Law Firm Marketing Experts on Finding and Showcasing Your Law Firm’s “Purple Cow”: How to Make a Bottom Line Impact in a Recession Environment (Webinar Recap)

Date: March 14, 2023

I recently sat down with leaders in the legal marketing industry Stephanie Grober, Content and PR Manager with Horowitz Agency; Michael Murray, Chief Marketing Officer at Tully Rinckey; and Lynn Tellefsen-Stehle, Co-Founder and Chief Strategist with Structura Strategy Group. In this webinar hosted by the Legal Marketing Association, they discussed the impact of economic turmoil on legal marketing efforts, and how law firm marketers can maintain stability and even encourage growth. Below, I detail key takeaways from this conversation.

Finding A Law Firm’s Key Differentiator

Perhaps the most essential factor in marketing for any industry is identifying and leveraging what is known as your brand’s key differentiator. This means the feature or aspect of your law firm which sets it apart from the competition. For attorneys or law firms, thinking of themselves as a brand often requires a slight shift in perspective, since lawyers aren’t accustomed to seeing a law practice as a business. However, when it comes to marketing your law firm, finding your key differentiator and using it to promote yourself to the public can be the difference between a steady stream of clients coming through your front door, or watching them head to the competition instead.

Finding your own key differentiator starts with a thorough review of your law firm’s brand and brand positioning. Every law firm has a brand, whether they know it or not. A firm’s brand consists of how they see themselves, and how clients & prospective clients view them. By reviewing sales & customer data, marketing analytics, and using techniques like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis, firms can undergo regular assessments of their brand to understand where they stand in relation to the public and within their industry. This is true for large firms, smaller firms, and individual attorneys.

Marketing As Storytelling

The main factor that influences a person’s decision to go with one brand or another, whether deciding between brands of laundry detergent at the grocery store, or an attorney to help with their legal case, is the story being told about that brand and how they connect with it. For lawyers, your brand can be distilled down to identifiable stories, including:

  • Relationships with previous and current clients
  • Track record of case outcomes
  • Pricing of various legal services
  • Feedback from bidding processes

It’s important to understand not just how you see your own role in these marketing stories, but how clients and even legal opposition & competition see you. To learn about those perspectives, solicit feedback from everyone around you before, during, and after cases. Conduct surveys or request reviews, either privately or publicly on platforms like Yelp or Google. Compare your own self-analysis with the perspectives of others to find out what it is you really do best, and leverage that to your advantage. Conversely, you can find out what people consider to be the less positive aspects of your practice, and do what you can to minimize those, or at least reduce their visibility.

Legal marketers in particular can bring unique insights to the table during this process. Since they work with attorneys in a variety of core practice areas, they have a view into the common features shared by various practice groups. They can help identify your key differentiator and recommend a unique marketing mix for any law firm, based on those regular conversations with a variety of attorneys, combined with individual analysis to determine how best to position your firm’s brand.

Key Differentiators That Lead to Successful Growth

To give you an idea of the kinds of key differentiators which have led to successful growth, here are a few examples shared by our panelists during the webinar presentation.

A century-old real estate law firm

This firm had practiced nothing but real estate law for a hundred years. They were able to emphasize and focus their marketing efforts on how long they had been practicing in the same field of law, their reliability, and expertise. The loyalty of their clients, some of them over generations, made for a fantastic selling point.

A firm mixing business and personal law

This firm had practices in both business and personal law that were both equally strong and well-developed. They tailored their communications to demonstrate to potential clients that whether they were private individuals, business owners operating in the B2C space, or even large B2B companies, the firm was a one-stop shop for legal services of all kinds.

A firm founded by military veterans

Tully Rinckey is a law firm that takes pride in its military roots. The culture and tradition of the military was a core part of this firm, since it was founded by veterans and expanded from there, and they were able to leverage that in their marketing to great advantage. They represented themselves as having core military values, such as duty, honor, and persistence to help prospective clients understand where the attorneys were coming from, and to deliver the message of how hard they would fight for you.

Regardless of your own differentiators and what makes your firm unique, it’s important to contextualize them; the economy, culture, and politics are all in a constant state of flux. Examine all your touchpoints with clients and your communications to relay the message that you’re here to help no matter what’s going on in society. Consider how to convey that you will serve their needs to the best of your ability in good times and bad, when the economy is booming or in a difficult climate like a recession. It is vital that your marketing never appears tone-deaf to the current moment.

Trends in Legal Marketing that Can Help in Our Current Environment

Marketers are adept at following trends, and law firms must be equally judicious in keeping time with how potential clients are connecting with the services they seek. That said, there are a few current trends which are particularly important in this day and age.

Legal clients, along with customers of all kinds, are increasingly digital-savvy. Law firms are recognizing that, and as a result are willing to invest in and engage more with digital marketing channels in order to meet clients where they are. This is not only an effective strategy to increase sales, but also to correlate marketing activities with ROI, as digital analytics can help trace a new client signing back to its source, or the first point of contact they had with your brand, helping you pinpoint where best to allocate marketing budget.

There are many more opportunities in law firm marketing to implement client retention strategies, feedback programs, and to leverage other technological advantages for small and midsize firms to more effectively compete. The gap between operations and marketing continues to narrow, providing more opportunities for collaboration, both to serve existing clients and to bring in new ones.

Thanks to the internet, clients are also more empowered to research your firm for themselves. This means that law firms need to cover all their bases, including SEO and their website, as well as online reputation management, which means monitoring reviews across all platforms. Marketing and IT departments are also growing closer together, as marketing further engages with technology, so it’s important for law firms and legal marketers to be aware of shifting trends in technology as well as customer habits.

Legal Marketing During a Recession

Marketing budget tends to be one of the first items on the chopping block when budgets tighten. But statistics bear out the fact that firms which maintain or even increase marketing spend during a recession tend to do much better in terms of revenue when compared to firms who reduce their marketing budgets. 

There are some great ways to reallocate fixed marketing dollars to get the most out of what you have available. Client retention is key, and strategies like cross-selling to existing clients can be a great strategy to bolster revenue in recessionary times. Law firms should also shift their focus to earned media (exposure from non-paid forms of advertising) like SEO, webinar hosting, social media, and content marketing campaigns.

Attorneys at law firms may even have additional bandwidth when cases fall off during tough economic times. Firms may want to consider assigning marketing tasks, such as blog writing or social media posting, to attorneys with lighter case loads in order to help with the overall success of the firm.

Making the Right Cuts in Preparation for an Economic Downturn

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible for firms to keep budgets where they are when the economy starts to head south. In the current economic climate, for example, firms of all sizes are cutting spending, and preparing for the strong likelihood of a downturn in the near future. Bearing that in mind, here are a few ways to more effectively modify your business model when cutting costs becomes necessary.

  1. Double down on sustainable services and strategies: Identify what is working best, what absolutely must get done, and what are the “must-have” versus “nice-to-have” strategies for getting and retaining clients.
  2. Take advantage of quieter marketing channels: As other firms scale back, this may open up potential niches in otherwise crowded channels to promote your services.
  3. Support the pipeline and sales process: Legal marketers must be in regular contact with all the lawyers they serve, in order to understand what they need from their marketing department to help support their case cycles, as well as individual, practice, and firm goals.
  4. Leverage client feedback: It bears repeating that reviews and feedback are essential to serving your clients’ needs and helping identify where best to focus your efforts.
  5. Measure twice, cut once: Be careful when cost cutting because it can be difficult to get back to the same level you were at before, even if economic conditions improve. Make sure that the most effective marketing and business development initiatives stay in place, and communicate with attorneys to ensure that outreach efforts are generating leads which relate to broader goals.
  6. Focus on ROI: Make sure to stay on top of effort and impact of marketing spend; hold vendors accountable, monitor data & analytics, and focus on activities that provide the greatest return. If you do make cuts, make sure and maintain the most activities with the highest proven ROI.
  7. Learn from past mistakes: Don’t forget about what happened in March 2020 – many firms made knee jerk marketing cuts, then found themselves spread too thin to support efforts that gained the most clients.
  8. Always negotiate: Work with vendors to make better deals on advertising, technology tools, and other marketing line items to get the most possible bang for your buck.

Making Marketing Integral in A Law Firm’s Growth Strategy

Marketing should be a key component of every law firm’s growth strategy; it is the primary toolset by which to acquire new clients, retain existing ones, and leverage feedback from (and relationships with) past clients. To prove their worth, legal marketers must be able to demonstrate the ROI for marketing activities to the firm’s leadership. Make sure you are producing results that can be traced directly back to your efforts, and that you have the data ready to support any claims you make.

The role of law firm marketing professionals is to be aware of the firm’s specific goals, and to execute on activities which serve those goals, either directly or indirectly. You should also understand who the key players and rainmakers are at any given firm, so that leaders know you understand the firm and consider your input to be valuable. Work on spotting different ways to generate revenue streams and bring new ideas to the table, such as opportunities to use new technologies with the potential to generate leads. When economic times improve, you may have more budget at your disposal to go above and beyond to show your value. Always be aware of internal communications pipelines and processes, so that you are able to keep in the loop with internal conversations, and to keep everyone in the firm informed about what is happening in marketing.

Make sure that the data you provide to your management team is clear, concise, understandable, and validates your efforts. Distill information down to a few points to ensure that marketing activities serve what management wants to see. They may not care about the minutiae of, for example, social media engagement, or website backlinks. The data you do provide should be consumable and align with strategic goals, such as client intake or case success. The more transparent you are, the more opportunities there will be to collaborate with other departments such as legal recruiting, IT, innovation, or knowledge management.

Don’t forget about the possibilities of internal communications. In larger firms, departments may have their own communications initiatives, which you can help them plan and execute if you have the bandwidth. In one example, a legal marketer worked with a firm’s CTO to develop internal messaging related to online safety (“think before you click”, etc.). Doing this bolsters your relationship with decision makers and broadens the holistic value that marketing provides to the firm. Cross-functionality across departments (such as working with HR to support retention) in collaboration with marketing is essential.

Legal marketers are often a kind of “special operations” at their firm; they are expected to know what is going on with everything and everyone at all times. This can seem daunting, but by keeping yourself informed, you can make a huge difference in how the firm manages spending and cash flow during economic downturns, and identify effective strategies to help carry the firm through a recession.

What to Do with Law Firm Fees in a Recession

The consensus among law firm marketing experts is that keeping fees where they are is the best course of action to weather a downturn. That might seem daunting when clients start pulling back, saying they can’t afford your services, but the bottom line is that it may take much longer for revenue to recover to previous levels in the long term if you were to make deep fee cuts now. From the client’s perspective, raised prices are much harder to swallow than lower ones.

Of course, you always have the right to pivot if needed. Reducing consultation fees is an easy way to decrease the burden on the client’s wallet while still keeping service fees where they are. You are still providing the same value as before, and depending on your practice area (some practices actually benefit from a recessionary environment), you may be providing even greater value.

Don’t forget about other creative ways to target and capture high-value work. Use client feedback to evaluate pricing strategies, and take their comments into account on a case-by-case basis. You may be able to adjust prices on an individual basis to accommodate them, such as reducing costs like consultation fees for a new B2C client. If you don’t offer it already, providing the option of payment plans for cash-strapped clients is a great way to keep them on your side.

Advice for Marketers Trying to Get Face Time with Attorneys

One common challenge faced by legal marketers is that attorneys are often too busy to talk. Fortunately, there are a number of strategies to get face time with lawyers, even at large, hectic firms, without making a nuisance of yourself.

Attending regular practice meetings is a great way into the attorney inner circle. Marketing may not always be given time at these meetings, but just being a presence can help with familiarity, and you can make yourself available to answer questions. If there’s something you’d like to discuss with the group, you can request a slot on the agenda, and ideally you can make marketing a regular topic at these meetings.

Schedule time with every lawyer individually in order to learn their goals and pain points. One marketer shared a technique they used where the first thing they would do at a new firm was schedule a meeting with each lawyer to get to know them and their practice personally. This can give you perspective on their goals as related to marketing, and how current efforts are working for them. If they have specific needs from marketing or feedback related to specific channels, such as outreach, or content like blog articles, podcasts, etc., use this opportunity to understand those needs. Let them know that you are there to serve them, their goals, and the goals of the firm.

Law Firm Marketing is All About Relationships

Remember, legal marketing is a relationship business, just like law practice itself. Attorneys form relationships with their clients, and your job is to form one with the individual attorneys and the larger firm. Any relationship is a two-way exchange, so ask them what they would like to get out of your work together. Ask yourself that question as well. Relationships can take time to develop, but even the most hardened, resistant lawyers can be won over, as you demonstrate your value and success.

9Sail is your dedicated law firm marketing partner during economic times both good and bad. Contact us to find out we can help!