Law firm media relations & communications

April 9, 2010

The directories debate: We’re asking the wrong question (part II)

Filed under: law firm communications — John Tuerck @ 9:19 am

In my last post, I suggested that when it comes to the question of whether firms should participate in the directories process, the issue isn’t the benefit of being ranked. That issue is largely settled, as a recent study confirms. The real issue is whether in-house marketing professionals have a say in whether their firms will participate in the process.

Having a say is a formidable challenge because directory rankings — particularly in high-profile publications like the various Chambers guides — appeal both to the lawyers’ desire for recognition and competitive instincts. Those are powerful forces. At the same time, lawyers are trained to examine each side of an argument, and if you can make a clear and thoughtful argument against participating in the directories process, the lawyers will listen.

What are the components of such an argument?

The resource drain: Marketing and practice-support resources, particularly in this era of fiscal austerity, are limited. Participating in the directories process requires a substantial investment of time and resources, which necessarily crowds out other, more productive marketing endeavors. Large firms participating in a handful of directories, including Chambers, can expect to devote substantially all of one marketing staffer’s time, in addition to the efforts of practice-support personnel. That’s not to mention the time investment on the part of busy partners, with the opportunity cost of lost billable hours.

The beauty-pageant problem: No matter how systematic and thoughtful the process, directory rankings are arbitrary and capricious. How does an underpaid, overworked directory researcher sifting through stacks of lengthy submissions really differentiate top-notch law firms? How is it that researchers can accurately assess the performance of lawyers in esoteric disciplines like, say, tax? All too often, published rankings contradict what clients already know. An example: one year, the Legal 500 guide omitted Jesse Jenner — a titan in the patent bar, the man who beat the Lemelson Foundation in the landmark bar-code case — from its ranking of IP litigators. That’s a bit like excluding Tom Brady from your list of the top 5 NFL quarterbacks. Why jump through all of the hoops in the directory process when the outcome is so uncertain?

Low ROI: The attempt to quantify the return on investment is a constant source of frustration in marketing. With the Acritas study cited above, however, in-house marketing professionals can finally produce data confirming their hunch that the directory process is not worth the effort. Better to spend the time visiting your client, or performing market research, or participating in a credentialing activity like writing an article for publication in a trade paper.

In the end, the lawyers in your firm may well decide to participate in the directories process even after hearing your thoughtful argument. At a minimum, however, they will be aware of the costs of participating, as well as the flaws in the process and the nebulous ROI. And they will respect you for making the case.

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March 31, 2010

The directories debate: We’re asking the wrong question (part I)

Filed under: law firm,law firm communications — John Tuerck @ 8:16 pm

The ongoing debate over the merits of law-firm directories like the Chambers guides flared anew on the LawMarketing List Serv (subscription required), a well-regarded resource for legal marketing experts. Larry Bodine, the founder of the list serv, expresses his unequivocal disdain for directories in general and Chambers in particular. In support, Bodine cites a recent Times of London article reporting on the finding of a recent survey that “only three percent [of general counsel in companies that hire firms] said that they have been influenced significantly by information in the directories.”

“Now law firm marketers can toss the vaunted Chambers directory on the heap with the soggy yellow pages dumped on their driveways, Superlawyers, Avvo and the 950 other surveys and rankings of law firms,” Bodine writes in a message posted to his list serv. “Statistically significant evidence proves that all of them generate little to no new business for law firms.” [Emphasis in original, as lawyers would say.]

Not every legal-marketing expert in the debate takes Larry’s view; some contend that a Chambers ranking can validate the decision by counsel to hire a firm, while others believe it can serve as a tiebreaker in, say, a competitive RFP with other, equally qualified firms. The general consensus, however, is that the substantial cost in time, money and effort that firms invest outweighs any benefit from a directory ranking.

I side with Larry and the others but wonder if we’re asking the right question. It’s fine that legal-marketing experts generally agree that directories like Chambers tend not to influence hiring decisions by general counsel. But the consensus view matters little if law-firm dynamics prevent or impede in-house marketing experts from stepping back and raising the issue with firm leadership of whether the benefits of participating in the directory process outweigh the costs.

The real question, then, is how in-house marketing experts can have a say in whether their firms should participate in the directory process. That question goes to the heart of the dynamics of the relationship between the law-firm partnership and professional staff, and addressing it here would result in a post longer than a Tolstoy novel. I’ll explore the answer in part II.

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