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Why Attorneys Hate Marketing and What You Can Do About It


By John O. Cunningham           

Here are 10 common attorney objections to marketing and sales, along with insight and advice to law firm marketers on how to understand and work with the anti-marketing mindset.

Attorney MarketingI have been intrigued by a question posed to the Legal Marketing Group of Linked-In that has sparked a blaze of comments from literally dozens of legal marketers and lawyers around the globe. The simple question that has captured the imaginations of so many was essentially this: “What is the reason that most lawyers dislike the concept of marketing?”

One of the interesting things I noted from the lengthy conversation thread was that nobody disagreed with the premise that lawyers generally seem averse to marketing.

In fact, participants offered numerous examples of actual statements from marketing-phobic lawyers who were encouraged to step up their game. These comments included such stunners as these:

       • “It is unprofessional to sell.”
       • “Marketing makes me feel like this is a business.”
       • “If I made 3 calls a week, I would be out of people to call in 3 weeks.”

And here is one that I heard at a meeting recently, which is in a similar vein:

       • “If we sent out newsletters and hosted seminars on legal developments for clients, then they would be less likely to need our help in litigation.”

I also noticed that the explanations offered for this attitudinal phenomenon generally fell into one of 10 different categories. So, based on this global conversation and my own experiences, I decided to write an article about the 10 basic reasons that lawyers are uncomfortable with marketing, and some solutions that marketers can use to minimize this discomfort or even eliminate it.

Here are the 10 biggest reasons why lawyers shun the concept of marketing, and some ways that you, as a legal marketing pro, might help these lawyers to overcome their aversions:

1. “Marketing violates our traditions and/or professional ethics.”

This objection comes in various flavors, such as “marketing is just trickery” or “sales and marketing are the same as ambulance chasing.” Some lawyers, even young ones, are somehow stuck in an ancient era when sales and advertising were in fact violations of professional rules. Many of these lawyers truly believe that attempts to reach out to clients are just plain wrong.

SOLUTION: Try a Q&A lunch seminar with a lawyer from the state bar ethics office. The state bar ethics counsel is used to answering questions from lawyers about where ethical lines are drawn, and they are usually happy to help bar members understand what is considered “professional” in the way of marketing. Ethics counsel often sees and can discuss what other firms are doing to reach out to and connect with clients. Marketers too can learn a lot about nuances of jurisdictions in which they work. In most states, the professional rules primarily prohibit deceptive marketing that might constitute fraud or misrepresentation, but there can be quirks (such as prohibitions on Website testimonials, or on the use of “representative successes” without proper disclaimers).

2. “Clients hate being sold something.”

Sometimes this objection is really a “projection.” Many lawyers set up barriers between themselves and the outside world in the form of call screeners, frosty demeanors and social firewalls based on fear of who might “get in.” Other times, lawyers are just truly concerned that clients will feel that “outreach” attempts are intrusive and mercenary.

SOLUTION: Bring in some clients who have been successfully wooed by the firm (or better yet, by other firms) to explain what forms of outreach they like and what forms they disdain. Let the clients speak for themselves about what kinds of “pitches” worked for them, what kinds of newsletters or content made them pick up a phone to call, or what kinds of unsolicited referrals or introductions favorably influenced them. The lawyers will soon learn that most clients want value, and are eager to hear an original, succinct value-oriented pitch that is respectfully made. Marketers too can learn just what clients hate, as that is equally important.

3. “My time is better spent on ‘real work.’”

This objection is more than just a marketing “put down.” It is a comparative assessment of what activity will give them the most return on investment (“ROI”): marketing or legal work. Behind this objection, there is a certain noble feeling that producing great quality work and rendering great service is more valuable than boasting about the results. The implicit assumption, unsubstantiated by any empirical proof, is that more client work will come in the door if a legal service provider just focuses 100 percent of his/her energy on being the best lawyer he or she can be.

SOLUTION: Try bringing in a business school professor, who can speak at great length about businesses with superior products that went out of business or missed opportunities because of marketing failures. They could talk about the fact that Xerox invented the majority of early advancements in personal computing, but failed to sell them, or they could talk about the early market dominance of Microsoft over Macintosh, despite the clear functional superiority of Apple products. You could also call in someone who studies professional services marketing to explain how some firms have improved revenues per professional and gross revenues through conscious focus on better marketing while other firms, historically known for “good work,” have disappeared or failed to grow significantly in an increasingly competitive environment.

4. “Marketing is a distinct profession so I could do more harm than good with it.”

I was surprised to see this comment, or some variation of it voiced by participants who were lawyers, but it made sense after I thought about it. That’s because there is a really genuine feeling about the importance of professionalism among lawyers, and they generally care a great deal about doing things right. Lawyers are also trained in the art of anticipating what can go horribly wrong if things are done incorrectly. Thus, some lawyers would simply prefer to leave the marketing to marketers. This would be wonderful but for the fact that marketing cannot just be delegated, and it requires some degree of involvement of the lawyers in their own business. The attitude of “I will do the work and you just make the sales” is not functional. Lawyers have to allocate some time toward working with their marketing professionals and/or clients and prospects.

SOLUTION: This objection to marketing involvement can be difficult to deal with because it is based not on any demeaning attitude toward marketers, but on a presumed level of super-competence that does not exist. As a former General Counsel, I am inclined to call the attention of these objectors to their problem clients – the ones who are always in trouble. These are generally the clients who have the exact same attitude about lawyers. “Just let me run my business and you keep me out of trouble or fix the problems,” is their attitude. You can explain that getting good results in marketing is no different than getting them in law – it requires involvement and teamwork and not just delegation. You might even consider calling in an outside expert who can explain how and why involved lawyers get better marketing results.

5. “I went to school to practice law and not to run a business.”

I have heard this complaint in my experience more than any other. It is hard to put into words just how much some lawyers resent “business.” They believe they entered a noble profession that is somehow distinct and divorced from business, as well as the laws of economics. Many lawyers with this attitude see marketers as a kind of virus that has infected law firms with obsessions about sales and revenue, productivity, efficiency and other bothersome concepts. These lawyers not only resent marketing, they view it as the likely cause of client-stealing, competitiveness and other problems they have to conquer while practicing law.

SOLUTION: This is another tough one. These lawyers basically don’t trust professional marketers and see them as the enemy. You might be better off avoiding them, but you have to consider their potential impact on your professional career. To build trust with them, you might have to work on making deeper, personal connections with them first. You might have to listen a lot, resist the urge to prove them wrong, and just ask how you can help them survive in this modern dog-eat-dog world. Again, I am reminded of the position that General Counsel must defend against some business people who believe that business was just heaven before the lawyers wrecked it. These people often think that lawyers create problems and disputes that would not otherwise exist. For people like this, you eventually have to help them to discover for themselves that they are blaming the thermometer for the fever. Lawyers did not invent trouble, and marketers did not create competition. They both just help you to survive it (or not).

6. “Lawyers have nothing ‘hard’ to sell so marketing does not apply to us.”

This objection comes from attorneys who believe that sales are for widgets and not for services. In fact, there are advertising firms that will tell you that the reason there are no ads for big advertising firms is because advertising does not yield the same ROI for services as for products. Ad firms invest their own money in other ways of connecting with professional services clients. So there is some rationale behind this thought, but it confuses advertising with marketing.

SOLUTION: Find a way to explain to lawyers that advertising is not marketing. The discipline of marketing is essential to ALL organizations that rely on revenue to survive. Why? Marketing is the study of why your clients buy your services, what services they buy, when and how they make buying decisions, what they are willing to pay for your services, what would make them buy more, what other services they want from you, what causes them to defect and what causes them to recommend you to others. In short, it is the essential understanding of how your cash register rings. You might consider calling in successful marketing experts from other professional service disciplines to explain how they grew their practices with effective marketing. You might also consider calling in a business professor who studies professional services firms. Remember, lawyers are evidence-oriented and they value credentials as well.

7. “This is simply outside of my comfort zone.”

Some lawyers are candid in saying that they are just plain uncomfortable with marketing. They can’t explain it, and they might not object to it in any cerebral way. These lawyers are not saying that marketing is bad, or that it does not apply to them. They are just afraid of it.

SOLUTION: For lawyers like this, you might just have to take baby steps. If they believe that referrals are the way to build a client base, then show them incremental steps they can take to get more referrals. If they fear human contact, then get them to write some content and show them how they can place that content on blogs, JD Supra or other sites to get more exposure. Remind them too that their clients are another lawyer’s targets. When their survival instinct kicks in, their comfort zones will grow.

8. “I do not have any spare time – I’m already busy.”

This objection sounds a lot like the one that “my time is better spent on real work.” But there is a difference. The lawyers who think they are too busy for marketing are not skeptical about marketing efficacy. They are afraid of having more clients or having clients of their own. How would he or she serve them with so much to do already? Often these lawyers are senior associates or younger partners who are already in great demand by rainmaking partners who want them to do the grunt work. They are afraid of growth and many are naïve about the value the firm attaches to their ability to spew out work when it is handed to them.

SOLUTION: Lawyers of this variety believe they have no need to grow their client base if they have one at all. Often they are busy because they are great service providers, even if they are not good rainmakers. These attorneys would be more invested in marketing if: (1) they understood its critical importance to internal survival and advancement; and (2) they believed that the firm would help them to find ways of supporting additional clients of their own with more associates, more productive technology applications, or whatever. The first hurdle is not so hard to overcome. Just introduce these busy lawyers to some formerly busy lawyers who are more senior and were let go during a downturn because they were replaceable with younger, cheaper labor. Rainmakers are not released by any firm — grunts are. The second hurdle is harder to overcome because, in fact, senior leaders at many firms do not want to support rainmaking by “drones” that could become internal competition. The current rainmakers may like things just the way they are, thank you. Your biggest challenge might be getting firm leadership to commit to growth that comes from all levels, and to the infrastructure necessary to support that growth.

9. “We survive on referrals – marketing is a waste of money.”

This is another common refrain, and in fact, I have known many lawyers who have told me that 90 percent of their business comes from referrals, mostly from other lawyers. Of course, these same lawyers have told me that they spend all of their business development time in bar meetings and conferences because of that reason. It never occurs to them that if they spend 100 percent of their time with lawyers, then it is not surprising that more than 90 percent of their referrals come from lawyers. They also don’t necessarily think that when they strike up a conversation with a referral source about their current cases or matters, that they are “marketing.” Thus, they see no value to marketing, and they never ask how 10 percent of their clients found them without a lawyer referral or how more of those clients could find them. They also don’t spend any time studying why some sources produce plenty of referrals and others none. That would be marketing.

SOLUTION: You cannot question the fact that referrals are important. In a service business they are critical. ALL clients want to know that someone else got served well by a professional that they will entrust with vitally important and often sensitive, confidential matters. They trust a lawyer they have never met because someone they know and trust said that lawyer was excellent. You need to assure these lawyers that marketing is a way of nourishing, leveraging and expanding on the trust of a referral network, and that marketing is NOT an attempt to replace traditional referral networks. You might also need to show them a few examples of how marketing activities could bring them more referrals (for instance, by enhancing communications with existing referral sources and with prospects who might become new referral sources, such as currently satisfied clients who may or may not be lawyers). Bring in another lawyer for “show and tell” who has already expanded his referral network with the help of that crazy discipline known as marketing.

10. “I know how to market – we don’t need you.”

Lawyers in this category may be somewhat successful rainmakers who just don’t see your professional value. Of course, the best rainmakers love to connect with people and love to expand their outreach, so they are likely to pick your brain aplenty for any extra advantage they can find (much as the best athletes in the world often hire more personal trainers and coaches than ordinary athletes). It is these somewhat successful professionals who are more likely to convince themselves that you are unnecessary because they are presumptively smarter than you.

SOLUTION: To work well with these lawyers, you must establish some level of trust in your competence and your credibility. Credentials might help, but endorsement by one of their peers who has benefited from your work is better (try getting an endorsement from a rainmaker that you have helped). Again, offering to listen to these lawyers and taking them in baby steps toward more effective marketing can open their minds just a little. Trust is not built overnight. Small gains that are made with patience and understanding are critical to winning hearts and minds.

Well, there you have it: 10 big objections lawyers have to marketing and various ways that you can try to overcome those objections. I hope that legal marketers find this piece to be of some value, and I hope that some of my suggested tips prove useful. Let me know what you think.

July 2012.            Bookmark and Share