This article originally appeared in ALM.
For almost as long as pundits have weighed in on the vagaries of the legal marketplace, their constant theme has been “the crisis of the midsize firm” or even “the death of the midsize firm.” To be sure, those Cassandra-like warnings were always overstated. Many midsize firms have fallen by the wayside. But many others were well-run, with strong practice or industry niches, and blue-chip brands. They’ve done quite nicely enough, thank you.
That said, there are still unique challenges at every level of midsized operations, from managing off-the-reservation rainmakers to convincing clients that sufficient platform doesn’t always necessitate dozens of offices in multiple countries. From a marketing standpoint, the challenges are obviously twofold: to articulate the right message about the specific value the firm offers, size notwithstanding, and to find ways to most effectively disseminate that message.
The confusion comes in how to do both. Let’s talk about the easiest and most effective way to execute a strategy that achieves both goals with minimal disruption to the practice of law.
Market practice groups or industry groups (in whichever way you’re set up) rather than the firm. That may sound like common wisdom but it’s not all that common in practice. For midsize firms, the point is particularly important. The names of some big firms— Skadden or Hogan Lovells—may have immediate and persuasive cache but most midsize firms are not so blessed while even some of the largest firms have surprisingly low name recognition among legal services buyers. Just like midsized firms, they have to shine in niches, as a midsize firm like Munger, Tolles has done in litigation.
People, including purchasers of legal services, buy what they need. Midsize firms must take particular pains to decide what both their potential and aspirational clients really do need, and spend their marketing dollars accordingly. If that means a disproportionately allocated marketing budget, then smart managers have to find ways to placate those practice groups that for now must settle for a smaller piece of the overall marketing pie. Ideally, the marketing budget can be a way to prod those practice groups to step up their marketing game. If they want more money, they have to come up with a plan that merits the investment.
Reverse engineer the buying process. It’s all well and good to sermonize about how lawyers ought to think like their clients; the really good news is that the digital universe makes it possible for firms to turn that rhetoric into practical action.
How do your prospects find you? It is not through a search of the firm name. Instead, prospects look up terms based on the pain (or opportunity) they feel at the moment—FCPA, whistleblower, sexual harassment, data breach, etc. The narrower the terms, the better. When prospects find you near the top of the list on Google, particularly with more than one link (e.g., firm bio, video, being quoted in an article, a shared source like Wikipedia, etc.), then two things happen instantaneously: (1) They have found you (being found is the required prerequisite to being chosen); and (2) They assume you are a leading authority, which makes selling so much easier.
As Sameer Somal, CFO of Blue Ocean Global Technology, puts it, “Our reputation is directly correlated with our digital presence because prospective clients increasingly rely on the Internet and independent review websites. Today, every law firm’s opportunity set is a function of the content that appears atop search engine results pages (SERPs).”
In this context, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a particularly attractive option for midsize law firms. “If your firm doesn’t target the right qualified searches, your competition is likely growing at your expense,” says Somal. “Thorough keyword research will identify the exact queries your niche audience types into search engines. Begin with the end in mind and write content strategically.”
As such, we’re not talking about casual searches that lawyers might do in between billable hours. We’re talking about a systematized process in which specific news is monitored, key words related to those events are compiled, and, importantly, the whole database updated on a monthly basis. By the way, those keywords are not identified by guesswork; it’s the job of a good Internet team to supply them and, importantly, help populate your website and other online collateral with them.
Content is king. The difference between brilliant marketing and ambulance chasing is timing. By anticipating trends, being easily found on Google, and producing substantial content in the early stages of a legal trend, prospects naturally categorize you in their minds as an expert. Marketing is, of course, not what you say but what they think.
A successful strategy will offer keyword-specific content that objectively highlights your firm’s legal expertise. Articles that provide real value, while helping your audience make the most informed decisions, will naturally rank higher on the search engines.
Media interviews are very helpful, as they showcase your credentials. After all, it’s you the interviewer chose to interview, and that sends a positive message. It also has its own optimization power, which significantly helps you get found. But self-generated content is in some ways even better because you control, not just the message, but the specific language which includes the keywords, which in turn control search results. Moreover, you can update your own postings as often as needed. Consider a regular publishing schedule so that your readers know when they can expect new content from you.
Yet in terms of optimization, nothing beats video as it’s been proven to have the most decisively positive impact on search engine results. It’s also a fine opportunity for a lawyer to show a little personality, which can at least help level the playing field on which you and those 5,000-lawyer behemoths daily compete.