All fee earners are potential marketers for their firm – if they know where to look for opportunities
Mention marketing and most people’s minds gravitate towards the arena of consumerism, be it goods, services, entertainment etc. Consequentially, lawyers can often find it difficult to see the relevance of marketing to their recent developments in law firm marketing. It is based on my experience as part of the Law Society of Scotland’s Marketing Advisory Service, together with more widespread study of business development practice in professional service firms.

I’ve structured the article along the lines of the in-house workshops I run for law firms and the presentations I do on behalf of the Law Society. This breaks the subject into bite sized chunks with the aim, and you be the judge, of making it easier to digest.

Understanding what marketing means

Marketing is certainly about communicating with an influencing people. It is also about knowing your market, being able to understand the needs and properties of different groups of people within the market, being able to focus and target your service accordingly and being able to integrate all these elements.

In the legal services arena, successful marketing usually involves finesse in execution. It is rarely ham-fisted or blatant but it is the result of considered endeavour. Marketing is about foresight and the ability to cultivate the type of business that you want.

Getting beyond marketing terminology and jargon, in order to capture the essence of what it is about, is very useful. Many firms find it more constructive to talk about ‘business development’ rather than ‘marketing’.

Understanding the business dynamic

Marketing makes more sense if people see it grounded in reality.

When I ask a Partner “where does most of your firm’s work come from?” I usually hear the reply “existing clients”. Asking where most new clients come from, usually brings the reply “referrals and personal recommendation”. We could then see whether the expected amount of business from these two groups is likely to meet the firm’s financial targets for the year. If not, there is a third business source group, which is new clients, that the firm needs to cultivate through its direct action.

This gives three distinct groups to target, probably in the order of importance. The firm is then able to decide the actions for each.

Existing clients

The first of the three groups involves approaches for developing relationships with existing clients. Key to this is first, having a standard and style of service that clients find engaging and, second, having sufficient information on clients in order to communicate with them in an appropriate manner. Indicators of how strong a firm is in developing existing client relationships are:

  • sending out engagement letters that include more than terms and conditions of trade
  • how a firm uses its client database (e.g. to prompt future client contact)
  • the use of relevant client communications like updates and newsletters
  • the degree to which the firm anticipates the most appropriate service offer to clients
  • the use of ‘client health checks’ or client questionnaires to anticipate individual clients’ future requirements
  • the ability of a firm to say ‘thank you’ to a client.


The next group for attention is business through referral. The first consideration is for the firm to analyse the sources of its referral business and be clear about how its referrals come about. Some firms gain most of their referrals from existing clients whilst others mainly benefit from introducers. The issues for the firm to consider are:

  • how it acknowledges referrals (for example, by saying ‘thank you’ or by business reciprocity)
  • how it nurtures its existing referrers
  • its ability to identify other bodies who could act as referrers, and to begin to develop relationships with them.

New clients

This is the third group. It will typically be the smallest of the three elements, and the least cost effective in terms of scale of return in relation to marketing investment (be that time or money).

There are several issues which impact on the likelihood of success in this area. But the first action for the firm is to know what makes new clients contact the firm (for example, Yellow Pages, running seminars or events, through Partners’ networking, through leaflet drops, sponsorship).

It can often be difficult to assess the impact of marketing expenditure. Part of the reason for this relates to how most people make purchase decisions. It is rare for a person to move from a state of ignorance about a supplier to becoming a client in one step. Most of us like to have at least of heard of the firm, and have the time to consider and become interested in what it can do for us, before we say “yes” and become a client. So, when we plan marketing campaigns we are consciously hand-holding a person’s journey through these stages to them eventually becoming a client. We should not be na_ve enough to think that an exposure to one leaflet or their reading of one advertisement will do the trick.

There are several reasons why firms find it useful to make this investment, despite the challenges above.

  • It gives a firm the opportunity to promote the type of service it wishes to provide to the clients it wishes to provide it for. This means the strategy is ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’.
  • Even the strongest client bases tend to wither as clients die or move away.
  • It gives a cultural message within the firm that the firm is forward thinking and serious about wanting to develop more business.

When we plan a marketing campaign, we do so with an acceptance of the idea of conversion rates. Not everyone who sees a firm’s name or logo is actually interested in what the firm has to offer. Not everyone who takes an interest in what the firm has to offer (for example, enquiries about a service) goes on to become a client.

This means that marketing campaigns and profile raising initiatives will involve wastage. It is often fruitless trying to predict which people within a target market will go on to become clients. Not all the effort you put in will bear fruit. Keeping your finger on the pulse and continuing to monitor what seems to be working helps, but those who are successful will tell you that persistence pays.

Know your client

Any firm spending money on making a service offer (for example with leaflets) needs first to understand the people it is targeting. When I use the term ‘offer’ I’m not talking about special offers but the proposition you are making to your potential client. We talk about messages having ‘hooks’ or being able to ‘grab’ people, but what works in one market may not necessarily work in another. The question to ask is “if you could put your feet into the shoes of your potential client, and become that person, would the offer appeal to you?”. And if it doesn’t then we can hardly expect a different reaction from anyone else.

Anticipating the future

An admirable marketing skill is the ability to anticipate the future. As a quick test, look at the list below and decide which of the following are typically growth areas and which are on the decline or becoming more challenging.

  1. Retired people
  2. Human rights
  3. Shorter brand names
  4. Population of Scotland
  5. Intellectual property
  6. Conveyancing
  7. Asylum seekers in Scotland
  8. Prices
  9. Loyalty

My take on the above is that all the ones with prime numbers are growing. Clearly, not everything on the list is relevant to every law firm, the point is that all of our businesses are susceptible to external forces or trends (whether we like it or not) and being able to know the direction of the trends that impact, is very useful. Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

Knowing what is around the corner helps firms to be more entrepreneurial. They become better at recognising and capitalising on the ‘window of opportunity’ as it arises. Examples include:

  • running events or seminars which piggyback on external factors (for examples, changing legislation, local events)
  • recognising and using the seasonal behaviour of clients
  • adapting services to align with social trends (for example, 24/7 service)
  • Be serious about branding

The concept of ‘branding’ has its roots in the times our forebears needed to distinguish their livestock from that of their neighbours. In essence, giving a distinctive identity to a commodity.

Studies into the impact of branding tell us that ‘repetition builds reputation’. Be consistent in your message and reinforce the message seems to be the recipe.

Most firms have become stronger at managing their firm’s corporate identity. “We’ve all got nice logos and letterheads” they say. The challenge in branding is facing up to the realisation that ‘everything the client sees, counts’. Branding discussions need to embrace our people’s demeanour, behaviour, the appearance of premises (inside and out) and the way a client’s matter is handled.

Client feedback is very useful in checking whether a firm’s actual image matches the way it wishes to be perceived. Also useful is the ‘mystery shopper’ approach, where a firm engages a researcher to act as a potential client an experience the service that the firm provides.

Implicit in both branding and marketing is the understanding that no firm can be all things to all people. Attempts at this lack overall credibility while marketing strategies and brands built around a clear focus are usually more successful. Where a firm has two service areas or target client groups which have little to connect them, separating these into two separately branded enterprises makes sense. We are starting to se this happening with some of the more progressive law firms in the country.

What good marketers look like

Some firms employ marketing professionals, but the more astute firms also realise that marketing is part of the role of everyone in the firm.

When I’m running workshops I ask legal professionals what they recognise about their colleagues who are not only lawyers but good at marketing and business development. The type of answers I’m given are:

  • “they set themselves targets for doing business development activity”
  • “they are good communicators, in that they are very effective listeners”
  • “they see opportunities and are prepared to take the necessary action to build on them”
  • “they behave naturally, no-one realises they are doing it (marketing)”
  • “they always make the extra effort with clients and people they meet”.
  • “they close the sale and secure the potential client’s commitment”.

None of the above looks like rocket science and are skills that, for the most part, are developable. The obvious supplementary question is “what is your firm doing about nurturing these skills in others?”

Marketing Management

Someone, ideally senior, in every firm should be responsible for managing marketing and business development. This doesn’t mean they necessarily do the marketing, they are the custodian and the person responsible for making sure it is done. The basis of marketing management is straightforward. In a competent firm I would expect to see the following elements:

  • one person appointed as responsible for the management of the firm’s marketing
  • numerical targets set for the outcome of the firm’s marketing (for examples, increases in fee income, number of clients, or instructions for particular areas of legal work)
  • an annual plan showing each what marketing activities the firm will do, on a monthly basis (ideally, this is a one-page chart)
  • all relevant people to be aware of the plan and to be making appropriate contributions to its implementation
  • for the firm to have allocated the resources (time and money) necessary for the execution of the plan
  • for the firm’s marketing progress to be assessed regularly (usually monthly).

How legal professionals contribute to their firm’s marketing

Those in a firm who are effective at business development and marketing tend to have a greater influence over the firm’s destiny, as they are capable of shaping the firm’s client base. Increasingly it is an expectation that Partners are good business developers and many firms are involving other fee earners lower down the organisation in marketing, as part of their personal development.

Clearly, different people will have aptitudes in different aspects of business development but the list below shows the type of activities that firms expect of their fee earners over and above their legal services role:

  • to cross-sell the firm’s services
  • to organise or attend the firm’s events as a host
  • to initiate and carry out one-to-one events (golf, theatre trips, lunch)
  • to become a recognised specialist in a specific area of law
  • to lecture on a specific legal subject
  • to present at seminars
  • to write press articles for publication
  • to introduce new clients into the firm
  • to join relevant networks or groups

It would be far too much for a fee earner to tackle all, ‘play to strengths’ is an obvious sentiment, but some firms are now getting to the stage where they expect fee earners to puck up one or two of the above and adopt them as part of the fee earners’ annual performance targets.

Happy Marketing!

Dr Simon Haslam is a business development specialist, working with a wide range of professional services firms.

He is marketing consultant with the Law Society of Scotland, helping provide a marketing advisory service to its members and a Chartered Marketer and holds an MBA from the University of Durham Business School, where he is also a Visiting Fellow of its Foundation for SME Development

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