Archive for the ‘Doug’s SLAW.ca columns’ Category

03

Oct 10

Marketing Legal Services On The Deepening, Splintering Web

[This article was originally published on www.SLAW.ca in September, 2010]

Five years ago, law firm web strategy for most firms I encountered consisted of the following statement:  “Yes, we have a website”.  If a firm could check that box, most felt they had done their duty and could get back to the more important work of practicing law.  No longer.

The last half-decade has seen us move from a prevailing standard of mere existence online to a new framework where the firm website now forms the backbone of many firms’ marketing efforts, irrespective of firm size. Looking ahead, I see increasing emphasis on three broad areas: content, conversations and search engine visibility.

The Evidence Is In

The growing importance of the online environment for the legal world has paralleled its ascendance in other industries (see: music, news and more recently book publishing as examples of the larger trend). Additionally, a body of evidence has accumulated specific to law that supports shifting priorities towards a web-dominant marketing focus.  See, for example, a recent research survey on corporate counsel new media engagement from Greentarget Strategic Communications or Greenfield Belser’s Digital Marketing 2010 for detailed insights on what sophisticated purchasers of legal services are now doing online.

Deepening

With the landscape rapidly evolving, we have seen a maturation of what constitutes a “good” law firm website. Matt Homan of Lexthink LLC gently satirized both law firm websites and lawyer bios recently with a pair of venn diagrams that underscores a common weakness of the genre – sites and bios built for what lawyers think they should be rather than what clients are actually seeking. That led to an excellent reply from Robert Ambrogi on The Art and Science of Lawyer Bios in which he refines Homan’s critique by asserting that much of the “standard” bio information (law school attended, Martindale-Hubbell ratings, etc.) that Homan impugns is in fact still relevant to clients. Ambrogi asserts that the real sin with lawyer bios is that they lack personality, life, vibrancy and interest.  Both Homan’s diagrams and Ambrogi’s blog post have been well circulated online and the lively discussion about them evidences a growing awareness of the importance of lawyer bios and a sincere interest in improving them.

More sophisticated strategies are also emerging amongst the most engaged firms towards website analytics and search engine optimization. Slaw’s own Steve Matthews recently provided a detailed post on tactics for search engine optimization on a practice group level. This sort of granularity and detailed behind-the-scenes work on specific key elements of the firm website is not yet the norm, but it’s where we are headed.

Splintering

Additionally, many firms are extending their visibility and online reach beyond their websites. Some of the more common vehicles to achieve this now include:

  • Blogs;
  • Listservs;
  • Gated online legal communities (think Legal OnRamp or Martindale-Hubbell’s Connected)
  • Document portals (JDSupra)
  • Video (Youtube); and
  • Social media sites (chiefly Linkedin, Twitter and Facebook).

A small handful of firms have also launched iPhone apps, and more are expected soon. Many other firms are wrestling with just how many and which of these “extras” are worth their while. It’s an important question, and one that is not amenable to glib or one-size-fits-all answers.

Now What?

So where does that leave you today in terms of priorities, and where things are heading? Despite the web’s growing complexity, I believe the path to success for lawyers online is ultimately growing at least clear, if not easy.  In my view, firms can position themselves for online success by thinking about the web in three parts:

  1. Content
  2. Conversations
  3. Search

Content: More than ever, content is king. Saying you are leaders in a certain area or type of practice is no longer sufficient. Clients now want to see it for themselves, first-hand in the form of direct links to your judgments, articles, blog posts, case studies, peer-review rankings and other validating source material. You must demonstrate that you have done exactly the kind of work they need doing, that you’ve done it for clients in their industry, and that you are eager to help them solve their issues. The type of empty prose that made anonymous law firm an all-too-successful caricature of the genre a few years back is going to wane in favour of a more transparent approach to surfacing the real work product and personalities of your firm. This is the deepening component, and much of it will, or should, reside primarily on firm-controlled web properties including the firm website and blogs.

Conversations: While firm websites are critical, it is also becoming clear that they are no longer sufficient in and of themselves, for the simple reason that they are largely structured as one-way communication vehicles – the firm broadcasts information and clients (hopefully) consume it.  However, a significant amount of your target audience’s time online is spent in places other than your website – on social networks, on industry portals, on listservs and blogs.  The common element is that these are communities where dialogue and multi-party communication takes place. Your lawyers need to go and meet the clients where they are online, be involved in these conversations, adding value, putting a human face on the firm, generating visibility and demonstrating an awareness of and involvement in the issues relevant to your client’s industry. Where appropriate, you can then use these channels to guide interested parties back to the relevant original content you have available on your own web properties. This is the realm of social media, blogs and gated online legal communities. This kind of engagement also typically leads to increased speaking opportunities and interview requests in relevant trade press. The specifics of which channels you use and how many of them your firm participates in will be decided on a firm-by-firm basis, but the need to engage on some level is a reality that more and more firms will be addressing in the near future.

Search: Search visibility has not been prioritized for many mid-sized and large firms in the past, but it is gaining traction. While firms would love – and frequently ask for – a magic bullet solution that immediately lands them atop the Google results for any and all possible search terms, the reality is that attending to the content and conversation mandates outlined above will be the best first path to improved search rankings for most firms.  Targeted, in the trenches work of the kind outlined in Steve Matthews’ SEO for practice groups piece can then be effectively used to extend search visibility even further, but it is extremely difficult to build significant search engine presence when there’s no “there” there.  Good search results have their foundation in deep content and multiple inbound links to your sites from a variety of third-party web properties that search engines recognize as credible and relevant to your industry.

To summarize then: Provide substance. Take it to where your clients are. Then seek to make sure others like them can see it too.  Plus ça change. . .

04

Aug 10

Brands Don’t Matter. Or Do They?

(Authors note:  A version of this article was first published on SLAW

in July, 2010. )

In my experience, lawyers as a whole are not overly enthused about talk of brands and branding. If you must focus time, thought, money or all of the foregoing on a marketing effort of some kind, most would prefer to spend it on something distinctly more tangible – hosting a seminar perhaps, or taking clients to lunch, or even organizing a client golf tournament.  Anything but being locked in a boardroom with the consultant-du-jour talking incoherent marketing-speak as part of an abstract navel-gazing exercise, or being asked to foot an exorbitant bill for a designer squiggle to adorn the firm’s letterhead and business card.  “Where’s the value in that?” many may well (and frequently do) ask.

However, two items in the mainstream news this month relating to Vancouver landmarks have got me thinking afresh about the powerful influence brands can and do exert over all of us.

You Say Stanley Park, I Say XwayXway

In the first instance, a proposal to “rename” Vancouver’s iconic Stanley Park as XwayXway (pronounced “Kwhy-Kway”) in recognition of an ancient Aboriginal settlement in the area surfaced seemingly overnight and caught many Vancouverites utterly by surprise.

While a closer reading of the story revealed that the proposal was not in fact to eradicate the name Stanley Park but rather to add the aboriginal moniker as a second or supplemental name, the wheels of resistance from a startled populace were already in motion.  Comment sections on news media websites were immediately inundated with howls of outrage and vitriol. I noted several hundred comments on the Globe and Mail site alone within hours of the story breaking.  The reactions were intensely visceral – even with dozens upon dozens of what were presumably the most incendiary responses having been expunged from the various media websites for violations of the news outlets’ comment policies. Clearly, a nerve had been touched.

By the next day the story had been covered in all the Vancouver dailies as well as on local TV, and had garnered further national attention. Shortly thereafter, the federal government – no doubt sensing the prevailing political winds – swooped in with an announcement that the Great Stanley Park/XwayXway debate of 2010 was a non-starter, and that the proposal would not even be considered. Game, set and match, nothing to see here folks, please keep it moving.

A Hockey Rink By Any Other Name

In the second story, before the dust even had time to settle on the Stanley Park furor we learned that the Vancouver Canucks’ hockey rink heretofore known as General Motors Place (a.k.a. GM Place, a.k.a The Garage) had been swiftly rechristened Rogers Arena thanks to a shift in corporate sponsorship. Unlike the Stanley Park/XwayXway affair, this time resistance was futile. The twittering classes and sports-talk radio callers were welcome to their opinions and their brand-related chit-chat (of which there has been a great deal), but sponsorship dollars had spoken and the deed was done. Following as it did the temporary re-naming of the same facility as “Canada Hockey Place” during the Olympics, Vancouver hockey fans are now familiarizing themselves with a third name for the same building within the span of six months. As a result, many are left with a distinctly unsettled sensation in that corner of their brains that is reserved for matters pertaining to the local shinny squad.

Most lawyers and other professionals I know like to think ourselves largely above the shallow allure of “branding”; smart enough to ignore the huckster-ish entreaties of marketers, and to make decisions about what goods and services to purchase, use, and invest in based on purely objective factors such as quality, product design, and value rather than illusory distinctions like brand names.

And yet, disproportionate numbers of us continue to buy Tide instead of no-name detergent, and to care what our hockey rink is called, and to have strong opinions on whether a stand of trees in the downtown Vancouver peninsula should be referenced as Stanley Park or XwayXway.  Why?  I suspect that If your clothes were submitted to a blind detergent test you likely couldn’t tell which had been washed in detergent A and which in detergent B if your life depended on it.  The hockey team will play just as well or just as poorly regardless of the name of their rink. Further, the trees and grass in that wonderful Vancouver park won’t change by virtue of the words on the sign, and the grass won’t care what it is called. It’s the same park either way.

I submit that the underlying reason we care about all of these things is identical: the brand has exerted its influence on us. Our experience of the laundry soap, the hockey rink, and the park are all inextricably tied up with specific visual and linguistic cues that the stewards of those places and products have put into place.  Change those cues and you change the experience.

Meanwhile, Back At The Law Firm

So what does all of this have to do with law firms?  Simply this: Your firm’s brand matters.  A great deal in fact.

I am currently working with a handful of different law firms – some new, some of long standing – on name development or name changes.  If branding is truly irrelevant, logic dictates that naming the firm should be the simplest of all marketing exercises.  In reality of course, it is anything but.  Experienced legal marketers (and indeed any partner who has been part of a firm name change and sat in on the decision-making meetings) will tell you that passions are easily inflamed and resentments can run deep when a position on the firm masthead is at stake.  The parallels to the emotional debate about Stanley Park are strong.

So if we can at least acknowledge that brands matter – even to law firms – why is the idea of branding held in such low regard? I believe that part of the reason many lawyers eschew “branding” is that the concept so often lacks the clarity that lawyers invariably crave.   There are seemingly almost as many definitions of “brand” and the process of “branding” extant as there are marketing consultants.

The definitions I prefer are simple ones:

  1. Your brand is what people think about when they think about you.
  2. Branding is the process by which you try to shape and influence those thoughts.

By that standard, brands and branding are very important indeed.

29

May 10

Do Political Contributions Still Make Sense For Law Firms?

(Authors note: This article was first published on SLAW in May 2010. )

Earlier this month, British Columbia residents witnessed political awkwardness at a level unusual even by West Coast standards when a special prosecutor cleared B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed of wrongdoing in a criminal investigation. Mr. Heed was re-appointed to cabinet later that day, only to re-resign the next morning after the special prosecutor stepped down as a result of his law firm’s $1,000 contribution to the Heed campaign shortly before the last provincial election.

The special prosecutor has stated that he was aware of his law firm’s donation early on.  However, he did not consider it an apparent or perceived conflict of interest until too late in the day to avoid the media storm that inevitably followed when he stepped down immediately after exonerating Mr. Heed. The Law Society of British Columbia has launched an investigation, the Premier has called for a review of the process by which special prosecutor appointments occur, and the Vancouver Sun (B.C.’s major daily newspaper of record) has dutifully pulled out a list of other prominent counsel who have acted as special prosecutors subsequent to making political donations to the governing party in B.C.

Let me be clear that I do not have any belief whatsoever that the campaign contribution in the Heed situation had any bearing on the special prosecutor’s decision-making process – a view I’m confident the vast majority of those in the legal profession would share. Despite that, it is equally clear that the very small financial donation in this case has had significant repercussions for each of the Solicitor General, the governing party of British Columbia, the Attorney General’s criminal justice branch, and the special prosecutor and law firm involved.

While unique on its facts, this incident raises the larger question of whether law firms ought to still be in the business of making political donations or campaign contributions.  In fact, the law firm at the center of the Heed incident has subsequently announced that it will no longer make such donations. While some may consider this an example of firmly closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, it nevertheless represents a policy rethink that most Canadian law firms have yet to undertake.

As seen through the lens of a law firm’s marketing strategist, what is the risk/reward ratio of a firm making a financial contribution to a political party or an election campaign at any level of government?

In recent years, we have seen many firms move away from active participation by their lawyers on boards of directors, both for liability reasons and to avoid potential conflicts of interest. It strikes me that when it comes to conflicts, the argument for declining to make political contributions is at least equally strong.

Media reports and opinion polls regularly state that public confidence in the institutions of government, including both Parliament and the judicial system, is decreasing over time.  Meanwhile, scrutiny of these institutions continues to grow. As such, any whiff of perceived bias or potential conflict of interest is certain to be seized upon, both by political factions seeking to take tactical advantage of an opportunity that has presented itself and also by the general public, who increasingly throw up their hands in disgust at all players involved whenever such stories appear in the media. TheVancouver Sun article referenced earlier about other special prosecutors who have made political donations is a classic example of the guilt-by-association ethos that prevails once public confidence founders.

I would also factor into the equation that in any law firm beyond a handful of lawyers and employees, different political preferences will prevail, even within the firm. There will be those who chafe – loudly or otherwise – at the idea of firm funds being spent in support of a cause, party or politician they don’t favour.  The resulting disconnect has a corrosive effect on the culture of the firm.

To my mind, all of the above are reasons why the risk/reward ratio for law firm political donations is frequently too high to make it a prudent part of law firm marketing strategy. Firms interested in pursuing government-related work of any kind need to be both completely transparent and utterly pristine in their dealings with public bodies and political organizations. This will help preserve their opportunity to act in a legal capacity later on.  Campaign contributions muddy the waters, and where mud exists, mud-slinging is sure to follow.

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