Marketing

How do you build a practice for a law firm?

Everyone has a theory; I’ll provide a case study.

In 1997, Congress was about to pass a law that would have been great for America, but horrific for business at the law firm at which I then worked. The firm thus (intelligently) created several committees to try to create new practices that could keep lawyers busy if the promised bill became law. I was asked to chair the “drug and device product liability business development committee.”

At the time, my firm did essentially no pharmaceutical product liability work. I’d helped to defend a set of medical device cases, which was about as close as anyone had come to actual experience in the pharmaceutical products field, so I was the natural choice to lead this effort. When given that assignment, what do you do? How do you build a practice essentially from scratch?

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In this column, I’m presenting you with a gift: I’m ghost-writing for you a law firm brochure. I hereby grant all copyright interest in my brochure to you. Feel free to reproduce the following brochure, print it up, attach your firm’s logo, mail or e-mail the brochure to clients and potential clients, and wait for business to beat a path to your door.

It’s yours, free of charge, courtesy of Above the Law and yours truly. Don’t say we’ve never done anything for you….

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I told you last week that today’s column would focus on “how to get my attention.” And I’ll let you know in a bit.

But first, let’s play “Which Biglaw Anecdote is True?” Here are the options:

(1) A partner at Law Firm A regularly has his briefcase sent to his home in a limo;
(2) Law Firm B is chock full of lawyers of all faiths and backgrounds, but holds its summer outing at a country club known for being “restricted”; or
(3) Attorneys at Law Firm C take a helicopter from the 34th Street heliport in Manhattan to a hearing in Connecticut — and then bill the client for it.

Which story is true?

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Like any well-adjusted adult, I blame my parents for all of my problems. You should too, at least when it comes to your name. For instance, if your parents named you Candy, then they ensured that you would become a stripper. Similarly, if your parents named you Stanley, then you were destined to become a tool.

There are a few exceptions where the name chosen by your parents guarantees that you will be a success. For example, if your parents named you “Valerie,” you were destined to become a star.

The luckiest of all, for our purposes at least, are those chosen few with the last name Small….

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Stop me if this sounds familiar to you:

The managing partner of your firm tells you and your colleagues that you all need to “do more marketing.” What that vague phrase means is unclear, but the partner feels it’s imperative. It’s the only way to bring in more business. Someone — maybe even you — ventures to ask for ideas on what kind of marketing you all should be doing.

Your fearless leader looks nonplussed for a moment, then shakes his head quickly like a dog drying himself and sputters, “Network. Get out there and network.” Meeting over.

Now you and your colleagues are left trying to divine just how to go about “marketing” and “networking.” There were no courses on these arcane arts in your non-T14 law school. (Fear not: The T14 law schools didn’t have those courses either.)

Finally, one of the group members — maybe even you — recalls getting an email blast about an upcoming networking event that you can all go to at the local chamber of commerce. “Great,” you chorus. But what are you supposed to do when you get there?

Don’t worry. Here are the six best tips for attending networking events:

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Many prominent people, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Judge Harry Edwards, have raised their voices about the increasing irrelevance of academic writing to practicing lawyers and judges. Yet, despite railing at the academy, those judges — and law firms, and sophisticated purchasers of legal services — all rely on the academics to identify talented lawyers. Law schools brand the beef, and purchasers buy based on the brand. What do I mean, and why is that process natural and appropriate?

Let’s start with an example for people coming right out of law school: How should judges pick law clerks? One way — perhaps even the “fair” way — would be for judges to assume that each of the 45,000 people graduating from law school is equally likely to make a fine clerk. Judges would solicit applications from all 45,000 and then start the process of sorting the good from the bad.

That cannot work, of course. Judges don’t have the resources (or, necessarily, the ability) to study transcripts, read writing samples, conduct interviews, and do the other spadework needed to assess all of those candidates comprehensively. And judges can’t externalize the cost of the screening process; there’s no person or institution that would play that role for an acceptable price.

What are judges to do? They rely on law schools to brand the beef.

Rant as they may about scholars producing unhelpful scholarship, most judges rely essentially unthinkingly on those same scholars to have separated the potentially gifted lawyers from the crowd. Judges assume that the best students went to the best law schools; that, after arriving, the more talented law students outperformed the less talented ones; and thus that the best performers at the best law schools will make the best clerks. Judges typically pick their clerks from among the top graduates of the elite schools. Judges may think that professors are insane when they’re selecting topics for their scholarship and then devoting months to researching and writing on those subjects, but those same judges rely on the same professors to brand the beef astutely. Whatever criteria law schools are using within the asylum to rank their students, the outside world seems quite happy with it.

Is that fair?

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I recently talked about law firm names. But it’s not enough just to come up with a good law firm name. You also need to come up with a good law firm domain name. Otherwise, people will have trouble finding you. If you have your own firm, or think you might possibly someday, you need to become master of your domain, and you need to do it now.

When I started practicing in 1994, the Martindale-Hubbell directory was how people found out about your law firm. If you weren’t in there, you weren’t legit. That’s all changed now. If people want to learn about your firm, they either enter in your domain name (or your likely domain name if they don’t already know it), or they use the Google to find your website.

Nowadays, this is often how prospective clients (as well as opposing counsel) get their first impression of you and your firm. If your website looks like it would have been at the cutting edge in 1998 or 2002, you’re already sunk. Firm website design is a topic for a different day. Today we’re just talking about your domain name, because without a good one, you may never get found in the first place.

If you have your own small firm, or think you possibly may someday, read on for eight tips on choosing the right domain name.…

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Silly things happen when no one speaks up.

The classic example was when General Motors chose to name one of its cars the Chevrolet “Nova.” In Spanish, “no va” means “it does not go,” which isn’t a great name for a car sold in Spanish-speaking countries. I’d bet that a few hundred Spanish-speaking employees of GM noticed that issue before the car hit the market, but no one bothered to speak up.

Let me offer two more examples of failing to speak up, with both examples coming at my own expense. (I wish I weren’t such an easy target, but such is life.)

The first example involves a law firm. Twenty-two years ago, as a lateral sixth-year associate, I accepted a job at Jones Day in Cleveland. I saw during the hiring process, and again when I sat down at my desk on the first day of my new job, that all of the firm’s promotional materials included the firm’s marketing slogan: “Jones Day: One Firm Worldwide.”

I’d been practicing law for six years at that point, so I was a relatively sophisticated lawyer, although by no means an old hand. Perhaps older and wiser folks looked at the tagline “one firm worldwide” and thought: “Terrific! I’m going to hire those guys because they’re one firm worldwide!”

But that wasn’t how it struck me. I sat there scratching my head: How many firms was I supposed to think Jones Day was? Two firms? Three firms? A half-dozen? And why was the apparent misperception — that Jones Day was more than one firm — so widespread that the firm devoted its main branding opportunity to dispelling this confusion? Of the many praiseworthy things that could surely be said about my new employer, why did the fact that it was only “one firm” top the list? Wouldn’t it be slightly more helpful to say, for example, “Jones Day: Pretty Good Lawyers”? Would the Jones Day slogan make sense for any other big firm? Would “General Motors: One Firm Worldwide” be a useful marketing tool? What the heck was going on?

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I am not proud to admit this, but it is possible that my three-year-old niece knows more about branding than I do. I learned this the other day when I was reading my niece one of her favorite books, Fancy Nancy.

For those of you who not know Nancy, she is a little girl who loves to dress fancy, act fancy and talk fancy. For example, this little girl does not say that her favorite color is purple. She prefers fuchsia, a word that is “fancy” for purple. Similarly, Nancy does not want a new hairdo. No, Nancy uses the fancy word “coiffure” instead. For some reason, my niece loves Nancy, but I think she is a showoff. When asked why she loves the know-it-all Nancy, my niece explained that she made things sound better.

Maybe my niece had a point. If you want your small firm to sound better, then use fancy words. As Nancy would explain, do not call yourself a “trial lawyer.” Everyone knows that “litigator” is fancy for trial lawyer. Or is it?

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Yesterday was the last day of July, and baseball fans know that this day is important because it’s the trade deadline. (Seamheads and baseball lawyers understand that it’s actually only the nonwaiver-trade deadline, but why take the fun out of it?) So I spent some time this weekend following the interwebs to see whether the Red Sox would do anything to improve their league-leading team (and even better, thwart the Yankees from improving at the same time).

At one point, there were reports that the Red Sox had traded for A’s pitcher Rich Harden. But the Sox scuttled the deal once they learned that the oft-injured Harden had a hospital bracelet tattooed on his arm to save time. (They ended up acquiring left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard, who is injured slightly less often than Harden.)

But as I was watching the annual trade-deadline special on the New England Sports Network after Sunday’s game (apparently, I have no life), I saw a laptop commercial that only a law firm could appreciate.

Whose ad it was and why it made me think of the sorry state of law-firm marketing, after the jump.…

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