Law Firms Slow to Advertise

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Jun. 4, 2007 12:00 am  

It's been 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court declared that lawyers had a First Amendment right to advertise their services, but -- with the notable exception of personal injury practices -- law firm marketing is still in its infancy.

That is especially true in Arkansas, where even large firms have been slow to invest in marketing expertise.

About three years ago, the lawyers at Cross Gunter Witherspoon & Galchus PC attempted to develop a marketing plan themselves. But they found the time that should have been devoted to promoting the firm slipped away.

"You're too busy putting out fires for different people," said Bruce Cross, an attorney and director at the Little Rock firm, which has 23 attorneys. "That's ... where you fall short." So in 2004, Cross Gunter hired its first business development manager to handle the marketing. And the move has paid off, Cross said.

"We found this to be sort of a smart way to do business and to provide a better service for our clients," he said.

Cross Gunter is following a nationwide trend of law firms hiring their own in-house marketing specialists, but it is still ahead of the curve in Arkansas. It's unclear how many law firms in Arkansas have marketing specialists on staff, though the indications are that there aren't that many -- yet.

Kelly Davenport, the business development manager for Cross Gunter, recently attended a Legal Marketing Association conference in Atlanta attended by 1,400 people.

Davenport was the only one from Arkansas.

At the end of March, Mitchell Williams Selig Gates & Woodyard PLLC of Little Rock hired its first in-house marketing specialist.

Andrea Morrissey, who left the Little Rock advertising agency Stone Ward after three and a half years to join Mitchell Williams as its director of marketing and client relations, said she will handle business development for the firm, its community relations and marketing.

Harry Hamlin, the managing partner for Mitchell Williams, said that for the past 15 years the firm has had someone on staff who handled marketing, but the person in that position wasn't a specialist in the three areas of marketing, public relations and taking care of its clients.

"Over the last couple of years, we decided we needed to get serious about this and work toward somebody that is a true marketing and client services professional, which is I think what we got in Andrea," Hamlin said. "We view ourselves as the premier firm in the Arkansas market. The problem is, how do we get that message out? And secondly, our client relationships -- those are critical."

Other law firms, however, don't have in-house marketing specialists and aren't planning on hiring them anytime soon.

Friday Eldredge & Clark LLP of Little Rock, which is the largest law firm in Arkansas with 91 lawyers, doesn't have a marketing department and adding one hasn't been discussed, said one employee, who asked not to be named.

Quattlebaum Grooms Tull & Burrow of Little Rock, which has 29 attorneys, also doesn't have an in-house marketing specialist on staff.

"To my knowledge, it's not in the immediate future plans," said Sandra Roth, the firm's office manager.

But others predict law firms will start hiring their own in-house marketing specialists. "Now it's not ... whether you're going [to hire an in-house marketing specialist], but how much are you going to devote to it," said Micah Buchdahl, the conference chair for the American Bar Association's Law Practice Management Section.

In November, the American Bar Association will hold its first national marketing strategies conference. The conference, which will be in Washington, D.C., also will mark the 30th anniversary of the decision in the Bates v. the State Bar of Arizona case, which voided longstanding state prohibitions on attorney advertising.

The number of in-house marketing employees for law firms nationwide has exploded since the 1980s, when there were only a handful.

Currently, 2,600 people do in-house marketing for law firms, said Sally Schmidt, president of Schmidt Marketing Inc. of St. Paul, Minn.

"What we are seeing in the last two years ... it's really grown a lot," Schmidt said. Davenport attributes the rise to increasing competition among law firms. Schmidt said that having the right person in a marketing position could be of "substantial" value to a firm.

"Hopefully, you bring in a marketing professional and they're going to be able to help the firms figure out what the most effective strategies are," she said.

Turning to the Specialist
As the business development manager, Davenport handles all the marketing campaigns for Cross Gunter.

"We sponsor live events. We have attorneys involved with boards and commissions. We also do some advertising," she said about ways to drum up business.

Another marketing strategy is holding in-house training programs on labor and employment practices for human resource officers. "That's been a good tool for bringing in potential clients," Davenport said.

The firm also has exhibits at trade shows, and Davenport publishes a newsletter. Cross Gunter's Web site has also been a source of new clients.

"I've been trying to do a lot more to push people to our Web site, because that was something they weren't doing," Davenport said.

Even though the decision in Bates v. the State Bar of Arizona allowed attorneys to advertise, rules in Arkansas still regulate what attorneys can say in ads. The regulations include mandating the size of the type in a letter to a potential client and requiring that such a letter contain a disclaimer stating it's an advertisement. Attorneys or law firms that violate those rules could face sanctions from the Arkansas Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct.

Davenport said dealing with the committee rules on advertising hasn't been that difficult. Cross Gunter's audience is limited because the firm deals mainly with labor and employment issues, she said.

"I'm not just out there marketing to anybody," Davenport said. "So we're not sending out mass e-mails or mass faxes or mass letters."

Measuring Success
Measuring the effectiveness of Davenport's efforts is difficult.

"For a corporate law firm, it's a lot harder to measure direct return on investment on a lot of the things that you do," said the ABA's Buchdahl.

Annually, Davenport gives a presentation to the firm on where the company is and where it's heading.

"We do a lot of graphs about how many new clients we have and how much income they brought in, just to kind of measure profitability," she said. "But as far as their brand recognition and whether or not [potential clients] remember our message -- that could take years. That's been the hardest part, to see how good I'm doing."

For a consumer-oriented law firm, tracking new clients is easier. Firms can follow their Web site hits or ask their clients where they learned about the firm.

Schmidt said that if a firm hasn't had a marketing specialist on the staff before, the first year should be measured in activities, not bottom-line results.

"By the end of the third year, if they have the right person, you should see definite improvement or growth in the practice," she said.

Buchdahl said some firms with fewer than five attorneys now are spending six-figure amounts on marketing, while some of the national firms are spending millions.

And when one firm starts an aggressive marketing campaign in a city, the other firms need to follow suit.

"Often it will be one firm that actually drives the entire market upward," Buchdahl said.

The Skeptics
Cross said there were a few attorneys at the firm who were skeptical about hiring an in-house marketing specialist.

Some attorneys thought that the firm should be able to attract business solely because it provides quality service, Cross said.

"And I agree that's always going to be the No. 1 factor,...but at the same time, being able to let your clients know what services you do have, making sure you're doing the kind of work that's good for them,...they always appreciate those kinds of things," Cross said.

Schmidt, of Schmidt Marketing, said some attorneys are still in the "Stone Age" in thinking that marketing is a discretionary cost.

"A lot of people don't understand it's an investment," she said. "And frankly, a lot of firms don't know how to measure their return on investment anyway, so they kind of throw money and resources at marketing and don't really know if it's working."

Davenport said that's one of the reasons she has the annual meeting to show the progress she's made.

The conservative attorneys have been tough to convert, she said.

"They are going to take a gradual push," Davenport said. "That's been the hardest thing in my job is kind of been to woo them and show them the importance of my position."



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