Law Firm Marketing During Covid-19: Finding the Opportunities – Part 1

October 7, 2020

Covid-19 failed to vanish in the summer heat and we’re all in this for the long haul. As we emerge from the panic and chaos of the last six months into this strange new normal, how should law firms be approaching their marketing?

In this blog post, we’ll explore this question, brainstorm strategies, and offer some insights, while recognizing that every firm is in a different situation and that everyone, including experienced marketers, is trying to navigate uncharted terrain.

Because this is such a crucial subject for our clients, and because we wanted to cover a lot of ground, we’ve split this blog post into three parts.

Part 1: The Legal Market

Covid-19 may be the most transformative global event of the postwar era. It’s true that there have been other recessions, including the financial crisis of 2008, and there have been wars, disasters, and other epidemics. While these crises have been tragic, they have generally been constrained by time and geography. This pandemic is a sprawling, open-ended crisis without precedent for law firms or the world of marketing.

The first step to developing an appropriate and effective legal marketing strategy during this time is to acknowledge where we are and what the near future holds. Not all marketing needs to be about the coronavirus, but you also can’t afford to be blind to the situation. Whatever your law firm does now, you do it against the backdrop of a global pandemic, not to mention a reckoning with systemic racism, and a highly charged political atmosphere. Firms can’t afford to come across as tone-deaf, or worse, as benefitting from others’ misfortune.

Getting out the right message in this atmosphere is challenging. Many law firms have decided to more or less play turtle, reigning in projects, cutting marketing budgets, and furloughing marketing and business development staff. This might help with cash flow in the short term, but indiscriminate cost cutting is likely to be self-sabotaging in the mid to long term.

Don’t Stop Marketing

Marketing right now is hard. But the law firms that have gotten it right are going to be the firms that have a head start accelerating out of the recession. Your firm’s goal should be to steer through the crisis, while preparing to accelerate on the other side, not to slam on the brakes.

“How to Market in a Downturn”, a Harvard Business Review article from the 2008-2009 recession, offers this sage advice: “Although it’s wise to contain costs, failing to support brands or examine core customers’ changing needs can jeopardize performance over the long term. Companies that put customer needs under the microscope, take a scalpel rather than a cleaver to the marketing budget, and nimbly adjust strategies, tactics, and product offerings in response to shifting demand are more likely than others to flourish both during and after a recession.”

A cartoon of a marketer who is standing in front of a box that says "In case of emergency, break glass." The marketer is on the phone and says "All that's in here is a memo to cut our marketing budget."

Part of the reason why marketing budgets are often the first to be cut is that marketing is seen as discretionary, rather than foundational. It’s easier, and less politically fraught, for firms to cut ad spend over bonuses. Marketing is, however, essential in bringing in revenue from existing and new clients. And a strong, well-recognized brand is one of the best protections a firm can have against a volatile market.

“During recessions it’s more important than ever to remember that loyal customers are the primary, enduring source of cash flow and organic growth.”
How to Market in a Downturn, HBR

Client retention should be a key goal, as retaining existing clients is far more cost-effective than attracting new ones. One study found that it cost businesses about 5 times more to attract new customers than it does to retain existing customers; although this study was not focused on law firms, this finding is still informative. Law firms should have procedures in place for identifying key clients and ensuring that they are well cared for; see this Insight by Derek Jones, CEO of Acuigen: “How Law Firms Can Support Client Listening During COVID-19 & Social Distancing”.

While it makes sense to reassess marketing spending, this should be done with the intent of removing poor performers and optimizing spend. As we recently put it to a consulting client, “You don’t stop feeding the horse just because the journey is difficult.”

Recognize that the Legal Market is Changing

Law firms are also in a better situation than most businesses. A recent report by McKinsey & Company on the implications of the Coronavirus notes “Law firms weather downturns better than the overall economy does.”

The graph below compares revenue change of the US economy (real GDP) and AM Law 100 firms.

A graph by McKinsey & Company comparing revenue change of the US economy (real GDP) and AM Law 100 firms.
Source: COVID-19 Implications for Law Firms, McKinsey & Company

Demand for dispute-related services is, as the McKinsey & Company report notes, “less correlated with the rest of the economy than transactional practices are”. Anecdotally, we’ve heard from numerous litigation boutiques that they are busier than ever. Demand for transactional legal practice areas varies widely by sector, with the travel and hospitality sectors facing the most precipitous drops in revenue, but even in those struggling sectors there is still demand for legal services, including restructuring, shareholder litigation, and supplier and leasing disputes.

Previous recessions can only tell us so much about our current situation, of course. But one thing is certain, challenges brought by this pandemic are going to result in a reshuffling of the competitive landscape as some law firms respond with aplomb while others flounder.

Should Your Firm Hold Off on Big Marketing Projects?

This is a tricky question. Now may not be the most opportune time to redesign your logo or redecorate your lobby. However, with everything moving online for the foreseeable future, your firm’s digital presence could not be more crucial to your marketing.

Ask yourself these two questions to determine if a marketing project should be a priority:

  1. How relevant is this project to addressing the immediate needs of our target audience?
  2. Will this project improve our firm’s ability to communicate remotely?

Law firms are in the enviable position in that their core product, their lawyers’ expertise, is extremely relevant. Almost every company has questions about government regulations, relief programs, and/or their responsibilities to their employees. As a result, any content initiative your firm is considering is likely to be apropos whether that’s a new blog, a podcast, or a video campaign.

Prioritize digital experiences over anything physical, at least in the short term. Redesigning your business cards can probably wait. At the same time, your firm is probably going to be involved in webinar presentations, if you aren’t already. Are your presentations up to the task reflecting positively on your firm brand?

Do you have a set of resources you can send to prospective clients at different stages in their on-boarding journey? Are these readily available to your lawyers and marketing staff?

Consider adding the following to your firm’s digital assets:

  • Digital Firm Brochure
  • Practice Area/Industry-Specific Brochures
  • PowerPoint Template
  • eNewsletter Template
  • Infographics, Case Studies, and Whitepapers
  • Videos: (e.g., about the firm, about a practice area, client testimonials and case studies, etc.)

Digital is king right now and will remain so for the immediate future. Even when your firm’s lawyers are once again attending client events and conferences, these digital assets can help support their BD activities.

This pandemic won’t last forever. To quote the indomitable Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings, “Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.” This may not happen as soon as we’d like, but eventually there will be a vaccine, whether that’s this winter, next spring, or next fall. In the meantime, law firms have the ability to help innumerable businesses and individuals. We can get through this. And we will.

Read Part 2: Law Firm Messaging Strategies During Covid-19 & Times of Crisis

Lynn Fitzpatrick Foley
Fitzpatrick Foley

Connal McNamara

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