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Top 10 Rules to Marketing a New Law Firm Merger or Existing “Branch” Office (Part I)

Imagine it’s fraternity rush and you’re a pretty cool kid.

You’re smart, handsome, and athletic—you’re in demand and have received many solid offers. Which one will you accept? Most likely you’ll end up at the “best” fraternity―the one that seems to have the best people, the best reputation, and generates the most buzz.

Down the block, the no-name fraternities struggle to scrounge some of the leftovers, blaming a competitive market. They never hit a critical mass of size or renown. They should blame themselves instead, for not spinning or spreading their story. The best people want to be associated with the best organizations—whether it’s a fraternity or law firm.

One hundred law firms have moved into Chicago since the 1980s.

Most of these 100 regional and national firms have behaved like the nameless fraternities. Only a handful have made any impact whatsoever—or appear to have sincerely tried. And obviously it’s not just Chicago; this same experience is occurring nationwide. Local firms want to become regional. Regional firms aspire to become national, and national firms are racing to become international or global. Nearly every firm is talking about merging or migrating.

We’ve represented both acquiring and acquired law firms. We’ve noted why some mergers seem to succeed wildly, while others founder, stagnate, or collapse.

Here are ten points, in two blog posts:

1.  Great lawyers want to work at great law firms.

They want to be part of well-known firms with strong reputations. To attract the best laterals, you must be perceived as a platform where top lawyers can grow their practices.

If your satellite office hasn’t achieved its growth goals, consider whether your local marketing was genuinely designed to ensure rapid success. Being a terrific firm isn’t enough unless your targets know it. Marketing should be Recruiting’s best friend, creating a sense of interest and excitement that makes the headhunters’ jobs easier.

(I know, I know, it’s not PC to call you a “branch” or “satellite” office―every office is important, yadda yadda yadda.  You know the reality of your condition. Let’s speak plainly here.)

2. Your goal is to become one of your city’s 2-3 best-marketed firms.

You have 100 local competitors all battling for dominance, seeking the best clients and laterals. Only a few can succeed. Your local marketing can’t be safe and conservative, it must be outstanding. You must stand far above 98% of the other firms. That’s a very big goal, and I guarantee that’s not what your office’s marketing plan states or intends.  It should, though.

Dominance is achievable, but only if you (a) make that your clearly stated goal and (b) have the marketing (i) budget and (ii) personnel who have done it before and can do it again.  Very few law firms have the right marketing support for this type of initiative. Fewer still have those resources in any given local office. If you don’t have the skills in-house, then bring in outside help or accept that it’s never going to happen.

3. I don’t care about your firm’s marketing. You have different needs.

It’s not that your firm-wide marketers are doing it wrong. but understand that they have very different needs.  Maintaining an existing brand requires different tools and techniques than building a brand-new one. Their goal is different than yours. They’ll opt to play it safe. They won’t want to rock the boat. The current status quo is working quite well for the people who sign their checks, thankyouverymuch.

You, however, need to shake things up. You’re a small start-up.

Stop acting like you’re part of a proud, prominent, well-known firm. Start thinking of yourself as a hungry start-up—a hot new firm no one has heard of yet. That will get you closer to the mindset that will help you succeed.

A start-up’s marketing must cost-effectively break through the clutter and shout your name loudly, clearly, and continuously. You must earn the visibility, not just go through the motions.

The firm may be the 800-pound gorilla in your home market―the biggest, oldest, baddest firm in Dallas, Des Moines, Dubuque, or Detroit―the firm that gets the first look at every major case or deal. But in Chicago, no offense, that don’t mean squat.

We have 50+ more firms who look just like you, bragging about the “long, proud tradition” you built somewhere else. You’re just the latest new kid who thinks he’s going to come in and eat my lunch.

If you asked the average lawyer walking down LaSalle Street if they’d ever even heard of terrific firms like Akerman, Bryan Cave, Fox Rothschild, Haynes and Boone, Husch Blackwell, Morgan Lewis, Paul Hastings, Perkins Coie, or Ropes & Gray, I’d suggest that most lawyers won’t have—even though each firm is a leader in its home market. At best, they might dimly recognize the name if you mentioned it to them.

Or if you asked them what well-known Chicago law firms were acquired recently by Cozen O’Connor, Honigman, Nixon Peabody, or Shook Hardy, I’ll bet you a dollar they couldn’t tell you. They’ll all remember Ungaretti & Harris (I was Marketing Partner there), but wouldn’t be able to tell you that they’re now called Nixon Peabody. Or they’d remember Schopf & Weiss (an old Fishman Marketing client) but wouldn’t know that they’re now part of Honigman.

Conduct some quick market research. The results should terrify you.

The awareness data will show you how far you have to go, how deep the hole your marketing must pull you out of. That research will help eliminate the current complacency, increase your budget, and spur action.

I still remember when Greenberg Traurig came into Chicago in the late 1990s. They started snapping up high-profile lawyers from prominent firms all over town. Every lawyer knew someone who had gotten hired away to make more money. There was buzz. People were asking “Who the hell is Greenberg Traurig???!” They wondered why they too hadn’t received a headhunter’s call.  Greenberg didn’t creep into town; they blasted in with a parade and brass band. And their early success increased their long-term success.

4.  If you’re a new or small office, you’re starting from scratch.

From absolute zero. If you have 75 or fewer lawyers, you can safely presume that barely a soul knows you unless they’ve physically sat on the other side of a counsel or negotiating table from you. Not only do they not know you, they don’t care about you either.

This can be very difficult for most lawyers to accept because their daily market research consists of an inherently tainted sample group. That is, everyone they interact with knows them. Or, as I like to say, “I have 100% market penetration in my house.” Literally, everyone knows me there, so polling the extent of my market awareness doesn’t yield quantitatively valid data.

You’re not nearly as well known as you think you are, whoever you are.  I have 30 years’ marketing experience dealing with this issue; just trust me on this.

5. You’re not interesting unless you make yourself so.​

You’re not memorable until you do something worth remembering. Marketing can do that for you, but it’s not accidental. It’s hard. And our audiences’ standards for what we pay attention to keep rising. We don’t have the time or attention span to invest in someone else’s boring marketing.  Make it fabulous or I’m turning the page, averting my gaze, or clicking “Back.”

We’ll excitedly watch Super Bowl commercials because we expect them to be interesting, entertaining, unique, or helpful. Very little law firm marketing is worth our prospects’ attention.  It should be.  It can be. It just usually isn’t.

As an example, here’s a new-office print ad we designed for Florida’s Carlton Fields some years ago. Doesn’t it grab your attention?  Consider how it compares to whatever your firm used.   (More on that story next week.)

© 2021 Fishman MarketingNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 39

About this Author

Ross Fishman legal marketing expert  Fishman Marketing

National Law Review Thought Leader 2018

Of Counsel magazine wrote: “Many people consider Ross to be the nation’s foremost expert on professional services marketing.” He uses powerful brands, websites, and marketing training to help lawyers and law firms dominate their markets and dramatically increase profits.

A former...