Over the last few years, I've been speaking and writing about the kind of things that make it difficult to do good marketing in law firms.
When talking to legal marketers, without fail, the most common problems we hear about are the lawyers themselves:
"They stay out of a project until the last minute and then scupper it with unreasonable, unwelcome feedback at the 11th hour."
Lawyers? Argumentative? Who'd have thunk it?
Since the lawyer personality traits which we hear complaints about are precisely the qualities for which clients tend to hire lawyers, this behaviour is unlikely to change.
On top of that, Lawyers are kind of integral to law firms in a way which marketing and BD teams aren't. You can take the marketing and BD teams out of a law firm, and you still have a law firm. If you rip out the lawyers and leave the BD department, then you don't have a law firm anymore, you have an agency... with no clients.
So given that the lawyers are going to be around for a while, and are unlikely to be writing articles about how they make life difficult for marketers, any improvement has to come from the marketing side.
To this end, I have scoured the four corners of the earth for the best tactics to help marketing teams work more productively with lawyers on a day to day basis.
After speaking on this topic, people often suggest that many of the tips are not specific to lawyers, they say that these are in fact tips for dealing with people.
This is a fair and accurate comment. It stems from the fact that, despite occasional indications to the contrary, lawyers are actual people.
1. Be understanding
The first point here about understanding is more about awareness than empathy.
It's about being aware of the exact challenges you face and being able to articulate them.
You can't fight shadows.
You need to be able to shine a light on the problems you face so that they can be:
inspected and verified by others, and
demystified and broken down into their components.
In this case, it's about understanding where the frictions are in the firm. Is it between "fee-earners" and "cost-bases"? Is it between finance and IT? Is it between compliance and the real world?
Most of the marketing teams we've spoken to over the last four years in the sector have struggled when dealing with the lawyers. They reported that friction between themselves and key partners makes it difficult to do their job well.
Whether the root cause is historical, cultural or structural, being able to name it and talk about it is the first step to improving things. You can't make things better unless you know the specifics of what's wrong.
2. Be accepting
The psychologist Carl Rogers wrote, "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change".
This is as true with firm dynamics as it is with individuals and I can't stress it enough.
It means that whilst you should strive to improve the relationships between various stakeholder groups - first you have to accept those relationships as they are.
This is because, until things improve, you have to live with them as they are. If you can't accept the situation, you'll push hard against it and your resistance will be noticed. Rather than seem constructive, this can perceived as threatening. If you're trying to change the status quo but you're radiating resistance, you won't be able to recruit allies. At that point, you'll be exposed, alone and with the full weight of the firm's bureaucracy mobilised to quash your rebellion.
If it sounds melodramatic, that's because it is.
But if you've ever tried to change the status quo in a big firm purely with active resistance, you'll know it's a painful, fruitless activity.
Everything can change, but not without the requisite acceptance first.
3. Be prepared
Ok, so you know that the partners can be tricky and you've accepted that that's the way it is (for now). But you still want to do everything you can do to improve the situation. What does that look like?
It looks like preparation. A lot of preparation. Like a boy scout on steroids.
The more you know, the more options you have. The more options you have, the more likely you are to negotiate successfully for what you need.
You can try and busk it without preparation - you may even be successful - but you will have exposed yourself, and also raised the bar for yourself for next time.
Preparation is never wasted. It demonstrates a care and attention to the work which will only win you allies. It will give you a great step up for future conversations.
Preparation is like a shotgun in an apocalypse: It's better to have one, and not need it, than to need one and not have it.
This means knowing what you want and planning how to ask for it in a way which is compatible with what the other person is trying to achieve.
Don't know what the other person wants to achieve? Make that the first thing you ask them.
It means figuring out what you know, what you don't know and what you don't know you don't know. It means figuring out -ahead of time - what other people's expectations are around what you don't know.
4. Be Transparent
Believe it or not, what you do is as opaque and as unfathomable to lawyers as the intricacies of international shipping law are to you.
While it can be hard for us to appreciate, a large campaign, web build or CRM program is a black box for those on the outside of the process. The steps are unfamiliar and the factors that influence the decision making are all completely hidden from view.
This lack of understanding around how marketing works, is one of the main reasons why lawyers can meddle with projects. If they are on a steering committee or stakeholder team and are asked to feed into something which they don't understand - they'll still feed back. So it's no surprise that they can be obstructive some times. There's no doubt we would be too if the situation was reversed.
The best way to combat this behaviour is to bring transparency to the process, particularly around how you make decisions.
Once the lawyers understand the decision-making framework, you will have greater latitude to operate. This is because you will have contributed to a shared understanding of the process which allows group members to model decisions on their own.
When we recommend sharing how decisions are made with the lawyers, some teams recoil.
"If we explain it to them, they'll pick holes in everything".
Well, good. That's what they do. That's what people pay a lot of money for. It's what they're great at.
If you're worried about people picking holes in your framework, then there's a chance that it's not very good.
5. Be an enabler
What marketing teams don't realise, is that the propensity of lawyers to pick holes in things is a blessing, not a curse. Instead of presenting your decision-making framework to the fee-earners as the finished article, get their input on the one you have.
"He's our existing framework for making decisions, we'd love your input on how we can optimise it."
Or, even better, if you don't have a process in the first place, ask them to help create one with the marketing and BD team. This is by far the most powerful option.
But there's no point giving someone a hammer if you won't let them hit anything with it. Likewise, there's no point sharing your decision-making framework with the lawyers unless you're going to let them use it to make decisions.
In any firm the lawyers will have strong opinions on what the marketing and BD teams should be doing. Why not get out in front and ask them for a wishlist? They're going to give you their opinion whether you ask for it or not, but this way at least you get it on your terms.
Now you can invite them to compare their wishlist with the shared framework so they can see first hand, how their ideas stack up.
If you've gotten to this point, the quality of input you get from fee-earners should be going up as they use the framework to weed out the weak ideas.
6. Be humble
Having just given an intelligent, curious person (or maybe 150 of them) an invitation and a framework for contribution - it's now time to work with them on the ideas which have survived the gauntlet.
The biggest obstacle at this point can be ego - and not the lawyers'. It's likely you're now going to be looking at some sensible ideas, but here's the rub, they're not going to have come from you.
You know the framework and you're close to the process, but you don't have the objectivity which a little distance can bring.
This doesn't mean you have to run with every idea which comes from a lawyer. What you need is to be humble enough to accept that if you've done the above, the lawyers are in a great position to offer solid, constructive ideas. They might not have all the nuance of the marketing and BD teams, but don't let that get in the way of recognising a good idea when it presents itself.
7. Be generous
If you're starting to work more closely with the lawyers and you want to cement the working relationship, then it's time to get generous.
Give them all the credit for all the good ideas and take the rap for anything that goes pear shaped.
That's right: if it works, let them own it. If it tanks, take all the blame.
By giving away the success and owning the failure, you're creating a safe environment for contribution which will pay dividends in the long run.
It will make the experience of working with your team much more enjoyable and memorable for the lawyers, and you will be making regular deposits in the bank of goodwill.
This means that when you really need them to take a risk or trust your judgement on a tough call, they'll be much more inclined to do so since you've built trust with them in the past.
8. Be respectful
This point is easy to misinterpret.
I'm not suggesting that lawyers are worthy of a degree of respect which we're currently not affording them.
I'm saying that it's important to remember that in a partnership structure, any money for marketing activities is likely to come straight out of the lawyers' pockets.
It's important that we respect this situation, because if we don't, it can easily become a source of unnecessary pain.
All lawyers know that money which goes to marketing / BD is not going to them. This activates their very human and very real sense of loss aversion.
Of course, the purpose of spending money on marketing is to generate a return on that investment, but that's not what it feels like. That's not what it feels like to spend a lot of money on something without knowing what you're going to get in return.
This is why allowing them to contribute to the framework and decision making is so important. It gives them reassurance that "their" money is being allocated in a responsible fashion which they can wrap their head around.
9. Be agile
Law firms move at a glacial pace, but you can't afford to.
If it's going to take 18 months to redevelop your entire digital ecosystem, then don't do it.
Make a leaner, trimmed down prototype and test the bejesus out of it.
Get REAL feedback from REAL users and iterate based on what you learn. It won't all be right, but the sooner you get rid of the wrong bits, the sooner it can all be right.
Then test it and test it and test it again.
It's never finished, so don't expect it to be.
Remember, you're curating a garden, not building a castle (link to article), so treat it like a garden. It's seasonal and it's flexible. Techniques, content, formats and styles are going to change, so prepare to change with them.
Take feedback from the lawyers today and show them tomorrow what it looks like when it's incorporated.
Get into the habit of testing assumptions and using the data outputs to update those assumptions.
10. Be passionate
When I was a kid, I didn't dream of helping law firms tackle their biggest challenges, I wanted to be an astronaut.
But as an adult, I love working with lawyers and I care about what I do because it's challenging and it makes a difference.
Nobody is suggesting that any of the above points are easy. If they were - you would have already done them and I wouldn't have written this article.
They're not easy, but they do work and they do deliver real value.
But because they're challenging, they're not for the faint hearted.
They're not for those who are content with the status quo.
They're not for those who don't believe in a competitive advantage.
They're not for those who would rather complain about the situation than do something about it.
They ARE for those who recognise that broken things can be mended.
They ARE for those who care enough to try.
They ARE for those who give a shit about what they do and want to do it as well as possible.
There are those who are willing and able to help.
If you want to work more effectively with your lawyers.
If you want to change the way your firm approaches digital,
If you want to be faster, more effective and more collaborative, then let's have a chat.