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"Do-It-Yourself" Marketing for Small Law Firms


By John O. Cunningham           

Small firm lawyers don’t need expensive advertising to be effective marketers. With some diligence and imagination, small law firms can imitate the marketing strategies and programs of larger firms — even with part-time or no in-house professional marketing staff.

change agent

Competition for good clients is always keenest in an economic downturn, amplifying the need for better marketing and outreach at precisely the time when resources are most scarce. For small law firm practitioners, who often lack a mega-firm’s arsenal of marketing resources, the challenge can be particularly great.

But there are many ways to compete effectively for the attention of clients and referral sources, and small firm lawyers don’t need expensive advertising to be effective marketers. They can imitate the marketing strategies and programs of larger firms without paying the dollars for an expensivey professional marketing infrastructure.

For example, small firm practitioners might consider the following 10 “do-it-yourself” tips based on effective programs conducted at larger firms.

1. Know Your Products.

Marketing professionals will tell you that “product development” and “product knowledge” compose the first of the four Ps of marketing (products, price, promotion and placement). In this regard, it is important not only to know what you want to sell, but what you don’t want to sell. As a marketing pro once told me, “You don’t have a marketing strategy until you decide what it is that you don’t want to do.”

For small firm lawyers, this might mean taking a hard look at who your core clients are and knowing what products they want. If you really want to focus your practice on high-end clients, then maybe you should abandon the distractions of commoditized work, such as simple wills or closing work for residential real estate matters. Focus your energy instead on producing charitable trusts, real estate trusts, or sale-leaseback instruments suited to complex needs of sophisticated clients. On the other hand, if you want to represent a broader clientele - some with fewer resources - you might want to develop an entire tier of “no frills” low-cost, fixed fee products that can be mass-produced to fit more pedestrian needs and budgets.

Whatever products you decide to sell and promote, you need to understand how those products are viewed from the client’s perspective. They want to know: Why should I buy this product? What value does the product offer to me? How does that value stack up against the cost? How long will the product likely last before it needs revision due to changing laws or family circumstances? How much will it cost me to update the product and how often should that be done?

Think about the client’s frame of reference and you will understand your products better and be able to explain them better and sell them better. This costs you nothing but it can make a world of difference in your practice.

2. Set the Right Price.

The business clients of the largest law firms in the world invest a great deal of time and effort in finding the optimal pricing for their products. They survey competitor pricing, they survey customers and they run mathematical models to predict the revenue, profits and customer counts from various pricing strategies.

Small firm lawyers can hire people to call around for competitors’ pricing, they can survey their own customers about pricing attitudes, and they can at least run Excel spreadsheet projections based on reasonable assumptions about how pricing will affect volume of work.

Of course, pricing affects perceptions of quality as well. You might need one set of products aimed at premium clients and one for regular clients. Those differing products might be offered with different levels of attention from senior partners, junior partners or associates. Some products might be custom-tailored for those who can afford them, or “off the rack” for those who need simple wills or basic contracts.

You might also consider volume discounts for those who purchase a certain number of products or seek a certain amount of counseling. People who are regular customers in any other business are rewarded for their loyalty, and large firms know that legal clients are similarly pleased when they are so rewarded.
But whatever you do, don’t get caught in the trap of offering a discount for one client who drives a hard bargain and not for another client that you really treasure most. There is no surer way to lose your premium client than to have him or her find out that you offered a better price on the same product to someone else.

3. Promote Your Products.

Every large law firm has a marketing plan for promotion, and every small firm should have one too, even if it is scratched on a napkin over lunch. Having good products at good prices will not make you a profit if nobody knows about it.

So think about how you can promote your products without the spending of a big firm budget. If you have extra hours when the phone doesn’t ring, you might invest that time in enhancing the descriptions of your products and pricing on your Website. You can also create solid descriptions and post them on free professional networking sites, such as Linked-In.

With just a little more investment of time, you can link your own law firm site to your own Blog. There are free blogging sites (like Blogger and Wordpress) that are intuitive to operate, and will allow you to set up a site containing your daily comments and opinions regarding elder law issues, news, planning and services. Such sites will come up much higher in search engine queries because of your fresh content, and you can then use your blog site to drive traffic to your firm Website by linking the two. (See e.g.:

You might also consider pitching your skills as a commentator to the press because you really are the product as a professional service provider. If there is a hot news story on a major will contest and you handle estate litigation, then you might be the ideal person to explain it to a reporter at a daily or trade publication. Send them an e-mail and indicate your willingness to consult and comment as necessary. You could also try to contact producers at local radio stations, who are often receptive to one-minute spots on practical advice or news commentary from experts.

If you can identify your target audience, you might also pitch yourself as a lunch-time speaker for an organization made up of members who are targets. For example, it could be helpful for you to speak to organizations of medical providers, accountants or other advisers who might come into contact with those in need of elder planning.

There are methods of low-cost advertising that you can utilize as well. It is now pretty easy to find providers who can use technology to inexpensively generate pens, hats, shirts, golf balls or other items with your name, logo and/or marketing message elegantly inscribed on them.

So just map out what you can do within your budget, and set a plan for those promotional activities every month or at least every quarter.

4. Place Your Products Well.

Product placement in most businesses involves the channels of trade through which products are offered to customers. For lawyers, this placement is not just about the geographical location of offices in which you offer services.

More and more small firm lawyers are placing their products and services right at the client’s door. My own parents, who last year needed legal support at a time when they were both unable to travel, were well-served by an elder care specialist who came to their home. They have subsequently raved about that experience and that lawyer to others.

If you write a short pamphlet of legal tips related to representation of small businesses, you might be able to place that in a local bookstore or coffee-shop where small business owners shop for free. If you cannot place that item in a local shop, then you might be able to place it in the office of a referral source, such as an accountant or a financial planner who represents small business owners.

You can also place other value-added or free products in cyberspace where every person on the planet can see them. Many firms now offer basic pointers and tips about their practice area on their own Websites. If those printable pieces are actually very good and very useful, they can become traffic builders for your site as word spreads quickly over the Internet.

5. Build Trust with Clients and Prospects.

Extensive marketing studies have shown that buyers of any product and particularly buyers of professional services are making their buying decisions based on trust. A chief marketing officer at one large law firm once told me that “building trust” among lawyers, staffers and clients was his number one job.

Think about it. The average client probably has no idea what school you attended or where you graduated in your class. They typically don’t know if you are perceived as a great lawyer or a relative unknown. What they do know is whether or not they trust you.

In fact, there is an old saying in marketing that “no trust means no sale” so you have to think of ways to elevate the perception of your firm’s trustworthiness as well as your competence. Try to find ways of making more intimate connections with clients and prospects. If you can understand their lives, their family concerns, and their ways of thinking about the world, then you will be better able to connect with clients or prospects and earn their trust.

If you coach their sons in Little League or you sponsor a dance team for their daughters, they will know something about your commitment and your care for others. If a client or prospect knows you through community outreach or through service in a charitable organization, they may perceive that you as less likely to be a self-centered lawyer who will churn them for what they are worth. So if you have a little time on your hands now, try volunteering yourself or your firm to help others and build community trust.

6. Do Client Surveys.

Many large firms are now following the example set by the most successful companies in the world, doing satisfaction surveys of their customer-clients. Smaller firms that can’t afford a survey professional can still follow this example in a modest way.

If you appoint someone to follow up with clients at the close of a matter and ask them specific questions about their experience, you can find out what they most liked, what they disliked and what fell short of their expectations.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking your clients/customers will volunteer their thinking without being asked. It is well-known in the business world that customers generally “vote with their feet” meaning that they just go elsewhere if they did not like their product or their bill. Furthermore, there is extensive research showing that unhappy customers, while giving a provider the silent treatment, will tell multiple prospects about their bad experience.

Surveys not only show clients that you care enough to ask them their opinion, they demonstrate that you trust them to provide honest feedback. They can open doors to greater intimacy and trust than perhaps any other action you can take.

I have interviewed firms that have performed client surveys over the years, and they consistently tell me that they get surprising results. Some get more business from the opening of the relationship, some discover that the biggest thing the client noticed about the professional service was the follow-up, and some find that the biggest irritant was a tiny and easily correctible infraction that the client otherwise would never have mentioned. On occasion, law firms even discover that there are systemic issues in their firms (like phones not being answered) that need correcting.

7. Do Service Training.

Many large firms have come to understand that consistency of service is critical to building trust in the firm’s brand name. The leading-edge firms also understand that staff members are just as crucial to the client’s service experience as lawyers.

If the receptionist does not answer the phone, you have a problem. If your legal assistant has a different attitude with staff or clients than with you, then you have a problem. If the client is greeted, treated and serviced differently by different members of your firm, you have a problem.

A down economy can provide the perfect time to adopt and announce new minimum standards for service so that valuable clients and prospects are not lost due to service imperfections.

You can decide what standards to set and how to train people to meet them. Perhaps you need a standard phone greeting, a maximum response time for checking and returning phone or email messages, or a standard list of questions for a client satisfaction follow-up at the conclusion of a matter. Whatever standards you adopt, be sure to “inspect the expect” periodically by checking to see if employees are following through in a way that meets expectations.

8. Be a “Best Place to Work.”

In order to provide the best service, you need to attract and retain the best service providers. Large leading-edge firms know that the service experience is a fundamental part of marketing because every client can broadcast their service experience to dozens or even hundreds or thousands of people in the Internet age. Thus, the leading-edge firms have sought to maximize employee satisfaction, as well as client satisfaction.

Some firms have conducted so-called 360 degree reviews, allowing clients and staff to review the performance of lawyers. Others have initiated employee surveys designed to elicit constructive feedback from employees and improve retention. Still others have instituted mechanisms for improving daily communication (such as weekly staff meetings) or measuring performance and giving awards and recognitions for top performers.

All of these strategies have the potential to increase employee satisfaction because surveys have shown that employees most want to be recognized and heard. The strategies also can enhance productivity because happy employees prove to be more productive service providers. Furthermore, even though most of these methods of workplace enhancement can be instituted by small firms at little or no out-of-pocket cost, the payoffs in terms of recruiting, retention, and performance enhancement can be enormous.

9. Offer Turn-Key Solutions with Other Providers.

Research has shown that a significant percentage of clients like to do “one-stop shopping.” If they can find a reliable general contractor to farm out electrical, plumbing and roofing work on a renovation, they will hire him. Likewise, many clients have chosen larger firms that have found ethical ways to provide their services in conjunction with others that are essential to solving a specific client problem (as in the case of a company that hires a law firm for real estate development work and screening of qualified local environmental testing and inspection firms).

Some estate planning lawyers similarly have helped clients to find financial planners and accountants who can work with the lawyers to find comprehensive solutions to long-term planning needs. If you can’t “partner” up on a solution, you can at least volunteer to help your clients find reliable and reputable non-lawyer providers to complement your work. The more “packaged” solutions you can offer to clients, the more they will see that you have put forethought, planning and effort into your own product development.

Of course, you have to be careful about the company you keep when offering one-stop solutions for planning problems, but clients are looking to you for professional acumen and judgment. If you are willing to exercise it, you can earn their trust.

10. Do Some Brainstorming at Your Firm.

Many practice group leaders and managing partners have told me over the years that they were once “turned off” by the idea of marketing, but have discovered that marketing activities really can bring people together as a team. Not every employee can contribute to or rally around a long legal document, but they can all participate (staff included) in projects centered on marketing and promotions.

So try calling people together for a brainstorming meeting to get ideas on how the firm can raise its profile, get more involved in the community, generate sales leads, sell more products or services to existing clients, or offer new products or services. You might be surprised at the level of enthusiasm and involvement, and you might discover that staff members will become powerful referral sources and business generators once engaged.

September 2009.

© 2009 John O. Cunningham. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce or disseminate without permission of the author.

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