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If you ask many lawyers they will tell you that legal business development is a sensitive balancing act  – primarily based around establishing your boffin-like brains and expertise, baffling with the science of law and frightening people to the point of submission [read ‘instruction’].  For many years, we have watched the firm down the road and changed things when they did… why do you think all those firms suddenly switched from being ‘navy-blue/Times New Roman’ to ‘bright pink/Trebuchet’ at the same time?

Although you attorneys and solicitors might try to deny it, law firms are businesses just like any other.  You have products (roll out the smelling salts) and services, an income (we hope) and outgoings, overheads and premises as well as ideas and aspirations, just like any business.

So why is competing in the modern marketplace seen as a shameful activity?  Why do we still persist in a Dickensian world of oak panels, walls of books and the belief that we don’t really market in the same way as other businesses?  More importantly, why do we ridicule and mock those firms already stealing a march and being a bit innovative with the way they communicate?

With flexible fee arrangements, virtual working, alternative business structures and the onslaught of online communications, the legal sector is moving into a whole new world.  For the first time, competition is coming not from the gentlemen’s club and old school tie network… not even from within the Yellow Pages… but from the brassy, glitzy lights of supermarkets, banks and estate agents… and we can tell you… they aren’t quite so honourable and ‘decent’ as we’d like, when it comes to marketing.  They even call a spade a spade and indulge in ‘sales’ rather than ‘business development’.

So, what are they doing that we can learn from?

  1. They are loud, proud and easy to find – how many law firms hide themselves away in sparkly offices or round corners… when they should be out front, on the high street or easy to find online?  You don’t have to look hard to find your local supermarket but is your perfect IP lawyer as easy to find?
  2. They know their customers – honestly… if we hear another firm announce that they are really the Waitrose of the legal sector, we’ll probably scream… but they have a point.  All the supermarkets and banks know their customers and communicate in the appropriate language.  How great would it be to find a law firm that was fresh and engaging, targeting new, creative start-ups with little more than a blog and a twitter feed… or a law firm that was kitted out like a smart hotel, with smart offices specifically targeting high net worth private client work, through plush brochures?  Whatever your core target market, lawyers need to start speaking the right language!
  3. They tell everyone who they are – we’d wager that we could show you just a corner of the Santander, NatWest and HSBC logos and you’d be able to recognise them.  Yet, so many law firms underestimate the importance of having a clear, engaging, relevant corporate identity.  Whilst you might not get the brand recognition of Coca-Cola, a smart logo, consistent branding, clear office frontage and relevant, engaging marketing collateral has to be a number one priority.
  4. We know they’re alive, because they change – practicing barrister, Reuters correspondent and legal technology journalist Charles Christian recently pointed out that the former Dragon, James Caan, was abhorred to find that it wasn’t uncommon for law firms not to update their websites for two or three years. You can read more about that here.  The reality is that so many think of online marketing as something a bit dirty… a bit furtive… so they just reproduce their brochure online.  A lost opportunity!!  With the Internet there is a near unlimited audience out there for you to connect and engage with.  Changing content shows that you’re alive and current.
  5. They are excited by the future, rather than worrying about the risks – with change comes fear… at least in the legal sector.  Rather than seeing the changes of competition out there as something scary, to be defended against, the supermarkets and banks tend to adapt rather like big, corporate chameleons… how much time does it take for them to get special offers out there or respond to trends online or on the High Street?  Now think about how long it took your firm to rewrite their brochure last year?  You didn’t… oh…

And why do we need to learn this?

The reality of the modern market place is that law firms now have to compete for consumer attention in a way they never had to, previously.  Once upon a time, if you had any legal questions, you went to your lawyer… starting with the Yellow Pages.  Now?  You ask Google… and then read about it on the 101 pages that Google presents as valid sources of information.  People are coming to their lawyers already knowing more than ever before… so how do they make the decision on the firm to choose?  It comes down, rather than to demonstrating expertise, to demonstrating personality.  Just as they choose their bank based on how well they feel they relate to their needs, they choose their lawyers in the same way.  Do they like you, relate to you, engage with you?  Do you seem to fit what they’re looking for?

It’s something banks, estate agents and supermarkets have been doing well for decades… and the real worry is that they too are now selling legal services.  Not only are firms competing with them for air space but they are directly competing with legal services too.

The challenge for the coming year… Lawyers and attorneys should not use other law firms as a benchmark of good practice; rather they should look to fresh and exciting businesses; ask themselves how those exciting businesses project their image and engage with consumers.

So, where is the benchmark for law firms now?  Actually, it’s everywhere… it’s in the places you least expect it and it just got a whole lot higher than you ever knew.

This article was written by Helen Hammond, with contributions from Brian Spencer. It was written whilst working at Workbar, Boston… a pretty cool place to work that is an example of great practice on how to communicate to people in the right language (giving Regus a run for their money)… and prior to attending the Legal Marketing Association, New England Regional Conference