Marketing for legal services: How to raise the bar
How well do you know your clients? In marketing director Melissa Baxter’s experience, you don’t know them well enough.Legal services firms have had it easy for years, as far as marketing goes - clients have been loyal, specialisations have been apparent, and merely having a website has put you ahead of some competitors. But what’s been good enough for years may not hold up for much longer: it may be time to raise the bar.
In the here and now, Melissa is one of our part-time marketing directors for the southern region, based in the Thames Valley. With her wealth of experiences in law, IP and marketing, she’s ideally placed to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities around marketing for legal services. Melissa’s career began in investment banking and corporate finance in the dot com boom days. Just before that bubble burst, Melissa moved into intellectual property, heading up marketing at Marks and Clerk. From there, she moved into law, then accountancy, and became a marketing director once again, this time at James Cowper Kreston.
How would you describe the state of legal services marketing in 2018? What are the biggest challenges and changes affecting the sector?
Melissa: Essentially, clients are demanding more for less, and shopping around if they don’t get it. Solicitors used to have clients for life, be they commercial or private ones, and clients very seldom considered changing law firms. Now they are, and firms are having to pitch competitively for clients they’ve had for twenty years. It doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of service: it’s just that the clients have realised they have the opportunity to change firms. It’s more of a buyer’s market.
What do you think’s driven this change in client behaviour?
Melissa: It comes down to economic pressures. Historically, law firms billed in six minute chunks on an hourly basis, but now clients want more predictable fees and upfront costing so they can compare firms directly. Solicitors are having to consider alternative fee arrangements - contingent fees, results-based, graduated - and they’ve not been used to that. It’s exerting some pressure, and there’s a drive to reduce the cost of doing work.
Are there any other serious challenges in play?
Melissa: Absolutely. Brexit probably isn’t going to have the effect we feared, unless law firms have buyers or suppliers based in the EU. There are opportunities there, too: firms specialising in intellectual property and competition law may be able to make something of the impending changes, and their impact on pan-EU and UK regulations.
New technology is a massive catalyst for change as well. Legal firms are not really known to be innovative: they’re lagging behind other industries and sectors. I think lawyers are used to looking back, working with precedents, and that’s the basis on which they advise their clients. With technology you need to be looking forward, so they’re out of their comfort zone. Some can manage “well, let’s see what everyone else is doing and we might follow them” - but the thing is, technology is a leveller. It’s allowing smaller firms to compete with the big boys.
That’s shaking up the industry a bit, because if firms aren’t using technology to drive efficiency for their clients and keep their fees competitive, they’re not going to last. They really need modern practice management systems - online client portals, digital tools and paper-light process, all of which improve the client experience, drive efficiency and bring down the fees.
This is before we start talking about cybersecurity: Everyone in the legal sector knows of at least one firm that has unfortunately gone under because they were the victim of some type of cyber-attack. Some ransomware got in, or some clients were misled into transferring money to fraudulent accounts, and the firms’ law indemnity insurance either didn’t or wouldn’t cover it because they didn’t have adequate security processes in place.
The Internet in general is a real double-edged sword for legal firms. A lot of individuals and organisations now think they can go online, find the legal answers they need through self-help forums and business portals, and then they’re not so willing to pay for legal advice. Of course, a lot of them get themselves in a sticky mess because, obviously, it’s not that easy, and then they come to legal firms.
Isn’t a lot of that online advice from law firms, though?
Melissa: Yes and no. Historically, the legal market was protected - lawyers had a monopoly on law. In 2007, though, the Legal Services Act allowed non-lawyers to take stakes in English law firms. The idea was to introduce new organisations and more competition.
At the time, everyone thought the traditional law firm would be replaced by Tesco Law - which hasn’t happened - but we have started to see accountancy firms with legal affiliates who are allowed to provide legal advice, and HR consultancies diverting clients away from employment lawyers. The sector’s really changed structurally.
It sounds like marketing is really important here, for legal services firms to differentiate themselves. Could you talk us through some of the pitfalls that are out there?
Melissa: One would be not using key account management to really understand the client journey. Traditionally, the client-law firm relationship used to be based on one contact with a partner who specialised in a particular discipline, and that partner ’owned’ that client. That can lead to missed cross-selling opportunities, as the partner isn’t viewing the client holistically, just from their particular discipline. There’s a move now toward a horizontal model, with the client-law firm relationship spanning cross-functional teams. That helps law firms understand what the client wants /needs, deepen the relationship and advise them proactively. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is perfect for this collaborative approach; firms need to embrace the full functionality of it.
Number two? Don’t leave your marketing purely to the marketing department. Solicitors often think that law is all they do: they don’t realise they’re brand ambassadors for the firm, and they should be concerned with marketing activities. Most Partners meetings focus around who has the highest billable hours: not building the brand, expressing the values, nurturing a pipeline. I’m sympathetic - solicitors are not trained to be business development specialists - but only up to a point. They are the ‘product’ and they need to put effort into demonstrating the features and benefits through speaking slots, thought leadership pieces, growing their referral network - go out there and be seen. It doesn’t mean you have to do more work, it just means you’re using the time to build your business in different ways.
Number three: the sector is more competitive than you think. You need to go out and find new clients, and get more of your share from existing clients by establishing those deep relationships. I’ve worked with firms who have no idea who their top twenty clients are - they’ve just never thought of comparing or segmenting them, working with the data they have. It’s always an eye-opener when I ask that question and the firm says, “Actually… we don’t know.”
And number four is to think about what you’re selling yourself as, and how. In the past, law firms have thought, “we’ve got a website, that’s digital done” - now they’re starting to realise that SEO and PPC and content have a direct impact, that the case studies and blogs and articles need to be out there to drive traffic to the website. We know, now, that often people look for divorce lawyers on their mobiles, in their lunch hour - so if your divorce partners are in the top three for that search at that time, you’re looking at a £5000 or £6000 return on a £1000 spend.
Number five is there’s also a huge shift in positioning and branding thinking. Firms would traditionally market themselves as one stop shop - all things to all people. But clients are now more than ever looking for a firm that can demonstrate track record in their specific industry and that the firm understands the depth of the issues that applies to them. You have to use your data, focus on specific practice areas and client types, and create a brand proposition. The campaign can afford to be holistic and all-encompassing but the brand proposition has to specialise.
Which takes is to the final point: lawyers are not very good at segmentation! For one, they don't traditionally look at their clients in segmented subsets so marketing messages can often be quite broad. And at a very granular level, they’re not great at shouting about the great work they have done. Case studies, are one of the best ways to showcase legal expertise. Law firms worry about client confidentiality, but clients are often very happy to permit if lawyers actually asked them.
Is there a bottom line you’d like to give legal services firms? One fundamental piece of advice?
Melissa: Understand the value of having well thought out strategy which is cascaded down into your business and marketing plans. Whilst it is good to be flexible don’t do everything ad hoc - to differentiate yourself from the competition you need a direction and a goal. Use the technology and data available to you to monitor and refine your process.
It’s much less ‘finger in the air’ than it used to be. Have a plan and make sure everyone’s working towards it, it sounds simple, but it’s surprising how many law firms don’t know where they are, let alone how they really got there or where they want to be.
The old model of client loyalty and single points of contact are fading away. The new legal services firm needs to utilise CRM, develop customer relationships and take advance of cross selling opportunities. Above all, law firms need a clear business and marketing plan, with a business proposition that proves they’re worth their clients’ time and money.
To take stock of your marketing efforts - and find out how you could raise the bar - take a free marketing review from one of our sector specialists.