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.