The most valuable asset for any business today is its good name: its brand and reputation. This holds just as true for law firms as it does for consumer packaged goods companies or service businesses. Consumers of goods and services turn to the Web to confirm their buying decisions. According to a recent report published jointly by the World Economic Forum and a major U.S. PR firm, three-fifths of CEOs surveyed believe that corporate brand and reputation represents more than 40 percent of a company’s market capitalization.
Today, it is more critical than ever for law firms to pay considerable time and attention to maintain or elevate the value and reputation of their brands. This White Paper not only examines the unique marketing situation that results from a merger of law firms, but also relates to any law firm that wishes to be a true competitor in the legal marketplace. The bottom line is that many things measure a law firm’s public reputation, but in most cases, it now begins with Web site content.
The Newly Merged Firm: So Much To Do…
When law firms merge, no matter how well established each one of the firms is to begin with, that value and the combined reputation are automatically in flux. The values inherent in the newly merged firm need to be quickly defined; attorneys and other employees must quickly embrace and live by those values so that the new firm can deliver on its promises to clients. At the same time, the law firm’s marketing materials must define and reinforce the firm’s brand promise and position itself amongst its competitors so as to gain the ground it hoped for when first considering the merger.
To achieve that goal, a seemingly infinite number of tasks need to be completed in a finite amount of time by the new firm’s combined marketing department and marketing committees. These tasks usually include creating a new visual brand or logo and collateral branding materials, a roll-out campaign and public reputation strategy, and launching a new, combined Web site with hundreds or maybe thousands of pages of both new and recycled content.
Getting the New Site Launched: The Standard Approach Does Not Always Work
The standard approach always seems to be to formulate a budget first, assign tasks to staff and attorneys, and create a timeline for delivery of each tactic. Because there is so much to do, a realistic timeline will likely extend over the course of many months. This approach seems reasonably designed to contain costs in light of the inevitable search for the economy of scale that the merging firms hope to achieve.
But somehow this standard solution always winds up being quite elusive for many reasons -- including the fact that the lawyers’ client work will always come before the assigned marketing tasks. At the end of the day, the actual marketing work will cost the firm much more than contemplated because the initial calculation lacks an important factor: it does not include the opportunity cost of the time it takes to do the marketing work and maybe even more importantly the new business opportunities that might be lost as a result of unfulfilled tasks. Consider a newly merged law firm Web site that lacks clear messaging and continuity. A new Web site without the new bios and practice area descriptions that serve as the foundation of the firm’s expertise, a law firm sales catalog including a virtual listing of everything the firm has done and can do. Think about how the immediate absence of this information will negatively impact search engine optimization, let alone the effect the lack of information has on the viewer.
The concept of opportunity cost, first developed by John Stuart Mill, is a key concept in assessing the true cost of any course of action. As defined by an article in Wikipedia, opportunity cost is “the value of the next-best choice available to someone who has picked among several mutually exclusive choices. … It’s the real cost of output forgone, lost time, money, pleasure or any other benefit that provides utility.”
The Opportunity Cost of Content That Suffers From Lack of Attention
Of the many tasks that follow a law firm merger, one is undoubtedly significant: creating attorney biographies that sell the firm’s expertise. This is an arduous process, as individually the two firms will likely have very different biography styles and formats, and typically most law firm biographies are outdated and require a lot of heavy lifting to bring the information current. The task, therefore, is burdensome and often placed on the back burner. Added to the inherent “bottom of the to-do list” mentality often associated with revising biographies is simply the amount of time it takes to do the work required.
We’ve personally witnessed seasoned marketers and lawyers who are ultimately surprised to see how long this seemingly simple effort actually takes. It may take a partner two hours to revise her biography, a cost of $600 - $800 of non-billable time and lost fees. But that amount pales in comparison to the larger opportunity cost: a single attorney’s biography is only one of dozens, maybe hundreds of biographies that will need to be written or rewritten, vetted and edited for consistency, then proofed and uploaded. And, if you include the expected time that many lawyers will spend, essentially procrastinating and never quite completing what needs to be done on their biographies, that number of hours becomes hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of lost opportunity time.
Most opportunities are difficult to compare, particularly if an unknown advantage or disadvantage is thrown into the mix. That’s why factoring opportunity cost is an ongoing but important challenge; thus there are even more costs to factor into our example above. Consider that some firms will put off launching their new Web sites until they have every biography in place. If a potential client is searching online for someone with specific legal experience but your firm’s biographies are sitting in virtual limbo waiting to go through the editorial process and then be uploaded, that opportunity cost rises even higher because the firm has lost out on the chance to gain a new client. Really, there must be a better solution.
Another factor that disadvantages firms is the lack of search engine (Google for example) optimization (SEO) expertise. These days, if Web site content lacks optimized keywords, it’s a set up for search engine failure. There’s no sense writing and uploading a biography that will ultimately rank too low on a Google search. The search engines continuously change their algorithms, and only those who pay attention to these changes are able to modify their Web content and bolster their own search engine results. It’s not just biographies we’re talking about either. It’s practice group descriptions, industry overviews, and all of the content in a law firm’s Web site. Long gone are the days when a Web site served as a static brochure. Now, Web visitors go to a search engine first and often rely only on what they see on the very first page of results. Every law firm must maximize the potential of getting onto that first page, and the way to do it is through optimized content.
But wait…there’s more. More opportunity costs. A newly merged firm wants to present itself as an outstanding workplace and a collection of the brightest legal minds. But the lack of a current, well-written Web site equals lost recruiting opportunities and the obvious inability to make an impression on laterals and referral sources. If the Web site hasn’t launched because the content isn’t being written quickly enough, or, even worse, launches with stale and disorganized content, it can’t perform for the firm.
So, what should a law firm do? We’ve already noted, and this is based on much experience working with law firms on Web content projects, that the timeframe for in-house content completion is several months. The truth is, it’s never just several months, it’s always more. That’s because the lawyers get busy with their billable work; and the marketing staff gets busy with the dozens of other important projects, including client satisfaction, public relations, seminars, rankings, business development, holiday cards, and the list goes on.
Of course everyone knows that the Web site must get completed, so the pressure is ongoing. The time lost to everyone involved in the Web site is untrackable but it is most definitely extensive. The Web site always becomes a “we’ll get to it soon” type of project. Attorney biographies and practice group descriptions become that high priority/low urgency task that lingers in the back of everyone’s minds. It’s not the best way to approach work; but it is human nature, and in many work environments, urgency trumps priority simply because urgency begs for attention.
The Web site only becomes top of mind when a partner learns that a prospect turned to another law firm for representation when it saw that this newly merged law firm’s Web site was unimpressive and out of date.
Since a brand’s real worth is largely attributed to its reputation, as the CEO study suggests, then it is imperative for recently-merged law firms to attach a sense of purpose and urgency to implementing the large-scale marketing tasks that are a result of the merger. With so much competition in the legal marketplace, the “we’ll get to it later” approach just doesn’t work. Law firms, whether newly merged or not, need to prioritize attention on their Web site content, or risk the loss of new business.
No law firm wants to miss an opportunity for new business. Therefore, the key is to come up with a plan of attack at the outset of a merger that enables the lawyers and marketing staff to get compelling materials onto the new Web site quickly, and not miss a beat with prospects, referral sources, potential lateral hires, and all other audiences that determine a law firm’s reputation. In other words…limit lost opportunity time. Here are a few options:
- Make Content a Priority: Make it easy for the lawyers in both firms to revise their biographies by providing them with a format to follow. Give them a short deadline to complete the revisions, and then lean on the marketing department to bring a consistent tone to all of the biographies and get them online right away. Don’t hesitate to get a new Web site live with smart content that shows a unified front.
- Work with experienced project managers, even outside resources like a writing service, and writers and let them revise all of the materials for you, leaving the attorneys with the responsibility of editing only.
- Create an ongoing Content Update Process, whereby the lawyers and marketers appreciate the value of the firm’s Web site as a marketing tool, enabling them to modify their biographies and practice group descriptions every time there’s a new case, ranking, speaking engagement, or other notable achievement.
Above all, figure out the realities of writing. We all know it takes more time than anyone expects at the start, and we all know that the lawyers need to use their time to do client work and build business, so it’s just smart to accept those facts right from the start. Get help if you need to. But don’t let the daily must do’s put a halt to making your best marketing tool quickly available to your audiences. That’s an opportunity cost no law firm can afford.