Features - Growing Your Marketing Department into a Knowledge Management Team: Aim to Hire Assets Not Overhead

Linda Sedloff Orton is president of Intelligent Marketing Solutions, Inc. a NY based marketing placement firm specializing in law firms, accounting firms and not-for-profits. She is also president for the NY Chapter of the Legal Marketing Associations. She can be reached at 212-420-9777.

(Archived November 18, 1998)


Law firm marketing professionals today are called many different things. On a good day, partners may refer to them as business development managers, client relations specialists, communications directors or even, at a few firms, creative services gurus. On the other side, however, marketers can also be thought of underutilized talent, extreme overhead or assertive, annoying pests who just won’t go away.

One thing is clear though. After 10 years of fighting for acceptance, law firm marketing departments have established themselves in most of the major law firms and the next phase of law firm marketing is emerging. Unfortunately, this next phase does not seem to be any less painful than was the first phase for all but the most sophisticated of US law firm marketing departments who frequently have staffs of 10-15 professionals.

The second phase we are experiencing consists of law firms that have had marketing coordinators in place for two to five years who are now re-assessing their needs, upgrading their positions and trying to move forward to market more strategically. Simultaneously, we are seeing the larger firms that are riding the edge in legal marketing, ramping up and hiring professionals in sub-areas of marketing and also in information management areas.

Finally, many of the smaller law firms (of sometimes no more than 40-50 attorneys) are now waking up and suddenly seeing the need for an in-house marketing professional to help guide them in their daily business development activities. Some have been using outside marketing consultants for years, or have engaged in sporadic marketing activities – they now want to create an institutional approach to business development.

Lessons Learned

Management in all law firms, both small and large, should learn from the lessons of law firm marketing over the last 10 years, as well as from the numerous examples we have seen from Corporate America, from the British law firms, and from the worldwide leaders in professional services marketing. The key to successful law firm marketing is not as difficult it has been made out to be. We need to view our marketing departments as centers of knowledge. Practice areas and individual attorneys need to learn how to leverage the information that resides in the marketing departments, the MIS departments and the libraries and turn it into powerful competitive weapons in the race for legal dominance. Where our marketing departments still only exist to create newsletters, update brochures, and respond to requests for articles, law firm management needs to see that this is not what strategic marketing is about and this is far less than many marketers are capable of. Money is being wasted as departments grow but power and authority does not. Law firms need to ask themselves tough, difficult questions before hiring or upgrading their marketing positions. Partners need to see the relationship between marketing and firm profits as symbiotic. There is a lot of talk about lawyers "partnering" with clients, yet little talk about how lawyers can partner with their internal professionals.

Law Firm Marketing Departments: A Brief Overview

When management of most law firms decides to take the marketing plunge, they are usually spurred to do so because they feel all other firms their size have a marketer and they want one too. Or for a slightly better reason, they hire a marketer because there are too many marketing activities that the firm should be doing that the attorneys just don’t have the time to do themselves. When I give presentations to law firms, or to lawyers at Bar Meetings across the country about what marketing professionals can do, I am still surprised that many attorneys don’t know what an experienced legal marketer can do. Their experiences are limited to thinking that law firm marketing is only about advertising, creating a brochure or maybe even a newsletter. This is just the ABC’s of law firm marketing. To compare what marketing departments can really do, let’s look at the some of the British law firms. The main difference in my opinion is they understand the need for information and research. I believe it is perhaps their reserve as a society and our brashness, that encourages us to assume we know everything, while, the Brits, as a group of professionals, are more willing to ask and therefore learn from the market and their clients.

The leading London-based firms have remarkable marketing departments, with extensive budgets, sophisticated technical equipment and talented marketers. Their departments include both traditional marketing and communications areas and unlike our US marketing departments, also include business analysis and information areas.

A number of the Business Development Directors in the UK firms possess MBAs, some from US institutions. This is a fundamental difference in how the evolution of our departments has occurred. Some of the leaders in legal marketing here are lawyers, however, only a handful have historically sported MBAs; this is slowly changing in some of the more adventurous law firms. Additionally more of our marketing departments are now hiring attorneys, who have sought alternative career paths, for writing positions. Many of our Marketing Managers or Directors in the US have come from other areas of law firm support; some have made the jump from accountancies or management consultancies, but most of our marketing positions did not start at the same level as they did in Britain.

In addition to their "traditional" marketing departments, that may be broken down into myriad areas including: publications; conferences; desk top publishing and graphics; public relations; internal and external communications; special events; business research; Internet marketing; web and Intranet; database management and even conflicts management, the British Firms also have additional practice development specialists who reside in individual departments.

Frequently these specialists will have additional language skills, particular knowledge of a geographic region or have worked in the particular industry in which the firm is developing business. They work as liaisons between the business development units and the practice areas or sub-practice areas and frequently are non-practicing attorneys who have created sophisticated, alternative career paths for themselves.

A few leading US law firms have placed practice development specialists into departments or practice areas to work on a more targeted basis, however these positions are few and far between. This will be a growing trend we will see in US firms as individual partners and practice areas see the benefits in having a sophisticated marketer work with them on targeting specific industries, geographic regions or even individuals. I believe we will see paralegals, who have knowledge of particular legal areas, start moving into marketing as research skills become more highly prized. They understand law firm culture – they are frequently strong researchers with great academic credentials - and not all of them choose to go to law school.

Growing Your Department for the 21st Century

As I said earlier, the key to law firm marketing is not that difficult if we remember the goals of any marketing department. Marketing professionals are ideally innovators who can guide their lawyers. But more frequently they are support teams that help convey useful information to the attorneys so that they can better service their existing clients and also have increased opportunities to develop new business.

Law firm marketing now stands at a crossroad. More and more senior marketing directors are being paid quite handsome packages. However, while the marketers’ salaries and responsibilities are increasing at law firms, their power is lagging behind. As a result, we are seeing many talented, senior marketers leave this profession for positions in other service businesses or frequently to start their own businesses.

The question is not so much what should a firm’s legal marketing look like, but rather what will the firm allow the legal marketing department to do once the basics are all in place.

Let’s assume that your basics are all in order. Your newsletters, your brochures, your bios, and your practice area materials are all updated, snazzy and easy to use. Let’s also assume you know what your reputation is in the market place (because you’ve done a client survey) and you are working to enhance your reputation through public relations, seminars and targeted and sophisticated advertising. And just to put the icing on the cake, let’s go out on a limb and say you are actively working on building your internal communications systems to educate and keep your most important resources, your people, at your firm. Congratulations, you are well on your way to phase two of legal marketing.

Please do not think that one person, even a super-human marketing wonder can do all of the above himself. He or she cannot and if they do manage to achieve even a small portion of the actions mentioned above, depending upon the size of your firm, they will never have time to get to the really good stuff – the strategy.

Strategy is what the sophisticated law firms frequently reserve for the external consultants and this is a huge mistake. Strategy is at the core of any company’s business development activities and separating the marketing function, and the tools that marketing creates, from the overall strategy of the firm will have disastrous long-term consequences for law firms.

As law firm management continues to "hire-up" in their marketing departments, they need to empower their marketers to effect change at their firms. Change comes when lawyers take responsibility for their own marketing activities; when they hire a professional to train and guide them with regard to communications, sales skills and business analysis, and they also modify their time recording and compensation systems to encourage and reward time spent on business development activities. Hiring a professional will only achieve a small portion of a firm’s goals if the attorneys are not willing to embrace change themselves.

Experienced marketing directors are frequently hired because of their backgrounds and their personalities but then are limited in their roles. Marketing directors are rarely allowed, or expected to contact clients. Market research is a basic tool in corporate marketing. How do you know what your customers want if the only people who glean the data are your field salespeople? Frequently, strategic marketers will be hired to perform training for the associates and partners but the firm has not first built consensus about the goals of the marketing team. The marketers come in with enthusiasm and energy only to find that it is only the marketing committee, or the managing partner, who understands the value of this training.

Executive directors, management committees and marketing committees have to band together and create a marketing culture that will enable the marketing team to educate the firm in a non-hostile environment. If firms do not start realizing that there is a slow brain drain of many of the leading marketers in the industry, they will find themselves further back in the game than where they started.

Ask yourself the following questions: Do you know where your profit margin is highest? Do you know in which industries your firm has done the most work during the last five years? Do your partners read research from the Internet or Nexis before meeting with existing clients to learn about the latest happenings in their companies? Do you walk away from presentations to new clients feeling that you have done your best and represented your firm in the most positive light?

Do you think your marketing professionals can help you answer these questions? If you don’t, you are probably not using your marketers to their full potential.

The future is not clear for law firm marketing. The departments are growing in size, the salaries for directors are now keeping pace with new associate salaries in many parts of the country, and, in some firms, results are being tracked to enable the management to see the benefits that the marketing department provides. But if the partnerships do not see the connection between marketing’s activities and business results, and value their contributions, the marketers will continue to become frustrated and leave – continuing the firm hopping that sadly seems endemic in this business.

Marketing departments need to be viewed as knowledge centers. Information coupled with effective communications is the key to better client service and increased business development opportunities. Stop thinking of your Directors as newsletter experts or brochure specialists. Let them manage those functions and work with you and your consultants on the firm’s strategy. Until your marketers are viewed as assets and not as cost centers, their contributions will never be fully felt by the law firms.