New entrants see big opportunities in family law but Marilyn Stowe believes traditional high street expertise and experience can prevail, with a little help from the right marketing strategy
When my husband and I remortgaged our home to open our first office in east Leeds 30 years ago, we were determined to stand out and be spotted. We printed leaflets, announcing the arrival of a new law firm. I went out and about, introducing myself to all the local businesses, banks, estate agents and shopkeepers. We also invested in some striking décor: we painted the outside pillar box red to attract attention, and painted a giant white sign on the window. It said simply, SOLICITORS.
As far as marketing went, these were rudimentary manoeuvres but, together with a lot of hard work, they had the desired effect. Our little office filled with clients and staff, until we ran out of space and had to move elsewhere. At the time we were, like other firms up and down the land, restricted by what we could and could not do. The Solicitors’ Code of Conduct of the time prohibited firms from undertaking public relations campaigns.
Today, we have a smorgasbord of marketing opportunities from which to pick and choose: glossy print advertising, pay-per-click advertising, PR campaigns, television appearances, radio slots, SEO campaigns, social media campaigns. The list rolls on. There is blogging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Law firms have been fixtures on our high streets for centuries, but right now their long-term chances of survival are far from assured. The digital age has brought with it cut-price legal services, with instructions and payments taken online. The country’s on-going economic woes continue to deal blows. The Legal Services Act has opened the doors for big-brand competitors such as the Co-operative Group, which aims to be the biggest provider of legal services by 2022, has already launched a £99 DIY divorce kit. Family legal aid is about to be obliterated. In this brave and challenging new world, what should a high street law firm be doing to market itself effectively?
That the legal profession is a relative newcomer to the heady world of marketing and PR is, I think, a shame. Too many of us still languish behind the curve. When I look around me I see firms that, even now, are firmly wedged in the old days. For them a sign, a flyer, a fleeting mention in the local newspaper and an occasional meet-and-greet are still expected to suffice. The power of word of mouth and a solid reputation shouldn’t be underestimated but, in a world where an ever-increasing proportion of media consumption and networking take place online, perhaps it isn’t surprising that many of those who stick doggedly to the old ways are now feeling the pinch.
If, however, you suspect that I am about to hold forth on the wonders and miracles wrought by social media, then suggest that you install a vlogging studio in the boardroom without further ado, urging you to go and sign up all your fee-earners to Twitter before the morning is out, you couldn’t be more wrong. We all know of firms which, seemingly stricken with panic, have suddenly catapulted themselves onto every social media platform going. Such an approach is understandable, but it is often wrongheaded. A lot of the time, too much thought has been given to the medium, and too little thought has gone into the marketing strategy – if, indeed, there is a strategy to begin with. Busy solicitors are also prone to underestimating how much time needs to be invested in such initiatives. As a result, numerous social media accounts are left to wither on the vine, and blogs are left to gather dust in far-flung corners of firms’ corporate websites.
My advice for independent, high street firms is to invest in PR. Take out glossy advertising by all means, and ensure that the firm has a social media presence. But before you do any of this, consider the increased competition and the threats that I have listed above, and position your firm appropriately. What gives you an edge? Or, to put it another way, why should new clients come to you when they can get the same services online, in supermarkets or in shops for a fraction of the cost? To my mind, the answer is clear. Expertise. Experience. A personal service is particularly valuable in family law, as divorce is an emotionally turbulent time. Then there is the potential for long-term cost savings: for example, I often advise clients who are delighted to discover their entitlements are far greater than they had known. In other areas of law, sound local knowledge proves to be invaluable.
Before plunging headlong into any new marketing initiatives, ensure that everything you plan to do reflects your message. Target your efforts and allocate your resources in advance, be it the budget for a PR campaign, or the time your solicitors are expected to dedicate to networking – both online and face-to-face – on a weekly basis. Finally, be consistent. We may have more marketing tools at our disposal than we did 30 years ago, but in the current climate it is difficult to justify a scattergun approach.