Space – marketing's final frontier

So you think your firm has a good name in property? You may be right, but who have you been asking?

A survey for Square Foot magazine asked 200 clients, from the largest property giants to smaller developers, about their attitudes towards the purchase of property legal services. The results hold little comfort for those firms confident that their “brand” of property law is strong. But for the pioneering few that push a strong marketing plan in an aggressive drive to target new clients, the survey gives immense encouragement.

When asked to “name three law firms you feel to be particularly expert in property matters”, respondents came up with an astonishing 157 different firms. It is doubtful whether most lawyers could name 157 firms let alone recognise that many as property experts. But more surprisingly, most big-name property specialists scored badly.

Nabarro Nathanson can take some comfort. Although recently downgraded in rank by leading legal directories Chambers Directory and Legal 500, its clients put it way ahead of the pack. And while a cynic might argue that 29 respondents pointing to it as a property expert hardly justifies the title dominant, Nabarros comfortably beat next-placed major names Clifford Chance and Linklaters, which both received 19 nods from survey respondents.

More worrying for some of the major London firms is that the next three rankings in the survey were won by the nationals: Eversheds came fourth with 17 votes, Dibb Lupton Alsop was hot on its tail with 16, and Addleshaw Booth & Co was acknowledged by 15 respondents. Lovell White Durrant (13), Titmuss Sainer Dechert (12), Ashurst Morris Crisp (10) and Berwin Leighton (10) were the only other London firms to achieve ratings in double figures.

These results are more interesting when one remembers that participants were asked to name three firms. Just how strong can the brands of the London players be when they do not even come third in the reckoning?

Nearly 60 per cent of all clients felt law firms could implement measures to improve client services. Speed of handling and commercial awareness were top of the clients' wish-list of improvements.

Some pointers to a successful client-winning marketing strategy can be drawn by analysing the comments of those clients who have no intention of looking for another law firm.

Factors that woo clients are speed, accuracy and a willingness to use the telephone when appropriate, rather than send letters. Clients do not welcome firms which give advice purely to cover their backs. And client property companies repeatedly pleaded for clarity and simplicity in communications. As one respondent put it: “Sometimes you ask a question and lawyers want to give you a 15-page dossier and charge £10,000 for it.” Another client agreed that lawyers could learn to use “five words instead of 10”, while another respondent said: “Lawyers do not understand the client's business and lack commercial aptitude.

“Even the very large firms are still working in the 1950s.”

There were also concerns expressed about fees. “Big firms could have more transparent and fixed charges. They are very unwilling to commit to a fixed amount,” was included in one property client's response to the survey.

It is hardly surprising that more strident comments came from clients who said they would be willing to switch allegiance if a more attractive law firm came along – or if their current advisers slipped up. Common complaints included speed, bills, communication, complex language and approachability. Many responses contained language that would make a docker blush. Some clients are clearly more ready to change lawyers than others.

So it is open season for client poaching. But how does a firm target these disaffected clients? To answer this, you need to first ascertain how clients pick a law firm. Seven clients out of 10 choose a law firm for their property work on the basis of personal knowledge or previous experience. Just over a third retain more than one firm (City and regional) and a fifth said they used the same firm for all property work.

Clients looking to appoint a firm mostly turn to their colleagues for tips about which ones are good (or otherwise) – 38 per cent said this source was “very influential”. The next most important source of recommendations is surveyors and agents.

Legal publications fared less well – under a fifth of survey respondents said they influenced their choice of firm.

Client inertia, and a market perception that all law firms are the same, are the main obstacles to the firm which seeks to change client buying patterns. Clients need to be convinced that shopping around is worth the effort, so law firms must investigate ways to differentiate themselves and establish some brand visibility.

The survey suggests that media publications are of little use in achieving this. However, it is also possible that no law firm has pursued a consistent marketing programme, so the media's lack of success may not be as clear-cut as the figures suggest.

Another way to attract new property clients could be to concentrate the thrust of the law firm's marketing attack on client care. Although many respondents said they received approaches about client care, they were still not happy.

But the fact remains that client care initiatives only really work well when applied to existing clients. They are no use at all in attracting new clients, unless the market knows a firm has the issue high on its agenda. And, frankly, all the cocktail parties, golf days and conference appearances in the world will not achieve this.

The law firm that wishes to achieve true brand recognition in a short period of time, to steal a march on competitors, cannot afford to fly in the face of decades of marketing in other sectors – hoping that the slow process of referrals and good words will do the job. You can be sure your rivals are relying on the same drip of goodwill.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many lawyers believe clients somehow know who is doing the deals and therefore know who are the major players in the property world. But the figures do not bear out such wishful thinking, nor does evidence collected by the survey researchers and journalists on Square Foot. In fact, the lack of lawyer-focused deal information in the market suggests exactly the opposite.

The property market is wide open for a firm (or firms) to establish a dominant position. But the question remains unanswered about which firms will take up the gauntlet.