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Lawyers and law firms:
Define your market; focus your message
Janet Ellen Raasch

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers – helping them establish themselves as thought leaders within a target markets through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or jeraasch@msn.com.

Each lawyer and law firm faces the same problem – how to distinguish the professional services they offer from those offered by every other lawyer and every other law firm.

If you are no different from your competitors, then you are a commodity – and should expect a career shaped by commodity work at commodity prices. If you want to attract the best work at the best prices, you must strategically differentiate yourself from the pack. You must identify your own unique message – and take it to market.

“Most lawyers and law firms have a very hard time narrowing their focus,” said Ross Fishman, an attorney and consultant (www.rossfishmanmarketing) to the professional services industry. “They want to be all things to all people – ‘full service’ firms that market to ‘anyone, anywhere who needs any legal service.’”

To illustrate the points he made in his June 15 presentation to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Legal Marketing Association, Fishman used slides featuring more than 100 real-life examples of marketing materials from law firms around the country.

“When you look at the message used to promote some of the largest national law firms,” said Fishman, “and compare it with the message used by a five-attorney local firm – often, the message is identical. How are consumers to decide which law firm best suits their needs when so many firms are promoting themselves the same way?”

To demonstrate what he means, Fishman has compiled a generic message that could apply to almost any law firm in the nation.

It reads something like this:

Our firm is big/small and old and has a distinguished history. We offer the technical skills of a large firm and the collegial culture of a small firm. Our lawyers work as a team. We are efficient, service-oriented and we partner with our clients. We are very community-service oriented.

We represent absolutely everyone, from individuals to international corporations, in every conceivable area of the law – from ADR to Zoning. We are the best in every single one of these areas. Here are 24 pages of alphabetical descriptions of every practice area.

Our message is illustrated with photos of our city skyline, our building, our lobby and/or conference room, a group of diverse lawyers staring seriously at the camera with law books in the background, and area courthouses – especially their columns and their front steps.

Our graphics include chessboards (“We are strategic”); light bulbs (“We have good ideas”); handshakes (“We partner with clients”); globes and maps (“We are national or global”); laptops (“We are high-tech”); and gavels and scales of justice (“We are – big surprise – lawyers”).

Unfortunately, each of these clichéd verbal and visual messages only reinforces the impression among potential clients that all law firms are alike. “The good news is that this creates an enormous opportunity for those firms that are willing to differentiate themselves,” said Fishman.

Differentiation based on service

“A unique message or brand has many benefits,” said Fishman. “It differentiates you from the competition. It shows what you stand for, tells potential clients what they can expect from you, enhances the value of your services (so you can charge more) and puts you on the short list for certain kinds of work.”

An effective message is one that targets a specific market segment and a specific audience. “The automotive industry understands this,” said Fishman. “All cars get you from one place to another. However, manufacturers in this industry have successfully created brands that are identified with a wide variety of qualities – like speed, safety and luxury. If you have any doubt, just take a careful look at car ads.”

Similarly, a law firm should create a message around a singular quality that satisfies the needs of the firm’s ideal client – a quality that no other law firm in a particular market has claimed as its own. For example, a firm can focus on service, responsiveness, style/attitude, humor, speed, price, client type, experience, comfort/security, practice group, industry group, target community or geography.

“When I was marketing partner at Coffield Ungaretti & Harris,” said Fishman, “we did our research and decided to differentiate the firm on the basis of its service. To promote this, we offered the industry’s first ‘Written Service Guarantee’ and marketed the heck out of it. We were able to generate enormous attention. This message helped grow the firm’s revenue by more than 50 percent in the first year – in an otherwise flat economy.”

When differentiating the Chicago-based labor and employment firm Laner Muchin, Fishman focused on the message of “responsiveness.” “Lack of responsiveness is among the biggest complaints clients express about law firms,” said Fishman. “As I interviewed the partners, a recurring theme emerged – ‘We generally return all client phone calls within two hours.’ Bingo. The firm’s message became ‘Two hours. Period.’”

Laner Muchin issued a challenge and used advertising to push this challenge to non-client prospects (a group that was more likely to be dissatisfied by their existing lawyers’ lack of responsiveness): “Call your current lawyer and leave a message to return your call. Wait an hour or two (to give your lawyer a decent head start), then call one of our lawyers and leave the same message. See who calls you back first. We’re betting it’ll be us. If it’s not, we’ll buy you lunch and donate $100 to your favorite charity.”

“It was a win/win proposition,” said Fishman. “When we won the challenge, we made a strong positive impression on someone in a position to hire us. On those rare occasions when we lost the challenge, our punishment was a lunch date with a potential client!” To support the firm’s message, a stylized clock was designed into its logo.

Differentiation based on industry

Another way to differentiate a law firm is to focus on an industry segment – a segment big enough and healthy enough to provide you with good business, but small enough so that you can get your arms around it. “Find an appropriately sized pond, well-stocked with clients, and work hard to become a big, highly visible fish within this pond,” said Fishman. “For lawyers, this type of narrow focus is the only ‘silver bullet’ that exists.”

Most market segments are so large that you must drill down until you end up with a manageable sub-segment. For example, a firm’s message could target insurance defense work for Lasik surgeons in the greater Los Angeles area or divorce law for gay couples living in and around New York City.

In 1997, Fishman created the first prominent industry-based marketing program, helping Alabama’s Crosslin Slaten & O’Connor become “The Bug Lawyers.”

“This small general practice firm had a few clients in the pest control industry,” said Fishman. “This was a multi-billion industry that no law firm had targeted. It offered a finite universe, where everyone went to the same conventions and read the same publication, Pest Control Today. The firm’s website (currently offline) was revised to feature crawling termites and animated cursors of bugs that irreverently chewed away at the firm’s logo.”

There is no way you would confuse this law firm with any other. International publicity generated sizable firm revenue and sparked demand for industry-based campaigns.

Another example is Noland Hamerly Etienne & Hoss, a 20-lawyer general practice firm located in the heart of central California’s agriculture belt. Working with Fishman, the firm’s agriculture practice branded itself as “The Lettuce Lawyers.”

“We turned the ampersand in the firm logo into a green sprout when it was used by the group,” said Fishman. “Ads in industry publications show the lawyers in agricultural settings – on horses, inspecting grape vines, and posing as the man and woman in the iconic rural painting, ‘American Gothic.’ The practice group created seed packets to give away as business cards. Instead of coffee mugs, it gives out bib overalls that feature the firm’s logo.”

When a marketing director or consultant works with a law firm, practice group or lawyer to create a focused message, process is very important and persuasive.

“You must do your research and take a structured approach,” said Fishman. “This involves reading the firm’s promotional materials, interviewing a broad cross-section of lawyers and staff (including those you expect might be opposed to your project), and interviewing clients and former clients on the firm’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the marketplace.

“Be attentive to recurring themes and unique specialties that emerge as part of this process,” said Fishman. “Most likely, these will steer you to your unique message. Once you have your message, you can find creative and interesting ways to take it to market.”

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