It could be argued that it is the smaller firms, and those in the provinces, that are now the most dynamic in putting good marketing into practice. In a sense they have the most to gain (or lose), particularly in gearing up for the end of the recession.
They also have the advantage of having been able to watch and learn from the early marketing ventures of their larger colleagues. They are now poised to reap the rewards.
Tarlo Lyons is a 15-partner commercial practice in the City of London. Until it appointed a marketing manager, Jackie Horn, a year ago, the marketing function was fulfilled by a marketing partner, with outside consultants used on an ad hoc basis.
According to Ms Horn, her firm is making a 'real commitment to marketing with the necessary investment that it entails'. This means financial resources, she says, but also a commitment by partners and fee-earners to balance their fee-earning work with marketing contributions. These include being receptive to new ideas and prepared to put them into practice.
The key, she says, is good communications between the partners and the marketing staff, made easier in a smaller firm.
On joining the practice Ms Horn had to start from basics - there was not even any corporate literature. 'Brochures are not the be-all and end-all, far from it, but they are a necessary evil,' she says. More important, her task entailed looking at the key business areas and seeking the best way to develop them. The starting point was the creation of a sound marketing database.
The firm's wide client profile includes a large financial institution, the entertainment world and computer and software houses. It has a solid computerised debt recovery operation for which the partners are keen to widen the client base, Ms Horn says, adding that the firm is also developing a reputation in computer-related law.
An unusual feature of Tarlo Lyons is that half its partners are over 50, with the rest in their early forties or younger. 'That was one reason the firm needed marketing help,' Ms Horn says. 'The rainmakers were all older, heading for retirement, and the younger partners were not so experienced in finding clients.'
The firm is seeking to grow, looking for bolt-ons rather than merger, in key areas of entertainment, information technology and civil litigation.
'We don't want to grow wildly,' Ms Horn says. 'We believe there is a place for firms of our size because we offer the same service at a better price. Clients recognise the value of the smaller firm, particularly the attention they get from partners.'
The firm is indeed partner-heavy, with only four assistant solicitors, five litigation managers and five trainees.
Of great importance is the firm's 'total quality management' programme, launched with the object of improving its operation all round. 'We are working our way through every part of office procedure,' Ms Horn says. 'It makes people think about what they are doing.'
A team puts in place a new initiative each month. Among the first things looked at were telephone technique and office tidiness.
'We realise that if we lay the groundwork now we can capitalise on it when the economy recovers,' says Ms Horn. 'We could sit tight and tick over with our existing clients and be exactly where we were 10 years ago. The temptation to do that is strong, but it is not the path we have chosen.'
Nor is it the path chosen by Blythe Liggins, a 12-partner Warwickshire practice. According to the firm's marketing consultant, Steve Paddock, of Market Link, it plans 'to ensure that it can offer every service that a company, an organisation or an individual can receive from a City firm'.
Blythe Liggins' marketing partner, Paul Waterworth, says: 'Four years ago we started to think about our way forward. We needed to ensure that the firm was going somewhere, both in our area and wider.
'We felt we had a very good reputation and were able to offer a good service. But there was no point congratulating ourselves if the outside world did not recognise our worth.'
The firm settled on a more aggressive approach to telling the world about itself. A major plank in its strategy to raise the firm's standing was the move this week to prestigious new offices in Leamington Spa.
'We wanted to give ourselves a fresh start in a high-profile location,' Mr Waterworth says. 'Apart from certain economic advantages the new building will, we hope, give the right impression to clients.'
Another decision was to develop specialist departments in a more sophisticated way and take advantage of the recession by recruiting high-calibre experts, many from City firms.
'But we are not chucking out our traditional work with the bathwater,' Mr Waterworth says. 'The real bedrock of any provincial business is the private client and the small business. We are very keen to continue looking after our traditional and loyal clients.
'But we are also keen to expand our range of services, to be able to say we can provide legal needs to a standard hard to beat even in the cities. We don't miss the opportunity of saying we can do it cheaper.'
The firm's marketing activities are looked after by Market Link. 'We may in time look to appoint someone in-house,' Mr Waterworth says. 'The larger firms probably find an internal person indispensable, but for a firm of our size, and given our location, there are huge advantages in having objective advice. It keeps us in touch with ideas in the outside world.'
Cripps Harries Hall is larger, with 24 partners and a staff of 200. Based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, it also has branch offices in East Sussex. It serves both private and corporate clients and includes several niche areas of expertise, among them equine law. The practice is run by a partnership board, with professional managers including a marketeer, Richard Paterson.
In his view, do the principles of marketing differ between London and the regions?
'In my experience most of the tasks facing the London firms are exactly the same as those facing the regional firm,' he says. 'What is quite different is the nature of the client base.
'One area of difference is perhaps that the London firms develop greater in-depth expertise in specialist areas. The regional firms tend to be generalist though they, too, are beginning to develop expertise in various areas.
'Though they will never match the depth of expertise, they can meet clients' needs in other areas - and at lower costs.'
The more progressive regional firms are up there with the London firms, Mr Paterson believes. The firms that have not yet latched on to marketing are the ones that will lose out.
'There is a lot in the press about what needs to be done, but not many get on and do it.'
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