Look, Manchester is the second city of a major world nation.  So, why do so many legal firms in the area choose to devote so little time and effort to online marketing strategies from this decade?

A city full of large, weighty law firms with negligible online (you know, the place where leads come from) coverage is not good for business confidence in the city. Not if they continue to fall.

Have recent failures of prominent (and not so prominent) legal firms in the city not informed managing partners that it’s time to create lead generation strategies for now and for the future?

Many current strategies involve hiring marketing teams based on cost or hiring agencies just because they know them – this is serious shit, managing partners, if you pardon my language. Why spend years working for qualifications, then blood sweat and tears building a practice, to then potentially throw the future away by not giving enough dedication to marketing strategies that befit the modern way that people become aware of your services?

Worse still, perhaps, are firms that have excellent marketing teams but stifle them  by way of power struggles with non-tech-savvy partners who nitpick over every single piece of content that is created. When time spent discussing created content is greater than the time it takes to write it, it means you are doing it very wrong indeed.

businessman wearing  paper bag

Brave law firms win online marketing battles in my experience.  Having worked with multi-million dollar-turnover attorneys in Dallas and New York, local legal firms, in the main, are light years away from their American counterparts when it comes to online marketing.  Top attorney practices spread the net wide and hire marketing leaders from a variety of industries to ensure success.  They do not hire because they were treated to Porn Star Martinis* at a networking event or awards evening. And they certainly don’t let fee earners and partners treat their marketing teams (including seasoned marketing directors) with disdain. Arrogance by partners toward their own internal marketing staff at some of the law firms that I have encountered in UK is nothing short of Dickensian.

Bar a few exceptions, online marketing strategies and tactics of legal firms in Manchester are risible to say the least.  JMW are a notable exception after great, considered work by themselves and their marketing agency, I-COM over several years.

Following up from assessing the performance of JMW among others, I asked partner, Marc Yaffe, for his opinion. He said:

“At JMW we took the decision early on, ahead of the curve you might say, to ensure that our site was full of great content and useful for all to use on all platforms. We adopted mobile technology before most other firms of our size and much of our online business starts with an enquiry from a mobile phone.

“We pride ourselves on being able to deal with online leads in record time. It is ingrained in all departments of the business to take online leads, feed them to the right department and deal with them promptly. It is imperative that when someone enquires online that we get back to them in record time. It give clients confidence when they know that they are dealing with a company that takes their request seriously.

“One major boon for the business has been that, as the business has become used to dealing promptly with online enquiries this has filtered through to actions that follow on. We understand that in an online lead-driven world, speed is of the essence.

“We are also strong advocates when it comes to our staff engaging with people both offline and online whether that be a courteous exchange or a professional conversation. All great marketing is people-driven – even online marketing.”

After reviewing many larger law firms’ marketing tactics, everything that Marc says is right on the money for a company that has understood the online landscape and is performing well in it.  Many large professional services companies literally fall to pieces when inbound leads start to happen following a successful online marketing strategy change.  It (companies flapping/moaning about an influx of new leads) has happened to me several times when taking on large professional services clients and it never ceases to amaze me.

I asked head-hunter, Gary Chaplin (garychaplin.com) for his views about how professional services companies approach the hiring of marketing directors and teams.  He said:

“The Professional services sector has been through massive evolution in the past 10 years as businesses recognise they are better outsourcing certain key skill-sets to those who are specialists in those skills, and in turn allowing the business themselves to focus on what is their key strength. Witness the spike in Marketing, IT, Recruitment, PR sector activity plus the development of Legal and Accountancy firm remits.

“Alas, the outsourced-to professional services firms themselves are often particularly bad at outsourcing key professional services, thinking they can deal with these areas in-house…. and even more, particularly bad at selecting effective/appropriate/fit-for-purpose professionals service partners.

“From my experience, many professional services firms will either rely on age-old (read: outdated/outmoded/staid/non-evolved) relationships just because they always have; or they will take non-informed advice from trusted advisors who themselves have not kept abreast of the way in which market(s) have developed and thus give outdated advice, often with the compromise of a conflict of interest. Such moves means that poor service/results are replaced with equally poor replacements, often worse. The unwillingness to invest is often seen as the critical factor, but in reality, the unwillingness to adapt/change/evolve is usually the real reason.

“Websites are an obvious and highly visible demonstration of how professional services firms fail to appoint truly fit-for-purpose specialists. Very well established businesses, purporting to offer a high-quality service, with websites that are not only without brand & design evolution for three, five or even more years but also with key areas and information often years out of date. Such firms are often oblivious to the detrimental impact of having a half-decade old website.

“Now more than ever, your marketing efforts are THE prime driver for cold business development. Even referrals and/or direct marketing efforts will still drive potential customers to your website, social media presence and general marketing efforts in an effort to understand you. If that understanding implies you are stuck in 2008, they will assume you are too.….imagine a prestigious shop with a shop window display untouched since the mid/late part of last decade.

“Even in raw commercial terms, professional services firms need to constantly evolve their offering, my own sector of recruitment being right up there. I am currently undertaking a process for a Manchester-based, international client. The business initially appointed a recruiter six months ago, who failed to put forward a single candidate worthy of second interview. They subsequently appointed a well-established, but non-evolved recruitment business who conducted a search, that after three months had likewise failed to present a single credible candidate (but had presented invoices totalling two-thirds of their fee – and threatened legal action to get paid!). Eventually, we were retained three weeks ago, offering an innovative, full cash refund, should we fail to deliver in an eight-week time scale (and a similarly innovative twelve-month, free replacement guarantee), and already we have already secured 100% success on submitted candidates being worthy of progression to second interview.

“If you wish to trade in 2014….you need a 2014 approach and 2014 partners.”

As always, Gary hits the nail firmly on the head and has similar opinions and experiences as myself when dealing with some large law firms, albeit from the perspective of a recruiter.

I asked Michael Di Paola, Co-Founder of expert local brand agency, Studio North, for his opinion on local law firms’ approach to branding and he said:

“It’s an increasingly competitive legal landscape here in Manchester and differentiation is more crucial than ever. Aside from a handful of niche practices who clearly stand apart based on service expertise, most other (generalist or full service) law firms are left scrambling for the hearts and minds of a mostly confused, prospective audience. Yet so few have a clearly defined brand that creates a compelling reason for a client to engage, certainly in the long-term. Loyalty is typically granted to individual lawyers who then hop from firm to firm.

“Benchmarked against other sectors we work with, there simply isn’t the same understanding and level of investment in branding at boardroom level. Then again, it’s sad to say, but I look to London and firms like Mishcon de Reya who get it oh so right. Remarkable brand, remarkable growth story there.”

By no means are my comments aimed at the smaller law firms with just a few staff.  Marketing for those companies has to be done on a tight budget and largely what has helped them to succeed for many years will continue to do so – clever networking and building strong relationships in niche sectors to name two marketing methods.

Being nimble and inventive in particular niches can see great rewards for small firms. There are some great marketing people in small firms in Manchester with great ideas that perform marketing miracles on less than 1% of the budgets of some of the behemoths in town.  I can think of one young woman working for a great, small law firm in the heart of the city who understands that her face, her social media output, and the regular content that she produces are very important weapons when spreading the word of her business – they are almost their only marketing weapons.  If she was working for a larger firm, the benefits to that firm would be felt much more.  Brand awareness mixed with this kind of selfless work is a good combination indeed. 

If some of that nimble, innovative, hard working, brave ethic was imported by the larger firms that have yet modernised, I would expect that many managing and senior partners of companies would be pleasantly surprised about ‘that there internet’ and what is achievable from it.

But who is to blame for the generally outdated marketing tactics employed by many Manchester law firms?
I think the buck has to stop at managing partners and senior partners that see marketing as a box-ticking excercise.  Something that they have to do. Something that they don’t understand. Something that they give to the more junior of partners to get paperwork off their own desks.

If a managing partner does not spend at least a couple of hours per week in his or her marketing department probing, discussing, then they have to be to blame.  Even a poor, tired, apathetic marketing team can look great once-per-month at a marketing catch up meeting, so that tactic isn’t going to work – and with only 12 meetings per year, it could be months or even years before the penny drops that their online tactics are out of date.

I don’t even know the names of managing and senior partners at the aforementioned JMW, but I am pretty confident that partners there have more than one meeting per month with their marketing team and that the marketing team have a close, regular, relationship with their SEO agency. I would even be as brave to suggest that the marketing office at JMW is close to where the main players operate from – not in the dark corner of the office so that senior partners can enjoy the view of the Manchester skyline as they adjust their tie pin.

If a marketing team has chosen a poor online marketing agency with archaic methods to work alongside them, are they to blame? – especially when not challenged about it from those that run the business at regular intervals? If the marketing team have been hired by a managing partner because their salaries were a tiny blot on the P&L sheet, can they be to blame for making poor decisions themselves?

Social Media
By their very nature, law firms are sceptical of social media for the obvious reasons.  The successful law firms embrace it.  The whole story is encapsulated in the previous two sentences.

Law firms simply have to get over the fact that social media is as much a part of their online marketing strategy as it is for cloud hosting companies as a random example.  People  and businesses ‘hang around’ on social media and love to read content that helps them to perform better as businesses, or to win personal cases.  This simple fact means that legal firms have to not only spend time ‘hanging around’ on social media, but also have to create content that audiences will appreciate.  Jumping on the social media train to say “Hi!” is not going to cut the mustard.  But on the contrary, self-promotion only messages will not suffice either.  A balanced amount of online networking, thought leadership and problem solving is the order of the day for legal firms – yet a tiny few get this right.

Lower level staff are the key to producing great website and social media content
If large law firms allowed more staff at lower levels to produce content via Twitter and LinkedIn then social media accounts and appreciation of those law firms would be so much improved.  Why?  Fee earners, and junior level staff at firms have their nose on the ground and have lots of information to share whilst dealing with many clients.  Lots of ground level touch points equals social media and Google gold dust.  Yet their voices are seldom heard.

Senior partners generally do not trust lower-level staff to produce content for social media.  Plug Alert! This is why I wrote a piece of software called herd to allow companies (including law firms) to manage Twitter and LinkedIn messages much better than the norm.  By allowing lower-level staff to produce social media content that is checked and accepted or rejected by senior staff before it goes live, law firms can produce a much higher volume of content, yet keep it managed by those at the top.  Everyone wins – junior staff get a voice, senior staff can control that voice, social media accounts are informative and educational – and the whole company learns how to use social media so much better as it self-moderates its social media output.

No longer should law firms in Manchester give excuses both internally and externally such as ‘the social media girl is a real pain to work with, so we just leave her to it’.  That was a genuine excuse from a law firm that I have encountered (albeit one from another city rather than Manchester).

Social Media – Should law firms hire with follower bases in mind?
The answer is, all things being equal – yes.  If I was managing partner of a large law firm right now, I would be looking to hire as many prominent social media voices in the sector as I could.  Not just marketing staff, but solicitors with great social media awareness – anyone that can:

a) do a sterling job for the business (first and foremost)
b) has a good social media presence and following that can be used to amplify the company values and awareness

An ‘A-Team’ of 4/5 social media powerhouses (some solicitors, some marketing staff), all working for one law firm in the city would definitely change which law firm is talked about in business circles and ultimately chosen by those who need those services as the city grows.  Why has no law firm in Manchester done this yet? Get this kind of team in, save tens of thousands on your marketing budget and make lots of money in the process.

Thank you for reading this far.  If you are a senior partner at a law firm, then I hope that you accept my candour about the situation. I hope you accept that while most companies at present fall foul of much of the above, that all is not lost for your firm on the web.   A good, solid marketing team with a passion for social media/content and a brave team of partners that can adapt to change, can transform a firm into a web-savvy force to be reckoned with.  It is not 2008 – the way people use the web has changed. The way Google works has changed.  If your marketing department or marketing agency is talking predominantly about ‘SEO’ and ‘link building’, take a deep breath and get to work on modernising your business.  It may be a rough few months, but the medium and long term rewards will allow you not just that house you want to retire to, but an extension with a swimming pool too. And maybe an oak snooker table…you get the picture.

For dedicated, hard working marketing teams of large law firms, I hope that this has highlighted what are undoubtedly issues that many of you face on a daily basis and it may go some way to help you in your desire to do your job to the best of your ability.  I hope that partners in your business start to help and not hinder your work.

For lazy marketing teams of law firms in the city that do just enough, hire your friends as your SEO company, and get out of the office at 5.01pm, you are going to get found out real soon.

For senior partners that treat marketing departments as a necessary evil and feel offended by this post…its time to shape up or retire to the Lake District. You are old news.

For small law firms that can’t afford a marketing team or my own fees, come and see me at the OVG coffee shop and I will give you advice completely free of charge.

*Porn Star Martinis should only help to win clients as part of a calorie controlled marketing strategy.

James is CTO of Online Ventures Group, an inbound digital marketing agency creating online success for their clients using data-led marketing techniques and social media outreach. To find out more about Online Ventures Group, visit the blog or contact the business on 0844 871 7291.