The marketing behind law firms, and lawyers, has definitely evolved. In “New Partner in the Firm: The Marketing Director,” the former president of the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Administrators (the precursor to today’s “Legal Marketing Association”) noted that in 1984, she was one of five marketing directors in the world and that by 1989, several hundred or so law firms had hired their own marketing directors.1
This was not without resistance and challenges, however. As the article notes, organized marketing programs encountered the most resistance from veteran lawyers, who tended to view salesmanship as unprofessional, many calling marketing demeaning. I will say that even when I joined my first law firm in 2001, there were some veteran lawyers who still shared that point of view.
Even what we now view as the most basic tools of the marketer’s trade—providing pitch assistance and materials—were debated. The New York Times article notes how in the late 1980s, Cooley Godward Castro Huddelson & Tatum (aka Cooley Godward, at that time), had its 150 lawyers trained on video camera (how progressive they were…), “with an eye toward helping them refine their pitch to potential clients.” Yet even at Cooley Godward, marketing’s custom-made information packets on their clients made on “a fleet of desktop computers” were seen as just an internal tool, because “when materials become the focus, the marketing process is less professional.”
Full swing to 2022 and the Legal Marketing Association now counts 4100+ members across the United States, Canada, and 30 other countries with multiple memberships in nearly all of the AmLaw 200. Yes, times have changed—with the professionalism of the marketing teams ramping up from ill trained paralegals and secretaries to MBAs and JDs alike.
What also has greatly expanded over the years are law firm branding efforts. Law firms as brands now share equal footing with the marketing efforts of their lawyers, practices, and offices. And leading the way in these efforts: law firm websites, although also a relatively new invention.
In 2012, Bob Ambrogi did a bit of research to determine which firm was the first to have one — noting a Wikipedia entry about now-defunct Heller Ehrman LLP launching the first law firm website in 1994. Also in 1994, The Baltimore Sun wrote in “Lawyers in Cyberspace” that Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti (aka Venable) had, “… recently hung out an electronic shingle as a publisher under its own name on the Internet.”
For those of us who have been around law firms for some time, the simplicity (I am being kind) of the earlier websites have now been replaced by an ever-changing sophistication heavily focused on the client experience. It is not just about the website however, there has been a huge shift in recognizing the mission, vision, and purpose of the law firm as a brand, with the website as the primary ‘carrier’ of the brand.
The debate about whether a client hires a law firm, or a lawyer is still a hot one. But clearly, years back, lawyers who wanted to build a practice made the time to try to meet as many people as possible, with the expectation that business would flow in or be referred back to them. Their traditional efforts to sell services (but please do not use the word sell) included a mix of breakfast, lunch, and dinner sprinkled with legal articles and client and friend’s letters. And for many, particularly personable rainmakers, this was the case. It worked.
Back to today, marketing and business development efforts have greatly expanded to include many more lawyers—not just those who enjoyed the one-to-one interactions—supported by a wider assortment of thought leadership opportunities and digital platforms, many heavily data dependent. Legal marketers are engaged daily in efforts to see where business is coming from, how to enhance client engagement, how to aggregate disparate data points from around the firm making it actionable intelligence, all to help generate revenue. All of which is anything but demeaning.
Another interesting footnote: Ross Fishman noted in “A Personal View of Legal Marketing’s Long Strange Journey,” that in 1990, Winston & Strawn hired its public relations consultant to be the nation’s first full-time marketing partner, who in turn hired a half-dozen in-house marketers creating what may have been the first law firm marketing department, one that incidentally included Mr. Fishman.2 Admirably, Winston & Strawn has come a long way since then. In January 2022 I was on a panel with the firm’s data scientist, a JD/MBA, who heads their data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning capabilities. Huge wow to them.
While data-based programs are growing, some more basic tactics remain the same. Marketers are still advising lawyers who want to ‘make their mark’ to try to ‘be known for something.’ And to ‘sell’ their unique/targeted expertise both outside the firm, to attract new clients, as well as inside the firm, toward lawyers across all offices and practices for cross selling opportunities.
And to do this, just as in the 1990s, they typically start with thought leadership, be it yesterday’s bylined articles, last decade’s blog posts, or in today’s digital driven world, webinars and podcasts—all content authored by a lawyer in a format that they can control. Legal marketers are still advising these lawyers to get involved with relevant associations and local organizations by joining, attending events and, even better, joining committees in order to assume a leadership position within the group, knowing that when worked correctly, these networking efforts help to get them connected to other lawyers (who can refer back to them) as well as potential clients. Whether live, or virtual due to the pandemic, the strategies remain the same across practice areas.
But behind the scenes, legal marketers are busy at work via social media and digital marketing strategies and tactics. Enhanced with and by the analysis of data, digital platforms enable the lawyer’s words, whether written, heard, or seen, and the firm’s branded messages to reach targeted audiences beyond yesterday’s ‘rolodex’ or today’s CRM database. From paid campaigns on LinkedIn and Google to lead generation and retargeting, prospects and targets are getting into the—please do not use that word— “sales” funnel. And you know something, it is not demeaning, it is actually quite exciting.
1. The New York Times, June 2, 1989.
2. ABA Law Practice, October/November 2005.
[This article was originally published in Wolters Kluwer INSIGHTS: The Corporate & Securities Law Adviser VOLUME 36, NUMBER 4, APRIL 2022]
Paula Zirinsky is co-founder & chief strategist of Structura Strategy Group LLC, a professional services marketing advisory. A former CMO, she is known for her expertise in branding, strategy, marketing, content, communications, and digital & technology platforms. She can be reached at [email protected]