Legal marketing and client development: What works and what fails

Issue September/October 2017 By John O. Cunningham

In an increasingly competitive legal services market, lawyers are investing significant money and effort to acquire new clients and develop existing ones. But lawyers are not always investing in efforts to discover what's working and what's not.

Based on my review of many client surveys over the years, I have put together a quick glance at some of the common refrains from clients about specific legal marketing and client development tactics.

Starting on a positive note, here are some client development efforts that are working:

Learning more about a corporate client's business. Almost every corporate client with whom I've spoken has raved about lawyers who invest non-billable time in learning about the client's business and industry. Clients are generally appreciative of time invested in visits to their corporate offices or plants for this purpose.

Asking for feedback on how to improve. Clients of all types appreciate a lawyer asking how he or she can improve legal service, especially when suggestions are acted upon quickly. Asking for feedback sometimes results in additional assignments and almost always leaves a favorable impression on a client.

Sending out timely legal alerts and tips. Clients love it when lawyers send timely notices of changes in law accompanied by practical tips on what to do about those changes. However, clients add that many firms send out newsletters now, emphasizing that the fifth or sixth newsletter on a subject won't get opened.

Procuring references and testimonials. Prospective clients generally like to know what others think about a lawyer's service, especially others who are similar to them in terms of type of occupation, legal quandary and income. They like it when lawyers provide references or written testimonials from existing clients.

Providing quantitative data related to your experience. Both prospects and clients like to hear how many matters or cases you have handled like their own, what the average cost was per matter, how long it took to close each matter and what happened as a result of the representation. Clients looking for trial advocates like to know the range of possible dollar outcomes to any controversy, and clients needing transactional representation like to know how often a firm closes transactions quickly without stalling negotiations, killing deals, or suffering post-closing lawsuits or claims.

Clients are not shy about stating their opinions on marketing failures either. Here are some of the more frequent types of feedback given by prospects who failed to become clients after a visit with a law firm:

The lawyers failed to distinguish themselves from their competition. Professional marketers would call this a "value proposition" failure. Clients want to know why you are the best choice among any number of competent choices they could make. This places a burden on the lawyer to know the competition, but that burden is no different than the burden placed on any other service provider.

The lawyers talked too much about themselves. Clients who say this want to have more of a dialogue than a sales pitch. They are interested in hearing about the lawyer's competence, but they want to know that the lawyer is interested in them and their problems too. As a client in one survey said, "a pitch on competence is about the lawyer… a pitch on relevance is more about the client."

There was just no chemistry. This comment reveals the failure to make a personal connection. A client must trust you to hire you, and they must like you to trust you. Nearly 100 percent of prospective clients have told me they prefer to like who they hire, and more than half have said they must like the prospective legal hire.

They disrespected my time. This comment arises after a lawyer shows up late for a meeting, takes a call during a meeting or otherwise wastes a prospect's time. To paraphrase what one CEO said to me, "You are lucky to get 10 minutes of my time. So when a lawyer shows up late, goes over time or interrupts the meeting, he is toast."

The firm was not going where we are headed. This feedback is relatively new in legal surveys, and comes mostly from corporate clients who are forward-looking in highly competitive industries. They want to know that a firm is keeping pace with them on utilizing technology, mastering process improvement, executing on diversity initiatives or otherwise keeping pace with a fast-arriving future.

These are just some of the many things clients have to say about what works and what doesn't in legal marketing and business development.

John O. Cunningham is a writer, consultant and public speaker. As a lawyer, he served as General Counsel to a publicly traded company and to a privately-held subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company. For more information about his work in the fields of legal service, marketing, communications, and management, check out his website and blog at: johnocunningham.wordpress.com.