Here’s the truth: Many law firms have great difficulty marketing themselves in today’s hypercompetitive, internet-driven, borderless legal marketplace. Their approach to business development has evolved only incrementally in the last 15 to 20 years.
As legal marketers, we are often asked to help solve this problem, which can be a daunting task. Why? Because the most important marketing decisions were made long before we were invited. Often, a firm’s marketability is deeply embedded in its DNA and is related to its culture, structure and priorities.
Here’s another truth: The most marketable organizations were built to be marketed. And very few law firms can be described this way.
My Dream Client: Sharp & Savvy
So, what would a law firm look like if it were built to be marketed? It would look like Sharp & Savvy – my fictional dream client. It’s the most marketable law firm ever. Here are its key characteristics:
It’s well positioned. Sharp & Savvy has vastly reduced the number of firms that can viably compete against it. Like many well-positioned businesses, it’s focused exclusively on a single market – for instance, venture-backed technology startups. And each of its practice areas is carefully built to support its firm-wide positioning.
For example, its financing practice area has deep ties to the venture capital community. And its IP practice is focused on technology matters unique to the startup community. Why? Because the authority that comes with this type of focus is tremendous. It tells clients: “We get your industry. We live and breathe it. We’ve got a deep bench of experts to help you.”
- It’s not bound by geography. Sharp & Savvy understands that clients are willing to hire a lawyer located halfway around the world – as long as that attorney can demonstrate specialized expertise that is not available locally. As a result, Sharp & Savvy encourages each of its attorneys to become the world’s leading expert in a highly specialized and lucrative niche.
- It has a culture of thought leadership. Sharp & Savvy doesn’t just hire great lawyers – it hires thought leaders. Sharp & Savvy’s goal is to create an idea factory because the firm realizes that attorneys that write and think about cutting-edge legal issues are better able to serve their clients. The firm also realizes that disseminating those ideas helps build the firm’s brand and ultimately brings in more work.
- It elevates marketers – and pays them more. In a fantastic Mad Men-themed blog post, legal marketing dynamo Heather Morse wrote about how law firms need an account executive like “Pete.” On Mad Men, Pete acts as the bridge between the client and the creative team. He keeps clients excited – and wanting more. Sharp & Savvy takes a similar approach. It hires biz dev people who are as smart and (differently) talented as its attorneys and pays them as well as its legal talent. Why? It frees attorneys to serve clients and create compelling thought leadership.
- It spends more on marketing. Sharp & Savvy thinks of itself as a B2B company. And, like most B2B enterprises, it spends 5 to 6% of its gross revenue on marketing and business development. That puts it ahead of most midsized law firms, which spend only 2.24% of gross revenue on marketing and business development.
- It’s a lead-generation machine. The goal of Sharp & Savvy is to create a lead-generation machine. Its leaders seek to build a brand and a marketing apparatus that are bigger than any single attorney. They are accumulating knowledge and expertise and creating business processes that are institutional assets. And along the way, they are radically reducing their dependence on traditional lawyer-rainmakers. They don’t want to live or die on the fortunes of rainmakers who could easily walk out the door and take their clients with them.
Sharp & Savvy Will Happen
Sharp & Savvy doesn’t exist now, but it soon will. A new generation of legal-service provider is emerging – and it’s beginning to shake up the business of law. The disrupters, like Axiom, are corporate entities (as opposed to a traditional partnership). And unlike most law firms, they aren’t stuck with consensus-driven management structures that produce lowest-common-denominator decisions. They aren’t burdened by long histories and traditions. They have the ability to act fast – and are likely to implement a 21st Century approach to marketing, like Sharp & Savvy.
Here’s a final truth: Established law firms are better at practicing law than the “disrupters.” The established firms that can start thinking like Sharp & Savvy will be the big winners in the long run.
Thank you for emailing this article. I work at a traditional law firm (as the article describes) that is burdened by long histories and traditions. I like and believe in the future that Sharp and Savvy illustrates — but how can we build a way from the present to that future? It is a really great jump — so big that I cant imagine the path. But the positive think for me is that these insights will force me to imagine the change. Thank you!
Silvana – Thanks so much for your comment. You raise a really valid point. Sharp & Savvy is the result of a thought experiment. It’s a dream. It’s not meant to be a plan-of-action for law firms to implement. The reality is that it’s very difficult to transform a 150-person general practice, regional law firm into Sharp & Savvy. If you were absolutely determined to make it happen, it would probably take at least a decade – probably longer. And it certainly couldn’t happen without the blessing of the firm’s leadership. That said, there are steps that marketers can take that would put their firm on the right path. When I have a moment, I’ll write another blog post describing those steps. Thanks again for your thoughts. And good luck!
“He keeps clients excited – and wanting more.”
What a fantastic idea for law firms. Thanks.
Excellent. The article stops short of addressing the marketing practice itself, namely an integrated approach of website, newsletter, thought pieces, media outreach, social media and events. Perhaps that lies beyond the boundaries.
Janet’s point is well-made and it reflects the reality that far too firms of any size actually have a strategic marketing plan that draws all of the tactical components – everything from content and social media to conferences and advertising – under an overall objective. Instead, most firms do a bit of this and that and wonder why their marketing plan is not producing results.
Excellent article! Thought provoking and goes along with one of the recent webinars you gave. You were discussing marketing automation and how firms can better leverage relevant analytics to help with lead generation. In the coming years, I hope firms will realize the value talented business development individuals can bring to the table, and in turn, improve relations between marketing/BD teams and attorneys. A lot of firms are currently looking for generalists, which is fine, but specialists can really add a lot more value by providing the deep industry expertise the attorneys are looking for. I feel technology will play a large part in this shift to a more targeted and efficient environment.
Great article. I enjoyed it, as well as Heather’s post that Dion linked to. One of my favorite lines is, “And unlike most law firms, they aren’t stuck with consensus-driven management structures that produce lowest-common-denominator decisions.” Very true.
Great article. Would love to see a deeper dive into how marketing functions at this firm. What could be the core interactive strategies. How would business development work? What would we want in a CRM to support the firm? How would comp work? Maybe you could recruit some LMAers to collaborate and we can all start building this dream together and have a model to which most can aspire!
I read Dion’s article. It is very aspirational, to be sure. I simply cannot imagine a law firm built like Sharp & Savvy — at least not in my career. Sadly, most partners are more concerned with their annual disbursements of net profits than they are about thought leadership. I once worked with a law firm that took the last three weeks of the year to count its money and make its disbursements. We were explicitly told not to bother them with marketing issues during that time. Sad but true.
Great stuff Jake. Further to your last point, I would add:
It is run by non-lawyer professionals who are given full authority to run it..leaving the lawyers to do what they do best – practicing law and developing new business.
I’ve been very fortunate in my career: Two law firms hired me and made an explicit bargain in the process, that if I don’t tell the lawyers how to practice law, they won’t tell me how to do marketing. We each kept our end of the deal.
A terrific and thought-provoking post. Firms that have the will, daring and intestinal fortitude to differentiate themselves – and stick with it – will always be “go-to” firms.
Love this post. Very smart way to articulate what is happening or going to happen very soon in a concise and interesting way. Thanks for posting.
Some very interesting ideas here Robert. Great post!
Robert some great points and there are boutique firms developing along these lines. However, the bulk of the market are “traditional law firms”.
Firms that have authentic and real values will survive but many are paralysed by fear of change, over control and a lack of time to step back and think.
But Robert you are making a really positive contribution – keep it up!
It’s interesting to see how attorneys can market themselves. It makes sense that you would want to ensure that people can know what you do! It’s a good idea to have multiple methods of marketing. That way you can get your name out there.
The way of explaining the content was too good.This is really appreciate. This is Law firms which is useful to the solving the different kind of issues.
That’s fantastic! Thank you for taking the time to express yourself and for sharing your knowledge with us. I’m excited to learn more.