Winning the Marketing Biathlon

by Timothy B. Corcoran on August 3, 2009

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Regular readers of the Dilbert comics know that marketers are ridiculed, along with the trolls in accounting and incompetent pointy-haired bosses.  The apparent message is that Marketing is an unwelcome distraction from the real work of building quality products that buyers want.  This sentiment is not uncommon in law practice, and the recent economic downturn has accelerated the scrutiny of marketing expenditures by increasingly cost-conscious law firm leaders.  In some cases, the cost of a senior marketer is deemed to be extravagant; in others, senior marketers who are able to participate in the dialog over structural changes in our industry are sought after.  But far too often, lawyers consider Marketing to be something to be delegated to other people.

Dilbert Marketing Biathlon

If it were as simple as hiring a savvy marketer, then the smartest law firm leaders would hire the most credentialed marketers and then go back to practicing law.  Alas, it doesn’t work that way.  For starters, Marketing means something different to everyone.

“What I really need from Marketing is someone to bring in another $10 million in revenue. My practice is fine but my compensation suffers because my colleagues aren’t able to bring in work like I do.”  (NY Midsize firm rainmaker describing why he doesn’t rely on Marketing resources in his practice)

“Marketing, to me, is about keeping the trains running on time.  We’re always busy so we’re not looking for someone to bring in new business, but we need someone to provide administrative support for our own efforts.” (Boston Biglaw partner explaining why the firm is spending too much on Marketing)

“Don’t use the phrase ‘change agent.’ Don’t even hint about rocking the boat. These guys have it figured out and the last thing they want to hear is that there’s a better way of doing things.”  (Recruiter seeking candidates for an AmLaw 20 CMO role)

I captured the above quotes from 2006 to early 2009, a time of relative plenty. How have things changed now that the sky is falling?

“We’re sitting tight for the moment, assessing our options and closely watching spending. We’re still meeting with qualified candidates but we don’t expect to hire before year end.”  (Philadelphia Biglaw managing partner explaining the long delay in filling his senior marketing role)

“Haven’t you been reading the news? The optics of sending anyone to a conference, any conference, don’t look good right now.”  (DC Biglaw chairman explaining why the firm has banned lawyers and staff from attending business development conferences in 2009)

We apparently have a long way to go before we establish that Marketing, or the continuum of identifying client markets to winning new work to ensuring satisfaction and repeat business, isn’t a distraction from the practice of law, it’s a fundamental component of any viable enterprise.  Recent events have aptly demonstrated that law firms relying primarily on constant market demand for their services and that do little to generate demand or differentiate from other providers of these services, will suffer more when demand declines.  It has.  And they are.

Done properly, Marketing is about growing the top line.  If Marketing is an expense in your firm — not deemed to be an expense, but actually is an expense — then you’re not doing it right.  In good times or bad, here are the fundamentals of a good Marketing program:

Identify desirable target markets.  These can be existing clients or new clients.  Targets will reflect clients that have needs tied to what the firm offers, ideally multiple needs across practices and geographies, and these needs will endure.

Generate awareness and leads.  Many law firms look the same and act the same, notwithstanding the protestations about unique cultures.  Similarly, many law firms present the same face to the market.  Don’t believe it?  One of my favorite sites is the automatic brochure generator produced by my friends at Fishman Marketing.  Differentiating your firm to buyers is critical, and will become even more important as corporate CFOs, CEOs and procurement officers influence buying decisions.  An important role of Marketing is to turn awareness into opportunities.

Turn opportunities into business.  This is called Sales in the real world.  In law practice, we call it business development.  And this is not a process that can be easily delegated to marketers!  Lawyers should be trained to advance opportunities to a close, by developing an understanding of the potential client’s needs and then mapping the firm’s services to these needs.  All pitches and proposals are 100% customized, all efforts are tracked, and lawyers are held accountable for their efforts.

Ensure client satisfaction and repeat business.  This can mean implementing policies for timely billing, or alternative fee arrangements, or periodically and systematically surveying clients.  It can mean reducing inefficiencies in law firm operations that increase the client’s costs or the firm’s overhead.  When trying to improve client satisfaction and secure repeat engagements, there are few areas of a law firm which should escape scrutiny.

Assess performance.  No successful enterprise maintains success for long without a rigorous approach to self-analysis.  We know what new work is lucrative and that we should pursue more by examining the economics of the work we completed.  We improve our chances of winning repeat engagements by taking a good, hard look at what missteps lead to client dissatisfaction.  We know what efforts generate the most visibility and opportunities by studying our expenditures, and subsequently increasing those with a good return and decreasing those with a poor return.  Businesses that embed the notion of a “feedback loop” into their culture are known to be more responsive, more nimble, more adaptable to changing circumstances.

As we enter the home stretch in the latter half of 2009, it’s time for law firm leaders to assess whether the current economic downturn is a temporary blip that will be largely behind us come 2010, or whether the playing field has changed for the foreseeable future.  Recent studies have shown that most law firm leaders are in a “wait and see” mode, a not surprising stance since the profession prides itself on precedence rather than breaking new ground.  But there are law firm leaders out there planning for a different future.  They are preparing their team for a new game, with new rules, some yet unwritten.  Some feel it’s a sprint, to some it’s a marathon.  Perhaps it’s a biathlon or even a decathlon.  We need to continue doing what we excel at, but also add some new skills.  The effort that won the medal last year isn’t nearly enough to win this year.

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virtualmarketingofficer August 4, 2009 at 6:14 pm

Glad to see you back in the blog mode. I really appreciate your insight. Not much left out in this post, you’ve given us a good snap shot of what you’re hearing in the trenches. Great post.

In the past decade there was a lot of emphasis on CMO’s who could manage expansion and engineer go-to-market strategies in global offices. I’m not hearing that anymore – no surprise. The expansion frenzy has died with the markets. And, I’m not so sure it’s temporary.

Clients don’t seem to be looking for convenience anymore. They’re not looking to a mega law firm to handle every matter in a turn-key solution. They have time to hire smart. They’re shopping around and tapping into regional firms that have enough sophistication to handle routine matters and less leverage, overhead and debt so they can offer attractive rates. Is that what you’re seeing?

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