Running Your Small Law Firm Wrong Kills Marketing Success: Here’s the Solution

The estimated reading time for this post is 11 minutes

In part one of this two-part blog post, I identified the primary reason why most law firms fail in their marketing efforts and, perhaps, even fail permanently. It’s because many don’t know how to run their law firms as a business. In that post, I showed small law firm owners why many of them aren’t skilled in running their law firm as successful businesses. 

In this blog post, I tell struggling law firm owners why your law firm isn’t ready for an aggressive marketing strategy and why marketing alone won’t help you achieve your law firm’s business growth goals. I’ll finish by showing you what a successful small law firm looks like and what you must do to turn yours into one.

My hope is these posts shift your mindset on what it takes to succeed as a small law firm in today’s intensely competitive legal market. Once that happens—which may not be today—then you’ll go get those critical skills before you launch your next marketing program. Starting that skill development process likely will help you make your current marketing more effective, too. Meanwhile, you’ll be growing new business development muscle necessary to run your small practice well.

Also, as I said in the last blog post, this post will be most helpful to attorney business owners who are willing to learn from a non-attorney like me who has extensive business development experience. I’ve also worked in many successful law firms of different sizes. I hope you find part two as helpful as part one.

Most Small Law Firms Aren’t Ready for Robust Marketing

During my days as a professional business development consultant, I’d seen small businesses like the law firms I’ve mentioned working with in the past in the first post. Those businesses either just wanted to get started selling or to sell more than they had previously.

But, like many small laws firms, their issue was not poor marketing, it was poor business management. They would need to learn to run a business effectively, first, before they could increase sales without experiencing negative outcomes. This experience has made it easy for me to identify this issue in many of today’s smaller law firms, many of whose owners do not see themselves as entrepreneurs, yet

With small law firms, after the initial intake, I’ve had no problem telling their managing partners that marketing failure was imminent if I started a marketing program with them before they got law firm management right. Struggling firm owners who don’t run their small law firm like it is a small business launched to become profitable selling legal services aren’t ready for robust marketing, I’d tell them.

How did I conclude this was true of these law firms? Because I would ask them some of the following basic pre-qualification questions to determine whether I should work with them and, if so, how best to conduct their strategic content writing program:

  • What is your firm’s formal plan for growth?
  • Do you formal business development strategy you can share with me?
  • Do you have a written marketing plan in you can share with me?
  • What kinds of marketing have you already done; what has worked and what hasn’t? 
  • What is the profile or persona of your ideal client? 
  • Based on the marketing research you’ve done, what is a good referral for you from other attorneys or community members? 
  • What outcomes, beyond increased revenue, would you like marketing to help you achieve?
  • What other activities are you conducting to generate leads for your law firm?
  • Do you have a sales structure in place, that includes an intake and follow-up process, to close new business if I help you generate leads through strategic content writing?
  • Do you have the budget to expand your marketing strategy if we determine that you need to conduct additional marketing activities?

Inevitably, for the law firms who weren’t structured properly and running like a real business, who did not understand what the business of a law firm actually is, I got blank stares or vague responses from their managing partner. I knew immediately they had no overall strategic plan, marketing plan or related law firm management structure in place. They were flying blind and I knew it wasn’t time for me to make them my client, yet.

Why Marketing Campaigns Alone Fail Many Small Law Firms

Not knowing these answers means these lawyers don’t have the clear direction for their firm that marketing could help them reach. Feeling challenged by someone without a law degree asking them about their business operations, their exasperation with being unable to answer these questions would show.

They would “remind” me that they were hiring me to provide content writing and, even if I’ve won awards or accolades in business or journalism (which is why they’d called me in the first place), I’m ‘just a strategic writing consultant, not a lawyer.’ They’d insist they wanted me to start immediately, without real marketing guidance from them. They’d tell me it either was forthcoming, it was my job to know or figure out what they wanted or I should just target ‘everyone who could need their legal services’ with my written content. “Can’t you just write?” they would ask.

That showed me they do not know how to work effectively with experienced, professional consultants. They also cannot take the strategic advice they are paying to receive from someone who is more knowledgeable about marketing than they are. By seeing my not being an attorney as a handicap, they were disabling my strategic effectiveness and hobbling my tactical execution. 

I know writing content without a clear understanding of the law firm’s business goals, target clients or even a writing plan can be interesting, but ineffective. Moreover, not only couldn’t these lawyers tell me who their target audience was, they usually would not invest in a marketing plan consultant to find out for them. (They often thought I was that type consultant, too, and should do that work as well—for the same fee.)

I’ve learned from experience that these attorney-owners, unprepared for business success, would find the experience of working with me, or any legal marketing consultant, a frustrating, expensive failure. Because haven’t learned how effective marketing strategy is executed, they also might conclude that legal marketing doesn’t work. Worse for their marketing consultants, they might decide we weren’t effective professionals and convey that to others. 

Unfortunately, I know from experience what else frequently happens with law firms in this position. They hire different legal marketing consultants every quarter to try “the next big tactic” they hear or read about somewhere. Then, unskilled in management, they misdirect the consultant, hamper their campaign, mishandle valuable leads and alienate prospective clients and referring attorneys. 

This happens because there’s no business or marketing strategy backing the marketing program. Also, because their firms are run poorly, these small firm owners aren’t able to handle new business marketing can help generate. So, their marketing efforts also fall flat repeatedly.

Yet, I would hear these attorneys still insist that having their law degree was enough to make them competent small business owners. They’d further insist that marketing, alone, should work to help them grow. Their experiences were not showing them otherwise.

This is a vicious cycle where too many lawyers get stuck and stay struggling to generate adequate revenue to hire help. It beehooves you to change this behavior.

Successful Small Law Firms Leaders Learn to Be Effective Business Owners

I worked for over a decade in successful law firms of all sizes, so I know what profitable law practice attorneys know. They get that running a small law firm is running a small business. They are legal entrepreneurs who take regular steps to get better at law practice management and get better at managing all aspects of law firm operations.

That includes strategic planning and working well with marketing professionals to help us support their business development goals. They know what those goals are, in detail, because they’re part of a formal, written plan that is well-researched and revised, often frequently.

As a result, their firms are highly profitable, consistently increasing in revenue, providing excellent service to their clients, enhancing their professional reputations and providing personal fulfillment as well. Those law firm owners typically are happy and having fun running their practices, too. They feel like they have a reason to get up every morning and go to their office.

Not only are their staff and other attorneys usually happy working with them, they maintain long-term, profitable relationships with clients. They also receive a steady stream of referral business from those clients, other attorneys and community members. They are respected business owners and community members, often sought after to participate in board work, for media interviews and given awards for both their legal practice management skills and legal work.

They are the attorneys you see on television or read positive news stories about. You hear about them outrivaling others in business and law practice. They are not just legal technicians; they are entrepreneurial law practice owners. Those lawyers and their firms also are fun to support in their content marketing efforts. Having them as clients benefits both their law firm and legal marketing consultants.

They’ve arrived at this level of success because they understand that, while your law degree should give you the tools to be an effective lawyer, law schools don’t teach much on creating a successful law practice. So, these law firm owners invest the time and money to learn the small law business management skills they need from other professionals who teach these skills.

Those professionals include their non-lawyer marketing staff and strategists, who they respect because they have different expertise from them as an attorney. But, they also can be law practice management consultants, many of whom are formerly practicing attorneys. Some attorney law practice owners even pursue additional advanced degrees in law or management. 

For Lasting Success, Learn Law Practice Management Skills First

If your law practice is experiencing economic and professional success and generating personal fulfillment, that’s great. You’ve taken that first step to making sure your marketing efforts also are profitable and working as your strategic content writing consultant probably might be interesting, productive and profitable for us both. 

But, if this does not describe your law practice, you’re committed to staying an attorney and owning a practice and you’d like this to describe you, first, you’ll have to change your mindset. Recognize being an attorney really doesn’t mean you already must know everything there is to know about everything.

Acknowledge that you’re actually an entrepreneur running a legal services business and you have an obligation to society and your family if you have one, to be profitable enough be of benefit to others. Then you must admit you need help to learn how to run a business while refusing to feel like a failure because you need that education.

It’s not like you’re alone. About 80% of small business owners in your position need this help, though most won’t get the training. You’re different. You’re reading this article. You’re about to change your legal business and life. You now know you can become a highly competent attorney business owner by taking steps to learn to run your law firm like a real business. You’re only a failure if you refuse.

You’ll need to invest in an executive coach for lawyers or law firm management consultant. Start with a coach if you’re struggling with personal challenges or want to see what yours might be before taking next steps. Then, get a consultant to help you get properly structured as a business before you move forward with much else other than serving your current clients. That includes calling a marketing consultant to launch yet another unsuccessful marketing program.

Make sure a consultant helps you create the right marketing strategy as part of your overall law firm management strategic plan, the tactics you should begin with and the right marketing services to help you achieve those goals. Then, hiring marketing strategists won’t seem like an excessive burden to your struggling law firm and working with them a frustrating failure. 

There are numerous exceptional coaches and consultants in the marketplace that work with different types of legal practices and lawyers with different goals and ideas of success. With proper research and referrals from colleagues, you should be able to find one that fits your personality, immediate needs, long-term goals, and perhaps your budget. You might even consider getting an advanced degree, like an applied MBA.

But, you’ll have to start by admitting where you are, what needs to change and being so hungry to move toward creating the law practice of your dreams that you act.

(c) 2016-2017. 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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