The marketing dilemma

The issues facing law firms today, as they strive to be successful, are more complex than ever before, and effective marketing is therefore a higher priority in the lives of management and partners of law firms across the country. The end is no different, however; firms need to grow.

The external forces affecting marketing demand more skill, consideration and planning than has so far been necessary; indeed, the modern marketing practices that are now needed fall outside what the regulations have historically allowed.

To develop suitable marketing strategies, firms must ask the following questions:

Where are we now?

Where do we want to be?

How do we get there?

Having a clear view of the firm's strengths together with the commitment to analyse these in relation to current market needs is critical.

Identifying the shape that a firm needs to adopt is difficult, demanding and challenging for any firm's decision makers. Beyond that, developing the structural and organisational changes necessary to take the firm forward can be daunting, even for the very best planners.

And yet careful planning in the early days of this post recessional period is essential: in the years to come we will be able to see which firms have created a strategic vision and communicated it internally to partners and staff, allowing it to be seen from the external market place.

Vision and communication will clearly be of paramount importance in structuring and developing long term plans. But no law firm can afford to lose sight of the fact that it must be better than the competition in legal matters if it is to add value in the client relationship. Value isn't totally encapsulated in the service: it is seen in the ability of the individual or team to manage the relationship almost as a partnership, where the law firm understands and anticipates the clients' needs, and meets these needs in such a way that the client perceives the true value.

How the service is evaluated is much debated – there are accreditation systems, standard terms and conditions, internal auditing procedures for practice areas and commercial and technical training programmes.

In coming years, therefore, more effort than has ever been necessary before now must be expended on developing training schemes that will broaden the remit of the lawyer.

For the marketeer balancing these needs there is a ready armoury of tools which has only been partially exploited.

The generic use of research commissioned on either a quantitative or qualitative basis must be explored, as sophisticated clients shop for the best practice at the best price. Long term recruitment and training plans will be affected by firms' ability to seek objective views of client needs and respond to these with tailored and structured programmes. The ability to react to client demands will be critical if firms are to avoid losing long-term relationships.

Safeguarding pre-existing relationships with clients is therefore the first priority in the marketeer's portfolio: this can be dealt with through research, evaluation and training.

To attract new clients and then be instructed by them requires persistence, training and support. In achieving this the brand or the firm's name can be of great importance. The value of the brand and associations of the brand name with an area of expertise will become more important – potential clients must have a clear view of which firms offer the best advice in the area they require.

The ability to build corporate brand values associated with given areas of expertise will therefore enable firms to support their practice team's approach with perceived experience. The tactical ability to build a brand name is the magic that marketeers must develop, and it is this that will take firms forward.

To date, most marketing advice aimed at creating brand recognition has been achieved through the use of external PR agencies. These have been used with varying degrees of effectiveness, but little brand-building has been achieved in this way. The use of the media and the creation of literature with strong messages has gone a long way to deal with the first phase of legal marketing.

Sponsorship has been little used but can be an efficient tool when the full opportunities are identified and considered. The costs of such exercises range from minimal to extortionate. The value of any deal should be at least equal to the cost, and this should be considered in the planning process.

Direct marketing techniques have been effective in other disciplines, especially when they are linked to research and follow-up activities. This requires either substantial investment in technology or the use of external direct marketing agencies to provide the necessary quality control.

Advertising has historically had a key role to play in brand building, but has achieved little in the legal arena. Recruitment advertising has been used extensively by legal firms and to good effect, creating differentiation at the point of recruiting trainees to the firm. The challenge is to understand how this might inform a corporate advertising programme for a firm wishing to build a brand.

Research has been undertaken by firms in isolation but little syndicated or independent research is available and little has been commissioned by firms wishing to determine the longer term needs of law firms or clients. More research has been commissioned by trade publishers wishing to support their features and publications than by any other group.

Annual directories are an increasingly powerful reference tool and a sophisticated trade press means that firms have to be able to respond on the same level by providing information in a meaningful way. Company literature is important and firms are keen to use it as a first point of differentiation. This will remain an important part of any law firm's marketing.

A good relationship between client and service provider is the ultimate aim, and failure to anticipate client requirements inevitably leads to a downgrading of the relationship and possibly the loss of the client. Adapting the relationship so that the firm can identify future client needs and also extend the relationship is important.

The increase in the need for client servicing will ensure that firms sharpen their ability to focus on client need. Certainly, a more structured approach is needed. One of the main challenges for most firms is in facilitating the cultural change that's necessary if management partners and staff are to see the opportunities to cross-sell and extend the client relationship.

In many ways, firms have stood still between 1992 and 1994/5 as they concentrated on managing their business and retaining existing clients. But post-recession, a new challenge has arisen where clients buy on price and perceived expertise.

Relationships between firms and clients are under threat and sophisticated responses are needed to differentiate one brand from another. The same is true when the aim is to add weight to a partnership team that wishes to pursue a particular area of practice.

Marketing has reached the first stage of maturity in law firms: the challenge we now face is managing the next stage. Anticipating the future and planning for it, putting in place a correctly structured and clear vision, will enable more astute firms to communicate their strengths in a focused and controlled way. And this will lead to their sustained success.

Piers Marlow-Thomas is director of business development at Richards Butler.