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Interestingly, when partners were asked what it means to be masterful at practicing law, there was a great deal of consensus and no one grappled for words. Most said it took committed work, education, years of experience and, most importantly, a sincere desire to learn.
“You must be fully committed to practicing law,” said a senior partner at a San Francisco firm. “It is a process. There is a very steep learning curve in the early phase. You can’t let the fear of making mistakes stop you. You need a thick skin. Mistakes happen, so you can’t dwell on them. The key is to learn from your mistakes. To really study them, as if your professional life depended on it.”
In contrast, when partners were asked what it means to be masterful at marketing, there was little consensus. Some said it took “persistence and hustle,” while others suggested salesmanship and people skills.
When asked how their firm went about the process of marketing, some spoke of brochures, seminars and public relations. Others interpreted “marketing” to mean advertising and mentioned the Internet, television and radio.
“Practice development is just a nice way of saying marketing,” said Sharon Cooper, a partner at a business litigation firm. “Marketing is just a nice way of saying sales. It’s convincing people you could do a better job than the next person.”
Partners had varying ideas on what marketing included. They agreed, however, that marketing was both frustrating and difficult to manage.
What about Service?
At the end of each interview, I asked the partners whether they thought providing “excellent service” was an important aspect of the firm’s marketing. Almost all responded that marketing, indeed, was about providing clients with “excellent service.” But the concept was always an afterthought. Only a handful of partners mentioned it until I brought it up.
Even after the subject was raised, less than 10 percent of the partners could provide a working definition of what service meant at their own firm. But they were even less clear about what service might mean to their clients.
When I asked these senior partners what distinguished their firms from the rest—what characteristics might offer their clients an incentive to stay—the most common responses were these:
We work hard for our clients.
We’re very aggressive.
We handle very big cases.
We’re a national firm/a statewide firm/a local firm.
All of these are good answers—if this is what clients want. But the evidence indicates that what clients care about most—what makes them choose one firm over another—is service.
It was obvious that service was not at the forefront of the partners’ minds. Yet, as we will see, the essence of marketing comes from defining and measuring all aspects of service within the specific context of the clients’ needs and wants.
For the small percentage of firms that understand this reality, there is no ambiguity. Indeed, providing clients with excellent service is what drives these very successful firms.
“We live or die by the quality of service we deliver to our clients,” said Norman Bollinger, managing partner of a highly successful Northwest firm. “There is no magic to it. You sit and really listen to what your clients want from you. Mostly, they want you to know them—their business and their challenges. I’m convinced that, first and foremost, our firm is in the people business and, to that end, we practice law.”
Without service taking on a specific and defined role within the firm, it cannot be an organizing principle around which the business of law is conducted.
Indeed, most of marketing is about providing superior service within the context of the client’s specific needs and wants. Placing anything before this—including four-color brochures, Flash-animated Web sites, public relations or promotion of any significance—is putting the cart before the horse—way before the horse! And it is the primary reason most firms’marketing programs fail before they ever get started.
Brochures, no matter how impressive, are meaningless if they don’t represent the true nature of the firm. However, brochures and most other forms of promotion can be incredibly powerful—if what you say comes from what you really are. Indeed, nothing is more compelling and refreshing than the truth, especially when it comes from the legal profession.
This article is an excerpt from Marketing the Legal Mind (LMG Press) by Henry Dahut. Henry Dahut is the founder of www.GotTrouble.com, a law and financial trouble portal. He can be reached at email@example.com and www.henrydahut.com.
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