Packing a punch

Rosalie Osias, a New York lawyer, increased new business tenfold and attracted a flood of new clients by posing in a series of unconventional ads. One featured Rosalie in a mini-skirt and cowboy hat, clutching an enormous cigar, under the banner 'Try this non-conforming law firm…who knows, you may close some loans for a change'.

The adverts encapsulate a number of fundamental truths about marketing a small law firm – Rosalie knows her market, she has played to her strengths and has an eye for publicity. An original idea has resulted in a strikingly different approach, which has won her firm new clients and business.

Over the last 10 months, Oxley & Coward has applied the same lessons to its own marketing. With 11 partners and 50 staff in Rotherham, the firm is typical of general practices across the UK.

We face a common challenge: how to make effective use of a limited marketing budget in an increasingly competitive market.

This year kicked off with the sale of the firm's Sheffield office to Wansbroughs Willey Hargrave, which housed a substantial medical negligence and health practice with a strong national reputation.

We used this potentially traumatic event to take a fresh look at our business. Three areas were identified where the firm was different from others in Rotherham:

Oxley & Coward has a national reputation in information technology law.

Partner David Hainsworth is a planning expert with 25 years' experience of local government; he is a planning inspector and a member of the Law Society's planning panel.

Oxley & Coward has a strong commercial property practice, with many NHS trust and health authority clients.

The bulk of the marketing budget has been spent on promoting these areas, through workshops, mailshots, newsletters and by exhibiting at the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts conference. However, marketing also takes time – I have spent at least £30,000 to £40,000 of chargeable time on marketing, much of it devoted to face-to-face contact with clients and prospective clients. Across the firm, the cost is well into six figures. But it is paying off. This year, the firm has won a number of key clients in the computer services market.

Following the split with the Sheffield office, there was a risk that Oxley & Coward would be viewed as a backward looking general practice in an unfashionable town.

A visit to Boston, Massachusetts, by myself and partner Rosemary Downs helped to counteract this. The newsletter we sent out about the visit attracted publicity: 'The classiest piece of law firm marketing that I have ever seen'; 'helps to put Rotherham on the map'.

Our clients are spread across the country, with half a dozen in London alone. A PC and a modem enable us to use Link to send and receive email and files to and from clients hundreds of miles away – a small step, but one that puts us ahead of some of our larger rivals.

We have proved that well directed mailshots generate new clients and new business by applying the 'Three S test' – is it short, sharp and shit hot? We send the mailshot to people that will read it and follow up where appropriate. We are building client and contact databases, which are accessible to fee earners and support staff across a network, using Sage Telemagic contact management software. This takes the pain out of mailmerges and enables us to co-ordinate vital marketing information.

The biggest challenge is to turn our lawyers into our salesforce. One firm is reputed to send its lawyers to a 'boot camp' for a fortnight, where they are forced to listen to Tina Turner's Simply The Best from dawn till dusk. So far, my partners have resisted this.

Julian Armstrong, general counsel of Esso UK, speaking at the Law Society Annual Conference said: “Get your large, fat bottoms out of your chairs and go and talk to your clients.”

Any firm that does not take this message to heart faces extinction.