Point/Counterpoint: How to Acquire New Business from Large Companies--PR or Advertising?

01.01.04
By John DiBene, Esq. and Deborah McMurray
Published in Strategies: The Journal of Legal Marketing

Most AMLAW 200 firms want their lawyers to be the trusted advisors of Fortune 500 to Fortune 1000 companies. Most of these large companies have an in-house legal department, and these departments are as different as law firm compensation systems. Some have extensive in-house expertise on highly specialized legal matters, while others rely primarily on law firms for everything from large corporate/securities transactions to consumer class action litigation. As a result, the role of the general counsel is diverse, often ranging from a supervisor of outside counsel, to a working generalist or specialist, to a strategic business advisor. Frequently, the general counsel is called upon to serve in all these roles at once.

Incumbency is a distinct advantage for a law firm. Incumbent firms can acquire new business from their clients even when the general counsel isn’t delighted with every aspect of the relationship. "No relationship is perfect," said one GC who is the lone lawyer in his legal department. "I have to weigh the brain damage of changing counsel against the mild headaches I get from my current law firms."

So, what can non-incumbent law firms do to attract new business from in-house lawyers at large companies that hire outside counsel? Many firms that have had sophisticated marketing programs for more than a decade have been successfully positioning themselves as the "right" firm for certain types of businesses. Still, many more are struggling, trying to find the right mix, media and message.

A critical part of this mix involves whether, and to what extent, to focus on public relations or advertising. Strategies asked an in-house counsel and a marketing professional, each with differing views, for their opinions.

DiBene – A Concerted, Concentrated PR Strategy Is Your Best Bet.

In-house counsel hire lawyers, not law firms. The best way for a firm to get its first piece of business from a large company is to increase the exposure and reputation of its lawyers. There are many ways that firms can do this, including (most importantly) successfully handling high-profile matters. But even winning cases often is not enough; the firm needs to expand their lawyers’ reputations through a concerted, concentrated public relations campaign.

Such a campaign should be multi-faceted, and be designed to increase a lawyer’s reputation and prominence before target audiences, including colleagues in other law firms. Depending on the specialty, being quoted as a legal expert in the right publications for the lawyer’s expertise, making presentations at legal and industry conferences, and writing articles in publications read by in-house counsel can all be essential. These efforts need to be focused and sustained, with a constant message. Such a campaign can increase the attorney’s reputation as the attorney to hire for a particular assignment, speciality or case.

Some might expect a short-term PR investment to result in new business, but that is an unrealistic expectation. PR is not a short-term strategy; it requires time and persistence to be effective. One speech or one newspaper mention isn’t likely to get a lawyer new business from a major corporation. However, through the cascading effect of multiple speeches, articles, and well-placed quotes, the lawyer can obtain business, as the lawyer gains the reputation as the one to hire for a particular type of specialized advice, type of dispute, or geographic area.

That is not to say that firms should not advertise. Advertising can play a major role in developing new business, particularly if it focuses on shaping a firm’s image and expanding awareness of the firm’s scope and scale. Thus, advertising can be particularly useful in expanding a firm’s business from existing clients as part of a cross-selling strategy. But advertising expands the firm’s image, and does little for the image and reputation of its lawyers. As such, it is not the best focus for firms looking to acquire that first piece of business from a large company.

McMurray – PR Alone Isn’t Enough; Firms Need To Advertise

The cost of advertising has risen exponentially since the early 1990s, when the number of daily messages we receive went from an estimated 3,000 to today’s 10,000. While the price hike of traditional advertising is worth noting, what’s more troubling is that our ads are now competing for recognition against this blizzard of other messages. The cost of reaching the ultimate decision-maker is higher because it’s harder for a law firm to make and maintain a positive impression. It’s tougher than ever to emerge from this white-out in a memorable way, assuming that short-term and long-term memorability is the goal.

Law firms have to work smarter to distinguish and differentiate themselves. While some traditional firm leaders still bristle at the very mention of advertising, the majority of AMLAW 200 firms have, at the very least, put their toes into the advertising waters. Some CMOs and marketing directors have high expectations for a return on their advertising and media investment—because they’ve seen it result in new revenue to their firms. Others are wary that the return can be quantified. The ultimate return depends on countless other impressions that a firm makes that spurs a general counsel or member of his/her in-house team to pick up the telephone or send an email. Advertising success—if defined by (a) the number of new, desirable clients and by (b) getting more business from existing clients—is cumulative. It depends entirely on what else the firm is doing to deliver a relevant, consistent message.

Think of it as a continuum. On the left side, a general counsel is unaware of your firm. On the right side, he or she has hired your firm. Somewhere in between, a lot of conscious and subconscious impressions are being made on this decision-maker. If they are consistent, positive and resonate with this buyer, your firm has a strong chance of getting on the short list. Then it’s up to your lawyers to close the sale by proving that they are the best choice.

Public relations is a critical component in this integrated marketing mix. This is not press release writing. Rather, it’s a sophisticated vertical strategy that targets particular business and industry media in ways where your best lawyers (and hopefully firm) will get noticed.

Effective PR also uses a layered approach, creating its own continuum of sorts. Lawyers and firms have a chance to be viewed not only as credible experts, they can be perceived as thought or opinion leaders. This takes strategy, time and money, and multiple impressions.

This, as well as truly creative advertising, also takes courage. Seth Godin, in his 2003 book, Purple Cow: Transform your Business by Being Remarkable, states that "safe is risky." Why? Because safe fails to create any impression at all. Safe doesn’t penetrate the blur sustained by other advertisers. Godin says, "You're either a Purple Cow [in a field of Guernseys] or you're not. You're either remarkable or invisible. Make your choice."

As a law firm, incumbent or otherwise, your choices are clear-cut. Good advertising is still the best way to raise an unknown firm’s profile in its target markets. Remember the general counsel can’t hire you if s/he doesn’t know you.

Analyze your entire marketing and business development program. Where and how are you effectively reaching the generals counsel and other buyers who choose your firm? What messages are you using in PR, advertising and other avenues that resonate with these buyers? How do you know what resonates with them? If you can’t point to more short list opportunities that have the hope of resulting in new work, it’s time to change your appeal. Is your approach fresh? Is your advertising arresting? Is your PR strategic? Is your message consistent, whether delivered in an ad or by one of your partners in a one-on-one meeting with a potential client?

If your goal is to reach generals counsel, then, regardless of medium, make certain that you’re speaking their language, and selling what they are buying.

John di Bene is General Counsel of SBC Long Distance.

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