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'Professional Development:' Those Were the Days: Lessons from Silicon Valley’s Marketing Culture

There were elements of the corporate culture in the early Dot-com years that helped shape my perspective on the critical role marketing could (and should) play in driving tangible and bottom-line business results. Those shaping influences, when applied to law firms, can help us legal marketers realize even greater returns for our internal and external clients.

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After graduating from law school, I was fortunate to spend the early part of my marketing career in Silicon Valley working for technology companies that ranged in size from 30,000 employees to those with just a couple dozen brave souls. That was during a time when people thought a new kid on the block named Google was crazy to compete with Yahoo!, Apple looked like it was on its last leg and we had to type “http://” whenever we ventured out into the mysterious World Wide Web.

And, while being in the heart of the technology sector during that exciting time certainly had its share of challenges and frustrations, there were elements of the corporate culture and characteristics of the passionate employees that helped shape my perspective on the critical role marketing could (and should) play in driving tangible and bottom-line business results. Further, I am confident that those shaping influences, when applied to law firms, can help us legal marketers realize even greater returns for our internal and external clients.

Results. Results. Results.

Hall of Fame basketball player and coach John Wooden said: “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” His words highlight the difference between work and honest to goodness getting stuff done. Phrased differently, just because you are busy does not mean you are accomplishing anything.

Far too often, legal marketers use metrics that show activity, not results, and even fewer connect the results to bottom-line metrics that matter to firm leadership. In addition, marketers frequently frame discussions in terms of costs. This approach simply perpetuates the perception that marketing is a cost center. From my experience in successful technology environments, every effort should be made to use return on investment justifications for every marketing endeavor, to forecast short- and long-term results, and to demonstrate marketing’s impact on hard metrics such as revenue and growth. By talking about marketing in the same financial language as that used by firm leadership, CMOs may establish and elevate the marketing function as a key revenue driver alongside other mainstay business development activities.

Outside-In vs. Inside-Out Thinking

For some time, there appears to have been two ruling paradigms in business: the inside-out approach and the outside-in approach. The inside-out approach is guided by the belief that the inner strengths and capabilities of an organization will make the organization prevail. The outside-in approach, the one embraced by most successful technology companies, is instead guided by the belief that client value creation, orientation, and experience are the keys to success.

From an outside-in approach, long-term value is a consequence of listening and providing value to clients and helping them achieve their objectives better than the competition while providing a seamless client experience. The ideal organizational culture is market- and client-oriented and the targeted client segments are the source of inspiration and development. There is also a strong belief that if clients are not satisfied with the solutions offered, the business will suffer and value will diminish. Alternatively, with an inside-out approach to business, you would likely see effective use of company resources and core competencies as the main, if not sole, driver of value.

In the so-called “new normal” era that we have heard echoed by legal industry experts for some time, many law firms are not rethinking their approach to how they do things. Moreover, if they are, it is from the inside-out (rightsizing) rather than from the outside in (creating greater value for clients and potential clients). They often seem more focused on short-term gains rather than on providing greater value to clients. Law firms can no longer get a short-term gain by simply raising rates and/or demanding more billable hours.

Innovate

As we all know, change is the only constant across today’s business landscape. Technology companies, especially startups, can expand at a rapid pace because they are incredibly agile. Similarly, they can transform their products, services and business models with ease in order to better meet the needs of customers. When combined with their online marketing prowess and operational excellence, the ideal environment for sustained business growth is created.

Law firms are notoriously slow to adapt and are generally resistant to change, so it is now more important than ever to learn from the technology startup model of rapid iteration. In other words, it is time for law firms to free themselves from outdated processes and business models, and start innovating. How firms innovate (and ultimately create greater opportunities for growth) can take various forms, such as adopting new fee structures, enhancing the client intake process, or embracing automation.

For example, make software a fundamental part of your business operations. It is the key to deriving the most output from the least input. In other words, it enables a firm to scale and maximize its profitability. The key to remember is that times are changing: Be willing to experiment and try new tactics. Don’t ever do anything just because “it’s always been done that way,” and always put the needs of your clients first when deciding where to go next.

Train the ‘Sales’ People

For a variety of reasons, we tend not to refer to attorneys as sales people. Regardless of titles, one of their primary roles (especially as they advance in their career) is to do just that — sell. They sell their services and their brands, as well as those of their firm and colleagues. One of the things that impressed me most throughout my technology career was the degree to which companies educated their sales teams and equipped them with the tools necessary to succeed. I realize, for the most part, that selling widgets and legal services are different. However, the one constant is that “buyers” want to hear compelling arguments that pertain to their specific needs and objectives.

When we launch brands, offices or services in the legal industry, we often focus too much time on the traditional marketing aspects of the process (website, public relations, events, client announcements, etc.). Don’t forget the attorneys! The problem is that selling (or developing business) today is challenging — really challenging. Time is precious, decision makers have competing demands, and it is usually easier to remain with the status quo than invest time in change. So do not skimp on the business development materials and training, in particular helping attorneys craft compelling value propositions that clearly communicate key competitive differentiators.

Acknowledge and Reward Talent

Professional development and advancement are important topics in every industry. I recall having some apprehension as I entered the technology sector following law school. I did not have what I would call “technology” skills and was not sure if/where I would find an appropriate career fit. I considered myself to be a smart and motivated individual. I accepted every challenge. I worked hard. I succeeded. And my career took off. The longer I spent in technology, the more I realized it is an industry where there was no normal. Just as the industry itself experienced rapid change, its employees were the ones who needed to adjust to and respond to that change. The ones selected to meet those challenges didn’t necessarily have the presumed skill set or experience match — few, if any, did. The positions were often for roles that had not been seen before. But what those individuals had was the drive, curiosity, confidence and leadership profile that virtually guaranteed success.

I am often contacted by friends and colleagues within the legal marketing community asking for my guidance on filling particular positions or for my opinion on current candidates. When looking at internal candidates, I suggest rewarding talent, not tenure. For external candidates, target baseline skills, attitude and personality. Don’t simply look for someone who has the “right” job summary or AmLaw 200 firm on his/her resume. You just might be surprised at what you find.

Conclusion

The longer we work in any given industry, the more resistant we tend to be to external ideas or approaches. Such a mindset, while certainly fodder for a future article, is virtually guaranteed to slow, if not grind to a halt, your marketing and business development efforts. Examining what is happening across other industries and/or applying what we have learned from working in those sectors to the legal space can foster new ways of thinking, inspire new strategies and, if done correctly, drive a new level of results.

My days in technology marketing taught me many lessons, not the least of which was to never settle — to always strive for our products and services to be the first to market, the best in their class or the only ones of their kind. Such a philosophy not only has its place in legal marketing, it is one that we owe to ourselves, our firms and our clients.

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David McCann, J.D., is senior manager of marketing and communications at Snell & Wilmer, a full-service business law firm with locations throughout the United States and in Mexico. He may be reached at 602-382-6517 or dmccann@swlaw.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of their clients or other attorneys in their firm.

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