an innovative idea is often met with “sounds interesting … who else is doing it?” Who else? Do you want to follow or lead? Blend in or stand out? So the BIG idea gets pondered … tick tock, tick tock … the risks are weighed … tick tock … and now so much time has passed that another firm has run with the same idea and claimed all the glory that could have been yours.

Unsure about how clients or prospects will react to an idea or a concept? Ask them. Invite a small group of representative clients and prospects to comment. WARNING: do NOT ask your own lawyers. They’ll whip out their red pens before you can say “Now imagine if you were a client.” Get their buy-in with a different strategy, but whatever you do, don’t conduct your market research internally. The focus group approach also has the benefit of providing a nice way to stay in touch with your clients or get to know prospects better.

5. Include Staff in Your Marketing Efforts

Staff is probably your most underused resource in a law firm. Most firms have more staff members than lawyers, but rarely engage them in the firm’s business development activities. Every single person who works in your firm is a budding ambassador or sales person for your firm. Do they know all the areas in which your firm has expertise? Are they aware of your latest successful transaction or court decision? Do they know who to direct prospects to within the firm?

At the next staff meeting, distribute a brief, anonymous questionnaire about your firm. Some useful questions might be: "Can you list five of our practice areas? Do we have experience in product liability? Are we expensive? In three sentences or less describe our firm as you would to a stranger."

Staff members are active and influential members of their communities and are out there chatting about work. It's an untapped source of great marketing—all you have to do is focus it.

To reach your staff (and others in the firm) consider publishing a regular internal newsletter or broadcast an internal voicemail message. As well, provide business cards for your staff, and always include them in professional development activities.

An internal newsletter (dead easy if sent via e-mail) is a quick and easy method to educate everyone in your firm about current news. To ensure it gets read, make it fun, quick and easy to read.

An internal voicemail broadcast that reinforces your key messages can have a similar effect. Script a concise weekly update and have your managing partner record a voicemail message that is sent to all internal voicemail boxes. Keep the length under a minute and the tone conversational and light.

A box of business cards may cost $50 at the most. But if the cards are well designed, every recipient gets an instant, positive impression of the firm and a few clues about what you do well.

If your firm conducts internal professional development lunches where your own lawyers give internal presentations, why not invite the staff? Entice them with a free lunch and go out of your way to make them feel welcome. They’ll take away new or improved knowledge to apply at work and share with family and friends. They’ll also begin to possess first-hand knowledge about the firm's expertise.

6. Stay in Touch with Clients

My dentist always said, “only floss the teeth you want to keep”. Where client retention is concerned, value only the clients you want to keep. Ignore them and they will go away.

Studies have shown that 90 per cent of clients who leave a firm do so because they feel neglected. It’s not because you didn’t win, didn’t claim every last dollar on a deal or over-billed. You simply didn’t stay in touch.

Make it routine to check how long it’s been since you’ve heard from each of your clients. For most clients, don’t let two months pass without touching base.

With all the resources available, it’s easier than ever now to stay in touch. Develop a regular client follow-up schedule for you and your secretary. When you’re not reporting on the status of a file, find a valid reason to call, e-mail or write—send a relevant article, invite them to lunch, introduce them to a helpful contact, ask for feedback (yikes! See #10), drop by their office, ask them to speak at a firm event, find a way to propel the marketing of their product or service and so on. Remember, this is a contact sport, try to get belly-to-belly as often as possible.

With every new client, or even on an annual basis with your current clients, send a brief one-page questionnaire entitled “Your Expectations”. It should be brief and easy to complete. Ask how frequently they want to hear from you, their preferred means of communication, if there are other people in the client organization you should keep informed, if they want a firm newsletter, etc.

Most importantly, do as they ask. You risk damaging your carefully orchestrated relationship when, for instance, you phone when they’ve noted a preference for e-mail. Every lawyer, legal assistant and secretary should be aware of their clients’ expectations, so make copies available as appropriate.

A year later, send them a copy of their completed form and ask if anything has changed. You might also send along an evaluation form or, better yet, conduct an in-person interview.

7. Set Up a Database for Conducting Direct Marketing

A firm-wide marketing database is one of the simplest marketing tools to use, but often the most aggravating and difficult to deploy. Nothing takes the place of in-person contact, but between the lunches, events and phone calls, your database will help to ensure no contact or prospect is neglected. If for no other reason, it will make your holiday card mailing much less painful (if you’re still sending out the printed variety, that is.)

It will take some discipline to get your lawyers to update contact information. Start with your accounting database and have a qualified professional dump the data into a centralized marketing database. Get a trusted IT pro to help you through the process. And don’t forget industry and practice group codes for easy targeting later.

Once your system is in place, along with the internal procedures to keep it up to date and accurate, you’re ready to roll with your direct marketing efforts. The keys to successful direct mail communication are: relevancy, perceived value, timeliness, an opt out option, and a call to action.

There is a direct correlation between relevancy and value. Something of little relevance will be of little value. The more relevant your communication, the more impact it will have. For example, your construction clients probably don’t want to hear about mergers and acquisitions. You get the idea.

The better you can define your audience, the more targeted your message can and should be. Cross-selling them to other areas of practice is fine, provided that you keep it relevant.

Timeliness will win you credibility. A decision is rendered and it has ramifications for some of your clients. Get a short, client-friendly summary out pronto. A database at the ready will permit you to broadcast a quick message to a targeted group within an hour or two. This is simply not possible without a central database.

Encouraging recipients to interact with you (a call to action) will improve your effectiveness. A passive strategy (employed by most advertising campaigns) requires a high frequency of repetition before people will respond. Instead, for example, invite recipients to read the full decision text on your Web site, ask for a comprehensive summary or call for a customized impact assessment.

Always give recipients an easy way to opt out if they don’t want to receive your material. Give them a choice of phoning, faxing or e-mailing you and do send a reply of acknowledgement.

8. Use Experience as Your Inventory

Lawyers love to spout on in their marketing material about their internal working—their practice groups, years of call, academic successes and so on. This is the stuff we love to talk about, but is of little interest to prospects or clients.

Expertise is king, particularly in complex or specialized areas of law. Give us the goods and show us you understand the subject matter.

Clients look for representative work, expertise in your specific area of concern, industry involvement and assurance of competence. So list your significant matters (in plain English, please) and some representative clients.

Keep a file of all your noteworthy transactions and court decisions and add them to your firm’s Web site, your biography, or practice group brochure regularly. Twice a year, conduct a firm-wide review of accomplishments and experience. This is part of your “inventory”—if you keep it hidden and no one will know it's available, and its value will diminish. Of course, only disclose information that is public or with the blessing of your client.

As well, keep a list of questions that your prospective clients ask. You can put those questions to work for you by answering them up front in your marketing materials.

9. Gather Client Feedback and Act On It

Lawyers claim to know how their clients will respond to questions on service. The reality is that clients often provide surprising feedback when interviewed. If you don’t ask they won’t tell you. We’re Canadian and only a few of us will tell you when we’re not happy—complaining is not stitched in to our cultural fabric. Even if it costs a client to move a file, he or she will often rather incur that expense than address a service deficiency. Make sense? Certainly not, but let’s understand it and avoid losing clients.

The quicker you come to realize that you’re in the service sector, the quicker you will build a satisfying practice. Know what your client expects, bear down and get feedback. Invite a client for lunch with the sole purpose of asking how you can do things better. Ask them to ponder ways you can improve before you meet. Now the stage is set. The client expects you to ask for feedback and they’re ready to answer. Listen carefully. Try not to be defensive if your client is critical—after all, a client’s perspective is the only perspective to concern yourself with.

You can, of course, offer an explanation for any perceived deficiencies, or promise to take immediate steps to improve. Back at the office, make notes of the comments you received and share them with others in the firm. Now you can demonstrate your desire to keep this client.

10. Create a Marketing Culture

Focusing exclusively on billable hours puts the long-term wellbeing of the firm at risk. Perhaps you have senior rainmakers who are bringing in work, but what happens when they retire and your associates, suddenly, need to develop marketing skills? Or maybe you’re relying on loyal institutional clients. If so, you had better go back and reread #6 and #9.

Create an environment that fosters business development and everyone will reap the benefits. Encourage your associates to market by supporting their efforts. Make room in their budgets for non-billable marketing time and recognize their initiative and results.

Practice groups in need of a marketing budget should submit a flexible plan to support their request. Incentives or recognition for successful completion or results of the plan might convert nay-sayers.

Burying lawyers—partners and associates alike—with so much work that they have little, if any, time to market will jeopardize client retention and business development opportunities.

Hire lawyers who are keen on participating in firm marketing. Try making it part of their annual evaluation and just watch how firm culture will begin to shift.

Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or