How Has Legal Marketing Changed Since the 1980s?
When “Back to the Future, Part II” hit theaters in the late 1980s, the date that Marty McFly travels to in his time-traveling DeLorean – October 21, 2015 – was a long way off. Now, we’re already several months into the future and 2015 seems like ages ago.
Sure, we still don’t have hoverboards or flying cars, but the movie did accurately predict our use of mobile phones, videoconferencing and biometric devices.
As for today’s legal world, innovations such as the iPhone and colored socks have brought attorneys into 2016. But how does their marketing hold up?
A notoriously late-to-the-party industry, law has been slow to embrace marketing and technology. But change has made its way through law firms over the years – websites, mobile technology and an overall willingness to market services have become widely accepted.
To appreciate these changes, let’s try to recall how things used to be. If we could ask those in the 1980s about how law firms and the legal industry would change 30-plus years from now, what would they tell us?
For a blast from the past, below are actual forward-thinking law firm marketing and business development tips that were published in news articles in the 1980s. Let’s see if they have withstood the test of time.
On Using Mobile Technology to Do More Work
“Once you can do business in your car… you’re always doing business,” said Detroit-based attorney Randy Friedman in an Oct. 1989 New York Times article on the increase in telephone usage. The article notes he now never worries about being late to the office: “If I’m caught in traffic, I just do business on the [car]phone.”
In a 1989 Corporate Report- Kansas City article, an attorney at Midwest law firm Spencer Fane says, “[O]vernight delivery service and facsimile machines are speeding the delivery of law: if a client faxes a problem in, he expects a response faxed back, pronto. ‘Fax and Federal Express may kill a few of us,’” noted the attorney.
Verdict: Still accurate – minus the carphones and fax machines. Nowadays, it is a given for attorneys to have a way to be reached while on the go. Smartphones have made attorneys more reachable than ever for clients, and attorneys see the value in being able to be reached wherever they are. Not to mention that attorneys can email, work and communicate more than ever from their phones or mobile devices on the train, at the airport, at the playground or at home.
On Changes to the Delivery of Legal Services
Joel Hyatt’s idea in the late 1970s to use a franchise model to open law offices in shopping centers and malls across the country was revolutionary at the time. By making the world of legal services accessible to the masses, Hyatt attracted many middle-class customers suspicious of or intimidated by lawyers. In its heyday in the late 1980s, Hyatt Legal Services had over 200 offices staffed with attorneys to assist consumers with wills, no-contest divorces, traffic tickets and other simple legal matters. (While Hyatt Legal Services no longer exists, the company is now known as Hyatt Legal Plans and is a provider of group legal plans offering consumers access to attorneys for commonly needed legal services.)
"We're in a shakeout period,' said Phoenix lawyer Van O'Steen, then-chairman of the American Bar Association's special committee on the delivery of legal services in a February 1985 Dallas Morning News article. "It is not unlike the transition years ago from mom-and-pop grocery stores to supermarkets.'
"The long-term implication is that the way law is practiced will change,” noted Hyatt in the same article. "Those changes will serve the public very well.”
Verdict: Somewhat accurate, and somewhat not. Hyatt Legal Services disrupted the law firm industry and gave way to DIY-law services like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, But for consumers, and especially companies, having a lawyer provide counsel along the way is invaluable and often the safest course of business, so there is still quite a need for traditional-model corporate law firms.
What’s changed is how that counsel is provided. Hyatt Legal Services helped demystify the practice of law. In today’s age of transparency, people are more educated, informed and familiar with lawyers. Internet research can yield results instantaneously. Consumers and companies can work more collaboratively with their attorneys, making sure that their legal needs are met in a customized, streamlined and efficient manner without breaking the banks.
On the Importance of Face-to-Face
“If teleconferencing was effective, nobody would get on an airplane. It just doesn’t work; you have to sit across the table from someone. The world just hasn’t come to the point where we can work on a non-personal basis,” said a travel agent in an October 1989 Business Travel News article.
Verdict: Mostly accurate. Video and phone conference-call technology have improved since the 1980s and do help bridge the miles in day-to-day communication. But they’ll only get you so far. Clients still need that face time and in-person meetings. Don’t forget to maintain that personal connection with your clients and schedule in-person meetings regularly, even just to have lunch.
On a Minimalist Approach to Law Firm Marketing
A June 1989 New York Times article about in-house law firm marketing directors noted that the current “distaste for marketing led some firms to approach it halfheartedly. Several firms have tried to make paralegals or secretaries into marketing directors, with unhappy results. Designating someone with no training and no experience to lead such a program is ‘asking for discomfort and strife,’ said Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, former president of the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Administrators.”
Verdict: Thankfully, designating a paralegal to run your firm’s marketing is no longer the norm among most firms. Firms and attorneys have become marketing- and PR-savvy. They know that if they don’t market themselves their competitors will do it better and more visibly – and reap the benefits. Attorneys and firms still choose different ways to do this, and marketing costs can vary from thousands to millions per year, depending on the firm. But the takeaway is clear – whatever marketing program you implement, do it thoughtfully and strategically to get the most mileage out of your marketing dollars. And Tarlton’s advice in 1989 is spot-on even today: Not investing in the right strategy and talent to run your firm’s marketing will only lead to trouble.
I think we can all agree that the practice of law and law firm marketing has changed (ideally for the better!) over the years. Some lawyers have even embraced blogging and Twitter! While we probably won’t see any groundbreaking ‘Real Beauty’ ad campaigns by major corporate law firms, let’s hope that the industry will continue to (slowly) embrace change and adapt to the changing needs of society.