9 Strategies to Build Successful Law Firm Marketing and Business Development Departments by Timothy Corcoran

Timothy Corcoran has a message for lawyers who have multimillion-dollar practices after decades in the business: Your timing to enter the profession was impeccable, but the gravy train has left the station.

“We’ve just exited a world in which there was near unlimited demand for legal services for over a generation,” he explains. “You became a multimillionaire during a time when the phone always rang all the time. You’re still a good person and a good lawyer. But the world’s changed; you’ve got to compete differently.”

As principal of the Corcoran Consulting Group, Timothy is well acquainted with the new world of law firm marketing. He has more than two decades of corporate leadership experience and is a former president of the Legal Marketing Association. He helps law firms face today’s highly competitive marketplace with confidence by advising them on everything from market entry strategies to project management to business development to launching new technology tools.

We were delighted to have him sit down with us recently. He shared his ideas on how established lawyers can gracefully make the transition from winning clients by practicing good law (something that simply won’t work on its own anymore) to winning clients because of practicing good law and good business. Here are 9 strategies and tactics that he recommends:

Measure the ROI of every practice.

“The biggest mistake law firms make is allowing the lawyers to define effective business development. Lawyers do not generally know business, while they’re willing and able to learn, they have a blind spot for the businesses they own,” says Tim.

In essence, he says, when you’re at the top of the organizational pyramid, it’s too easy to insist that what you want should prevail over what’s best for the overall health of the firm. The key is to be aware if a pet area of the practice doesn’t make as much money as others. This requires having metrics to measure return on investment, such as financial reports.

“Having metrics in place doesn’t always mean you choose the path that gives you the greatest return. What it means is that you make informed business decisions,” says Tim. “We may have a practice group that’s not as profitable or busy. On paper the metrics may show that it is a waste of time and we shouldn’t put any investment in it. But these lawyers own these businesses and if they choose to make that decision I have no problem whatsoever with it, as long as it’s a conscious, informed decision.”

Recognize that marketing and business development require professional expertise.

“If we ask a litigator ‘What do your lawyers do when they’re not busy?’ And they say ‘Well, they do corporate transactions and they do bankruptcy restructuring, and they do labor and employment contract negotiation.’ Well, then that suggests all lawyers are interchangeable. If that’s (a law firm’s) mindset, then sure, combine marketing and business development and hire fewer people and have them be jacks of all trades,” says Tim.

However, if you believe lawyers should have specialty expertise, then Timothy maintains that you should hold the same standard for business development and marketing.

“They can include them all in the same department if they want, led by a leader who understands both disciplines,” says Tim. “But calling someone both marketing and business development is as silly as saying I’m both a litigator and a deal lawyer, trusted estates lawyer, and I’m a labor lawyer, and I’m all of the above.”

Consider knowledge and ability before promoting from within.

Here’s what Timothy says he never wants to see again:

  • A CIO who rose up through the ranks from help-desk technician to network administrator and is now, in his spare time, tasked with learning global security and compliance, and financial data security.
  • A managing partner’s secretary promoted to head of human resources, and tasked with enforcing employment laws and regulations.
  • An event planner becoming the chief marketing officer because somehow events have been equated with understanding marketing strategy, competitive intelligence and business development.

“In a  world where we have intense competition and the clients are changing the rules, some law firms are struggling. I think the new formula is you hire capable, competent professionals in the business disciplines,” he explains. “You hire people with the right credentials even if they come from outside the industry and you give them the resources they need and the management backing and you let them do their job.”

Know the difference between a strong business development professional and a strong marketer.

Here’s how Timothy differentiates them:

  • The ideal business development person knows how to close deals.
  • They understand the entire sales process that wins work and retains clients. This includes everything from targeting to competitive intelligence to packaging and pricing to closing, servicing and renewing clients.

“Someone who has been through that process in a corporation is very likely to be able to say ‘I know how to translate those concepts to a law firm environment,’” says Tim.

The ideal marketer understands how to build awareness.

In contrast, you may want a marketer who has had law-firm experience because they’re adapting tried and true marketing techniques. Timothy recommends they have a broad understanding of traditional and digital media, plus know:

  • How to find out what existing and potential clients are doing and where they spend their time.
  • How to position the firm in front of those who are ready to buy services.
  • How to differentiate the firm in a crowded marketplace.
  • How to measure success.

Hire people who will rock the boat.

Timothy says law firms should toss aside this tried-and-true formula for marketing and business development survival. That is:

  • Be competent and capable.
  • Be very responsive to the lawyers and never say no.
  • Keep things running on time.

“The easiest thing to do in a law firm is to not rock the boat,” admits Tim. “If you want to compete and thrive in a tough environment then you’re going to have to hire people with skills and competencies, and possibly even attitudes, which are going to be somewhat disruptive to your culture.

“But if you want to make sure everyone’s happy, even if we’re happy as we go off a cliff, then hire the safe choice.”

If you’re ready to shake things up, Timothy advises that the management team should face its own weaknesses. That means partners who are at the peak of the organizational pyramid should be ready for their own desires to take a backseat to the success of the overall operation.

“We don’t have a shortage of right people. We have a shortage of a safe zone for them to be hired and be comfortable to operate for a couple years without every partner threatening them with ‘I’m going to kick you out if you don’t do whatever I say.’ Even if it’s the most useless idea ever,” says Tim.

“A quote I give often to lawyers, and they find it both amusing and uncomfortable, is there’s literally not enough time in the day for a marketer to respond to all the stupid ideas presented to them by the partners,” he continues. “So what you want is someone to wade through those and prioritize those ideas. If your culture is not conducive to that, hire a safe choice and have marginal improvement over the next couple of years.”

Embed business development within industries and practices.

This means that if you’re in a multi-office law firm, you may have to connect with your business development professional virtually. Timothy explains that business development requires domain expertise that won’t happen if they’re assigned by office.

“In much the same way you don’t have a large pool of litigators and every time you get litigation you appoint generic litigators to work on it, I embed the BD team within industries and practices so they become experts and trusted advisors,” explains Tim.

In contrast, marketing can be set up like an agency that can serve the whole organization.

Give them a roadmap to success.

Timothy achieves this by helping law firms assess marketing and business development functions, and the leadership team’s ability to manage them. This helps the law firm leadership:

  • Clarify the qualities of the top candidates (which are usually different from the typical parade of candidates provided by headhunters), and
  • Create a roadmap that outlines and analyzes specific business development and marketing deficiencies, and a likely timetable for marketing and business development to address them.

“If you don’t have that before day one, who knows how you define success?” asks Tim.

Make marketing and business development a part of the team.

Timothy says that too often lawyers exclude business development and marketing professionals.

“I can’t tell you how many practice group retreats where I’ve given a talk or conducted a workshop, and no one thought to bring the marketer or the business development person assigned to that group,” he says.

It would be much better, he explains, if they thought, “We couldn’t possibly have a practice group meeting about growing the practice without the experts who have spent years in school and years in training to do this job to support us.”

Support them.

“I think a prevailing thing that all successful marketing and business development professionals have in common is the support of management,” says Tim. “Business development has the trust and support of the practices and industries they serve. They have accountability, and the budgets and responsibility to achieve their goals.”

If you want more insight on how to create a successful law firm marketing and business development department, be sure to check out How to Build a Successful Law Firm Marketing Department: 8 Strategies from John Remsen, Jr. If you want to find out how Introhive can make your business development easier through automated customer relationship management, take two minutes to watch this video.

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