Sales and marketing activity is essential if your new firm is going to attract clients. If you are used to relying on your existing firm’s reputation, connections and marketing team, you may need to develop new skills and a new approach to how you promote yourself. Ben Trott of Marketing Lawyers explains how to tackle this challenge. (Updated 26 September 2023)
(Note: Ben and a panel of other marketing experts will share their knowledge in the webinar 'Generating and converting instructions for law firms' on 16 November.)
The smaller your practice, the more directly involved you are likely to be. Continuing to develop your network will be important, but it’s far from the whole story. From deciding your strategy and targeting new clients to building your firm’s reputation for quality service, marketing has a key role to play.
The most successful firms have a marketing mind-set. It’s all about offering clients what they want, need and expect, rather than relying on your legal expertise alone.
Your first clients
Winning your first clients has to be a priority for a new law firm. Any existing or past clients you can bring to the firm can make a huge difference to the outlook, not least in terms of cash flow.
You need to be realistic about the loyalty you can expect from clients. If you expect them to follow you to your new firm, you need to really ‘own’ the relationship. Is it your unique skills, experience and personality that they value – or would they be just as happy dealing with other associates? Apply the same thought process for anyone who currently refers clients to you – are they referring clients to you personally or to the firm you are with?
In legal terms, you’ll need to think about any restrictive clauses in your current employment contract. You’ll also need to be cautious about how you discuss your plans with clients while you are still with your current firm. Telling them what you are doing makes sense, but actively soliciting their business would be unethical.
How will you deal with clients working across multiple practice areas, if they need services that your new firm will not provide? Will they continue to work with your previous firm? Will your new firm create a network of other firms to which you can refer clients?
Thinking about your existing clients is a good opportunity to think more broadly about how you deal with your current firm and what future relationship you want to have. You may need to approach your departure sensitively if you want to remain on good terms. As well as achieving purely practical things like the orderly transfer of any client files, you want to avoid any bad feelings that could potentially spill over into aggressive competition for work. Ideally, you want a relationship where your previous firm is happy to give you referrals when they are conflicted.
At the same time, you may need to have a frank conversation with any referrers who you have a close relationship with. Can you count on anyone to direct work to your new firm? Or, in reality, will referrers wait a year or so to avoid upsetting your current firm and to see how effective the new firm is?
When it comes to getting people to support you, demonstrating your drive, enthusiasm and professionalism can make a great difference to the outcome. And the words “Can you help me?” are surprisingly powerful.
"Pick your clients carefully. And don’t allow yourself to be beaten down on price, as those clients usually turn out to be demanding, stressful and unprofitable."
Richard Burcher, chairman, Burcher Jennings
Your target market
As a starting point, think about the skills and capabilities your firm has. Take into account financial and other constraints. For example, it may be unrealistic to target large clients who expect a large team of lawyers to be available, or cases likely to involve levels of lock-up beyond your financial resources.
From thinking about the market you could target, you can move on to think about the market you should target. In part, this might be a personal choice – the types of law and the kinds of client you enjoy dealing with. Smaller firms tend to set out to be local generalists (for example, offering broad services to private clients), industry specialists or experts in a particular area of legal practice (eg intellectual property).
From a business perspective, think about which market segments offer the best potential. What clients have you had the most success with previously? What are the trends driving demand for legal services and which markets are growing? Which clients are under-served by other firms – and what are the opportunities that your current firm is failing to capitalise on?
Look at both sides of the financial equation. Where is the greatest potential to charge high rates? Offering relatively commoditised services like conveyancing is unlikely to be the basis for a profitable business. Where are the costs of finding and servicing clients the lowest? As a rule of thumb, finding new clients is much more costly than retaining existing ones – so clients that offer repeat business can be significantly more rewarding.
The most successful firms often take a niche approach. Developing a specialist practice makes it easier to focus your marketing efforts and set yourself apart from the competition.
Drawing up a target client ‘persona’ (or multiple personas) can be a useful exercise. The persona describes the sort of individual or organisation that you want to work with. Think about who they are, what problems they have, what they are trying to achieve, and where they are likely to look for help. You can use this to refine what you should be offering, and how best to attract potential clients.
Try to identify what will give you a competitive edge with your target clients. What do clients want most from your law firm? What do other law firms offer, and how can you stand out? Legal skills as such may not be their priority – many clients assume that you have the necessary expertise. But offering good service – making it easy for your clients to deal with you – can be the key to building your reputation.
Even if you start with the most simple website, you want your target clients to think “This service is a perfect fit for me” when they see it. Showcasing your case studies, reputation and reviews can help you provide transparency around the level of service you provide.
Ask yourself how potential clients find and choose their lawyers. Some clients are largely driven by recommendations and are relatively unlikely to shop around. By contrast, larger corporate clients will have a more formal process for selecting and comparing law firms.
Think carefully about pricing. Simply undercutting other firms is not usually the best approach, though you might well want to price in a similar range. Innovative pricing approaches – for example, value pricing – can be much more attractive to clients than the traditional hourly rate. What legal transactions will your target clients want to complete? Can you make your pricing look attractive, by offering fixed-price solutions?
Ideally, you should be able to pull everything together to identify the key selling points that you want to communicate to your target clients. Many marketers think in terms of a unique selling proposition (USP) – what makes you stand out from competing law firms.
The more you know about potential clients – and competitors – the better placed you will be to come up with the right marketing strategy.
Questions you might want to research include:
- How do the characteristics of target private clients – age, gender, occupation and so on – match the demographics of different local areas?
- Which firms match the profile you are looking for – in terms of size, industry, location and so on? Who are the key legal services decision-makers in those firms?
- How can you reach potential clients – for example, local networks and potential referrers? Where do your target clients look when they need legal services?
- What are other law firms are offering and which law firms do your target clients currently use? Look at their websites and marketing materials, ask around about their fee structures and reputations.
- What are the key developments affecting your clients and the legal services they might need? For example, new regulations, the growing role of technology in law firms, clients’ changing business environment and financial prospects, and so on.
You may find it helpful to put together a SWOT analysis as part of your planning, using what you know to identify your Strengths and Weaknesses, the best market Opportunities and the biggest Threats.
Networking is likely to be a significant part of your plan. You’ll want to work through your existing network, letting contacts know about your new firm. You may well want to look for new networking opportunities, or to take a higher profile role in local organisations.
Put some thought into your new firm’s website and what you can reasonably expect it to achieve. As a minimum, you’ll want a well-designed site that acts as an online brochure while you get established and build up your cashflow and reputation.
But you may be able to achieve much more – for example, attracting new clients through online searches via PPC or SEO – if you have the budget to do so. But be realistic about the likely conversion rates of online visitors. With so many law firms to choose from, are they likely to instruct you?
Decide how to promote your firm, both online and in the real world. Social media has become increasingly important for both networking and promotions. LinkedIn (if you serve businesses), Facebook and Twitter are useful places to announce your setup, alongside keeping your network updated about the firm and your offering.
Other PR and advertising opportunities include maximising publicity from your firm’s launch (in the local business press/websites), making sure you are included in relevant directories, and using online advertising to bring visitors to your website.
However you promote your business, make sure you are ready to respond to enquiries. At this stage, prospective clients are yours to lose. The way you respond can make a huge difference to the chances of converting them into paying clients.
Client service and retention
Good marketing will go beyond attracting new clients. High standards of client service help you retain clients for repeat business and win testimonials to use in your marketing.
Think through how your firm will operate, and what impact this has on clients. The right systems can help you deliver a quality service at every stage – from client intake to billing. Be careful about launching the firm too quickly or taking on too much, as teething troubles are likely to undermine the standards you have set for yourself.
Put together a marketing communications plan, not just for potential clients but also for maintaining existing relationships. A good client relationship management (CRM) system can help you stay in contact with referrers, clients and prospects.
Everything you do should work together to help you build your firm’s reputation.
Setting up the basics
You will already have a proposed name for the firm and so a logo is the sensible next step for the firm. For now, a modern and simple logo to get you established is probably best, depending on your budget. One inexpensive option is to use the Tailor Brands logo maker, for which you are not charged if you do not use any of the designs that are generated for you. Another option is a freelance platform such as Fiverr, with prices starting at less than £10 – but you tend to get what you pay for. As well as your website and business cards, use the logo on your email footers and other client touchpoints.
You will need a phone number to accept new client enquiries and calls from your existing clients and contacts. It looks more professional if you have a local rate or national phone number rather than just a mobile.
Your enquiries@ email address can be promoted on your social media platforms and website. Think about offering ‘free initial discussions’ to potential clients to help attract people in.
Consider outsourcing your telephone-answering to cover out of hours and when you are unavailable, especially if you are starting on your own.
Once you have a marketing plan, you may also consider a ‘live chat’ feature on your website to help attract enquiries and questions from potential clients. This can also be outsourced for a cost.
- Research your market. Find out as much as possible about clients, competitors, and the key trends affecting legal services.
- Outline your plans for your new firm: what services you intend to offer, to what types of client.
- Plan your resignation from your current firm, including what continuing relationship you want to have.
- Identify which existing clients you hope to attract to your new firm.
- Resign from your current firm and set the launch date for a new firm.
- Establish your key marketing objectives, targets and timescales. For example, the number of existing clients retained, the number of new leads in the first one / three / six months, and the income from different segments/activities.
- Decide your launch marketing priorities, including creating a website, approaching existing clients and referrers, and publicising the launch.
- Set an indicative marketing budget.
- Develop briefs and engage suppliers for your website, PR, any brochures, logo, phone, etc.
- Creating a marketing calendar, including both promotional activities and marketing communications with existing contacts.