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The Marcus Perspective


And What To Do About It

By Bruce W. Marcus

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It happens sometimes. A clever ad falls flat. A marketing program that would get an “A” in most MBA programs produces yawns for a law firm. A direct mail letter to a well-thought out target audience lands with the thud of huge silence. Why?

Because the differences between marketing a product and marketing a professional service are wide and profound. Because professionals rarely understand that unlike other areas of marketing, law firm marketing requires that lawyers themselves actively participate in the process. In product and other forms of service marketing, the people who make the product are generally isolated from the marketing process — but lawyers must be deeply involved in it.

This doesn’t mean that the professionals must be qualified marketers – it takes more than understanding the mechanics, it takes experience and practice and knowing what works and what doesn’t. But with a little effort, and with the help of a professional marketer who understands professional services, lawyers can become sufficiently comfortable with the mechanics and strategy to be helpful to the marketing program. Professional services marketing demands that the professionals must supply the grist for the marketing mill. It requires, as well, an understanding of the differences between marketing a product and marketing a professional service.

Differences between product and professional services marketing

Lawyers have historically not been concerned with the market – they are concerned with being lawyers, and meeting their own personal needs for professionalism. That was sufficient pre-Bates, but not now, because it’s not a competitive approach in a seriously competitive environment.

As the late corporate philosopher, Peter Drucker has often noted, the role of a corporation is to make a customer. Lawyers have the same ultimate responsibility — to generate a client — but the path to it is different. Those differences significantly affect the nature and practices of professional services marketing. For example...

  • Product marketing sells products. Legal marketing sells capability and skills, and enhances reputation, but except in very rare cases, can’t sell services where the need for those services doesn’t yet exist. Product manufacturers are able to build customer need where none existed before. Lawyers are constrained in their ability to create a need for their services where none had existed before (except to educate people about rights they didn’t know they had.) There are flavors, emotional appeals, colors, and bells and whistles that product marketers can use to distinguish a product from its competitors. Lawyers are constrained by the law and principles, their practice, and ethical strictures.
  • Products have reliable consistency. The next tube of your brand of toothpaste is exactly the same as the last tube you bought. Lawyers’ performances vary case by case and lawyer by lawyer.
  • There may be a thousand people, and complex production processes, behind a product. The interface between these people and processes and the consumer is the product itself. The interface between the lawyer and the client is the lawyer. When a salesperson sells you a vacuum cleaner, the vacuum cleaner stays and the salesperson goes. When a lawyer sells you his or her services, the lawyer stays.
  • Product marketing has greater flexibility to shape the needs of the consumer. Lawyers have little flexibility to work outside the structure of the law and legal process and principles. A corporation can market test its product, and the company can rapidly change it to adjust to customers’ tastes. Lawyers can’t change the laws to suit the needs of their clients.
  • Product marketing may specifically claim superiority over competitive products, but while one professional may be smarter, more energetic, more reliable, and more imaginative than another, that professional can hardly promote that difference. You can’t say, “We write better briefs.” This is both an ethical and practical constraint, because you can’t prove it.
  • The reputation of a law or firm can rise or fall on the performance of one lawyer or accountant and one client.
  • The product company understands that no matter what the product it makes, it is really a marketing company that manufactures products to fill the channel opened by marketing activities. Lawyers too often see themselves, not their consumers (clients), at the center of their universe. Too bad. When lawyers begin to understand that basic marketing concept, the earth will shake, walls will crumble, and the practice of law will change. But it will still be ethical and the public will be better served.
  • The product company is experienced – with a long tradition – in understanding the market and competing. It knows that it must actively define, pursue and nurture the consumer. Lawyers know that most clients have no choice but to use their services (nobody ever woke up and said, “I think I’ll sue somebody today” or, “What I really need today is a good audit”). The word competing didn’t seriously enter the lawyer’s lexicon until 1977 (Bates) The product marketing tradition goes back centuries. There is virtually no active marketing tradition as we know it today for lawyers and accountants prior to 1977.
  • Product marketing can be measured by the number of products it sells. But professional services marketing can ultimately have only three significant results – building name recognition and reputation, projecting capabilities that contribute to choosing one lawyer over another when a lawyer is needed, and gaining access to a prospect that affords the professional the opportunity to sell his or her services.
Some time ago, at a law firm marketing conference, an executive of an international ad agency was describing how he markets his supermarket clients. “What I do for them I can do for you.” We were stunned. I raised my hand and asked, “You can sell legal services the way you sell supermarkets?” He replied, confidently, “Yes, I can.” To which I responded, “Does that mean that if I have a matrimonial practice, and do a good job of marketing, I can persuade you, a happily married man, to get a divorce?” End of discussion.

What These Differences Mean

Why are these differences significant? Because law firm marketing can rarely produce clients where there is no prior need for legal services. Yes, it’s true that there are exceptions, in such practices as personal injury or when you’re addressing people who have rights they didn’t know they have (for example, some class action suits or new tax laws). And because both ethical and rational considerations limit the degree to which law firms can distinguish themselves from their competitors. Therefore, there must be a different set of objectives for law firm marketing, such as to...

  • Enhance name recognition and reputation, as a context for other marketing activities. In all areas of marketing, these two factors are particularly meaningful.
  • Project skills and expertise as the best way to distinguish one firm from another.
  • Positioning. This is a crucial process that begins with understanding what needs prospective clients may have — and that you can serve those needs, and demonstrating your ability to do so. Your position must spring specifically from prospective client needs, and not from your own self-serving assessment of what you have to sell. Use research, if necessary. The better the position, the better the marketing program.
  • Enhance access to prospective clients.
  • Shape a practice to conform to your firm’s business plan.
  • Address constantly changing marketing needs, dictated by new laws or new technology.
A typical example of this process at work is in a direct mail letter or other direct response or targeted marketing campaigns. While most products may be sold directly in response to a direct response campaign, the well-crafted direct response campaign for lawyers and accountants has the sole objective of generating the opportunity for the professional to make a personal presentation. The sale is made in person, most often by the lawyer who will serve the client.

For a large international firm, I developed a four paragraph system that produced a return of 50% — 50% of the recipients of the campaign agreed to meet with us. In paragraph one, we stated the problem in the most dire way we could. Paragraph two said, “we can help.” Paragraph three said “this is who we are.” Paragraph four said “we’ll call you on Monday to set up an appointment.” And 50% of the letters’ recipients agreed to meet.

There is, then, a time lag between the beginning of a marketing program and finding results. Understanding these distinctive marketing principles, then, and pursuing these objectives, can produce results, as measured by such factors as increased inquiries, increased opportunities to propose, and ultimately, a better understanding of client needs and how to meet them.

Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, ( and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is Copyright 2010 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.


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