Changing Markets, Changing Message: How will your firm adapt?
March 26, 2016
Increased competition and evolving client expectations are driving a shift in legal marketing. For some, the changes are a natural evolution in practice management & client communications. For others, the adjustment may be a rude awakening.
The business of practicing law has been a hot topic all summer at state bar meetings and on legal marketing forums. This is understandable. Several factors, including an uncertain economy and an abundance of new attorneys, are coming together to create something of a perfect storm that many firms are finding they cannot avoid.
Attorneys are beginning to employ practice management and marketing strategies that have been traditionally used by other industries. Applying “business” techniques to a practice may be anathema to some, but the need to address changing markets is real. Staying abreast of new developments in technology, competition and client behavior will help your firm create effective marketing goals that produce results.
Technology: Finally receiving recognition from the ABA
Advances in technology play an ineludible role in the practice of law. From mobile workflow and virtual offices to email communications and online marketing, technology is being embraced – or at least grudgingly accepted – by firms worldwide. A 2012 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report found that 38 percent of lawyers now use a laptop as their primary working computer. A steady stream of mobile apps targeted for lawyers continue to be released. As-yet-undiscovered ideas will certainly add to the mix.
In the beginning of August, the American Bar Association House of Delegates approved proposed changes to ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, with respect to technology. Among the updates are modifications to the comments to Rule 1.1, which covers competent representation. Comment 6 to Model Rule 1.1 Competence was revised to read, "To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology…" Failure to understand changes in technology now has ethical implications.
Law Schools: Turning out more attorneys than the market can absorb
Brian Tamanaha is a Washington University law professor and a vocal advocate for changing the economics of law schools. In a recent editorial published by the New York Times, he points to the growing disparity between cost and reward, claiming that the salaries earned by new lawyers are no longer sufficient to make the monthly payments on their student debt load.
Regardless of this fact, law schools continue to graduate more attorneys than the market can absorb. According to Professor Tamanaha’s soon-to-be-released book, Failing Law Schools, 45,000 new students graduate annually, but projections show there will be only 25,000 legal positions opening per year through 2018. Increased competition for both jobs and clients looks to be a new norm.
Clients: Changing expectations and search behaviors
Prospects are no longer captive to information in Yellow Pages ads or TV commercials. They have the ability to easily research your marketing claims and compare you to your competition. They come to meetings with questions about your process and your billing. Clients are seeing an expanded array of options, from DIY legal kits to small niche practices to large nationwide and multi-national firms. And in the midst of this cacophony of information—some accurate and some misleading—they are demanding changes from those they choose to represent them.
Many client demands involve things like alternative fee agreements and requests for increases in productivity and efficiency. Attorneys may cringe when they hear these words, but with the rise in popularity of (and the demand for) fixed-fee agreements, the number of hours it takes to finish a task becomes a real issue of profitability for firms.
All of these developments necessarily affect the way attorneys and law firms must think about marketing. If lawyers accept and embrace changes to the practice in terms of technology, efficiency and expectations, and they can market themselves to prospects using that as one real point of difference.
Marketing should be driven by a legitimate evaluation of the way in which your firm does business. Legal marketing is important, but your success as a firm obviously cannot depend on marketing alone. A great logo, an effective website, a viral video or any other tool among a suite of strategies may increase call volume for a time. But keeping a steady increase in cases is only possible if you are delivering a real value to clients.
When people think of a brand, their minds generally jump to consumer oriented businesses like Nike or Apple. These companies attract and maintain herds of loyal followers, partly through the quality of their offerings and partly through reputation alone. People feel cool just owning their products.
But an attorney is not a commodity. Of course, that reality does not make law firm marketing irrelevant. It just means that attorneys must approach marketing and branding with the understanding that their client building strategies will necessarily be different than those of large retail companies. Your logo, website, brochures and videos are important tools in your marketing cache. They must work in combination with your networking, advertising, reputation building and achievements to help establish your firm as a trustworthy, memorable leader in your practice area.
Marketing: More than advertising
Advertising is a specific thing: a radio spot or a brochure. Marketing is a whole strategy, which incorporates everything from advertising to good service and word of mouth. Consider your branding. Choosing the right marketing materials for your firm is a matter of knowing your target client and how best to communicate with them. Spend your marketing dollars on activities that most benefit your practice area. Criminal defense attorneys would be silly to hold a seminar while estate planning attorneys may see a steady stream of clients from informational events. Business or technology-oriented companies may benefit more from a logo, tagline and naming services than personal bankruptcy attorneys.
You can create differentiation by marketing your niche. No one walks into a law office and asks for one of every item off of your practice area menu. Clients have specific needs, and it is likely that your firm does one or two types of cases more often than any others. When you have a deeper understanding of your clients, their needs and how those match up with your services, you will be better able to develop processes that help deliver results and higher profit margins. You will also be better able to target your marketing efforts.
Good marketing provides a method by which you can brand yourself consistently across all touch points. Gone are the days when law firms had controlled interactions with potential clients. Prospects may visit your office or your website or your blog or your Facebook page. There is no guarantee you will even be able to talk to a prospect before they make a decision. Your marketing must adapt to changing expectations and make the crucial connection that gets clients in the door.