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The Ten Dumbest Marketing Mistakes Law Firms Make

by Larry Bodine

There is an infinite number of ways that law firms screw up their marketing.  Let me count the ways…  The list includes hiring a marketing director without knowing what the firm wants her to do.  It includes spending a dumpster load of money on advertising without having a call to action in the ad.  But in my experience advising law firms across the country, I consistently find ten dumb mistakes the law firms make.  See if you can recognize your firm in this parade of horribles, and get your marketing back on track.


1. Focus on yourself, not on your clients.  This is the traditional approach to law firm marketing.  Firms will describe their practices on their Web sites and printed marketing materials.  They will elaborate on their internal administrative structure in an approach I call "marketing your organization." 


I saw this mistake at a Midwest firm that has a Real Estate Practice, a Real Estate Taxation practice, plus a Taxation Practice.  These distinctions serve only to confuse clients.  They can't tell which practice they should choose.  Clients don't think of themselves as customers of a practice group anyway.


Instead, law firms should focus on how their clients think: they see themselves as members of an industry.  Therefore, law firms should present themselves according to the industries they serve.  This approach, which I call "organizing around the market," is nicely done by two firms I advised, Foley & Lardner at and Hale & Dorr at


2. Don't mention representative clients.  I've heard partners recoil at the suggestion of revealing whom they work for, saying they thought it was "creepy" and "exploitive."  They are appalled at the idea of having to ask a client for permission to use their names.


Failing to list whom you represent is what I call "stupid" because it is one of the first things a potential client wants to know about a law firm.  Your clientele reveals  "whom you swim with" and answers potential clients' question about what kind of businesses you work with.


In the old days before the Web, it was a common practice for law firms to list representative clients in their Martindale-Hubbell listings.  Somehow this got lost in the electronic age.  Spelling out your typical client is an excellent way for a law firm to distinguish itself, and to flag the kind of client the firm is looking for.  Law firms should ask permission from their best clients, who will be delighted to be listed.   Remember that clients are in business too, and they understand the power of client lists and testimonials.  They won't be surprised by the request.


3. Failing to list success stories.   Most law firm marketing falls into the category of throw-away brochureware, because it includes only general blandishments about the firm's "tradition of excellence" or "adherence to the highest level of ethics."  This fails to give prospective clients examples of what you've achieved -- a key point of information and an excellent way for a firm to distinguish itself.


Lawyers are known by their reputations, so hiding the firm's record undermines its marketing.  Yet many firms do this.  The problem, of course, is getting lawyers to write down their accomplishments, and generally the most successful lawyers say they have the least time available to write.   But this is no excuse. This information is easy to get by simply looking up the firm's public cases using Westlaw or Lexis, or transactions using Thomson Financial.


One law firm that won a Your Honor Award from the Legal Marketing Association for recounting its success stories is Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw.  The firm published  "Retrospective 2002" that presented engaging stories about successful cases from the client's point of view.  The strikingly illustrated and deftly-written storybook recounts 23 tales from the files.  See here for a story about it.


4. Institutional Mistakes.  These are the marketing errors the firm commits year after year because "we've always done it."  Typically, the firm has gotten into a habit of buying tables (that go empty) at a charity event, or mailing our thousands of holiday cards that nobody reads, or sponsoring expensive annual parties that attract freeloaders but no new paying business.  There may be a high-ranking partner behind the chronic error.  I recall an international law firm that bought ads in a university football program book because the managing partner went to law school there; it was a vanity project that had no marketing purpose at all.  Institutional mistakes are all a waste of money.


The solution is to write down every marketing expenditure and organize them into a budget.  This will give you a view of the total damage being done.  Next, each item needs to be connected to a result -- the name of a new client or the total revenue generated as a result of effort.  If there is no result, each item needs to be justified by meeting a strategic goal of the firm, which leads into my next point.  If there is no result or goal achieved, the project should be killed.


5. Having no marketing strategy and focusing instead on tactics.  Whenever I begin working with a law firm I always ask for a copy of the firm's marketing plan.  I am repeatedly astonished to hear that the firm doesn’t have one.  The strategy may exist in the mind of the managing partner, but it's not written down anywhere.  Firms will typically have a lot of individual marketing activities, but they're not connected or organized in any way.  This is like having an orchestra where the musicians can play whatever they like at the same time.


Having a written plan has the benefit of being readable by other lawyers, so that they can align their activities with the firm's overall goal.  Writing down the plan will also force a firm to develop answers to questions like:

·       What makes us different from other law firms?

·       Why do clients hire us?

·       Who is our target client?

·       What are the most profitable practices which we should be promoting?

·       What are our strengths?

·       What are our weaknesses?

·       What opportunities can we pounce on?

·       Which competitors pose the biggest threats to us?


6. Don't get feedback from your clients.   A survey this year by The BTI Consulting Group in Boston revealed that only 42% of law firms have conducted a formal client satisfaction survey in the last two years.  This means 58% of firms don't really know whether their clients are pleased with them or are about to fire them.  The only way to truly find out is to ask.


Client feedback can take the form of an end-of-matter survey tucked into the final invoice, or a questionnaire mailed to chosen clients, or a personal interview by the managing partner.  All these approaches are good and will reveal a wealth of information.  Most clients like being interviewed, and in fact get feedback from their own customers.  But law firms often get tripped up in getting feedback because a partner may not want anyone else intruding on his relationship with his client.  Law firms are also deathly afraid they might hear something negative.  These are all bad reasons that get in the way of an extremely potent marketing approach.


7. Run Million-Dollar TV advertising campaigns.  Brobeck did this with their splashy "When your future is at stake" commercials broadcast on CNN.  It was a bad idea, IMHO, and the firm is now out of business.  Other variants of this approach include hiring an ad agency to design gorgeous ads, and running an ad that says nothing memorable.  Another variant is to create an effective advertisement, and run it only once, or run it in a publication that is not read by your target clients.  I often hear partners tell me at the beginning of an engagement, "we need to do some marketing.  Let's buy some advertising." Firms have flushed hundreds of thousands of dollars this way. 


Just like prescription medicine, advertising is very effective when used properly and in the prescribed dosage.  Advertising is an art and science and people spend their careers learning it.  Lawyers cannot master it overnight.  That said, here's a  73-word tutorial:


·       You can use advertising to buy your way into the consciousness of clients, but the ad must have a particular message  -- it must carry the firm's unique selling proposition. 

·       The frequency that the ad runs is also important, because it takes seven to 10 viewings by a reader to make a lasting impression. 

·       Finally, the firm should identify who their target client is and publish its ads in magazines that they read.


8. Use a compensation system that discourages marketing.  At many firms, marketing is a distraction and a nuisance to the lawyers, because they get compensated based on the number of billable hours they record.  At these firms, very little marketing happens.  The rule is "what gets rewarded gets done."  You cannot run a marketing program based on lawyers being "good citizens" and voluntarily doing their part to market the firm.  The worst compensation systems are "eat what you kill" programs that reward a lawyer only for new business he brought in.  This is death to firmwide marketing.


Most firms reward origination, giving a partner a lasting percentage of the fees generated from a new file he opens.  But this rewards instant results -- a lawyer is compensated only when the matter is opened.  Firms must bear in mind that marketing takes time and rarely shows immediate results.  It can take a corporation two years to change its legal representation, and it may decide based on dozens of meetings, seminars, mailings and RFPs.  Accordingly, firms should reward marketing activity, not just results.  This means that marketing activity must come up during a partner's compensation review; no marketing, no reward.


9.  Keep your marketing impersonal.  Many law firms buy advertising, put up a Web site, mail out newsletters, write articles and broadcast emails.  However the firms fail to mix in any personal interaction.  As a result the marketing is impersonal and gets few results.  It's no good if all of a firm's marketing is done by remote control.  New business comes in "belly to belly," as I used to hear from one partner who had the belly to go with the advice. 


Marketing is a contact sport, and lawyers must get out and visit clients, referral sources and prospective clients in person.  Lawyers need to go through networking events to make contacts, and stop working through lunch.  Attorneys need to get on the hustings to give talks, appear on panels and be visible at trade show conferences.  The higher the personal touch, the more effective the marketing.


10. Believe the myth that your Web site doesn’t bring in any business.  There’s new research from TouchPoint Metrics proving that law firm Web sites do bring business, so long as they are tuned up to do so.  Yet many lawyers disregard their Web sites, overlooking the fact that it is online 24/7/365 and is usually the first contact a client has with the firm.  Where do clients go on evenings and weekends when the firm is closed?  That’s right, the Web site.  Be sure to include the three things clients look for on a law firm Web site: industry experience, a list of representative clients and a collection of success stories.

About The Author

Larry Bodine is a Web and Marketing Consultant based in Glen Ellyn, IL.  He has advised law firms on marketing strategy, individual lawyer marketing plans and Web site plans. Please see He can be reached at and 630.942.0977.  A version of this article appears in the Fall 2003 edition of American Lawyer Media Inc.'s Law Firm Inc.