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You could be forgiven for thinking that the outlook for most law firms was bleak. However, research by Lambda Consultancy, involving 112 law firms and 320 clients, suggests there is plenty of opportunity for the enterprising law firm.
Almost 90 per cent of solicitors' clients interviewed said their solicitors did not market their firms' services sufficiently. Conversely, 85 per cent of all law firms spoken to claimed their marketing activities were significant. Some mistake, surely?
Not really. The well-worn phrase "a half of all marketing expenditure is a waste of money - the problem is, nobody knows which half" applies. Evidence from the research suggests most firms' marketing expenditure is random and misdirected.
While advertising and public relations rank highly with lawyers, clients are largely left unimpressed by these activities. Most want their lawyers to give advice on topical issues affecting them and to hold brief, informal meetings rather than being taken out for a day at the races. Meetings and advice are not so glamorous, but they are more effective from the client's point of view.
In fact, most clients viewed corporate entertainment as a waste of time - the grander the event, the less appropriate they regarded it. Local Law Society dinners were viewed as the upper limit in terms of expense.
More than 90 per cent of clients said they would be retaining their existing law firm in the foreseeable future - showing that levels of service are high from most practices.
Over 75 per cent of clients said they used more than one firm, an indication that clients recognise law firms have particular strengths. Forty-two per cent of clients said there was potential for the existing law firm to get additional business. The message is clear: come and sell us your other services.
Clients were also asked if there was potential business from their own customers for the services of the law firm used - 35 per cent said yes. A high proportion of users, 87 per cent, said they would recommend their firm to others.
The research also revealed that some firms still have to grasp the basics of client care - some clients complained about the attitude of those manning the switchboards. Some also complained about the lack of flexibility from partners with regard to time-based charges. Unreturned calls and aloofness were cited as negatives. However, these were in the minority.
The reason why clients changed firms was also analysed. It was evident that a lack of personal contact contributed to what was often a minor irritation to start with. Firms should therefore make an effort to see their clients more and listen to them.
The research indicates that a departing client usually does so only after an approach from a competitor. As this is now common, firms must take action to underpin their existing client base and keep abreast of competition.
Most commercial clients cited their personal relationships with partners as a positive feature of their arrangements, which could be a problem if a firm is to grow. If that particular type of work is deskilled the partner could concentrate on only the critical areas of the work. This will leave him free to concentrate on client development and "hunting".
Other trends include:
Inadequate marketing expenditure is allocated to solicitors' existing client base. This should be secured and developed with a "rolling" plan aimed at establishing current and future needs.
Advertising and promotional marketing are poor value for money. The best advert will only enlarge your message - if it is mediocre, you are simply telling more people about it. It is far better to use advertising as a tactical aid in a wider strategy.
Brochures. A brochure is useful but not crucial. Specific literature on a particular service is more appropriate.
Marketing plans were not prepared by most firms. This may account for the ad hoc approach of many firms. Even those which had plans had difficulty in implementing them.
Even the best marketeers get it wrong occasionally. The key is to undertake enough activity to give you the best chance of achieving success.
This must first be included in a marketing plan which states clearly what the objectives are, the timescales for achieving these objectives and the personnel responsible. Without a formal written plan, objectives become blurred and activity becomes unregulated.
Most law firms can determine the future of their firms. The winners will be those who see that a superior technical legal service at a mutually acceptable price are not the whole business equation.
A sustained marketing campaign to keep and attract business is not an optional extra - it is just as important to law firms as it is to any other commercial business.
Finally, remember; you do not have to be twice as good as your competition - being a nose ahead is enough to win.
Mark Fletcher is a director of the Lambda consultancy.