Client-Centred Law Firm Marketing

Legal marketing takes many forms — but the care and feeding of client relationships comes first, law firms insist. The best marketing, they say, is the kind that reinforces vital client connections.

Reinforcing the client-care credo, one expert says, is the lingering impact of the 2009 recession, which elevated financial watchdogs at many client companies and imposed an aggressive emphasis on the quality and value of all services.

Far from bestowing undying gratitude on their legal advisors, corporate general counsel are almost uniformly appreciative of the chance to tell their outside legal help how things might have gone better. Getting and heeding those reviews is critical, law firm leaders say.

Charles Hurdon, Managing Partner ‒ Canada for Norton Rose Fulbright Canada LLP in Ottawa, says client surveys are a “tremendously valuable” and systematic way of gathering client feedback.

Face-to-face interviews with general counsel renew personal relationships and gather vital information about how Norton Rose Fulbright is viewed by each client on key criteria, including service quality, responsiveness, expertise, business relationship and fees, Hurdon says. And its not uncommon to get tips on the competition in the bargain.

“Clients are quite often willing to share cost experiences with other firms. When you get information on what your competitors are charging, thats pretty good intel,” Hurdon observes. He adds that wide-ranging interviews can also lead to discussions “of how you can serve that customer in various markets,” a subject of special interest to a global firm such as Norton Rose Fulbright.

 

Clients first

Surveys are checkups on the health of very valuable relationships and clients are usually more than willing to participate, Hurdon says. The quid pro quo is that, wherever a problem is identified, there has to be a prompt and effective response. “You dont want to be back there, dealing with the same issue the next year,” he observes.

Mark Evans, a partner with Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh, says a formal face-to-face survey process isnt always practical for an intellectual property firm with an international client base. But his firms partners and associates are trained to conduct informal checkups on client relationships at every opportunity and support staff are encouraged to report client concerns.

“The practice of law is a relationship business and face time is the most important thing,” Evans says from his office in Toronto. “Everything you can do to understand your clients business is extremely valuable. Providing personal opportunities for feedback is obviously very important.”

Colleen Moorehead, Chief Client Officer at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in Toronto, rates the maintenance of client relationships as even more important than the firms name for expertise. “I think expertise is the second piece,” Moorehead says. “I think understanding the client and the business-critical issues of the client is first priority.”

One of the firms key marketing tools for client development is a regular survey and, like Hurdon, shes emphatic that its not a “tick-the-box” exercise. Rather, Osler conducts in-depth, face-to-face debriefings with general counsel or other key executives at client companies.

“I think Osler was the first to use client interviewing in a regular and structured way,” Moorehead says. She adds that the Osler interview process is an important part of the firms effort to be known, first and foremost, as “a culturally client-centric” law firm.

Alison Jeffrey, Chief Client Relations/Marketing Officer at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto, says the firm’s client interview process is less formal, but no less important. “Its about understanding your clientsbusinesses and industries, risk tolerance, likes and dislikes,” Jeffrey says. “Client feedback is vitally important to us. We encourage our lawyers to engage in an ongoing dialogue on performance and our management team plays a key role in soliciting feedback. What we hear from our clients allows us to adjust our service delivery approach.”

Margaret McCaffery is President of Canterbury Communications in Toronto and a consultant to professional services firms. She says client surveys are an important tool for client retention and business building. But, she adds, many lawyers are less than fond of the idea of detailed post mortems on their completed files. “Theres still a great reluctance to survey clients,” she says. “But youre going to learn something from every survey — provided you take the time to read the results.”

McCaffery cites the instance of a survey that showed a law firms client was clearly upset. The question was whether to see the client immediately or simply hope that time would heal the rift. Having done the survey, the firm elected to follow through. The meeting resulted in a resolution of the clients concern and a discussion of other legal issues.

Cross-border specialist firm Dickinson Wright PLLC uses surveys both to enhance client service and to build and promote the expertise of the firm, says Chief Business Development and Marketing Officer James Stapleton in Detroit.

When it comes to business development, Stapleton says, he places greatest importance on post-mortem surveys, when a client is lost or an RFP fails. “You learn the most when yours is not the selected firm,” he says, adding the caveat is that you have to speak with someone who will give you the straight goods on why your firm wasnt chosen. He calls it “the single most under-utilized tool” that law firms can apply to business development.

 

Expertise

“We have a [separate] survey series that we use to aggregate client and attorney knowledge on narrowly defined business and legal topics,” Stapleton says. Results feed a knowledge management system that he says Dickinson Wright uses to differentiate itself. Expertise, he contends, is only useful if its clearly defined and organized.

Hurdon says Norton Rose Fulbright mounts a major presence at a limited number of carefully selected trade shows or conferences, with the key objective to demonstrate expertise. Beyond hosting cocktail parties, this effort includes organizing seminars and developing opportunities for a number of senior lawyers to speak on areas of expertise.

“Its a great way to get your brand out there and get your expertise recognized,” Hurdon says. But he stresses that it means committing the time of top talent. “You want to make sure youre putting your subject matter experts out there and providing value to the audience.” He adds, “we try not to speak for speakings sake.”

Firms are also keen to demonstrate expertise and “intellectual capital” by creating well-written case summaries and articles on emerging legal issues. Publishing those articles across as many channels as possible is the best way to increase their visibility and maximize their value to the firm. That can mean client newsletters, columns in daily newspapers and legal publications, as well as the firms website, blogs for special-interest websites and other forms of social media. And, of course, Moorehead adds, Osler has people dedicated to media relations, organizing responses to news inquiries and seeking to generate coverage on topics in the firms areas of expertise.


Media

Every firm, it seems, recognizes the value of solid media relationships and works to maintain a mutually beneficial, two-way exchange, where either side can initiate discussion on an important topic.

Norton Rose Fulbright hosts annual media nights in its major Canadian markets, not just to build contacts with journalists but to promote hot topics of potential interest to business executives in target markets, Hurdon says. Several of the firms lawyers attend annual media nights in major Canadian markets — with story ideas and supporting key messages worked out in advance, he says. At one such event in Calgary, prepared topics ranged from energy issues and mergers and acquisitions to the challenges of medical marijuana in the workplace.

“Part of your branding is the expertise you have in a particular area,” Hurdon says. Getting that expertise widely recognized by a third party is a powerful message to the marketplace for legal services.

Jeffrey agrees. “Media relations is a key component of [Blakes] marketing mix,” she says. “It provides a valuable opportunity to showcase the expertise and thought leadership of our lawyers.”

Stapleton says media have specific needs, including deadlines that can be challenging. But they can be very helpful in educating the public on legal issues and Dickinson Wright works to cultivate good relations.

 

Branding

The move from traditional naming of law firms to true branding has been ongoing for more than a decade, with 10 of the 16 most recognized firms in the 2014 Acritas Canadian Law Firm Brand Index now adopting either a single name or a string of initials as trade-marks for their firm.

“The days of six surnames are certainly a thing of the past,” observes Evans. But he adds that some traditional names are just too fortuitous to mess with, such as when the founding partnersnames are Russel Smart and Oliver Biggar. “Thats something we would never change,” he says.

BlakesJeffrey says her firms move to a single-name brand was “beyond what was expected of a typical law firm” at the time. But with a first-place standing on Acritas in 2014, it seems to be working. She adds that the firm also adopted the tagline “Blakes Means Business,” to underscore expertise, practicality and client service.

Norton Rose Fulbright recently elected to swim against the branding tide, extending its name from Norton Rose after entering the United States by merging with Fulbright & Jaworski of Houston in 2013. “The US legal market is by far the largest in the world,” Hurdon says. “Gaining brand recognition in the US is very important for us and Fulbright has an excellent brand and a strong reputation in the US.”

Previously, Norton Rose faced the challenge of being a new and lesser-known name in Canada, after entering the country in 2011 by merging with Montréal-based Ogilvy Renault and then with Macleod Dixon of Calgary. Hurdon says they first focused their marketing attention on brand recognition, which was fairly quickly achieved on the strength of a global reputation. They then switched to more targeted marketing of expertise, followed by a second push on branding after the Fulbright name was added in 2013. He notes that Norton Rose Fulbright ranked first in the Acritas 2013 survey and second in 2014.

“You can never ignore brand,” he cautions, “but some of the focus can shift to more strategic elements.” Marketing, he says, must be specific to the firms stage of development in a market area, as well as its target markets.

 

Targeting

Uniformly, law firm leaders agree that the right messages are those that highlight the specific expertise of the firm.

Targeting, for instance, is about getting full impact from a strong article that displays some facet of your firms expertise, she says. Its about going beyond an emailed client newsletter to get that expertise in front of interested people who arent yet on your mailing list. In this regard, she says, publishing rights with online aggregators of legal articles are expensive but they provide access to huge target audiences.

Another example of targeting is repurposing articles to serve as blogs on special-interest websites.

Jeffrey says Blakes promotional efforts are guided by a client-service philosophy that eschews the latest marketing buzz. “No doubt social media and digital marketing are prevalent,” she says. “Rather than focusing on broad marketing tactics or trends, we tend to look more to our clients, their businesses and industries to understand strategic objectives. We plan our marketing activities around customized approaches for different practice areas, industry sectors and jurisdictions,” she says. “The customized efforts do have a unique attribute, which is to showcase the specific expertise, industry knowledge and commercial acumen of our partners and associates.”

As an example of targeted marketing, Hurdon says, the Norton Rose Fulbright office in Ottawa places a special emphasis on the high-growth tech sector. Ottawa is a hub for the sector, the Ottawa office has specific expertise and the global scope of technology companies fits well with his firms footprint, he says.

Moorehead says Osler works to find the various channels that reach important markets. “You need to ask yourself the question, ‘who has the work?and then take the most direct route possible to the desired markets.” In many cases, she says, thats more about “talking to clients and understanding the relationships they value” than about classic marketing.

 

Referrals

Osler has a specific strategy for generating referrals, says Moorehead, based on building relationships with other law firms in Canada and around the world, as well as investment banks, accounting firms and other high-value corporate service providers.

Stapleton calls the work of building referrals a “mechanical process. You make a list of people youd like to get to know over time” and then pursue the list systematically, with the help of existing contacts inside and outside the firm.

Blakesreferral strategy emphasizes demonstrating expertise rather than developing reciprocal relationships with other professional-service providers, Jeffrey says. “Our strategy for referral business,” she says, “is to focus on the leading industries, practice areas and markets with … services that address the needs of our clients.”

 

Training

Hurdon says Norton Rose Fulbright has a graduated global training program to help lawyers build business development skills and other business expertise. Theres an “academy” that aims to deliver “the right level of training to the right level of associates,” as well as training for new partners and for practice leaders.

He says they bring in outside experts and “its not just lawyers in the firm, teaching lawyers in the firm.” For business development sessions, they like to bring in a general counsel to discuss tactics and what clients want in a lawyer and a law firm.

 

Priorities

Moorehead says her firm’s top three marketing priorities are knowing clients and their key issues; using that knowledge to provide innovative solutions that help clients to achieve business goals; and creating and disseminating intellectual capital that has value for clients and potential clients.

McCaffery says her number-one item is “an up-to-date online presence.” She says this means ensuring the firms website provides a constantly current portrayal of major areas of expertise, supported by instant comment on the latest legislation in these areas, “very, very good profiles of every lawyer and representative case work,” as well as LinkedIn pages and profiles that are similarly current.

Some law firms (and many other companies) tend to treat online content like a printed document, where content is written, posted and ultimately left to moulder; rather than like a TV news program that lives in the moment and responds to the latest news as it happens.

Fire-and-forget websites are less time consuming and less expensive to manage, but they forfeit much of the value of the online format because potential clients use the Internet to look for up-to-the-minute information, she says.

“Subject-matter experts should be able to blog on major legal changes by end of day or early the next day,” McCaffery says. “Thats what a blog is for.” Successful law-firm marketing, in her view, is about demonstrating expertise and spreading that message across as many channels as possible. Doing it quickly, concisely and accurately meets the needs of the potential client community and puts firms that can do it a step ahead of the competition.

Her second priority is “a very responsive, proactive and reactive media campaign.” To make this work, McCaffery says, marketers have to decide which lawyers have vital knowledge on hot topics relating to the firms identified target markets.

She says her third priority is an active publishing program, including articles on the latest judgments and hot topics, fact sheets on these issues and creative reuse of the same articles in client newsletters, on the company website, as blogs and in every other appropriate venue.

Small and mid-sized law firms might focus on maximizing their visibility on Google searches, but the key for Big Law, McCaffery says, is well-written articles addressing the major issues of target markets and demonstrating expertise. Identifying and detailing the content of those articles is inescapably the job of the firms lawyers. Actually writing articles in a compelling fashion may be up to lawyers or they may require the assistance of marketers to give copy the desired urgency and ease of reading. Its then up to marketing professionals to place articles effectively across multiple channels.

Evans says his three marketing priorities are: client visits; client communications through e-mailed newsletters, multiple online channels and the media; and an up-to-date website. He says the website is particularly important for his firm because “we deal with clients around the world” — and nothing spans distance and time zones like a website.

Evans says updates are added to the website several times a week and a business development committee, including senior lawyers, is constantly engaged in planning future upgrades to the site. Visiting clients is most important because “what lawyers want is a lasting, trusted client relationship” and because he rates an existing client base as the surest source of future growth for a law firm.

For Stapleton, the big three priorities are: spending non-billable hours with clients, learning their business (“thats absolutely number one,” he says); organizing the firms expertise and knowledge into an easily accessible archive because “we want to serve our clients in the most efficient way possible;” and being a learning organization that understands clients and expands its expertise.

Tactics vary, but overall they call for client care, the demonstration of expertise and websites that are current on legal issues important to the firms target markets.