Law Firms Tiptoe into Marketing Arena: Proactive approach to winning business is beginning to gain ground

01.17.03
By Lisa Tanner, Staff Writer
Published in Dallas Business Journal

GREATER METROPLEX—When it comes to marketing, the legal industry isn`t leading the charge. Nonetheless marketing is catching on with firms of all sizes.

"Some firms are just now looking at marketing," said Mike Androvett, who founded Dallas-based Androvett Legal Media & Marketing in 1995. In the past, many law firms counted on their long-standing relationships to bring them work, he said.

The legal industry is one of a very few that don`t include marketing as a basic component of doing business, Androvett said. Part of the reluctance is cultural. Just a few decades ago, law firms weren`t allowed to advertise and Texas still has regulations that cover advertising by lawyers, so it`s taken some law firms longer to embrace the idea.

When they do take the first step to advertise, often it`s with an inoffensive, generic "tombstone"-type advertisement in a law industry publication.

But while law firms often are concerned their advertising might offend existing clients, often the opposite is true, Androvett said. A client may view a law firm`s sponsorship of a business report on a local radio station, for example, as a sign that the firm is engaged in the community, he said.

Still, law firms often haven`t done a lot of soul searching about what distinguishes them from their competitors. And the examination process is often slow, because while a CEO in another industry might just make and implement a decision, a law firm is made up of partners who all want to have a say.

Often a marketing consultant will help a firm determine just what its strengths are and how to communicate them.

Many law firms begin to market themselves using brochures or direct mail. As they become more comfortable with the idea of marketing, they`re often more "willing to get out and say that they have good lawyers and why they`re good," Androvett said. They`re also more likely to hire an outside company to help spread that message.

Although law firms are increasingly concerned about where their money is going in the tough economy, they`re not necessarily curtailing their marketing spending, Androvett said.

Larger law firms often have an in-house marketing director. But that person often handles a broad range of duties and outsources specific projects.

Dallas-based Hughes & Luce L.L.P., handles graphics, press releases and event planning in-house. But with a small marketing department, the firm decided to outsource its ad campaign, which includes signs at Love Field and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

"We wanted a message that distinguished us from other law firms and we wanted to capture what was unique in our approach to client service. We did not want to sound or look like every other "good" law firm," said Kim Askew, partner in charge of client services. So the firm retained Bob Wilson & Associates to help define that message in a way that was interesting and creative.

"They got us beyond the clutter and developed a powerful, direct and understandable message," Askew said.

The thinking about marketing has shifted in the nearly 20 years Deborah McMurray has devoted to legal industry marketing, she said. Now owner of her own firm, Deborah McMurray Associates, in Dallas, she handled marketing in-house at two large law firms for about 11 years before turning to consulting.

"Law firms saw marketing as something that was nice to have before the recession in the early `90s," McMurray said. But bad times prompted firms to cut back on their marketing activities, or get rid of them entirely.

This time around, however, the slow economy is prompting many firms to view marketing as a "must have," she said. But how marketing dollars are spent varies greatly from firm to firm, she added.

Many of the large, well-established firms still are playing catch-up in the marketing arena because they`ve been able to rely on long-standing institutional clients for their bread-and-butter. But now, with corporate American undergoing dramatic changes, firms are concerned that many of those client companies simply are disappearing.

"When their client base shrinks, that has a domino effect, as a firm`s referral sources shrink as well," McMurray said.

Even large firms hire companies such as hers to handle strategic marketing, positioning and branding initiatives, she said.

It`s easier for a firm to bring in a consultant not only because the specific skills aren`t present in-house but also because an outsider may be able to challenge the attorneys` beliefs better, she said.

Consultants also are retained to mastermind specific strategic public relations goals—to raise a firm`s national standing, for example. And if the firm has a large practice in a specific area, it may commission market research to analyze the business its competitors are doing in that area.

Often an outside consultant serves as a sort of general contractor, handling the development of advertising campaigns or Web sites, for example.

The attention a firm has paid to marketing can often be determined by a quick look at its Web site, McMurray said.

Firms that have been late getting into that arena have less sophisticated Web sites that don`t present the clearest messages, she said.

Contact DBJ writer Lisa Tanner at ltanner@bizjournals.com or (214) 706-7117.

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