It’s personal – the human side of law firm marketing (first published in the Solicitor’s Journal)

by Sue Bramall

Talk of AI and digital marketing may be on everyone’s lips, but attention to clients and staff will make a big difference in the effectiveness of a firm’s marketing and business development.

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“I just cannot get the partners to agree,” said the marketing partner in regard to the new logo / website design / CRM solution / theme for the annual retreat.  You get the picture, and you may well have been in that meeting.

Everyone in a firm has strong views on marketing, many have ideas, but few have the time and energy to always deliver what they promise. It is impossible to please everyone.

With all the hype surrounding AI, digital marketing and social media, it can be easy to lose sight of the human aspects of marketing a law firm.  But this is a business built on selling and providing services delivered by people to other people and, as any marketing partner soon discovers, the personal elements can sometimes be trickier to manage than the digital projects.

Leadership and culture

Attitudes to marketing still vary hugely from firm to firm.  It doesn’t take long to recognise the partners who see it as a necessary evil and those who embrace and encourage marketing as an essential part of their business development strategy.  And by this, I mean business development in its broadest sense – remember that there are four ways to grow a business:

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Often, marketing is seen as having a role in only A, B, and C, but there can be huge scope to reduce wasted marketing effort and to improve a range of processes in the client journey. 

How many marketing ideas or projects have been started in your firm, but never come to fruition?  It is easy to lose sight of this lost time, particularly if billing targets are being met.  But hours spent on a project which is never seen by a potential client is money down the drain.  If you recognise this as a problem in your firm, then you need to consider how this is allowed to happen. 

Without a clear written strategy, it may not be obvious to solicitors (with little or no marketing training) which initiatives will be effective. Too often ideas come simply from looking at what other firms are doing, or what was heard at a conference, rather than focussing on ways to be different and stand out from the crowd. 

Marketing executives rarely have the authority to challenge lawyers on such ‘spray and pray’ ideas and find themselves between a rock and a hard place.  Without a written plan, even a marketing partner can find it difficult to object to a more senior partner’s idea when it is not in line with the firm’s strategy.

The recent profile of managing partner Richard Baker at Stephens Scown [Solicitors Journal June/July] was a great example of someone who understands the importance of a strong brand, is prepared to take risks, understands the power of differentiation in marketing, and has a clear strategy which has delivered proven results in terms of client growth. 

Attracting top talent is a challenge for any firm, and something else which is not always associated with marketing, but Stephens Scown have also used the power of marketing within their recruitment strategy (Barker talks about working on their ‘employer brand’) and this has led to a position on The Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list.

Listen to your clients

Prior to working in a law firm, I worked in consultancy and accountancy where you often get to spend a good amount of time on clients’ premises to understand their business model.  Just walking around a hotel or a factory or a building site is a great opportunity to talk to directors about where a business is going and what plans there are for the company – and therefore what needs there might be for legal advice.

However, few lawyers get to spend so much time out and about in this way, which puts you at a clear disadvantage to other professionals who can do this.  Even in the field of private client advice, the self-employed will-writer or the probate consultant from the Coop have a big advantage once they are sat in the lounge of the potential client – their inclusive costs more than cover the charge of ‘£160 plus VAT and travel expenses’ I heard quoted by a solicitor’s secretary recently when asked about making a house call. How can you spend more time in front of potential clients?

How can you truly understand anyone without properly listening to them?  Most service sector businesses conduct regular market research in order to understand their clients’ needs and put themselves in the winning position of meeting those needs better than anyone else.  But feedback in many law firms comprises little more than a tick sheet feedback form, and little by way of verbal conversation.

Of course, you cannot speak to every client, but a client listening programme for the top 10 or 20 per cent of your clients (remember that under the pareto rule, roughly 80 per cent of revenues often come from 20 per cent of your clients) will undoubtedly pay dividends.

Emma Massingham, client listening specialist for law firms says: ‘Too much law firm business development activity is based on assumptions and preconceptions about what clients might need from a firm, rather than solid and unequivocal evidence. This means that valuable business development time and activity is often squandered on targets where there is no realistic chance of winning new work.

A well-managed client listening programme, using active listening techniques, will generate open and honest feedback which is action driven. This is more than an online tick box survey, and involves asking probing and insightful questions of your clients without judgment. By building a shared vision of your future relationship with your clients, your business development time and budget will be smart – focused on activities which will drive increased revenue and client loyalty.’

The truly brave managing partners also use mystery shopping as a way of uncovering what sort of impression new clients really get of the firm.  The results may sometimes make uncomfortable reading, although sometimes they provide the board with the evidence needed to deal with poor performers.

Mental health and marketing

Often, trainees and new lawyers will be expected to participate in firm events without ever being asked if they are comfortable, and then criticised after the event for only talking to their colleagues. But have you ever thought about whether this might be due to more than just nervousness?

Rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, shaking hands, excessive sweating, stomach-ache and feeling sick.  These were the physical symptoms of severe anxiety at the prospect of having to attend a professional networking event or even a party outside of work described to me by a successful lawyer.  He was comfortable having coffee or a lunch with clients and professionals and had built a business around this one-on-one approach, focusing on building strong deep relationships. 

Since that conversation, a few years ago, awareness of mental health issues has improved immeasurably but there is still a long way to go. 

While some lawyers will sink rather than swim at some networking events, given how much has been invested in them, they should not be written off.  With a little effort, everyone can find their own marketing niche and can develop resilience with the right support.  A one-day ‘sheep dip’ course on networking or public speaking does not make you a natural networker or an entertaining speaker, but it is possible to develop these skills and to reduce anxiety with coaching and support. 

Don’t forget the mental health of your marketing team.  Some firms suffer from a high level of turnover of marketing staff, and it often doesn’t take too long to see why this is the case.  Salaries in professional services are generally much better than in other consumer marketing roles and the work is interesting, so what can the problem be?

Michael B. Rynowecer, Director of BTI Consulting in the USA, regularly surveys chief marketing officers in law firms.  In January 2019, he wrote that ‘the balance between happiness and frustration is out of whack,’ citing several reasons why marketing officers were unhappy in their jobs.  Top of that list was ‘No respect for marketing and business development’, followed by ‘No voice’, ‘Firm’s internal focus’, ‘Perfunctory work’, ‘Can’t engage attorneys’, ‘Stress’, and ‘Workload’.

Lack of respect for the marketing team is rarely intentional, but comes across insidiously when people draw a distinction between fee-earners and fee-burners, when good ideas are dismissed, when marketing meetings are cancelled, when marketing items never make it onto the agenda, or there is no budget for essential marketing software.

The humans behind the algorithms

On the subject of software, we cannot ignore Artificial Intelligence (AI) a phrase which sounds so much sexier than ‘big data analytics,’ but an algorithm is just a mathematical model, built into numerical rules initially written by humans. 

This is important for marketing partners and marketing teams, because the internet search algorithms are now one of the main sources of new business leads; big data analytics is already affecting lawyer performance rankings with litigation prediction services such as Premonition.ai and Case Crunch; cost efficiency and therefore competitive advantage is promised in due diligence, contract review, legal research and electronic discovery and document automation.

In her book Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, a mathematician and former hedge fund data analyst warns that there are many ill-conceived mathematical models which are “opaque, unquestioned, and unaccountable’ and ‘data scientists all too often lose sight of the folks on the receiving end.’

While Moneyball is often used as an analogy, she points out that all the information in such sports data models are healthy as everyone has access to the statistics and can understand how they are interpreted.  This is not the case with many models which are currently being developed, including in the field of law. They do not have the volume of data which is produced on the sports field every week, and so are ‘built from faulty, incomplete, or generalized data’.

Unfortunately, many algorithms, including in the US education and criminal justice systems have been shown to be built on racist assumptions and proxy data, and simply reinforce long-standing inequalities.  Anyone using a model, or thinking of developing one, needs to think carefully about the human implications as well as the protection of intellectual property. 

The advent of AI also represents an opportunity for mathematical tech-literate lawyers.  As usage increases, no doubt problems and disputes will occur.  When it came to unravelling the financial crisis and sorting out the sub-prime mortgage problem, O’Neil reported that the ‘supposedly powerful algorithms that created the market … turned out to be useless’ for the clean up which had to be undertaken by humans.

In an interview with the Saïd Business School, at the University of Oxford, The Law Society President Christina Blacklaws commented that ‘an understanding of the technological solutions available is a requirement. That’s not necessarily to say that all lawyers will need to be coders … but we will need to understand how the algorithms have come up with the solutions.’

Fortune favours the bold

Fortune favours the bold, those who are not afraid to differentiate their firm rather than following the pack, but also those who listen carefully to their clients and address their needs, while nurturing the marketing skills of the lawyers, and the wellbeing of their marketing team alongside the excitement of developments in AI.

You can also read this article on the Berners Marketing website.

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by Sue Bramall

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