Running your small law firm wrong kills marketing success: Here’s How

The estimated reading time for this post is 11 minutes

Something I constantly saw in small law firms who wanted to hire me to write their content was troubling me. I watched very smart lawyers fail in their legal practices and remain in a perpetual state of struggle as they do. They are doing the one thing that’s fatal to all small businesses—failing to operate their law practices as if they are real businesses. That’s the wrong way to run any business.

Like many small business owners, they operate their businesses like the great technicians they are, in this case, legal technicians. But they have not learned to be great businesses owners. They’re self-employed alright–in a low-paying job they’ve created for themselves.

They likely started their practice after either not finding attorney work in the profession or not finding fulfilling work. Seeing other legal practitioners hang a shingle, they decided, “Hey, I can do that, too!” But, they never learned that to be a successful business, you have to get beyond your technical abilities and become a real entrepreneur. That requires a different set of skills from practicing law and most attorneys don’t learn those skills in law school. So they start off and stay running their firms the wrong way.

But, as many of you who are struggling are finding out if you don’t know how to run your practice right–like a real business, you’ll experience the serious problems many attorneys are. Those include multiple operational challenges, poor revenue generation, frustration, confusion, financial insufficiency and, ultimately, law practice failure. I saw this repeatedly with small law firms and know this serious business deficiency hurts marketing and believe it’s important to address.

I’ve written this post in two parts and the next section explains them. Before you read further, though, these posts will help attorney business owners most who are those willing to learn from a non-attorney who has business development skills and experience. If that’s you, I hope you find them useful. If not, I hope you meet the successful small law firm business owner who will tell you the exactly what I’m writing here.

The Message Here: Lawyers Should Learn to Be Effective Business Owners First

As a lawyer, you’re a smart person who wants to help other smart people succeed, which is why you became an attorney in the first place. But, first, your legal business must succeed and, for that, you must shift your mindset and understand why you might be struggling.

This two-part post will help lawyers recognize the lack of business operations skills as the serious issue it is, one leading to small law firm failure much more than poor marketing is. It will tell you what keeps small law firm owners in this position and why it’s one you should correct with yours before hiring additional marketing help.

Part two will give you more insight what questions you must be able to answer for your marketing to be effective, how a successful small law firm owner excels and suggests ways to get there yourself. I recommend you read this post first because if you don’t know where you really are, you can’t get where you want to go.

Most Small Law Firm Owners Develop “Cart Before the Horse” Syndrome First

I used to get calls from small law firm owners who learn that I’m an award-winning journalist. They assume that meant I could write content for their firm that will supercharge their bottom line immediately. They were trying to generate a quick revenue infusion and they believe my services would make that happen.

Once I started talking with them, especially those in early-stage firms of between one and three years in business, I learned they think legal marketing is all they need to drive and sustain revenue. In fact, to them, law firm marketing, alone, is the key to a profitable law practice. What I do professionally, though now only for enterprise level financial brands, is the next tactic they want to try—strategic content writing.

But, strategic content writing is most effective when it’s conducted within the framework of a firm’s existing 360-business and marketing plan, particularly its content marketing plan. And most small businesses, including lawyers, are operating without any plan in place. They’re trying to get a horse to push a cart up hill toward a destination for which they have no map.

I know because, in the process of getting to know their business, I asked small law firm owners two questions, first. “Why are you in business?” and “Who are your ideal clients?”

Usually, their answer to the first question was something like, “I practice law because I want to save businesses from negative legal outcomes.”

To the second question, I often heard something like, “My ideal clients include everyone who has any business legal issue they can’t solve and can pay my fees.”

They thought they’d given me good, helpful answers. They had not. First, when they are not specific enough about who their niche market is, they showed me what kind of marketing they’d been doing and why it wasn’t working. They were probably doing mass marketing. But, marketing to everyone means they were targeting no one.

Second, their answers told me they didn’t know why they’re truly in business, which is to make a profit selling legal services to targeted clients in niche practice areas.

After asking several additional questions about their marketing and operations, I find they do not recognize that how they run their law practice outside marketing is the real determinant of their firm’s success. So, they develop the “marketing over everything” perspective. That precludes them understand that running a law firm right is putting the horse in front of the cart and steering it with a map.

How Most Lawyers Really See Themselves

I learn many don’t even see themselves as true entrepreneurs and the idea actually, seems offensive to some. They simply view themselves as legal experts or technicians trying to save some businesses from some bad legal outcome. But, I can’t really fault them for seeing themselves this way. Law schools teach students to think they’re going into law to save the world from its legal woes, not that law is a business.

But, I understand that perspective. I used to take clients like these because I wanted to help them save their businesses from failure with great marketing services. But, I recognized that I was making the same mistake they are. I was not running my consulting practice to generate a profit by offering my services in specific verticals to those target clients who would be most profitable for my business.

[Tweet “Lawyers must first see themselves as business owners to run their firms as profitable businesses.”]

When those mistakes caused me serious financial hurt, I stopped taking these clients and learned who my best clients were and what they actually needed. I began focusing on those I can work with for whom the relationship will be mutually beneficial and profitable. That’s what small law firm owners need to do.

Why Refusing to Hear the Truth Hurts Small Firms

Often, however, lawyers still don’t honor professionals who aren’t lawyers so they won’t hear important truths like this from us. So, when I tried to disabuse of attorneys of the notion that only focusing on marketing was the way to success, not running their firm as a profit-generating business, they refused to hear me.

[Tweet “The ABA found poorly-conceived marketing and sales lead to a poor match between firm and clients.”]

They wouldn’t hear that being a good legal tactician was no longer enough. It fell on deaf ears that they had to have real business operations or law firm practice management skills and a specific plan to succeed as a small law firm. (You’ll read in part two how I learned they didn’t have this plan.)

By not listening to someone with my background, which includes working in successful law firms of all sizes run profitable businesses by working with them for over 10 years, they only hurt their law practices in the long run.

My experience in this industry showed that working with these struggling law firms would difficult for us both. I couldn’t help them succeed in marketing if they wouldn’t hear me tell them their problem isn’t a lack of marketing expertise, but the lack of business development and law practice management expertise.

Because most refused to acknowledge they were running their law firms wrong, they wouldn’t invest in help to learn to do it right.

But, the consequences of refusing to hear this and continuing to poorly run a business of any kind are detrimental. And, size doesn’t matter, as we’ve seen in the shut downs of behemoth law firms, some of whose leaders failed to shift their own mindsets fast enough to accommodate new market realities.

[Tweet “ABA statistics show nationally, 54% of bar grievances are about lawyers’ poor firm management.”]

A poor business operation leads to negative outcomes for everyone in your life, including clients or customers, particularly small law firms. Poor law firm management harms your ability to provide strong legal counsel. That’s why, according to the ABA, nationally, 54% of bar grievances are about law firm management issues, not lawyers’ poor legal skills. The ABA also found poorly-conceived marketing and sales lead to a poor match between firm and clients.

Moreover, those who refuse to hear this truth from me (and other non-lawyer marketing professionals) are hurting their professional reputations and their personal relationships. Worse, that’s making many hate practicing law. It also causes the best marketing consultants to run from them to protect their businesses. Yet, many attorneys insist their law degree means they know all they need to know to succeed as a law practice owner. This belief couldn’t be further from the truth.

Nope, Your Law Degree Alone Won’t Help You

Depending on what school you attended, you probably got a great legal education. You probably learned to be, and perhaps are, an outstanding lawyer. But law school prepares graduates to obtain and keep jobs in someone else’s law practice where they are responsible for the success of the business. Unless you got an ivy-league or applied MBA with your JD or had significant previous entrepreneurial experience, you didn’t graduate from law school knowing how to start and run a legal practice.

[Tweet “Law school teaches you to be an employee, not an entrepreneur. You now must learn the latter.”]

That’s because most law schools don’t teach JD students legal practice management. You don’t learn business operations, marketing or how to work with business consultants effectively in law school. You don’t graduate knowing the financial controls every legal practice needs or how to do sales (which is the step after marketing has been successful, not marketing itself).

They don’t teach how to choose the right location and negotiate a lease and how to hire the right staff for the right purpose at the right time and retain them. Law schools don’t teach you how to service clients effectively (beyond strong legal representation). They also don’t teach you about business development or marketing.

That leaves you with limited to no knowledge of how to build effective, long-term relationships with other attorneys, community members, businesses or prospective clients. (And, if you didn’t build a strong book of business when you worked for another legal practice, you probably can’t for your own firm, either.)

You never learn in law school that effective legal representation in an entrepreneurial law firm requires success in all these other areas. They don’t tell you that marketing efforts may not generate very much revenue for or may be wasted by law firms that aren’t properly structured to keep the business they close.

Finally, you don’t learn in law school how a poorly structured legal business, even with good marketing, is likely to fail. That failure, as I said, will hurt more than just the law firm owner. It has larger social consequences and can make rebuilding difficult. Clearly, having even the best legal degree doesn’t prepare you to be an attorney-entrepreneur.

So what’s the fix?

Since your law degree alone can’t help you to be a successful small law firm owner, how do you learn what a successful attorney business owner and their law firm look like? And, how do you know where you are and where to go from here?

If you’re ready to know how to fix this problem that’s keeping you struggling, you’ll learn in part two of this post. After reading it, you’ll know where to start your journey to running a successful small law firm based by learning how a successful law firm runs and who can teach you how to make yours one.

(c) 2016-2018. Dahna M. Chandler for Get Money Moxie, Inc.All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in whole or in part without express written permission of the author.

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