Like most other businesses, law firms were hit hard by the economic recession, and the vendors that sell to these firms often found marketing their products and services to be a tough sell in the past year.
“Last year was a very rough year for law firms,” said Stephen Lincoln, VP-national group publisher at legal media company ALM. “The revenue opportunities weren't there in 2008 and 2009.”
Many firms suffered closings or significant layoffs and cut back significantly on their marketing and travel budgets. Managing partners from dissolved larger firms started their own practices, resulting in more small firms and solo practitioners, said Jobst Elster, VP of Envision Agency, a marketing agency that specializes in the legal vertical.
The effects of the downturn have had an impact on how law firms are run and how they purchase products and services. “All the little issues that had crept up over years and that managing partners had been able to ignore ... came to a head, and they've had to make major adjustments,” Elster said.
One such change, Elster said, citing “Law Firm of the 21st Century,” a March report from U.K. law firm Eversheds, is that law firm clients now increasingly dictate customer service terms and billing arrangements. In turn, vendors that sell to law firms have been affected, he said. “Vendors have had to make a lot of concessions,” Elster said. “Their clients [wanted to re-evaluate] some of the contracts they'd had, especially on the technology side, where vendors might be paid on an annual basis for support contracts and that sort of thing. Firms weren't in the position to do that, so vendors had to practice extreme flexibility.”
Linda Orton, CEO of Intelligent Video Solutions, a provider of corporate video production and law firm marketing, stressed the importance of understanding the target audience and the changes that law firms have endured. “It's not enough just to understand the legal industry as a whole,” she said. “There has to be knowledge about who their clients are to really add value.”
Marketers often make the mistake of thinking all lawyers are alike, said Arthur G. Levin, founder of AGL Associates, New York, a consulting firm for the legal industry (see Q&A, at right). “Do your homework,” he said. “Determine what the firm is all about, what the nature of the practice is, who makes the buying decisions. Target what you're selling appropriately or else you'll be spinning your wheels. I see that every day.”
While some large vendors continued to market actively throughout the recession, Lincoln said, smaller vendors struggled. “What we've seen is continuous spending by the bigger players in the industry, but the little guys have suffered,” he said. “They're not exhibiting as much, and they're not advertising as much. They're having trouble getting investors and aren't selling as much because the law firms aren't buying as much.”
Marketers have to be a lot more creative in the wake of the recession, Orton said. “They have to make less money do more,” she said.
Under pressure to assess return on investment, she said, vendors are very interested in marketing activities that can be tracked online (see case study, page 15).
Social media is attractive to marketers in the legal vertical, though many are doing only basic social activities, such as creating a presence on LinkedIn, said JoAnna Forshee, CEO of Envision Agency. “They're looking to do it because it's a low-cost or no-cost way to get in front of firms in a new way,” she said.
Directing public relations efforts at bloggers has also become increasingly popular, Forshee said. “In years past, it was pitching articles to print magazines,” she said. “Now it's going to bloggers and doing the same thing.”
Events remain an important way to reach an audience of lawyers, and activity at key industry shows seems to be picking up this year, Elster said. “We're encouraged this year,” he said. “Last year, you'd go to trade shows and thought you were at a funeral. It was depressing.”
Elster noted that there were companies putting major marketing efforts behind new-product launches at this year's LegalTech New York, an ALM event, in January.
ALM's Lincoln said the company's conference business is, in fact, rebounding. “Conferences and events have really picked up sponsorship,” he said. “[It seems that] firms are now letting their attorneys travel again and letting them go to appropriate conferences.” M