Graham Irwin says that having a good marketing database is essential to nurturing relationships with existing clients and identifying potential markets. Graham Irwin is the principal of specialist legal management consultancy Irwin Associates.

Many solicitors are still coming to terms with the idea of marketing their services and confusion still reigns over the difference between marketing and selling.

Selling is the final stage in getting a piece of work, while marketing is almost everything that has gone before. Marketing is about identifying potential markets and new opportunities. It is about nurturing relationships with existing and potential clients and usually involves taking a long-term view.

A marketing database can be an invaluable tool. It should hold details of all the firm's clients and other contacts. This latter category may include golf partners, fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce, neighbours, bank managers and accountants. The system should hold details of relationships between contacts and individuals within the firm.

For contacts who have referred work to the firm, it is important to know how much work has been referred. Details about a contact may include types of work undertaken for clients, business interests, occupation and personal interests relating to the firm's marketing events, such as golf handicap or dietary requirements. The system should also be able to keep track of dates of meetings with each contact.

The firm must take care to register under the Data Protection Act. The system should provide the marketeer with a suggested list of names of contacts to invite to a specific marketing event, or a list of contacts with whom there has been no meeting for some time.

It should keep track of previous events, so that a list of who attended what can be produced. It should also be possible to evaluate the effectiveness of an event – not just who attended, but what work or opportunities resulted from the event.

Whether the marketing database should be linked to the accounting system will depend on several factors, not least the capability of the system to support such a link, and the cost. Ideally, the details of clients should be input once only. But the fact that the systems cannot be linked should not be a reason to delay the introduction of a marketing system.

The level of sophistication of the system will depend, to an extent, on the size of the firm. Whatever system is chosen, the database must be flexible, in terms of the information it stores and its reporting facilities. Firms should beware of systems that do not enable them to decide what information is held about contacts or when new report programs need to be written by the supplier. For who knows what information may be required in future?

There can be barriers to running a marketing database successfully. One is the time and effort required to get the information in the first place and then keep it up-to-date. Out-of-date information can often be more dangerous than no information at all. There is no point getting details about contacts if they are not updated regularly.

Another possible barrier is the attitude of partners. Partners who are reluctant to provide details of "their" contacts for a firm-wide marketing effort must be won over if the firm is ever to be effective in its marketing.

The barriers must not be used as an excuse for inaction. The business climate has already changed beyond recognition and firms must adapt to the prevailing climate. Marketing is essential for all businesses, and a properly-run marketing database can help the firm to direct its efforts into profitable areas.