by Lisa Antonelli Bacon
For Virginia Business
Books are written about it; graduate degrees are awarded for it. And law firms these days are counting on it more and more, like never before: marketing.
Marketing a large law firm is distinctly different from marketing, say, a baseball team or even widgets. Once upon a time, doctors and lawyers had only to hang out a shingle to get word out that they were in business. Anything more obvious was considered crass. And gone are the days when a small, tasteful notice in the newspaper announced a practice’s addition of Dr. so and so or Mr./Ms. Doe, Esq. The marketing efforts of Virginia’s major law firms still hew to the tasteful, but it’s far less subtle. While largely eschewing TV commercials, the state’s big firms send out blitz e-mails, offer mass teleconferences and put their names on big buildings to work their way into the public consciousness.
Williams Mullen (the state’s third largest firm, according to an annual Virginia Business survey) cemented its 100-year reputation by agreeing to become lead tenant in a new 15-story, $60 million building in downtown Richmond that will bear its name. “In our view, it’s one of the good forms of marketing, fitting with our culture,” says James V. Meath, vice chair of Williams Mullen. “It’s a statement.”
Williams Mullen is not the first firm to make such a statement. McGuireWoods LLP, the state’s second biggest firm, already has its name on a 21-story Richmond building. “You really can’t create demand, so you want to be top of mind when it happens,” says Timothy Mullane, the firm’s chief marketing officer. So law firms are shucking inhibitions and investing (usually 2 to 3½ percent of gross revenues) in innovative tools — like the Troutman Sanders Weather Camera (promoting law firm No. 4) on the NBC affiliate in Richmond — to stay competitive.
“In this economy, it’s even more important for firms to be doing things to get in front of people,” says Kim Perret, director of marketing and business development for Richmond-based Hunton & Williams, Virginia’s largest law firm. “In the past, the inclination is to cut marketing dollars [in a recession]… Smart firms are investing in marketing in a down economy.”
Receptions, speaking engagements and community event sponsorships still turn up on legal marketing budgets, because all agree that there is no substitute for the up-close and personal. “It’s the personal relationships, the community service, that close the deal,” says Janet Davis, marketing director for Kaufman & Canoles in Norfolk, the state’s sixth largest firm.
Marketing, however, is about reaching finely targeted groups, a challenge in times of belt-tightening. One way to differentiate a law firm from others is to hire a marketing specialist to promote its strengths. Many legal marketers, in fact, are as specialized as attorneys. For instance, some large firms have legal marketing specialists in internal communications, public relations, market research, practice marketing and new business development, to name a few. Others divide marketing teams according to lawyers’ specialties. An environmental law team, for instance, would include an environmental marketing specialist.
Even firms that are not among the top 10 biggest in the state are dedicating a position or two to promoting their services. At Woods Rogers in Roanoke, Virginia’s 17th largest firm, marketing coordinator Sally Nichols divides her time among various practice groups, such as labor and employment, corporate law and litigation.
Technology is edging out more traditional forms of marketing. “In order to be competitive, you always have to be looking forward,” says Perret, past president of the Legal Marketing Association, a national trade organization. “The past informs the future, but we need to be looking at ways to differentiate.”
Following their corporate brethren, law practices large and small are using the Internet to leverage their efforts because of its ease and cost-efficiency. “You increase your ability to be top of mind with the number of times you touch people,” says Mullane.
Kaufman & Canoles’ Davis concurs. “A Web site is critical,” she says, noting that her firm has had one for nearly 10 years. “It at least gives the potential client enough information to help narrow that short list of ‘who I want to talk to in Virginia when it comes to a particular practice area.’”
Using e-mail for tightly targeted announcements and alerts on particular legal issues has become commonplace. McGuireWoods, for instance, uses e-mail to invite its target audiences to dial in to hear its lawyers address a subject of interest. “Now our securities lawyers are talking about a bill before Congress,” says Mullane. Call-ins to hear a specialist talk about new executive compensation guidelines almost crashed the firm’s system. And some 400 rang in when the topic was laws on guns in the workplace, Mullane says.
There are a variety of ways to measure results. Williams Mullen’s Harrison relies on analytics to tell who is visiting the firm’s Web site and how often and how long they’re staying. Kaufman & Canoles uses client management software to track attendance at various events or seminars as well as how those relationships develop over the years. Hunton & Williams uses a variety of measurements.
“They aren’t quite the sophisticated measures they do in the corporate environment, because we’re not measuring product going off the shelf,” says Perret, who looks at quotes in publications’ editorial content, bylined articles and third-party commentary, in addition to Web site monitoring.