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The Marcus Perspective

COMPETING FOR CLIENTS

By Bruce W. Marcus

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Emphasis Is On Competing

There are too many words we marketers use too easily, without thinking too hard about meaning or substance. One of my favorites is the most important word in marketing. Itís competition. We use it all the time ó and then tend to ignore it as we go about the business of marketing.

Why, then, do we do all those seminars and blogs and websites and media releases? Certainly, not for their own sakes. Even the strategies we most often devise tend to lose sight of not just the word competition, but the act of it. Mechanical process performed, it would seem as if for its own sake.

Itís been so long since Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, (U.S. Supreme Court, 1977) ó our declaration of independence from the shackles of traditions that prohibited any promotional activity or what we can now call frank marketing ó that we tend to forget what Bates actually did. It gave us the right to compete.

While it didnít say so in so many words, what it really said was: ďNow I can go after your clients and you can go after mine.Ē

What it said was: ďNow you can openly pursue a prospective client, in competition with other law firms. And you can use standard marketing tools, like advertising and press releases and selling to do it.Ē

There arenít many marketers today who are old enough to remember that, and Iím surprised at how many law firm marketers never even heard of Bates. But it was indeed our declaration of freedom from codes and canons of ethics that kept the professions immersed in a Dickensian past. They were rules that allowed lawyers to feel elite and exalted ó above the fray of commerce. Under the rubric of protecting the integrity of professionals, the ethical rules served to provide an aura of superiority.

It took several years ó and many debates and even lawsuits ó for the local bar to give in, but the ability to compete prevailed, and the skills to do so developed. And the interesting thing is that both the professions and the publics they serve are the better for it.

But the transition from the past to the future is not yet complete ó and wonít be as long as we ignore the competition part of marketing and reside in just the mechanics.

What, exactly is competition?

Itís pursuing business ó the prospective client ó even as other lawyers are pursuing the same clients. And at the same time, itís protecting your clients from being successfully wooed by other lawyers. Itís not performed by mechanics ó the tools of marketing ó but by strategy.

So-called branding, which is really name recognition and a promise of performance, can be an irrelevant exercise. Unfortunately, the nature of the profession precludes many of the traditional marketing devices used by products to compete. You canít say: ďWe do better briefs.Ē Never mind the ethical constraints ó the reality is that you canít prove it. Even with the best marketing campaigns, youíre not likely to persuade a happily married couple to get a divorce. How then do you compete?

First, by understanding that your role is to serve a public, which you must take great pains to understand in every respect. In fact, there is rarely one general public. Is the public for labor law the same as the public for maritime law? Without understanding the market for your specialty, your skills, and your experience, any marketing you do is hobbled in a competitive environment.

Next, you have to think about your ability to serve each market in which you compete. In a dynamic and rapidly changing world, the nature of the prospective clientele is changing constantly. What made Steve Jobs so heroic was that he actually changed the nature of how commerce is performed. As important as his devices may be, more important was the way they altered the way business is done ó as did the whole Internet. If you donít read the trade press for your clientsí industries, if you donít keep in constant touch with your marketsí and your clientsí business, you canít compete. If you donít follow industry and economic trends, you live a life of unprofitable surprises. These days, once dominant industries can be in decline, as emerging industries become dominant. And with surprising speed.

And finally, if you are a lawyer and not a trained or experienced marketer, youíd better understand that marketing is now an integral part of any practice. No more is marketing something done by a person down the hall. You are part of it. And if you canít do it, learn to understand both the process and the marketer. Remember at all times, in everything you do, you are competing for growth and success against a growing body of lawyers who are competing against you. If you want to survive, you have to learn to compete. Itís an essential element for your professional world and your survival in it.


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

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