Monumental trends from a decade of law firm sales.

Having just completed my 10th year as a law firm staff professional with the word “sales” on my business card, I’ve been collecting thoughts about the last decade of legal sales and marketing: developments, successes, failings and trends. Last week, I described the ascending power of buyers as the most monumental trend of my tenure at law firms. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share additional observations on the New Legal Normal Blog. This week’s Top 10 entry is both an amazing development and an unfortunate failing of the last decade: social media.

Other commentators know much better than I the facts about social media – number of worldwide social media users, commercial organizations’ increasing share of commerce through these channels, etc.

My own take on social media is that it is a low-cost solution to a challenge that – at least until social media exploded onto the scene five or so years ago — has long plagued law firm marketing departments: Should marketing investment be in the law firm’s brand, as a generality, or, rather, in promoting individual lawyers? In an environment of limited marketing funds, it is difficult if not impossible to do both simultaneously. Choosing to focus on an investment in the brand creates institutional awareness, clearly an important element of the traditional buying cycle (awareness, interest, assessment, decision). But it does not adequately support lawyers in their efforts to initiate and build relationships; I always have asserted that relationships, whether directly or via reference, are the foundation of legal services sales. On the other hand, choosing to focus on the promotion of individual lawyers erodes the reach and impact of institutional branding.

In this environment, five or so years ago, social media arrived, and as social media has matured, it has become clear that it is a tool that directly addresses the marketing needs of individual lawyers at a very low out-of-pocket cost. With social media, lawyers can digitally create networks with clients and potential clients that rather easily can be transformed into face-to-face relationships. With social media, lawyers easily can create distribution channels for their content; even in the context of 140 characters in a Tweet, a lawyer can attach a link to longer, more-thoughtful and more-substantive content. A clear benefit to lawyers utilizing social media regularly is an enhanced search engine presence, and the concomitant increase in the odds of being found by buyers. (Research conclusively shows that when buyers don’t have existing relationships, and when their colleagues can’t produce a referral, they next turn to search engines to locate potential providers).

Law firm marketers have, to an impressive degree, adopted social media. Many view it, as I do, as the next step in the unfolding of communications technology. To some of us, it is a step as dramatic as the one that advanced us from hard-copy mail to electronic mail. Individuals now in college and law school eschew traditional e-mail, preferring instead text and social media as the communications media of choice. These students will soon be buyers, and they will expect their providers to be able to communicate with them in their preferred media. For that reason alone, it is important for lawyers to embrace social media.

Beyond that, social media already is demonstrating its efficacy as a sales tool. Some members of my sales team at Womble Carlyle regularly communicate with clients and prospective clients solely through social media, and yes, we have acquired new business as a result of this activity. Just yesterday, Larry Bodine, editor in chief of reported in a noteworthy article that 55% of marketers have closed new business via social media. At this point, the percentage of lawyers who have done so surely is dramatically lower than that percentage. Adrian Dayton, one of my most-trusted social media advisers, often uses a slide that demonstrates that lawyers are near the bottom of the pack among all professions in LinkedIn utilization; only farmers are less adept at LinkedIn than lawyers. There is no reason to believe that they are more active in other social media such as Twitter and Facebook.

I don’t think that social media is for all lawyers. But to me, it’s a shame that in an era when so many lawyers understand the importance of personal brand and work so hard in unproductive channels to build it, they do not avail themselves of one of the most striking and inexpensive law firm marketing developments of the past decade. I fear that those who wait until the proof-of-concept is conclusive will have totally lost first-mover possibilities.

For all these reasons, I have decided to include in my list of Top 10 developments the advent of social media and the – thus far – tepid response to it from the outside legal community.