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Many small firms struggle to get the resourcing of their marketing right and find themselves with a revolving door of staff which can frustrate their marketing strategy and may be costly in recruitment fees. Sue Bramall draws on her experience of working with numerous law firms to highlight the key pitfalls and the steps to take to ensure that your human marketing resources deliver an acceptable return on investment in an article first published in Managing for Success by The Law Society.
The recent Financial Benchmarking Survey published by the Law Management Section revealed that average marketing budgets for respondent firms remained at a pitiful 2.2 % of fees billed compared to over 10% in other sectors. This figure includes staff costs relating to support staff, but probably ignores the time spent by fee-earners on marketing or the management of a firm’s marketing.
While there are still a few die-hards who remember the days in the 1980s when marketing was still prohibited for solicitors, nowadays marketing is firmly on most management agendas.
However, many small firms struggle to get the resourcing of their marketing right and find themselves with a revolving door of staff which frustrates their marketing strategy and can be costly in recruitment fees.
Sue Bramall draws on her experience of working with numerous law firms to highlight the key pitfalls and the steps to take to ensure that your human marketing resources deliver an acceptable return on investment.
Deciding who is responsible for marketing is not always easy. Should you have a committee or a single marketing partner? Are partners vying for this role, or are they hoping it will not land on their desk?
In part, this will depend how much authority for decisions is delegated from the board to the partner or the committee.
Is it necessary to return to the board for approval of all decisions, or just those outside agreed budget parameters? Does the structure ensure that discussion is not duplicated, and time is not wasted? It can be incredibly frustrating if you have been handed responsibility for marketing, but the rest of the partners then wish to be involved in every aspect so that projects are held back by slow or non-existent decision-making.
Where a plan has been agreed, and a budget set and the partner or committee have freedom to make decisions within these parameters, then either can work well. But there are key considerations with each approach.
Appointment as the marketing partner may be desirable (you have control of a budget and resources and can make a mark) or as a poison chalice (you have many competing demands and it is hard to satisfy everyone all of the time). It is as important to have the right person in this role, as it is to recruit the right support staff. Do you allocate responsibility on the basis of skills? Or, enthusiasm? Which partner has free time (not usually a good indicator of marketing skills)? Or does everyone take a turn?
The advantage of a solo partner with overall responsibility for marketing is that decisions can be taken quickly and initiatives progress as fast as possible. There can be no confusion over who will do what, no delays in trying to coordinate diaries for meetings.
The cost of lost fee-earner time will be less than the cost of several committee members attending the same meeting, but will the partner be allowed sufficient time to manage the marketing?
The disadvantage is that marketing activity may become skewed in a particular direction according to that person’s strengths or personal preferences.
If marketing partners change frequently, as the role is passed around like a hot potato, then there is also the danger that the marketing strategy will lurch from one direction to another. You also fail to get a return on the investment made by that partner in developing their marketing expertise.
A committee can work well if it is not too large, there is a strong chairperson, everyone on the committee has a clearly defined role, everyone makes an active contribution, and meetings take place sufficiently frequently (even with just a few participants) to ensure that activities are progressed.
A key advantage is that responsibility for different activities can be shared around and there will be more balanced representation of all parts of the firm (so less risk of lurching). For example, a strategy led by corporate lawyers is likely to have a different emphasis to one led by private client lawyers. A small committee of two lawyers would ensure more balanced representation, and oversight responsibilities might be split, for example between off-line and online or between communications and networking.
On the other hand, a great deal of time can be wasted by lawyers attending meetings but never actually contributing anything. This can occur when people are appointed to a committee as a sign of status, or they volunteer just to find out what is going on. When this happens, it is a good idea to ask the finance director to add up the costs of participation and ask the committee to consider if this is the best use of resources.
Whichever route you choose, then you need to consider whether your marketing partner or committee members need training or coaching, and the marketing activities they will be responsible for. A one day course on marketing will not make anyone an expert in branding, the internet, databases, client communications or social media.
Just as your compliance partner or team needs to attend training courses, so do your fee-earners with responsibility for marketing.
Before you consider what support your marketing partner or committee needs, you need to ensure that you have a solid marketing plan. The old adage ‘failing to plan, is planning to fail’ has become a cliché for a good reason.
Without a plan, your marketing approach is likely to have a scattergun approach, responding to opportunities and ideas (often copied from competitors) rather than determining what needs to be done to achieve your overall business objectives.
Once you know what you need to accomplish, then you can determine who does what and whether you need additional resources or skills.
The terms ‘marketing’ and ‘business development’ cover a broad spectrum of activities, from strategic planning to stuffing envelopes, from tender support to Twitter. Some firms want their business development team to get out and spend time with their clients, others require only back-office support for fee-earners. Do you need a technical wizard or someone with great interpersonal skills?
What capacity do you have inhouse? Does that person have the requisite skills, or do they have the capacity to develop them? If so, are you prepared to invest in training, carve out time for them to undertake this role properly and reward them accordingly? Asking a secretary to ‘fit in some marketing’ is rarely a recipe for success.
If this is not an option, then you have a choice between outsourcing or recruiting.
If this is your first marketing appointment, then it is likely that a certain number of marketing tasks are being undertaken already by fee-earners and support staff. If so, you should carry out an exercise to identify what these tasks are and who does them now, and whether you wish them to continue.
Do you want the new marketing appointment to mop up all this work and relieve more expensive staff of these tasks? Or, do you want someone because there are lots of new jobs to be done. Either option has its merits, but your evaluation on the return on investment will be different.
Before you start the recruitment process for your next appointment, set aside some time to draft your business case which should cover what you expect this person to achieve, within certain timescales. How will you know if they are delivering results? Do you have the management information systems in place to track and report on performance?
If you want to increase new business for the firm, then you will need to ensure that you track the source of all new enquiries – this should reflect the activities of your marketing executive. For example, if time has been spent optimising the conveyancing section of your website or hosting an event for estate agents – you should expect to see a growth in enquiries from these two sources.
Unfortunately, many firms only track new instructions. The proportion of enquiries which become instructions is not usually influenced by the marketer as it is function of the fee-earner’s sales skills and capacity.
Take care to set the right key performance indicators (KPIs). If they achieve the target for growth in Twitter followers, but this does not translate to new enquiries then you may have set the right KPI.
Before you start the recruitment process, you might want to test the water by outsourcing some or all of your marketing needs.
Katherine Thomas, a former colleague from Pinsent Masons, now provides outsourced marketing services to law firms in Western Australia. She reminds managing partners that ‘It’s the age-old adage: rubbish-in, rubbish-out; quality-in, quality-out.’
‘When faced with the need for marketing input, many firms start by hiring a junior marketeer on a full-time basis. While this may work for some, other options are available. If you require strategic input, a more senior individual could be an option. Employ them on a part-time basis to retain cost parity with a junior marketeer and still achieve the same, or greater, level of output. Firms will benefit from experience and productivity without incurring a fixed employment cost. Consultants also provide an excellent way of managing marketing without committing to headcount. Be clear in your objectives from the start and you’ll achieve much more value from your marketeer.’
Once you have clarity over the requirements of the role, then you need to translate this into a job description.
‘Building a function from scratch offers you a one-off opportunity to design a team structure specifically to suit your requirements,’ says Emma Potts of Chancery Legal.
‘Having done so you should be prepared to devote time and investment into a recruitment process that will thoroughly investigate a candidate’s suitability for any given role in the function. In the early years your marketing team is likely to be fairly compact – you will not have room for any bad apples.’
It is not uncommon for inexperienced firms to appoint someone to a marketing role without any job description or any clear framework, and several months later wonder why nothing much is being achieved.
It is not just the marketing executive who needs to know what his or her responsibilities are – everyone in the firm will benefit from a clear understanding of what this person is employed to do or not do.
Emma emphasises that ‘As with any lateral hire, so much depends on the recruiting law firm doing all it can to create the optimum conditions for success. Management buy-in is vital but this also needs to be given in conjunction with clear communication across the firm about the marketing executive’s remit and purpose. This should be done in advance of her or his arrival, not on the hoof.’
‘It is hard to overstate the importance of getting off to a good start and the first three months of any strategic appointment are a critical time. What happens in these early days has a huge influence on whether the appointment is likely to ultimately be deemed a success or a failure.’
Some fee-earners may think that they no longer need to do any marketing and reduce their involvement, others may see the additional resource as an opportunity to do more.
If fee-earners have responsibilities, such as targets for networking or contributing content to the firm’s blog, this should be documented in the marketing plan and personal BD plans.
Either way, this needs to be made clear, and should feed into appraisal and recognition systems if they exist.
Even in firms with a sole principal, decision making can be delegated to a wide range of fee earners and support staff, and a marketing exec can find requests coming at them from all directions.
Without a written plan, there may be little guidance in terms of priority and everything is urgent, often because it has been left to the last minute.
It is important to clarify any approval hierarchies for expenditure and signing off content and materials.
If your marketing executive is a junior appointment, then they will not have the experience or the gravitas to challenge partners over ill-thought ideas and they may find it had to push activities through to completion or ensure compliance with agreed marketing procedures.
It is important that the marketing partner or committee recognises this and enforces the rules which have been agreed, if required.
In a small firm making its first marketing appointment, there is a chance that the human resources function may not be too well developed. Maybe this is handled by one of the partners or the practice manager on a part-time basis and typically the focus of induction, training and development will be on the legal staff.
The induction process, competency matrix, training programme or appraisal system may not be suitable for a marketing exec (if it exists) and without a written marketing plan with SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited) objectives, how will you manage this person’s performance effectively?
If after several months you are wondering why you are not achieving much, do you have the mechanisms to refocus activity to get the results you desire?
‘Young people know all about tech, so they can do all the digital stuff’ is a fallacy. Young people know some things about tech, but there are a lot of things that they do not know.
Language graduates may not have touched a spreadsheet for several years, and their use of MS Word and PowerPoint may well be self-taught rather than to a professional standard.
Few degrees actively mark English Grammar these days – so you may need to invest in some training with the Plain English Campaign, or the Society of Proof Readers and Editors.
Marketing consumes a great deal of software including CRM (client relationship management), website content management systems (CMS), email marketing, search engine optimisation, pay per click and social media. A knowledge of social media is not the same as an understanding of best practice – as was discovered by the law firm whose over-enthusiastic marketing assistant tweeted insensitively after the disastrous accident at Alton Towers.
There are a variety of organisations which can support law firms in their marketing activities, not least the Law Management Section often covers marketing issues at their events.
However, there are also a couple of organisations with a particular focus on marketing in professional services and it is worth looking into their membership benefits and events programmes, such as:
The Chartered Institute of Marketing published a set of professional marketing competencies which I have adapted to cover Competencies for Marketing Professional Services.
‘At last there is someone in the firm to whom all those pesky advertising opportunities can be sent to, and I can pass on those random marketing ideas that have been sitting at the bottom of my to do pile.’
A bit like the National Health Service, there are always more ideas for marketing than there is budget or resources. If an idea has been languishing at the bottom of a pile for months or years, then the chances are it is not such a great idea and should not be dumped on the new marketing exec without examination just as a way to clear your desk.
Similarly, there is always the partner whose pet project has been refused by every previous incumbent and, with nothing to lose, they are sure to see if this time it might get through.
It is easy to be a busy fool, and with instructions coming from all corners of a law firm, and every department claiming that theirs is the most important, your new marketing exec will need clear guidance on priorities.
Your marketing partner or committee also needs to be prepared to say no, and explain why internal resources are not available for certain activities. This is so much easier when there is a clear marketing plan for a firm.
Those of us who now work for ourselves and provide consultancy services to law firms often remark on the different attitudes we experience. Now that we present a bill at the end of the month (instead of receiving a payslip), we are an investment rather than an overhead. Our time is respected, and meetings are significantly more productive.
Despite the fact there is a cost to the firm of employing marketing support, an attitude can prevail where the time of a marketing executive is of little value – meetings are frequently cancelled, emails ignored and actions postponed.
One leading law firm addressed this cultural challenge by including a seat in the marketing team for all their trainees. Broadening their experience in this way and building strong relationships pays dividends all around.
Of course your firm is a wonderful place to work, but why is it that marketing staff don’t stay very long?
Most execs who have studied marketing at university or via the Chartered Institute of Marketing will have spent a few years immersed in case studies related to the big brands with enormous marketing budgets and consumer-driven advertising strategies. They may well harbour dreams of glamorous photo shoots in the Caribbean and product launches in Monaco.
Fortunately, there are a few of us who really enjoy the intellectual rigour of working with the law, the challenge of working with a modest budget and often idiosyncratic management cultures.
But this is not enough for many marketers, who find law firms a very frustrating place to work. It will be just as dissatisfying for them to be unable to complete projects, and even more disheartening not to have any clear objectives.
Being treated as fee-burner is hardly encouraging, and a lack of career opportunities can soon cause them to see if the grass might be greener elsewhere.
If you wish to make a success of your investment in marketing resources, then it needs careful planning, preparation and management.
Get it right, and they will be a valuable ambassador for your firm, adding value to your brand and reputation and helping to build your business.
If you are a member of The Law Society’s Management section, you can also read the full article on their website.