Making a difference

The legal world is enthusiastically embracing marketing. But as Fenella Quinn reports, the profession still has some way to go if it is to move beyond the realm of branded mousemats

Many marketing directors in top law firms can congratulate themselves on the progress of their business. No longer considered simply as overheads, marketers have the ear of partners and do not have to battle quite so hard against luddite attitudes and partners taking up positions against them. This improvement in working conditions seems to be borne out by a distinct lengthening of the average employment span of a law firm marketer, which not so long ago was as low as nine months.

However, it would not do to be too complacent, and in fact compared to other industries – such as the deregulated utilities sector and particularly telecoms, which has had far less time to evolve into a serious marketing operation – some believe that the legal world is far behind. Firms have failed to make an impact and differentiate themselves. In fact, they haven't created a USP (unique selling propostion). Catherine Greenwood, a PR manager for BT Europe, a professional and experienced marketer who knows her USPs, says: “If I was sacked, I wouldn't have a clue where to look for a good employment lawyer. Even though there are so many firms, the legal profession is still a monopoly. There's a conspiracy among them that they all maintain high prices, and the Law Society is a part of the conspiracy – it's a mysterious guild.” Hardly proof that firms are getting their message out there.

Greenwood draws parallels between her sector and the legal world as small and eager companies can often be perceived as somehow of dubious quality and trustworthiness. “Smaller operators in my field tend to be seen as cowboys, and it's the same with lawyers who advertise that they take on conditional fee cases,” she says. “Lawyers who offer these arrangements are viewed as down-market cowboys. In fact, they are being entrepreneurial.”

This view has recently been compounded by a private report commissioned by 30 major law firms to look into the efficacy of legal marketing. Although its author, Kevin Wheeler of Wheeler Associates, is unwilling to divulge any details, we can reveal that its conclusions will not make pleasant reading for the majority of law firms. The report stressed that print marketing is relatively ineffective – a major blow to firms spending thousands on glossy brochures – and that in order to compete, firms must turn their focus from “client management” to “client care”, start selling themselves more effectively and go for added value. Wheeler tells The Lawyer that although the evolution of legal marketing has accelerated over the past five years, there is still much to be done. Partners faced with a work overload and not enough resources to service it should not be blasé. He predicts that while times may be good now, those firms who do not put proper processes into place will lose out when times inevitably become leaner.

The telecoms industry was deregulated in the early 1990s, roughly five years after law firms were allowed to start marketing themselves. But unlike its legal brethren, telecoms companies have made leaps and bounds in their marketing efforts. As former head of PR at Cable & Wireless, Greenwood's experience in handling communications for its UK launch four years ago demonstrates how effective marketing from the start can propel little-known entities towards massive success relatively quickly. Cable & Wireless had US backing and a US style of doing business, which she says meant being “much more clued up about marketing, with big marketing and advertising budgets”.

“Cable and Wireless went from a standing start to being extremely successful because we decided to give it image and identity,” she adds. “It was a pretender to the throne, and it's because the marketing was so good that BT was forced to get its act together.” The company spent a massive £250m on advertising, the biggest ever in the UK. “But our big mistake was that we didn't follow it up – people at the top began bean counting and decided they couldn't spend any more.”

The legal sector's mistake, on the other hand, has been to take at least 10 years to come to terms with what marketing can do. Kysen PR managing director Clare Rodway says: “If lawyers had taken marketing seriously from the start, and got proper marketing people in, the whole process [of becoming more competitive] would have happened much quicker.”

Telecoms consultant Alun Lewis says that in either the telecoms or legal sector, it is cultural differences that mould customer perceptions and therefore encourage sales.

“Old business cultures can stop the entrepreneurialism and the dynamism you need. It's like steering a tanker,” he says.

Of course, the two sectors are completely different. While one sells a service and therefore personalities, the other sells a tangible product. But as Stephenson Harwood marketing director Colin Bayley says: “If you look at the way a company makes decisions about who it wants to buy from, what it looks for is reputation, credibility and track record. That's the brand.”

Bayley recognises that major players in the telecoms industry enjoy high brand recognition, not only among consumers but also among business-to-business purchasers. But while the telecoms industry is very different to the legal sector, an operator still has to communicate to diverse audiences about what exactly it offers and, most importantly, that it can deliver this efficiently and that they are better value than their competitors.

“The principles are exactly the same, it's only the approach that differs,” says Ann Macleod, head of business development at McGrigor Donald in Glasgow.

“Law firms don't do a lot of research, they don't talk to clients about what they want. They need to give them the message that they can help and they can do this through seminars, speaking at conferences and newsletters,” says Wheeler. “If you don't align selling with your marketing efforts, you won't be making the most of your marketing spend.”

He adds: “Lawyers need to look at the clients they already have and do more cross-selling to them.”

Indeed, anyone with a telephone has experienced the telecoms sector's great zeal for cross-selling and individualised targeting – most of us have answered a call at home and ended up agreeing to some extra service that we never knew we even needed. Wheeler fears that most lawyers do not have the confidence or skills to make this happen, even when they are quite gregarious. “There's a big difference between getting out there and being sociable, talking about the cricket and what schools your kids go to, and converting that into an instruction,” he says. “You need to get under the client's skin, understand what they want and then sell to that need.”

Macleod adds: “The key is for firms to identify who is good at selling and to utilise those skills. Some people are more comfortable writing articles, some talking to clients and what's important is to capitalise on what skills people have and to encourage them to grow in those areas.”

Head of marketing at McGrigor Donald since 1998, Macleod says that the firm does not “produce rafts of glossy promotional material”, instead it runs a seminar each week, such as a mock tribunal or disciplinary hearing. “The feedback we get from clients is very positive,” she says. “We're combining profile raising with real technical updates in terms of legislation.”

So why has it been so much easier for younger industries to be major marketing players, while law firms are still going through the sticky process of persuading their partners to be customer driven?

Rodway says: “There wasn't a useful precedent when they started. Then they lost their conveyancing monopoly, insurance clients started to have panels of law firms, clients started to be less loyal, questioning fees and using beauty parades to get lawyers to compete on fees.”

She adds that it is easier to get top level consensus in a corporate structure than in a partnership. “In partnerships you have power bases based on earnings, and people who resist the idea of turning business away. This kind of short-termism can be one of the big sticking points.”

The age-old problems of lawyers going for quick fix logos and superficial branding without thinking through underlying strategy and identity are well charted. Thankfully the hackneyed cliché that the legal world is five years behind accountants has become outdated, at least where larger City firms are concerned.

But on the “consumer” side, where firms need to pull in the non-corporate client, things are a little more behind. But as Bayley says: “As a man on the street I see what appears to be quality firms beginning to present themselves to the marketplace in a more sophisticated manner.

“In professional services marketing we have always had to understand who we are doing business with and who we could potentially be doing business with. I think marketing in the professions is increasingly sophisticated, and it will continue to evolve and develop. There's always room to keep moving forward, and that's what everybody's doing.”

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell, published by Little Brown ISBN 03166485237

The term spin doctor has entered the popular imagination as both a hate figure (men in black whispering in the ears of politicians) or as mythic superhero (men in black whispering in my ear).

After that May day in 1997, the spin doctor has spun itself into our society as the infallible communicator, the one who can make them (but not us) believe anything, even when they crash and burn like Charlie Wheelan or are strategically repositioned like Alastair Campbell.

This leads to a belief on the part of other communicators that spin, public relations and marketing is either an inherent gift or something summoned from the melting pot of focus groups.

What Gladwell's accessible book shows is that the truth is far more complex. Complexity theory does not feature by name but his account of how things or ideas can suddenly take on a whole new power is straight out of the latest developments in chaos theory.

Complexity theory shows how systems (natural, economic or otherwise) evolve to a position of optimum complexity, where the slightest variation can have a huge effect.

Gladwell takes this notion of the tipping point and applies it to ideas – similar to Richard Dawkins notion of the meme. So there is nothing really new here.

But for those not terribly well-versed in the trendier ends of popular science or even for those who are, but have never applied its lessons to their own work, The Tipping Point offers an entertaining journey through cases as varied as how Hush Puppies became fashionable again or how awareness of breast cancer developed.

“Starting epidemics,” says Gladwell, “requires concentrating res-ources on a few key areas.”

With that focus, mountains can be moved. You don't need massive resources or superhuman Faustian skills. Effective communication is not a gift or a science, nor is it the province of massive party machines – it is the intelligent use of what is available. It is often a leap of imagination with just a dash of luck – a very complex thing.