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Overcoming Obstacles To Effective Law Marketing

Ten years ago, law firms needed to be convinced of the importance of marketing themselves. Today, most lawyers realize they have to market their services but are still unsure about how to do so most effectively. Many of these lawyers have had limited success with their marketing efforts and are frustrated with or skeptical about the whole process.

Part of the frustration or skepticism, even cynicism, is a result of obstacles law firms face in developing or implementing marketing programs. However, many of these obstacles can be removed, or at least, eroded. The most common obstacles, along with solutions to overcoming them, follow.

Barriers to Marketing

There are both external and internal barriers to marketing. The external barriers include the competition, ethics, client reaction and community culture and attitudes. While the external barriers cannot always be overcome, they are usually less significant than the internal barriers. Internal barriers are actually more common and include compensation systems, lack of practice management and lack of accountability, training or budget. However, each internal barrier can be overcome by employing specific strategies.

Internal obstacles generally fall into one of two categories: those that affect the marketing of the firm as a whole and those that hinder the implementation of marketing tactics by individual lawyers. Some firm-wide obstacles include:

  • Historical Mindset - The majority of lawyers grew up in law firms that either disavowed marketing as unprofessional or discouraged it as unnecessary: "Don't worry about bringing in business, we've got plenty. Just get the work done and keep the clients happy." Even though these same firms are now encouraging or even requiring marketing, years of discouragement are not overcome with a simple mandate.
  • Complacency - While the last two years of the recession have reduced complacency substantially, some lawyers still think they can avoid having to market.However, the next few years will continue to "shake out" firms that are mismanaged or that poorly market themselves. Look for more dissolutions of firms that fail to develop a marketing direction and follow through on it.
  • Compensation Systems and Insufficient Accountability - Systems that are primarily production-oriented ("eat-what-you-kill" or "billable hour asking" types) discourage lawyers from cross-selling, delegating or working as teams in developing business or even ensuring client service. Systems that reward origination, but not teamwork and cross-selling, are divisive and hinder effective marketing. Similarly, if a compensation system rewards production and marketing efforts and results, there must still be a way to ensure accountability, to prevent "worker bees" from being as highly compensated as those who produce hours and new business.
  • Lack of Internal Communication - Mid-size and large firms, particularly,miss their best opportunities internally rather than externally, not because of the competition, but because the lawyers do not know each other's practice strengths, selling points, client successes, etc. In a recent project, we helped a large firm identify over 100 target clients to approach: clients where the firm had two or more solid contacts. In many cases, the lawyers involved were not aware that their firm colleagues also knew these clients.
  • Poor Practice Management - Many of today's frequent purchasers of legal services have become sophisticated consumers, demanding efficient, cost-effective service. Without a foundation of good practice management, though, service will not meet these client demands. Marketing, without practice management, will be little more than fluff. And good practice management means more than paying lip service to associate training and annual evaluations. It includes devoting substantial attention and resources to workload allocation, case management, delegation, supervision, effective training, mentoring, peer review and more.
  • Lack of Follow-Through - Often a function of compensation disincentives, lack of accountability or the individual barriers discussed below, poor follow-through is probably the most prevalent problem hindering law firm marketing. Lawyers make the mistake of going through "fits and starts" or bursts of marketing activity after firm meetings or annual retreats. Instead, well-thought-out, ongoing, regular follow-up is necessary for business development success.


Obstacles to individual lawyer marketing are also significant. They include:

  • Lack of Time - This is one of the most frequent excuses lawyers give for not marketing. It often masks more deep-seated reasons, such as discomfort with marketing, compensation disincentives, poor practice management or time-management problems.
  • Discomfort - Even though marketing is now "accepted" in many firms, there are lawyers in every firm who are not comfortable with the idea. Some mistakenly equate it with advertising, which they find offensive. Others accept public relations and image campaigns, but don't want to personally "sell" to clients "one-on-one."
  • Fear - Closely related to discomfort is outright fear - fear of failure or rejection. Lawyers mention this as an obstacle in almost every sales training program.
  • Lack of Understanding - Many unnecessary battles are fought in law firms because the lawyers simply do not understand basic marketing concepts and tools. Some who view marketing as advertising or slick salesmanship fight every effort. Others who recognize that excellent client service is closely tied to marketing cannot understand why everyone does not embrace it.


Overcoming Obstacles

How can these obstacles be overcome? There are no "magic bullets." The ways to overcome obstacles are no great secret. They are elusive to many law firms, though, because they require change, time and efforts.

  • Incentives - While other tactics are important to overcome obstacles, the most critical is the firm's incentive system. If you tell your lawyers to cross-sell, but the compensation system discourages them from doing so, your firm will experience frustration. In fact, in firms where the compensation system does not effectively reward marketing and there is little accountability for marketing, typically less than 25 percent of the partners make sufficient efforts to market, and those efforts often meet with limited success.
    • Incentives can be monetary or non-monetary, but the best firms use both. Monetary incentives are factored into the partner compensation system and reward not only origination, but also efforts (within clearly defined guidelines), cross-selling and team marketing. Many firms now use partner "models" or personal business plans to provide accountability and means to measure performance.
  • Marketing Education - It is important to create a common understanding of marketing in order to build acceptance of and enthusiasm for marketing, as well as consensus for decisions. This can be accomplished through presentations - either by outside experts or knowledgeable people within the firm - at a firm retreat. Other ways include firm or partner meetings, practice area meetings and circulation of articles or other reading materials.
    • All education efforts should emphasize that law firm marketing, at its most basic level, depends on personal contacts and relationship building.
    • Secondly, educating lawyers can play a valuable role in marketing - from speaking to writing to networking, in small or large groups. Many times lawyers' discomfort with marketing stems from their misconception that there are only certain models to be effective rainmakers and they don't fit them. In fact, there are many routes to take. Each lawyer can take a different approach to marketing that suits his or her talents and interests. When many lawyers see a comfortable role for themselves, they stop their nay saying about marketing.
    • Thirdly, every firm should set realistic expectations for individual and firm efforts, and for the results to be achieved. Frustration arises when lawyers have been trying to market without much success. A typical partner should be spending 200-400 hours per year on marketing and understanding that it takes four to six years of efforts before significant results will be seen. Many lawyers get so discouraged before they reach this point that they quit doing much marketing. Actually, many lawyers spend enough time, but because their efforts are unfocused, the time does not pay off and frustration levels rise.
    • Finally, marketing education includes training. Because the most effective law firm marketing is personal contact, lawyers must feel comfortable with and be effective at making contacts and building relationships with existing and prospective clients. They need to be good at personal "selling" or rainmaking.
  • Internal Communication - As already mentioned, most firms miss their best marketing opportunities internally, not externally - not to the competition, but because lawyers do not know each other's strengths, success stories and client "wins,"contacts with prospects and more. We have yet to see a law firm that spends too much time or money on internal communication. On the contrary, some of the most effective marketing programs are comprised of more than 50 percent internally-focused efforts (cross-selling plans and seminars, internal newsletters, attorney skill databases, etc.), instead of external ones.
    • Few law firms take their internal communications opportunities seriously. While many now have internal marketing newsletters, others resist because "our lawyers won't read it" or "it's only a brag sheet." An internal marketing newsletter (or electronic bulletin board for more technologically sophisticated firms) is one of the easiest, least expensive and most effective steps to improve marketing. And, they work infirms from 15 to 1,000 or more lawyers, can be produced without the aid of outside consultants and, in smaller firms, even without an in-house marketing professional.
    • With or without an internal newsletter, you need to communicate marketing success stories on a regular basis. Otherwise, even the most marketing-driven lawyers will lose enthusiasm and focus from time to time. These success stories include new clients attracted through team marketing, positive feedback from a competitive bidding contest,prospect contacts acquired through a speech and significant "wins" for clients(deals completed, cases won, etc.).
    • Another important element of internal communication is making sure that marketing is high profile and high priority. Show it as an agenda item during partner, firm, practice area and staff meetings. Have individual lawyers report their successes at regular meetings. Send the message to the entire firm that marketing is important.
  • Early Successes - Lawyers are naturally skeptical about marketing. In many firms, past marketing "failures" or fits and starts cause cynicism about the subject. While education and internal communication are extremely important, you must find ways to measure and point to marketing successes - large and small. As you begin or refine your program, you can identify projects which, if implemented, are an almost guaranteed success. Identify two or more of your lawyers and staff with the best track record of follow-through and get them involved in one of these projects. After each project is completed and successful, communicate the success widely and regularly throughout the firm. Success breeds success. Once lawyers see their colleagues succeeding, they will want to get on the bandwagon.
  • Client Input - Another way to overcome certain obstacles is through client input. It can be gathered through a formal client assessment survey or simply by having a few clients speak at your annual retreat. When clients tell your lawyers they expect annual client audits, they like seminars or they read legal alerts but not newsletters, it is a powerful marketing motivator.


Following is a summary of specific marketing obstacles and ways to overcome them. As you can see, there is a lot of overlap - you cannot view a particular obstacle in a vacuum, and there are various strategies to address them.

Ways to Overcome Marketing Obstacles

  • Historical mindset -- Incentives/accountability, education, internal communication
  • Complacency -- Incentives/accountability, education, early successes
  • Compensation system/ accountability -- Incentives/accountability
  • Lack of internal communication -- Education, firm meetings to focus on marketing, internal newsletters
  • Poor practice management -- Incentives/accountability, strong firm and practice area leadership and management
  • Lack of follow-through -- Accountability, internal communication, early successes, monitoring by administrator or in-house marketing professional, training
  • Lack of time -- Incentives/accountability, education, realistic expectations, finding right role for each lawyer
  • Discomfort -- Education, training, realistic expectations, right role for each lawyer
  • Fear -- Education, training, realistic expectations, right role for each lawyer
  • Lack of understanding -- Education, training, realistic expectations, right role for each lawyer and internal communication


Reprinted with permission of Legal Management November / December 1993 (Volume 12, Issue 6).

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