YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Spend some, lose some

By Kathryn E. Brown | Jun 14, 2007

CHARLESTON -- During the opening session of the Law Firm Marketing Partner Forum, which was held at the Turnberry Isle Resort and Country Club in Aventura, Florida, a lawyer was overheard talking to an attendee sitting next to him.

"I have no idea why I'm here," he began. "We don't have a marketing department, we don't have a marketing committee, and we don't have a marketing budget. We don't market. Yet, we have more work than we can manage."

"You had to come for some reason," replied the woman.

"I guess I want to learn why everyone thinks being a good attorney is not enough," the lawyer said.

The matriarch of law firm management, Sally J. Schmidt, clarifies the marketing function in her anthology of texts dedicated to business development. Her playbook of strategies and techniques covers every possible component of marketing, from job descriptions to enterprise database systems. Called "an encyclopedic reference", Schmidt's books explain why marketing is necessary, even when a firm is comprised of the best in the legal business. When members of firms question the investment of marketing dollars, Schmidt responds very simply. "Remember that money spent on good clients is almost always well spent."

Almost always.

In an article published by Law Practice Today (December 2006), Schmidt stated that a marketing budget is built from a business development plan. The outlining of activities determines the amount of money needed to underwrite such efforts, a step that many firms ignore. Executive committees hand blank checks to practice area leaders, encouraging them to do whatever is necessary to generate new business while retaining existing clientele. Schmidt feels the most intelligent way to approach budgeting is to focus on specialties rather than the firm as a whole, with nearly half of the overall sum earmarked for niche marketing.

Determining if money was well spent requires a separate plan, though. Schmidt explained that every firm must create a system of tracking efforts and results, which should be reflected through new business matters and revenue. Similarly, if a firm is inactive, meaning decision makers purchase advertisements in publications but refuse to write articles, or they sponsor charitable events but fail to attend them, then the plan isn't worth the paper it's written on.

Even though law firm marketing has been a practice of its own for nearly twenty years, some firms are just now formalizing a starter program. According to the BTI Consulting Group in Boston, Massachusetts, Am Law 100 firms spent an average of $9 million in 2006 on sales, marketing, and public relations activities. Their study revealed that this figure represented a breakdown of $56,500 per equity partner, compared to $33,000 for members in Am Law 200 firms.

As for the lawyer from Wilmington, Delaware who thought his trip to a marketing conference was a waste of money, he was seen leaving the main ballroom muttering to himself and shaking his head in disbelief.

"Every law firm in the country is in one room collectively learning how to differentiate themselves," he laughed. "I'm going home to take a client out to dinner."

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

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