After years of a low-key approach, legal firms embracing wide array of marketing techniques

More than 30 years after lawyers won the right to advertise, law firms have yet to adopt the high-visibility marketing tactics of consumer goods like breakfast cereal, detergent and the ShamWow (though one can hope!).

But with the legal field growing more competitive and major law firms experiencing unprecedented layoffs in recent years, firms are looking more closely at how they can use marketing to reach new clients — and strengthen their relationships with existing ones.

“Our marketing really revolves around creating awareness. It’s about helping people consider our firm and our lawyers, and building that trust overall,” said Deb Cochran, marketing director for Winthrop & Weinstine, a Minneapolis firm with more than 90 lawyers.

“Once they’re aware of us, how do we make them comfortable and trust that we will do an excellent job?”

Ideally, Cochran and others said, existing clients become your firm’s brand champions. Thus, many firms stress activities aimed at building the bonds with their current client roster.

Bassford Remele, a 48-attorney Minneapolis firm, uses some of the standard tactics: tickets to sporting events, emails to tailored lists, an annual Christmas card. But the firm also has gone out of the box with events like a spa day for clients, said Janet Nelson, Bassford’s marketing director and president of the Minnesota chapter of the Legal Marketing Association.

Nelson meets regularly with attorneys, especially younger ones still building their practices and helps them set up a personal marketing plan with specific goals.

“First and foremost, I tell them that the firm wants them to be a good lawyer,” Nelson said. “But as they’re developing those skills, there are other things they can think about. I try to keep them in tune with the opportunities.”

Those could include seminars for clients on particular legal challenges faced by their industry, doing pro bono work in an area of expertise or speaking at continuing legal education courses.

Though relatively few firms advertise directly to consumers, many firms advertise in publications aimed at fellow lawyers or business executives. Upgrading websites is also a major focus in today’s law offices.

“More and more people are using search tools and searching for legal representation on the Web,” Cochran said. “So we’ve really focused on introducing more search engine optimization into the technology we’re using. It helps people who are looking for a lawyer with specific expertise, and it’s a great way for people to learn about individual lawyers.”

Winthrop & Weinstine has entered an arena few other firms have ventured into by starting a blog for its intellectual property, trademark and brand management practice. DuetsBlog has been an unexpected hit; after less than six months, the blog regularly gets from 500 to 800 readers daily, a great number for any new blog.

Trained to think carefully and write with precision, many lawyers have a fear of blogging, worried that they might write something in haste that would come back to haunt them.

But Steve Baird, who leads Winthrop’s intellectual property practice and heads up the blog, said he enjoys the change of pace.

“It’s been great,” Baird said. “It allows us to explore some topics in a more creative way than you’d normally approach them.”

Career-changers, take note: Legal marketing appears to be on the rise. Membership in the local Legal Marketing Association chapter has grown from 70 to more than 100 over the last three years, Nelson said.

“Lawyers go to law school so they can get out and practice law,” Nelson said. “The legal marketer is there to assist them.

“We’re there to help them build their business so they can focus on what they really want to do, and that’s practice law.”

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