A legal marketing friend, John Eix, head of Regional Business Development - Texas for Hunton & Williams, sent me a June 24, 2011 Law360 article that I finally had a moment to read. It covers the age-old question of, "Do clients hire law firms or lawyers?" I have always insisted that they hire both, but this article leans more toward "they hire lawyers."
The article was written by two legal marketing industry veterans Steve Bell, the Chief Client Development Officer for Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, and John Hellerman, co-founder and partner of Hellerman Baretz Communications.
The article starts out like this:
Law360, New York (June 24, 2011) -- Successful rainmakers will tell you that when they get business, it’s usually a result of their own, individual marketing efforts. No surprise there; it takes a healthy ego to be a real rainmaker, after all. But underneath any braggadocio lies a truth: Individual lawyers, not law firm institutions, are what draw in clients. While the rationale behind using that truth to drive legal marketing is obvious for many lawyers, how exactly to execute it is not.
As we have heard repeatedly, general counsel say they “hire a lawyer, not a firm.” The cliché is backed up by research that Hellerman Baretz Communications LLC commissioned from BTI Consulting Group Inc., which shows that introductions based on individual relationships (namely, referrals and in-person meetings) are the most effective methods of securing new business. Other recent research indicates that personal bio pages and LinkedIn profiles are more visited than firms’ general home and practice pages.
The import of this research for law firm leaders, marketers and lawyers at large would seem to be obvious: If individual lawyers are the product clients are buying, they should also be the product you are marketing. The logic behind individualized campaigns is only becoming more forceful as communications tools grow more sophisticated and accessible. Whether through LinkedIn, Twitter, blog posts or another new medium, it is easier than ever for individual lawyers to make their presence known.
I agree with much of this, but not all of it. The most successful rainmakers I know own their reputations. Whether it's speaking, writing, blogging, tweeting and, of course, being a terrific practitioner and relationship manager, they don't rely on their law firm marketing departments to "do it for them." Self-directed, motivated people always own their reputations, and I think many of us were born with this gene. It wasn't something I learned.
Do clients hire law firms? Of course they do. Clients are buying the talent and intellect of the individual lawyer backed by a powerful, sophisticated, productive law firm machine.
The article goes on to say:
Take, for instance, Howrey LLP. That firm’s big-ticket campaigns were all built around the marketing of the institution. Indeed, Howrey pioneered the art of marketing the law firm “brand.” It was the first national firm to run a print advertising campaign, called “The Human Side of Genius,” and even bought itself a product placement in the "Runaway Jury" movie.
To be clear, Howrey had an excellent marketing team, and its advertising campaigns were executed very well; as a result, it rightfully earned respect as a leader within the marketing community. But the firm’s approach had a conceptual flaw. Howrey was selling Howrey, when it might have been selling its top products: Sean Boland, Robert Abrams, John Talady and Alan Wiseman. As John Hellerman (an author of this article) wrote recently in an article about Howrey here in Law360, institutional brands are best sold to shareholders and potential shareholders (i.e., partners and laterals), while the shareholders (as expert talent) are best sold to clients.
Here's where I disagree. I posit that the "top products" that Bell and Hellerman name, Howrey partners Boland, Abrams, Talady and Wiseman, were well regarded and frequently hired because they leveraged the natural gifts they had, invested countless hours in becoming experts in their fields AND they were backed by a venerable institution. In this case, Howrey. If Howrey had invested its considerable marketing dollars only in advertising and the brand development of these top partners, would it not have failed anyway? Of course it would have.
Had these same lawyers been at a small, local firm, would they still have been considered board-safe? I don't think so. In client interviews over the last 20 years, and in discussions with corporate counsel during Lexis-Nexis sponsored Counsel to Counsel forums the last ten years, some admit that selling great lawyers in lesser-known firms upstream is challenging. The better known the law firm, the easier it is to sell the lawyer.
This supports my point that clients hire both law firms and lawyers.
The next point the article makes is this:
A significant factor in the shift to individual attorney branding is the evolution of expectations from clients themselves. Increasingly, corporate clients seek to “unbundle” legal services. Instead of relying on a single law firm, clients are shopping around on a piecemeal basis to get the best service for the best possible value.
This unbundling of services places the focus squarely at the attorney level, not the firm level. Law firm marketing efforts should match that expectation.
The corporate world already has taken notice of the individual brand-building trend. One need only use names like “The Donald,” “Oprah,” or “Lil Wayne” to understand how far individual branding concepts have progressed. Or just look at how important Steve Jobs has been to selling the Apple brand.
This comparison with Oprah, Trump and Lil Wayne (really?) holds only for those iconoclastic lawyers who have built firms to support them, their reputations, clients and work. David Boies is one who comes to mind. There are a dozen or more that we could name without resorting to Internet research. Steve Jobs gets to be Steve Jobs because he and his team built Apple to execute and support his vision.
Major law firms are blessed if they have partners who are revolutionary thinkers with the charisma and intelligence to become name-brands (without entirely disrupting the law firm). How many of those lawyers could sustain the same level of notoriety without the well-oiled infrastructure, budgets and client base of the top law firms?
So my advice partly contradicts that of my friends and colleagues, Steve Bell and John Hellerman. Take advantage of today's numerous individual reputation-enhancing online and offline tools available. Own your reputation - no one else will. But, consistently invest in your law firm's brand, too. Billions of dollars of revenue are attributable to thousands of partners who aren't front-and-center, but who benefit from the reputation and brand of the law firm, and are clearly important to the health of the partnership.
Finally, here is excellent advice from the article:
For firms and lawyers that recognize the need to structure their efforts around the individual, the question becomes: Now what? The following are some concrete steps that individual attorneys can take to help themselves.
1) Define what you offer.
The first and most necessary step in any marketing campaign is to identify exactly what you offer. Attorneys should consider the specific need they fill for their clients, and what makes their service superior to others.
2) Ask for referrals.
Referrals are the most effective marketing technique for lawyers, and also the simplest. When a lawyer is doing good work, her clients will often be eager to give referrals. The hardest part may be getting over the reluctance to ask, but when done respectfully it’s not an awkward conversation.
3) Obtain referral-equivalents through PR campaigns.
To get referrals, of course, you need influential referrers. If you lack those in your Rolodex, don’t worry: that’s exactly what individual-based PR campaigns are made to remedy. BTI’s research shows that obtaining just three mentions from respected media outlets (industry trades, respected national publications, personal contacts), have nearly the same trust-building effect on prospective clients that personal referrals do.
4) Create content in your area of practice.
Thought leaders stand out. Creating valuable content about your area of practice will get you noticed quickly. Whether distributed through traditional outlets (e.g., trade publications) or “self-published” through blogs, social networks or e-newsletters, Internet-based sharing tools will get valuable content to the people that care about it.
5) Speak in small-group settings.
While a speaking engagement at a large conference may look nice on the resume, smaller-group environments are more conducive to relationship building. Unlike addresses to large audiences, which must have broad appeal, settings such as practice seminars are more likely to be focused on the attorney’s specific area of expertise and have a business-oriented atmosphere.
6) Become a point of contact.
Making yourself a “water-cooler” stop for those in your field pays dividends and can be accomplished in any number of ways — creating an online gathering place through a successful blog, founding an association for a specialized industry that you service, and hosting an annual happy hour at an industry conference are just a few examples.
7) Communicate what makes you successful.
Clients might be impressed by an Ivy League education. What will truly impress them — and what they really want to know — is how a lawyer can help their business. This is what case studies do. A powerful story about how a specific lawyer helped a client brings that attorney’s skills to life and allows clients to imagine how the lawyer might help them, as well. All lawyers should have case studies.
8) Create powerful introductions.
If your professional bio is anything like most in the legal industry, it does not convey a powerful enough impression — or tell readers much about you. Enhancing your bio with an enticing narrative or short video can tell visitors a lot about your service and your personality. Enriched bios give those who don’t know you a much more significant glimpse at your professional persona and make it easier for prospective clients to pick up the phone and call.
9) Repurpose your efforts.
These previously listed tips aren’t one-off activities — they can pay repeated dividends. The work that went into writing an article can be repurposed for a speaking engagement. A speech can be transformed into a blog post or client alert. All of these activities can be referenced as auxiliary materials on a bio, and any of them can provide the basis for an introduction to a reporter. “Recycling” in this way helps lawyers get a maximum PR benefit from their invested time.
10) Share content.
For the same reasons they should “recycle,” lawyers and their firms should actively share the content that emerges from PR campaigns. Social networking tools, especially, make it extremely easy for lawyers to share their media quotations, articles and other PR material with their online networks and personal contacts, who in turn may pass it to their own networks. In this way, lawyers become influential voices and build their presence within communities rich with business development potential.