What Business Law Firms Can Learn From Plaintiff Firms

What Business Law Firms Can Learn From Plaintiff Firms

By Morgan MacLeod
May 27, 2021 | 8 minutes
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Plaintiff law and lawyers are simply different. Through grit, hard-work and determination, they fight society’s injustices and right the wrongs of big business (the Davids versus the Goliaths). Having worked with countless lawyers from both business and plaintiff firms over the past 20 years, I believe there is a lot we can learn from these “Davids.”

To gain a better understanding, I had a conversation with fellow in-house colleagues, Erin Smith Watson, director of communications and marketing at mass tort firm Motley Rice LLC, and Mark Hunter, director of client development and marketing at Hicks Morley, a Canadian labor and employment boutique firm who has also worked for both corporate and personal injury (PI) firms in Canada.

Morgan Macleod (MM): Mark, you’ve worked at both traditional business and plaintiff firms, can you talk to me about the differences between the two?

Mark Hunter (MH): For a corporate lawyer, it takes longer to build a practice — you may not bring a new client to the firm for a few years. In a PI firm, you will still learn from more senior lawyers, but in the first year you better be bringing in some business. PI lawyers tend to be more entrepreneurial and business development-focused from the get go.

A plaintiff firm will have a broader client base (anyone can be injured). Corporate is different. The market is defined by making the pool of potential clients smaller and more targeted.

MM: In our experience, marketing budgets differ greatly between business firms and plaintiff firms. A small PI firm can often spend much more than a mid-sized or large business law firm. What do you make of this?

MH: I think part of this stems from a personal injury firm’s need to appeal to a wider audience so it is more public. A PI firm may run commercials or have billboard ads versus a corporate firm that may have a private box for sporting events. The dollars are often spent and tracked differently. But all firms ask the same questions regarding budget: If I spend this money, how many new files will I get?

Erin Smith Watson (ESW): To be honest, we don’t do a lot of paid advertising. While I believe advertising does not have to be crass or overt, we prefer to have the reputation of our work speak for itself to bring clients in. It's just that sometimes you’ve got to pay to get in front of eyeballs and digital marketing is a good way to do this.

For corporate and defense firms, different from a PI firm, you have to know that the metrics of success will look different when you are showing it to attorneys, so you have to come up with what's important to them and help them understand it. For us, the biggest thing is doing everything above board and adhering to the ethics guidelines. Coming into this industry, that was one of the biggest surprises — there is a whole grey area of marketing that exists…an underbelly of referrals and black hat tactics. We refuse to engage in these, but it can be difficult to fight fairly in an unfair space.

MM: Can you talk to us more about this?

ESW: When I talk about the underbelly of marketing or black hat tactics, I mean that there are some vendors or marketing partners that do it well and there are others that will sneak around trying to do deals and make promises that can't be upheld. Firm’s need to watch out for this. There are a lot of ethics that plaintiff firms, in particular, are supposed to adhere to.

The two biggest challenges are understanding the dynamic of lead generators and who's good and who's not, then understanding and interpreting ethics rules. I let any lead generator we work with know that our criteria is going to be tougher. We're not going to take everything, even if we give you very high criteria.

At a business law firm, you may do well by adopting or at least not dismissing some of tactics that the PI firms have been using for years and get people talking about you, rather than talking about yourself.

MM: What do you think actually works for firms?

MH: PI firms are definitely ahead of everybody else working within the law society rules. Take something as simple as Google reviews. The Law Society will not let you say you are the best, but there is nothing stopping your clients from saying you are the best. This is why PI firms tend to have hundreds of reviews and post testimonials on their website.

At a business law firm, you may do well by adopting or at least not dismissing some of tactics that the PI firms have been using for years and get people talking about you, rather than talking about yourself.

ESW: At Motley Rice, our approach is communications. Don't talk about yourself. If other people want to talk about you, that means you're doing a great job. Talk about them. Talk about what's important to them and they're going to notice that. Clients will want to work with a firm that isn't just talking about themselves.

As an example, Best Lawyers recently published an edition on women, so we ran an ad congratulating all of these badass women and celebrating them. We're really fortunate that we have a ton of amazing leading litigation attorneys who are women, and there's another class coming up. It seems so simple, but tell other people, “You're important to us” and they will want to work with you. 

MM: What advice would you give a marketer whose firm or attorneys dismiss marketing?

ESW: Figure out what motivates your attorneys. What are they paying attention to? Know your audience and figure out a way to show them something. “Hey, check this out...so and so was quoted or is profiled on this case,” and then work with them on building their profile through blogging, speaking, talking about these things on social, updating their LinkedIn profiles to match, etc. Find something that gets them motivated because attorneys are competitive.

To help them generate referrals and build relationships with the press, I recommend they build genuine relationships with these people. Follow them on social, find common ground, know what their mentions in the media are, and what are they saying and sharing on LinkedIn and Twitter. Or ask if you can get an intro through somebody they know. People don't take advantage of their networks to see if you have a mutual connection or even a second connection. Work with the attorneys to match up the tactics and help them realize organic ways to connect digitally.

MH: Find attorneys that are interested in marketing and do one-on-one coaching with them. I’ve often been asked to run one-hour training sessions on how lawyers should market themselves. Marketing and business development is complicated and can’t be compacted into an hour. Don’t be afraid to speak up about what you think they should do. It is your area of expertise, so work with them at their current level and then build their skills slowly. Then, share the successes around the firm. With anything, track metrics and share what’s working.

MM: What advice do you have for B2B law firms?

ESW: You need to have a strong website. Unfortunately, a decade ago or more, PI attorneys were sold on the idea that you needed a landing page for every single litigation you're performing. That’s not the case. We now have landing pages within our website — a case page and an advertising landing page — with any advertising feeding directly to those pages.

Once you have your website, feed it with regular content. I hear how hard this can be for other firms, but you need to commit. We have an in-house journalist to support us and we add new content daily. Then as marketers, we need to cheerlead the efforts and promote wins throughout the firm. “Hey, look at this great blog from this attorney and how well it did.” It seems silly, but it’s important.

You also need to have a strong referral, search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) and social strategy to amplify this great work. I think corporate firms should be looking ahead. This all seems like low-hanging fruit to me, but I have heard that it is difficult to get into place at business firms. 

MH: Be more strategic and proactive in your approach. For example, writing an article isn’t enough. Great rainmakers have a pulse on the industry, law and prospective clients. They reach out to clients — "I saw your name in the paper,” or “I saw this other company that's similar to you was doing this.” They proactively go after the business they want. They know everything they can about their target markets and work tirelessly to stay top-of-mind in positive ways. Look at ways to not just match the competition, but better them.

My last piece of advice is to not be afraid to step out and do things that others aren’t already doing. Learn what works from other professionals and businesses and find things that fit with your firm and brand. I recently saw one of Canada’s large corporate firms advertising on YouTube. It stood out. Focus on what’s beneficial to your client. Be thoughtful and strategic in your approach. Know who your prospective clients are and build a multi-pronged strategy to show them you can address their needs.

After speaking with both Mark and Erin, it’s clear that PI firms are more willing to spend dollars on marketing and understand the need to drive strategic leads through online tools. Their business model necessitates a need for continuous and proactive business development tactics. Most rely heavily on their internal and external marketing teams to drive leads through targeted referral and review strategies, content marketing and thought leadership, and a strategic mix of traditional and digital marketing tactics. Business law firms can learn a lot from plaintiff firms, especially as their markets get more competitive.

Mark Hunter is director of client development and marketing at Hicks Morley. With over 20 years’ experience, Hunter delivers strategic advice and operational expertise to professional organizations. Hunter coaches technical experts on effective client communication, building a practice through relationship management and how to develop a clear style and vision for their practice. His strength-based approach strives for continuous improvement and stretches people. An early adopter of one-to-one marketing, Hunter is a regular contributor to SLAW.ca, TLOMA Today and has an eBook published on CanLII on legal marketing and communication. For more information, reach out to Mark Hunter at mark-hunter@hicksmorley.com.

As director of communications and marketing for Motley Rice LLC, one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' firms, Erin Smith Watson leads a six person in-house communications and marketing team responsible for all aspects of communications and marketing strategy, planning, oversight and implementation for digital and traditional marketing and public relations. Smith Watson has spoken at the LMA Annual Conference and at LMA Southeast, and is a founding member of the Plaintiff Firm Shared Interest Group (SIG) of LMA. Prior to joining Motley Rice, Smith Watson was vice president of marketing and communications for Kaleidoscope Youth & Family Marketing, and director of public relations and social media for Rawle Murdy Associates in Charleston. Reach out to her at ewatson@motleyrice.com.


Morgan MacLeod
Cubicle Fugitive

Morgan MacLeod, co-founder of Cubicle Fugitive, is a brand, marketing and digital strategy expert with a passion for creating meaningful and memorable brands that build client loyalty and new business for professional service firms. She applies more than 20 years of industry experience to lead award-winning business strategies, brands, advertising campaigns and website development projects. Between presenting at conferences, leading the Cubicle Fugitive team, volunteering as LMA Canada 2021 President and running the business, she never loses sight of the most important thing — her clients. For more information, reach out to morgan.macleod@cubiclefugitive.com.