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PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0: How Bates Changed the Future of Legal Practice

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Itís taken more than 30 years for the legal profession to overcome the long-standing tradition under which any form of frank marketing and promotional activity has been considered unacceptable.

Blame the Bates decision (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 1977), which not only introduced the concept of competition to the legal profession, and began creating law firm marketing as we know it today, but also began the evolutionary process that has altered the traditional nature and structure of the law firm. And continues to do so.

Where once law firms used social contacts, family connections, and the golf course to develop a practice, todayís firms use the standard promotional tools of marketing, from advertising to organized networking, public relations, speeches and seminars, direct mail, selling, and now, social media. Devices once considered anathema to the professional are now considered appropriate, in pursuit of practice development. These devices, drawn from product marketing and adapted to conform to the specific nature of the legal profession and landscape, have now become part of a dedicated body of acceptable legal marketing practices.

More than just a decision that struck down the ethical codes that strictly proscribed promotional activities, and that introduced the practice of active competition, Bates began an evolutionary process that has had far reaching consequences, which have been responsible for ultimately altering the nature of the practice itself. As a direct result of the need to compete efficiently and aggressively, the modern law firm is so substantially different from the traditional law firm that an older generation can barely recognize it. In the course of this evolution, six things have happened:

  1. The professional marketer, in the beginning (post-Bates), faced hostility within the firm from the lawyers, who had difficulty understanding both the values and techniques of the marketers. Their approach was different.
  2. Professional services marketing went from a collection of product marketing tools adapted to law firms, to a sophisticated process, including the practice of marketing strategy.
  3. Lawyers, realizing that law firm marketing (unlike most product marketing) required their active participation, began to understand the role that marketing plays in a competitive environment.
  4. As competition become more consequential to a practice, law firms began to look for internal ways to enhance competitiveness by restructuring firms to be more efficient in serving their clientele and in client development. The result has been new business models, structures, and practices, thereby creating the modern firm.
  5. As some firms began to change, other firms, even the most conservative, began to look for ways to make comparable changes to improve productivity and competitiveness.
  6. The barriers between the lawyers and the marketers, which had long impeded marketing innovation in many firms, broke down, and lawyers became enthusiastic marketers. This has created a new paradigm in professional services marketing, signaling the beginning of a practice driven by the new lawyer-marketer.
These events happened in three stages:
  1. Professional Services Marketing 1.0 was the Bates decision, which ultimately altered the course of the practice.
  2. Professional Services Marketing 2.0 has been the period in which the practices of law firm marketing developed and matured. This is the period during the interim years since Bates. During this period, the imperative to compete resulted in substantially altering the nature of the traditional law firm ó a practice that continues today to accommodate the rapid and kaleidoscopic changes in the worldwide economy, and is accelerated by technologic advances. We are still in 2.0.
  3. Professional Services Marketing 3.0, the period in which new law firm practices and structures are dominating the entire practice. This is the modern and future firm, in which marketing is completely integrated into the practice, and in which lawyers are marketers and marketers fully understand the nature of law firm practice. We see this in such practices as quality billing, replacing hourly billing, technology, the lawyer-marketer, the beginnings of new forms of ownership and infusion of capital from non-lawyer sources. We see the beginnings of the firm of tomorrow, which is radically different from the traditional law firm of most of the 20th century and before.

In an era of rapid and often unpredictable change, how then does a firm plan?

First and foremost, firm management must face the fact ó sometimes painful as it may be ó that change is inevitable. Itís impossible for anyone to stay static for long in a dynamic world, in which every aspect that affects the profession is changing rapidly.

Firms must recognize that marketing is as integral to law firm management as any other management tool.

Firms must recognize, as well, that outright prognostication doesnít work. There are too many random and unpredictable events that may alter the course of your best-laid plans.

Competitive intelligence is important. Know what your competitors are doing ó not so that you may imitate, but that you can find ways to improve.

One answer lies in looking for trends that affect the practice of law. The astute lawyer of this century is one who is not only conversant in marketing, but finds trends that will have an impact on the practice by reading the trade journals of client industries, attending conferences in those industries, participating in their trade associations, and becoming completely immersed in their clientsí businesses. Closer relationships with clients have now become not only more important, but imperative.

These events can be startling to any practitioner with more than two decades of experience. But events can overcome traditions, and this is what Bates has done. You are now entering the world of Professional Services Marketing 3.0.


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, (www.marcusletter.com), and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004). His e-mail address is marcus@marcusletter.com. This article has been adapted from Marcusí book, PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group). For more information, go to http://bit.ly/MarcusBook. © 2011 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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