YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Steering law firm marketing


When it comes to law firm marketing, potential clients want attorneys to do one thing: Sell the steak ... not the sizzle.

However, for advertising agencies, "the sizzle" is much easier to create. It usually begins with an impressive string of influential-sounding names dressed by a commanding logo, which is voiced by a philosophical slogan, and then branded on stock photography that depicts rock-and-a-hard-place scenarios. The sizzle starts to hiss like the next firm, the next firm, and the next firm. Yet, the advertising agency that knows how to advertise a law firm's product -– the lawyers' expertise and their ability to win cases or remove trouble from clients' lives -– will be the one to earn a star on the business development walk of fame.

In Hollywood, the television show is called "Man Men" for a reason. The series revolves around the frenzied world of Don Draper, the most successful man in the advertising industry, which takes place on Manhattan's Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Draper is the creative director for the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, which family dynasties turn to when their flagship department store faces bankruptcy, and when cigarette makers have to find a positive word that means "deadly". Draper knows that the way to draw customers into Menken's is to raise prices rather than hand out coupons, and no tobacco in the world could be too harmful if it's carefully toasted to perfection.

Where in the real world is Don Draper? When is it time for firms to relinquish some control and call for someone of Draper's brilliance to turn things around (or, in some case, turn things on to begin with)?

"It depends on many variables: Size of the firm, type of firm, and the communications objectives, just to mention a few," says Steve Blackwell, principal and creative advisor of Blackwell and Company. "A smaller plaintiff firm may have a great need for brand building top-of-mind awareness and media oversight, while larger firms might have the need for a combination of internal and external communications. Larger firms spend a ton of money on courting and recruiting.

"This in itself is a very competitive and expensive place to be, and in order for it to be successful and cost effective, I believe external consultants need to be involved."

As for the factors that might drive a firm to seek outside help, Blackwell said everything revolves around time, money and proficiency. Do appointed lawyers have the time to invest in the process? Are lawyers using earmarked money effectively, and is the firm as a whole operating in areas of law that match their abilities?

If an agency is retained to manage marketing and public relations, someone on the inside is still required to oversee the makings of a great law firm. Usually, the responsibility rests with the firm's managing member.

"A huge part of communications is making sure the vision of leadership is communicated clearly," Blackwell said. "It is fine to have an in-house marketing director as well. They have valuable expertise, they speak the lingo, and they understand how it all works. I think an agency can be effective as long as they are talking with the right people."

A good communications firm, though, should be able to address these issues up front regardless of the attorneys' level of marketing savvy or acumen. Blackwell believes that marketing ruled by committee is probably one of the worst ways for firms to make decisions.

"Committees are good at defining objectives, but are poor when it comes to making decisions," he said. "A committee provides a law firm the opportunity to ensure practice areas have their needs and concerns addressed, and help members to feel included and involved in the process. The managing member or designated responsible attorney needs to provide leadership and be the ultimate decision-maker."

If advertising agencies are particularly skilled, clients can expect to learn that their portfolios consist of more than one law firm. Is it a hindrance for a law firm to give work to an agency that may represent competitors? Blackwell says this is when things get tricky.

"I see it as both an ethical and strategic issue," Blackwell said. "We will talk with the client before addressing potential relationships with new clients that may be a conflict of interest. This way, we maintain our focus. It may not be the most lucrative way in the short term, but we believe it creates greater loyalty and demand for our services in the long run."

When clients want the quality of a product rather than the reaction of its name, how do agencies turn something invisible into something tangible? Blackwell's answer may be surprising.

"We really try not to use our capabilities to help clients sell," he said. "We choose clients that have a high level of expertise and success and work to position them in the marketplace where they will compete from a position of strategic advantage. If they truly have the expertise, we will devise a strategy to help them communicate appropriately."

Blackwell's team often meets firms that possess strong people and unique service lines, but lawyers have a very difficult time when it comes to capturing brand recognition and conveying professionalism.

"We work hard to understand who a client really is," Blackwell said. "We do not impose our will and we don't make things up. We have a very methodical and strategic process in which we take the complex, make it simple, and then add a dash of remarkable."

According to advertising trade magazines, the reigning Media Agency of the Year is a search-inspired communications company home-based in London with an office in New York. What's the name of this digital marketing firm with a craving for exceeding client expectation? "Steak", of course.

Brown is the managing member of The Write Word LLC, a professional writing agency based in Charleston.

Fore more information, contact Steve Blackwell at

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