Best Practices in an Era of Transformation

Posted on May 15, 2019 by Joseph Lamport

PLI has just published a new book by Deborah Farone, one of the pioneers in the field of legal marketing, entitled Best Practices in Law Firm Business Development and Marketing, which I expect will become a staple item on the library shelves in many BigLaw firms.  (But then again – do BigLaw firms have library shelves any more these days?)  Many of the readers of this blog and our newsletter will likewise find Farone’s book to be an invaluable resource, as it provides an insider’s overview of how the marketing function is currently being most effectively implemented in today’s top tier firms. 

Farone is extremely well-qualified to compile this best-practices guide since her own career directly paralleled the rise of the marketing function in the legal business.  Starting out 30 years ago at Debevoise (where she began working out of a converted storage closet), Farone was part of the first generation of BigLaw marketing directors who undertook the long uphill struggle to win respect and prove the value of marketing to an earlier generation of the pinstriped doyens of the boardroom and courtroom – she fought her way out of the storage closet and into the law firm executive suite, as it were.  From her early success at Debevoise, Farone went on to play an even more prominent role as CMO of Cravath, and along the way she has also done much to raise the profile of marketing in the broader legal community through her role as lecturer, teacher and active leadership in the LMA. 

As you would expect from a marketing expert, the book is compact and highly readable.   Farone manages to cover all the key topics in at least summary fashion, from technology to law firm culture, reputation management, media relations, the role of the CMO, etc., all in less than 200 pages.  If only lawyers could learn to be as concise in their writing, the world would truly be a better place.  And while the book is admirably brief, Farone in no way stinted in her research, conducting more than 60 interviews with various experts, which helps make the book live up to its promise of providing a broad market view of best practices.

Now much as there is to recommend the book, I do have one major reservation, which in a sense goes to the heart of the enterprise.  What is it we hope to accomplish when we set out to study and master the best practices of legal marketing today?  In the legal market, it seems, we tend to retain our slavish devotion to the adoption of best practices because law firms and lawyers, by instinct and training, are such creatures of convention, inclined to follow the herd – if it’s good enough for Debevoise and Cravath then surely it must be good enough for me. 

And here is the important caveat. As it happens, this week while reading Farone’s book, I came across this blogpost by marketing consultant David Dodd entitled “Why You Shouldn’t Rely Too Much on Marketing Best Practices.”  As Dodd explains:

Marketing best practices are often portrayed as effective and reliable tools for achieving marketing success, but the reality is more nuanced. Marketing best practices can be helpful when they are understood correctly and used appropriately, but it’s easy for marketers to become enthralled with the promised benefits of best practices, and forget their limitations. One of the most paradoxical characteristics of marketing best practices is that the more widely they are used, the less effective they tend to become.

(The whole article is worth reading and you can find it right here.)  The fact of the matter is that adopting best practices may be quite useful when it comes to achieving operational efficiency but it is no substitute for developing a real marketing strategy that rests upon identifying and articulating a clearly differentiated and unique market position.  By definition this is not something you can copy or borrow from someone else.  And this is by far and away the most important challenge in marketing a law firm today, though we tend to lose sight of it when we devote too much time and effort to mastering the best practices of our peer firms.  

Dodd is making a point about marketing in general but it seems particularly apt in the legal market right now.  And it’s not just because of our habitual inclination to follow the herd; it’s because the legal market right now is undergoing a transformation and many of the rules of the marketplace are being rewritten even as we speak.  In fairness to Farone, she seems to be aware of this fact:  the successful law firm of tomorrow will most likely bear little resemblance to firms operating today, no matter what sort of practices they adopt.  It may be owned by shareholders instead of partners.  It may be completely virtual, with lawyers doing all their cite checking at home in their underwear.  In other words, in the current market environment, best practices and mediocre practices both tend to become equally suspect and flawed, at least to the extent they are similarly rooted in past practice.  We need to be looking forward instead of back; instead of looking to emulate the best practices of other law firms, we should be looking beyond the boundaries of the legal market to better understand the transformational changes going on in the broader business world.  The best practice of all is to be ready and willing to be transformed.

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