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Marketing 101: Tips for Sole Practitioners and Small Firms

by Pamela McCarthy

Summer 2002, Vol. 65, No. 2

Marketing for sole practitioners and small firms has both its advantages and its challenges. It has to be a priority, however, even when times are good and lawyers are busy. You must plant the seeds continually, or there will be nothing to reap when times are slower.

Cost is always a concern, but a lot of marketing actually involves little or no outlay of cash. First and foremost, you have to be a good lawyer. A reputation for excellent work and accessibility is priceless and absolutely necessary if you are to successfully market yourself or your firm.

The most common complaint of clients is that lawyers are not responsive. It doesn't cost money to call clients back, or have someone get back to them, within several hours of a call. Clients also need to achieve a comfort level with you. It costs nothing for you to learn about their families and businesses and the things that matter to them.

These days there is much talk of "value-added." Simply put, it means adding value to a relationship by giving something above and beyond legal services. Ask if you can be of help to someone, and then follow through. Whether it is an introduction to a broker or banker, sponsorship at a club, forwarding an article on a topic of interest, or doing a favor for a spouse or child, these acts all lead to building a relationship or enhancing an existing one.

Small firms have several distinct advantages in the marketing arena. They have the ability to act quickly and innovatively, without the bureaucracy and committee structure of larger firms. It is easier to create client-oriented, customized relationships. Rates are lower; fancy space, huge libraries and unprofitable partners rarely encumber small firms.

Technology is also a great leveler. In today's age of e-mail, PowerPoint and Web sites, size becomes blurred. You can present the same stable, professional, organized image to the world as that of a larger firm. It is also easier to develop alliances with complementary service providers without the conflicting interests that often inhibit those relationships in larger firms.

Develop a Plan
Developing a written marketing plan is extremely important, regardless of a firm's size. It doesn't have to be a fancy outline with lots of bells and whistles, but it should set out simple, realistic goals for how you are going to keep and establish credibility, generate interaction between you and prospects, and gain client commitment and loyalty. Start with a few easy goals: organizations to join, prospects or referral sources to entertain, past clients to contact, an article to send out. Act, implement and move on. Track what's working and keep doing it. If something is not working, remove it as a goal and substitute another.

Here are some possible goals to think about when establishing your plan:
  • Keep a broad, up-to-date, extensive mailing list. Use it effectively to send cards, articles and items of interest. Include current and past clients, prospects, referral sources, contacts, law school alums and social contacts. There are several user-friendly and inexpensive database programs that will make this process easy and efficient.
  • Expand your network through attendance at social, community and professional events, and add those contacts to your list.
  • Track your marketing efforts. It's very important to know how clients got to you in order to measure your efforts and dollars.
  • Eliminate efforts and/or prospects that are not showing potential.
  • Make sure your materials project a quality image, with a consistent look and style and a powerful message. They don't have to be expensive, but they do need to look professional. Promotional materials such as stationery and business cards are a marketing expense, not an office expense, and they should be viewed as marketing tools.
  • Plan specifically how to keep your existing clients. It is six times more costly to get a new client than to keep an existing one. Develop a system for asking your clients how you're doing and what's important to them. Listen to their answers.
  • Learn to send press releases and to put them on your Web site. If you've been elected or appointed to a position or office, ask the organization if it is going to publicize it or if you need to.
  • Track referrals both to and from other lawyers. If you're referring cases to someone and not getting any referrals back, ask why. Maybe that relationship is not working for you, and you should move on. Once again, a simple database can help you keep track.
  • Develop a realistic budget. Spend wisely, but spend. You need technology that allows you to successfully interact with clients. You should have a Web site. You should include in your budget the costs for advertising, mailings, marketing materials and outside consultants. It is often much less costly in the long run to bring in a professional to help with technology or printed materials than to try to do it yourself, wasting billable hours and probably not achieving the desired end result.

It is also easier to track results if you have a written budget with all of your numbers in one place. Analyze it regularly to see whether your dollars are working for you. Reasons for Failure
Why do marketing plans fail? There are many reasons.

  • Too many goals and tasks. If there are way too many things to accomplish, you'll feel overwhelmed. It's better to set just a few goals, get them done, and then move on.
  • Too many prospects with no focus. Narrow your list to the goals/activities/contacts with the most potential and start with them.
  • No follow-up. You have to continually be in touch with your contacts. One or two interactions is not enough.
  • Scattershot approach. One of anything doesn't work. One ad, one mailing, one meeting, one newsletter is a waste of time and money.
  • Direct mail. Mailings to people who know you can be very successful. "Cold" mailings are useless.
  • Directories. Very few directories, with the exception of Martindale Hubbell, are worthwhile. I have absolutely no interest in Martindale Hubbell, but many studies have shown that it's a necessary cost of doing business.
  • Not qualifying clients. Learn to say no. Identify in your plan the types of clients you want and stick to it. Wasting time on non-profitable clients or those with cases that don't fit your goals are taking marketing time you could be spending on getting better clients.
  • Lack of accountability and responsibility within the firm. If there's more than one attorney, someone needs to be responsible, given authority and held accountable if things don't get done (not if they don't work).
  • Fear of failure. Many, many attorneys say that fear of rejection is why they don't market. To use baseball as an analogy, if you don't get up to bat, you will never get a hit. The best players still strike out more than fifty percent of the time. You have to get out there and give it a try. Get some successes under your belt and you'll end the fear factor.

Niche Marketing-The Key to Success
The absolute best way for a small firm or a solo practitioner to become hugely successful is to develop a niche. Let me emphasize that this is a marketing tool not meant to eliminate other types of cases from your practice. But if you can be unique and stand out in some way, you will get way more than your share of those cases.

Ross Fishman, a well-known legal branding expert, always says to "find an appropriate little pond and direct your marketing to become a big fish therein." There are lots of ways to focus on a niche: geography; industry (health care, high tech, family business); type of client (elder law, family law, estate planning); practice area (employment, environmental, alcoholic beverages).

Identify an area in which you have at least some expertise and that you like, and target that market segment. There are several examples of extremely successful niche marketing.

A firm in the Midwest had handled several cases for an exterminating company and decided to go after that business as a niche for themselves. They started to attend trade organization meetings, advertise in their literature, read and learn about their business issues, develop targeted marketing materials, and make calls on those clients. They even put a little bug on their letterhead and developed a Web site, Did they also take other clients? Of course. But they now have a lion's share of the "bug business."

Another family law attorney in Chicago decided to distinguish himself by marketing to men involved in divorce. He spoke at men's groups, wrote articles about men's rights in divorces, advertised himself as "the man's lawyer," and has successfully grabbed a huge amount of that work. Obviously, he also represents women and takes other kinds of family law cases, but this niche marketing campaign has been a huge success for him.

You are no longer competing with the big guys if you can develop a niche and go after it. You may even be successful in getting referrals from those large firms for your niche cases. Remember, this is narrowing your marketing, not your practice.

Using Your Non-Billable Hours Wisely
Remember that it's important to get out there, find something you like, and target a niche that appeals to you. If you can do that, and develop a marketing plan and a budget, you're well on you're way to success. As I've been telling attorneys for years, what you do with your billable time determines your current income. What you do with your non-billable hours determines your future.

Presentation Now Available on Video
When Carl S. Primavera became Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 2001, he appointed Pamela McCarthy as an ex officio member of the Bar's Board of Governors, representing the Philadelphia Legal Marketing Association. One of his goals for this appointment was to provide marketing assistance to attorneys and firms who did not have a full-time professional marketing staff.

As a result, Pamela was asked to make a presentation to the Sole & Small Firm Management Committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Also part of the program was Jason Lisi of Legal Internet Solutions Inc., who spoke on the importance of Web sites. The presentation was so successful that the Committee proposed and ultimately received a grant from the American Bar Association to videotape the presentation and make the video available to members of the Bar. The genesis of this article was that presentation.

To obtain a copy of the videotape, send a check (payable to the Philadelphia Bar Association) for $14.95 to: "Marketing Video," Philadelphia Bar Association, 1101 Market Street, 11th floor, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107.