The Law Firm Startup: A Marketer's Perspective

March 1, 2021
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I recently worked with a colleague from a previous employer, who had been hired by a group of attorneys leaving biglaw to strike out on their own. She asked me to help her identify the minimum marketing work and tools they would need to launch a law firm startup.

Her responsibilities for launch included incorporating the new firm, getting contracts signed, installing payroll and accounting systems, finding real estate, all the thousands of administrative details that go into setting up a new law firm. These areas, she knows like the back of her hand.

What she needed from me was a plan for the marketing side of things. And a marketing project manager to drive everything to completion.

Timeline and Budget

Before any planning can take place on your law firm startup, you need to know the parameters you're working with. This being a new business, my friend had several constraints - chief among them being time and money. They needed to set things up as quickly as possible, and they needed to do it as inexpensively as possible. As with many operational decisions, the first question is: Is this (person, application, feature) a must-have or a nice-to-have? And if it is a must-have, the next questions are:

  • How quickly can this get done? This group needed to launch in under four months. Knowing this constraint helped me back-out the marketing project timeline, identify what was possible, and pull together vendor recommendations as well as pricing estimates.
  • What is the least amount of money we can spend to get it done? We all know the idiom "you get what you pay for," but we also know that more expensive doesn't necessarily mean better. This is when you need to flesh out precisely what you are getting for the extra money. For example, of the two vendors I evaluated for this firm's web design, one cost less but I learned that was because they only allocated one hour for branding and discovery. The more expensive vendor proposed four one-hour branding and stakeholder interview sessions. If you think that a design agency can understand your brand and messaging in an hour, perhaps the less expensive agency will be the right way to go. But I agreed with the agency that felt more up-front discovery time was important, and it also told me that they understood clearly defined success criteria better than the less expensive agency. My point is, dig into specifics and don't evaluate on price alone.

The below is what our condensed project timeline looked like:

Marketing Project Timeline for Law Firm Startup

With time constraints and budget in mind, I proposed the following "minimum viable launch criteria" from a marketing perspective (you will see a summary table with cost estimates at the end of this post):

1. Brand Discovery

This group didn't know what they wanted to name the firm, let alone how they wanted to position themselves in the marketplace. They needed branding exercises to help them understand their positioning, value proposition, and messaging.

I've seen law firm startups that simply used the founders' last names and created a logo by having one of their kids design it using the Washington Nationals' logo as inspiration. That was it as far as up-front branding work went. This lack of foundational insight might carry a firm for a few years but at some point, a mature organization needs to do the branding work. Why not spend some hours up front? Branding is the DNA that shapes everything, and I do mean everything, about your firm.

At most firms, I would work with a branding agency that was separate from the web design agency. Branding takes one skill set and web design another. Getting the best of each usually means hiring different organizations. But considering the tight timeline, I only evaluated web agencies that I knew had experience defining a new firm brand and who could work on these efforts in parallel.

2. Website Design and Build

A typical website requirements gathering, design, and build project for a biglaw firm will take at least a year. But this group had only a few months, so we needed a basic site launched that could be enhanced post-launch.

 

Basic navigation for a law firm website

3. Content Creation

Content is the long tail in most website projects, so don't underestimate how much time it will take to write bios, practice descriptions, and the firm overview. Since you will want to include your launch day press release on your website, you should have a news section. But you don't want to have only that one item on your news page, so you will want other pieces of writing. Perhaps have a few webinars lined up that you can post to give site visitors a reason to return.

Copy

While you can save money by having attorneys write their own bios, I strongly discourage this. You want a shared voice and tone to the writing, and for each bio to follow a pattern. Attorneys very often think more is more, whereas on the web the exact opposite is true. People scan, they don't read the same way they would read a brief, for example.

You won't get the necessary level of clean, consistent, readable copy without an experienced writer overseeing the process. The same goes for how you write about your practice(s), firm overview, and every other word on your website. Compelling marketing copy doesn't just happen, it takes experience and talent.

Photography

The web designer will be responsible for coming up with imagery for your site, but headshots for your attorney bios aren't going to be something your web agency handles. You are going to need to hire a photographer. Are all your attorneys in one location or spread out in different cities?

  • Single Location: if all attorneys are in a single geographical location, it will be easy to get a consistent look and feel to the photos by using a single photographer and shoot location.
  • Multi-Office: if your attorneys are geographically dispersed, I recommend finding a photographer who is willing to travel. If you start using multiple freelance photographers, it opens up a host of challenges and you will very likely end up with inconsistent lighting, depth of field, style, and quality. If budget allows, I recommend using an agency like Gittings that has photographers in all major cities. They develop a creative and technical brief to ensure that a consistent look is applied to all portraits.

4. Marketing Templates

A basic set of templates is needed for creating proposals, engagement letters, invoices, envelopes, labels, and other materials. This firm had settled on Microsoft Office as their foundational software suite, so we decided that, for launch, the PowerPoint template could do double duty as a presentation template and a pitch template. After launch when there was more time, we would create a more advanced and feature-rich pitch template in Word.

(Side note - Lawyerist has a great set of resources for law firms using Microsoft office.)

5. Social Media Setup

Making the market and media aware of your existence means doing more than just issuing a press release. Make it easy for people to find you and talk about you by standing up Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, at the very least.

6. Email Marketing and Mini-CRM

You don't need to invest in CRM heavy hitters like Interaction or Salesforce to establish a solid email marketing resource for your firm. I recommended using MailChimp, because it is super inexpensive as an entry-level tool, and includes solid basic features to enable you to manage your contacts. HubSpot also offers a great entry-level CRM,  and includes a lot of event landing page resources and other website optimization tools. HubSpot can be a little trickier to use, however, and this firm didn't plan on having in-house marketing staff at launch. You need to consider your ongoing support resources when selecting any technology.

The cost in this line item is mostly about the setup and template creation: pulling together contacts from 20 attorneys, then scrubbing, uploading, and segmenting into useful lists. You also will want to create a few basic email marketing templates - one for firm announcements, one to promote events such as webinars, and possibly one for newsletters.

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I didn't include business cards in this list of law firm startup marketing needs because they are becoming far less common, and especially during the COVID pandemic, people aren't doing a lot of meet-and-greets. But this might be something to consider down the road.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone looking at the possibility of setting up the marketing side of a new law firm. These are the kinds of projects I love working on, and a tight timeline only makes things that much more exciting.

The value of hiring a marketing project manager is that they bring holistic oversight to the entire project. Managing vendor evaluation, website acceptance testing, reviewing and refining each deliverable, proofing final copy, and managing the dozens of moving parts to make sure everything comes in on time and under budget.

Drop me a line if you think I can help!

Estimated costs of marketing needs of a startup law firm

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