law firm advertising

oltmanns Blog September 5, 2011

A Ten-Point Fitness Review to Shape Up Your Message

Bob Oltmanns
OPR Group, LLC

After working with numerous law firms for the past 25 years, I can safely say that most law firm advertising is an enormous waste of money.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not because the use of advertising is a waste of money per se, but the way most law firms use their investment in advertising is tragically ill-conceived.
So much of law firm advertising runs roughshod over the fundamental principles that advertisers in other industries have long known to be inviolate – and they compromise those principles with willful disregard and apparent indifference to what prospective clients really want to know about them.
Advertising long ago moved into the mainstream of law firm business development practices, and has seen its share of changes, growing pains and increasing sophistication. The plaintiff’s bar, particularly personal injury attorneys, were the first to pioneer the use of advertising in their practices and have remained at the leading edge of mass media promotion in the law ever since. After all, the nature of their practice requires that they cast a wide net for prospective clients, and in the ensuing decades the plaintiff’s bar has become relatively effective at honing a message and targeting it most efficiently to attract new business. These firms and attorneys have shown a far greater understanding than their defense bar brethren of what to emphasize in a message when time and space are so limited and have been far more effective at creating an impression in the mind of a prospect that translates into results.
But by and large, many firms in the defense bar have proven themselves to be considerably less proficient at advertising. These firms ignore much of the collective experience that successful advertisers have learned and proven over decades, and they seemingly do it with enthusiasm. Far too often, corporate law firm advertising is characterized by trying to be all things to all people, whereas plaintiff firms have a well-defined target audience and focus to their message. Defense firm advertising looks inward, which is to say it promotes messages that are important to the partners, not to prospects. And corporate firms seem to go out of their way to avoid being specific, preferring instead to drown the reader with generalities and inconsequential rhetoric.
Simply thumb through pages of corporate law firm ads in any publication and witness these firms driving over the cliff of advertising common sense at top speed.
These firms could learn a lot from the strengths of personal injury firms in giving their advertising messages a whole new look that will help them stand out from their competition. Here are ten ways that corporate law firms hurt themselves and waste their money on advertising:
1. If you remember nothing else, remember that clients don’t hire law firms. Clients hire lawyers. It’s fine to be proud of your firm’s reputation and identity, but it’s not why clients hire you. They hire you because of your lawyers, their expertise, and experience. They should be the focus of your firm’s brand message.
2. No one cares that your firm was founded more than 150 years ago. The idea that long traditions are important to clients is an outdated notion from past generations. Today’s clients are impressed with results, expertise and cost. When your firm was founded doesn’t even enter into the discussion.
3. Everyone assumes that honesty, integrity, hard work and a tradition of excellence are hallmarks of your firm. That’s because they’re hallmarks of every firm. Those are hollow superlatives that do nothing to differentiate you from other firms.
4. Don’t make such a big deal out of the word “trust.” Like the superlatives above, everyone assumes you’re trustworthy. It’s a given. But remember that even a criminal like Bernie Madoff said the same thing to his clients. If you have to tell us that you can be trusted in an ad, doesn’t that detract from your integrity?
5. No one cares about a picture of the partners taken in your law library. It says nothing about what you can do for us. More than that, it makes you look like stuffy and rather unimaginative. It’s fine to see your photo alongside your biography on the firm web site, but the group picture is more for your benefit than for anyone else. And while we’re at it, leave out the scales of justice, too. That’s one of the most overused and worn-out clichés in the profession. If your ad features a photograph of a courtroom, remember that a courtroom is the last place a prospective client wants to be. Can you imagine a surgeon promoting himself by showing an operating room? Of course you’re right at home in court. But its hell for the rest of us.
6. Honors and awards are not unique. While they’re certainly something to be proud of, they don’t tell me why I should hire your firm. There are now so many different awards and honors for lawyers – Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, Best Firm, and many others – that such awards no longer set you apart from potential competitors. Rather, they give the appearance of self-aggrandizing pats on the back and make us think you seem shocked to have been honored in this way. Remember the sage advice of Vince Lombardi – “Act like you’ve been there before.”
7. The benefits of advertising come through repetition. You can’t realize those benefits when you only run a few ads here and there. You have to achieve critical mass in order for your advertising to have any impact. Advertising that doesn’t plan for sufficient placement penetration and repetition is a waste of money. It’s like you haven’t advertised at all. Yet so many attorneys act stunned when one ad placement yields no results whatsoever.
8. Good advertising should speak to the target audience. Does your message address things that are important to the prospect? Or is it about things that are important to you? Be honest.
9. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Perhaps the best advice I can give any business about its advertising investment is to make sure you have a specific standard for measuring the impact of that investment. Otherwise, it’s just throwing money down the drain and you won’t have anything to show for it. This is where the plaintiffs bar is eating your lunch.
10. Don’t be too creative, cute or clever for your own good. Some firms put so much effort into a creative presentation of their message that no one outside the firm can understand it. Any comedian will tell you that if you have to explain the joke, it doesn’t work. Creativity is only effective if it helps the audience understand and remember the message. If you have to explain your creativity, the ad doesn’t work.
Law firms of all types would do well to simply apply these principles to their advertising plans and then ask themselves one simple question: “Would one of my current clients have hired me on the basis of our advertising?” Give readers a tangible, real-world reason to consider your firm. Let them know how you will help them and help their business.
By looking at your firm the way a client with a specific problem does, your advertising will improve dramatically.