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Marketing tips the scales in law firm competition; since a 1977 court decision cleared the way, the legal profession's adoption of marketing practices has changed the lay of lawyer land.

Marketing Tips The Scales In Law Firm Competition

In the last 10 years increasing numbers of law firms nationwide have sought counsel from marketing and public relations professionals in efforts to increase visibility and to stay ahead - or at least abreast - of the competition. Although attitudes vary on the appropriateness of law firm marketing, more and more firms - including practices in Alaska - are realizing that a focused marketing approach can pay off.

"It's happening everywhere," says Donna Greenfield, a legal marketing expert based in Washington, D.C. "It's a real phenomenon. It's definitely here to stay."

For generations, law firms shied away from formal marketing, fearing they would be considered unprofessional or unethical in their efforts to make themselves and their work more widely known. Many, in fact, feared that any form of self-promotion would be illegal.

That concern was largely eliminated in 1977 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that lawyers could not be prohibited from advertising. Although law firms had been doing what could be considered subtle marketing for years - hosting client lunches or meeting clients on the golf course - the 1977 ruling opened to door to more obvious forms of marketing, including print and television advertisements. The growing acceptance of law firm promotion also has led to wider and bolder use of logos, corporate biographies and newsletters.

The legal profession's embrace of marketing, however, has been gradual - and cautious. Many firms, including some in Alaska, see little need for formal marketing, instead relying on the business of longstanding clients or the name recognition that comes from high-profile cases. Other firms place promotional responsibilities with clerical staff and limit it to occasional announcements of new hires.

Another approach to marketing is to add promotional tasks to those of the firm's managing partner or legal administrator. Some law firms hire advertising or public relations agencies to help with brochures or special events, while law firms with a greater commitment to marketing - for example, Anchorage-based Hughes Thorsness Gantz Powell and Brundin - hire in-house professionals to coordinate their efforts. Large firms Outside have gone so far as to establish entire marketing departments.

"There's been a quantum leap from what law firm marketing was 10 years ago. The legal profession used to sit and wait for clients to come in the door and now they're seeking them out," says an Anchorage partner in a Seattle-based law firm.

Adds Galvin DeVore, director of administration for Anchorage's Hughes Thorsness, "Like any business, we need business. The business community has to know who we are and what we do. ... The thing that law firms have recognized is the need to plan for the future, to be more focused." Hughes Thorsness hired its first in-house marketing director in 1988. Last September, Pamela Cone assumed the position.

"We wanted a powerful, high-level person," says DeVore of Cone's hire. "We consider Pam to be one of our managers, on the same level as associates." DeVore knows of no other Alaska firm that has specifically hired an in-house marketing director but won't be surprised if others soon follow Hughes Thorsness' lead. Representatives of some Anchorage firms say that although they have not yet hired marketing directors, they have not ruled out the possibility of doing so in the future.

"At this point we're not doing any aggressive marketing," says the administrator of a mid-sized Anchorage firm, "but I would reserve the right to say that we'll review that from time to time." So far, the firm's marketing activities mirror those of many Alaska firms - underwriting shows on public radio and television, encouraging attorneys to serve on boards and commissions, and contributing to various community groups.

Illustrating the widely recognized fact that several law firms are still uncomfortable with marketing and are reluctant to even discuss it publicly, this administrator asked that she and the firm she represents not be mentioned by name. "We're very low profile," she explains. "We choose very carefully where we want the firm's name placed."

Noble Tradition. Reluctance to discuss marketing techniques - or to even admit that a firm does marketing - is grounded in the longstanding notion that lawyers don't promote themselves in the same manner as, say, an insurance company or real estate firm. "The ethical prohibition (to marketing) goes very deep," explains Greenfield. "It went so deep that it became a mindset."

She explains that the lawyers' argument against marketing has gone something like this: "It's a noble profession. Noble professions don't look for business. Noble professions don't have to look for business. We're a noble profession, so, therefore, we don't advertise."

Greenfield, an attorney and former Federal Trade Commission staff member, says, "It's all wrapped up with notions of honor." She notes that the ethical prohibition began to break down after the 1977 Supreme Court ruling. "It's changing a lot, but you still find pockets of resistance. These changes do not happen overnight," Greenfield adds.

A look at the membership roster of the National Law Firm Marketing Association underscores the growing cultural revolution taking place in the legal community - a revolution that is moving the profession from merely the practice of law into the business of law. In 1985, 23 people met in San Francisco to talk about what they did, namely the marketing of legal services. Out of that meeting came the establishment of the national association, and by 1989 its membership had swelled to more than 500; by early 1991, to roughly 800.

The surge in National Law Firm Marketing Association membership has been most noticeable in the last two years, says Ellen LoCurto, executive director of the Illinois-based association. Every region of the country is represented, with most members employed by law firms in major cities. Many worked in public relations or as marketing experts for accounting firms before joining the legal community. Although marketing is what they do, the professionals are called everything from marketing directors to directors of client services or practice development directors.

LoCurto feels the title depends on how comfortable the firm is with the word "marketing." "I don't know of a corporation or business that doesn't do some form of marketing," she says. Entertaining clients, making charitable contributions, doing pro bono work or participating in community activities all are forms of promotion, whether firms realize it or not, LoCurto explains.

Very few law firms practice what could be considered "hard sell" techniques, namely using television ads. Most likely to use such blatant forms of marketing are personal injury attorneys or those trying to reach clients with a one-time legal need. Some Anchorage firms use ads in the Yellow Pages, promising "reasonable rates and personal service," encouraging clients to "talk to someone who cares," or mentioning that members of the firm speak a foreign language.

Changing Marketplace. Most law firm administrators say competition influenced the gradual shift to more high-powered efforts aimed at increased visibility and name recognition. "There's no question that the legal market has changed considerably in the last decade," says Joe Perkins, a partner in the Anchorage-based firm of Guess and Rudd. "There's more competition."

Frank Pfiffner, managing partner of Hughes Thorsness, agrees. Increased competition has forced most large firms to face marketing head on, he says. An ever-growing number of law school graduates has dramatically escalated competition both in recruiting new hires and in retaining and attracting clients. Outside firms, many with marketing professionals in-house, have opened offices in Alaska to serve their Alaska clients.

A growing number of in-house corporate attorneys, now doing work previously parceled out to other firms, also has affected the legal industry. Perhaps equally as important has been what Pfiffner and others consider a change in client behavior. In the past, clients generally established a long-term relationship with a firm and that was it, he explains. Now businesses are "shopping" around for expertise, with many companies even putting out formal proposals and awarding contracts on the basis of a firm's expertise in certain areas. These practices were unheard of 10 years ago, Pfiffner says.

Along these same lines, law firms nationwide are bolstering efforts at what is called cross-selling. A client familiar with a firm's expertise in bankruptcy cases, for example, may not realize that another branch of the firm also can handle natural resource issues. Law firms are realizing that they can be of greater service to a client - and thus increase revenues - by meeting a client's multiple legal needs.

"Your best marketing starts with your own client base," says Greenfield. Law firms that don't educate clients about the firm's breadth of services may see clients go elsewhere and become someone else's opportunity, she warns.

At Guess and Rudd, a new brochure is being designed with cross-selling specifically in mind, says Perkins. The firm is working with the Nerland Mystrom and Associates agency to produce an overall firm brochure that will contain a back pocket into which additional information about a specific area of practice - for example, insurance defense - can be inserted. Perkins describes the new targeted brochure as "tasteful but dressed up."

He expects the brochure to help keep Guess and Rudd's name in front of clients and potential clients. Among other tools to accomplish that goal are client seminars, continuing legal education workshops, charitable donations, and sponsorship of shows on public television and on a privately owned radio station.

Perkins and others are quick to add that activities such as major contributions to community projects do not replace quality work in retaining and attracting clients. They do, however, help show a firm's commitment to the community that supports it.

Perkins says that although "a good chunk of the community" knows about his firm through its television and radio sponsorships, the most important element in attracting clients remains the legal talent of the individual lawyers. "People don't choose law firms because they like the name or because of a slick brochure," he explains. "They choose a law firm because of the people."

PHOTO : More polished print presentations are samples of a greater willingness among law firms to market their services.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Hill, Robin Mackey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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