In this instalment of Words that Bite, I investigate how Twitter can be used to market a law firm. I also explore some of the traps law firms can fall into when they take the big plunge into the Twittersphere.
Towards the end of last year, I wrote a blog post about how small businesses can use Twitter to market themselves. At the time, it occurred to me that it might also be useful to write a post focusing on law firms because, although law firms are businesses that, in many ways, are like any other business, they have certain characteristics that mean marketing them is a whole different ball game.
First, lawyers sell a service. They do not sell a physical product that you can use or wear. The fact that their clients receive a service for a fee makes it difficult for law firms to measure ‘value’.
Second, the vast majority of lawyers measure the service they sell in a commodity called ‘time’ and charge their clients by the six-minute unit. The ‘time’/‘value’ equation is very difficult for clients to measure.
In fact, for a client, selecting a particular lawyer and agreeing to pay by the hour is a bit like entering a lottery.
Because, as a client, how do I know whether it is a good idea to hire Lawyer X at $500 per hour at Firm No. 1, or Lawyer Y at $700 per hour at Firm No. 2? Presumably, because Lawyer Y charges more per hour, he or she is a better or more experienced lawyer. But the two lawyers may be of a similar quality, and the higher hourly rate for Lawyer Y may be because he or she works at Firm 2, which is a bigger firm with higher overheads. As a result, I need to consider whether I require Firm 2’s bells and whistles, because I might save a lot of money if I go with Lawyer X, who will give me the same quality service at a lower rate. To make matters even more complicated, I might find that, despite the firm’s high overheads, Lawyer Y at Firm 2 will save me money because he or she can produce a similar quality of work faster. In the end, under this sort of fee structure it is almost impossible for clients to know whether they have made the right decision when they hire a lawyer.
Third, lawyers, in the vast majority of firms, are under pressure to meet a budget.
Ultimately, the combination of billable units and the pressure to meet budget is not the ideal way to create trust between lawyer and client, because the reality is that the longer it takes a lawyer to do a task, the more money he or she will bring into the firm. To put it bluntly, there is a strong personal incentive for lawyers to charge their clients as much they can possibly get away with, because the more they bill, the more they will be rewarded professionally, and even financially. Obviously, basic market forces and competition from other firms act as a moderating influence on what a lawyer can charge. Lawyers are also regulated by professional standards legislation. Nevertheless, any client under the tyranny of the six-minute unit is going to wonder whether they have received their money’s worth for the service provided, and I suspect the way in which clients are billed by the legal profession is the cause of much of the hostility towards lawyers. Although a few brave law firms have changed the way they bill clients, I suspect billing by the hour is here to stay for the majority of firms.
The way lawyers use time to charge for the service they provide can make life difficult for the business development professionals who market law firms. After all, how do you market an entity that doesn’t seem quite trustworthy because the way it charges its clients is full of smoke and mirrors?
One of the consequences of billing by the hour is that, more often than not, it leads law firms to focus on themselves when they market the firm. If you look at any law firm website, the first thing you will notice is the emphasis on ‘we’. The ‘about’ and ‘media’ pages in websites are classic examples. Interestingly, this approach breaks the first rule of advertising: show what your product or service can do for your customer or client.
I believe that the reason law firms focus so much on the ‘we’ on their websites, and in other marketing material, is because the way in which they structure their relationships with their clients (i.e. billing through the six-minute unit) means that they are most comfortable blowing their own trumpet and are reluctant to focus on what they can actually do for their clients. Basically, the subliminal message most firms fall back on is ‘We are the “best” and, therefore, you have to pay for our services in the way we want you to pay (i.e. by the hour) and simply put up with the hocus-pocus that surrounds our billing practices’.
Since law firms have always marketed themselves by focusing on the ‘we’, they tend to revert to two standard strategies in relation to Twitter.
They ignore Twitter, except for publishing articles and updates on their websites about how dangerous it can be, from a legal point of view, for both employers and employees.
Those firms that have the courage to open Twitter accounts generally use them solely to spruik their wares.
Almost universally, law firms (whether they are small, large or medium-sized) with Twitter accounts use them to do some or all of the following:
But, in rare cases, a law firm might use Twitter to give its brand a voice. A good example of one that has successfully employed this strategy is small independent Sydney firm Marque Lawyers. It uses its Twitter account to provide witty comments on not only local legal but political developments. Occasionally, Marque attacks the state of the legal profession. In 2011, in a daring move, the firm recruited its summer clerks via Twitter.
As I’ve said before, Twitter is about connecting people. It is also about participating in a dialogue, rather than delivering a monologue. It works best when people try to be helpful by sharing high-quality content (ideally, not produced by them). For this reason, Twitter doesn’t work well when a business uses it merely to blow its own trumpet. It’s a bit like if you were to walk into a pub and happen to stand next to someone and he gives you a long speech about how great he is.
Any law firm contemplating opening a Twitter account needs to think about the way it will use the platform and how it will distinguish itself from its competition.
Twitter is a great place for a law firm to start listening to clients. So, I suggest that, instead of using it to blabber at people, law firms use it to get a sense of what clients are saying and thinking.
Again, any firm heading down the Twitter route needs to focus on clients rather than on itself. In short, it needs to think about what its clients might like to see on the Twitter feed. A good starting place would be to include links to articles and reports that might be useful for clients. This would obviously involve refraining from only providing links to material generated by the firm. Some links to firm material are fine, but a firm looks a lot less like an institution full of narcissists, and a lot more like it actually cares, if it posts material that might be of interest to its clients and is produced elsewhere.
In the same way, a firm might like to consider providing links to opportunities and events that clients might be interested in becoming involved in or attending.
Twitter has the potential to work well for a law firm that has a niche. For example, if a firm focuses on intellectual property, its Twitter feed can become a reference tool for followers who want to be alerted to developments in that particular area of the law.
If a law firm has a strong brand, Twitter can give that firm a voice and a personality. In short, it can be used to make a crusty old law firm seem human.
As a law firm, you need to understand that in the world of advertising and marketing, it is very important to shift the focus from going on about yourself to how you can help clients. While you may get away with an undue focus on the ‘we’ on a website, social media is an area where narcissistic tendencies become extremely obvious. This is especially the case with Twitter. As a result, it is vital for law firms to change their thinking about its purpose. Basically, before you start a Twitter marketing campaign, you should see Twitter as a resource for clients, rather than a vehicle for telling everyone how great you are. If you already have a Twitter account, maybe you should review your current tweeting strategy and think about ways you can make your tweets more client-friendly.
Are you a law firm that needs advice on whether to start using Twitter? If so, call the Pink Rottweiler on +61 (0)409 609 903 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.