Lawyers: The case for targeting and profiling

Lawyers resist personal marketing planning (targeting, profiling and positioning) because they’re afraid of what they’ll exclude by declaring a specialty, targeting a particular group, or staking out a specific position. To many, words like “focus” and “target” really mean “narrow” and “exclude.”

Until 2009, most lawyers enjoyed the benefits of the demand for legal services exceeding its supply for virtually their entire careers. Enough business came in each year that no one worried too much about what kind it was. This history of success with the (unconscious) strategy of accepting any and all business makes lawyers understandably reluctant to focus on one area, because they see only half of the equation: the peripheral business they’ll be giving up.

It was OK in the old days

While demand was strong, there was nothing wrong with this reactive approach. But the demand curve has changed, permanently. Decreasing demand and increasing competition combine to make it very important to focus on getting as much of your business from your target market as possible. You can defend a strong position in a well-defined market. It’s impossible to defend multiple weak positions, or no position.

While you can accept business from “anybody,” you can’t market to or pursue “anybody;” that’s really trying to pursue “everybody.” There are too many “everybodys” out there. The richest corporations in the world, with seemingly limitless marketing and sales resources, are forced to select a specific segment on which to focus those resources.

Let’s look at this more positively. If we get the amount of business we need from our target market, why would we care what else we may have theoretically “forfeited” by focusing so precisely?

Targeting and profiling don’t mean turning our backs on clients outside our target who choose to call us with business. Nor will we refuse referrals, as long as they don’t require us to re-invent the wheel to serve them.

“Accept” vs. “pursue”

Because my market is law firms, am I precluded from accepting a sales training engagement from an accounting firm, bank or technology company? Not at all. The key word is “accept.” If one of those companies hears about me and approaches me, I’ll evaluate the opportunity and try to close it if it makes sense. But, I can’t afford to invest my limited time and money to try to get noticed and hired by these other businesses. I must channel my resources into becoming better known and preferred among law firms. Understanding — and remaining credible in — one market is about all any of us can manage.

Neither you nor I should divert our limited marketing and selling time or budget chasing peripheral business, simply because none of us can afford to fund the pursuit of “everybody.” Those that try end up catching “nobody.”

What to do

  • Define your goals, e.g., amount of new business origination, percentage of clients you need to upgrade, etc. Subtract from this your average annual origination for the past three years to yield your incremental origination goal, i.e., how much more you need for success.
  • Define your most attractive work, i.e., most professionally interesting, challenging, and satisfying; most profitable; and most appreciated by clients. This is the work that’s worth pursuing and actually investing limited selling time for. If it isn’t what you want, you’ll just go through the motions.
  • Estimate annual billings per client for such work. (I know. It “varies widely.” Just use a representative number that makes sense.) Divide your incremental goal by this figure to yield the number of new clients you need. This will be a smaller number than you might think, and will encourage you about your chances of success. Recognizing how few times you have to be right also gives you the right to say “no.” If you only have to be right eight or ten times, you don’t have to chase bad deals or participate in wired beauty contests.
  • Profile your targets in objective terms, e.g., those companies most like your best clients, who likely face similar problems you can solve. You may need some professional guidance at first, but it will quickly become second nature.
  • Focus your proactive marketing and selling effort only within your target range. Say “no” to speaking engagements that don’t reach your target audience. Don’t write articles for publications that don’t reach your target.

The benefits of targeting

By targeting well, you’ll:

  • Have a reliable basis for deciding whether or not to participate in the array of marketing activities offered each year. Does this webinar, reception, publication, event, etc. reach my target market? If not, unless you have another important reason for doing so you should reconsider.
  • Make better use of your budget and internal resources. Consultants and your firm’s marketing department can do better work for you at lower cost if you channel your energies into a select number of activities that they and you can plan for and support well instead of trying to react to numerous ad hoc, last-minute requests.
  • Recapture time now wasted. Many lawyers have admitted to me that they really don’t know why they continue memberships in some professional groups, or why they attend particular functions or networking events, or serve on certain committees. They don’t have a clue what they get out of it, yet, at the same time, they lament having so little time to spend with their families or for themselves. By focusing on a precise target audience and the activities that will position you with that target, you can eliminate many other things that demand so much and return so little.

More work, better work

You’ve probably heard of the Pareto Principle, more commonly known as the “80–20 Rule,” which says that 80% of your revenue and profit comes from the top 20% of your clients. Less well known, perhaps, is the “80–20–30 Corollary,” which says that 80% of the aggravation and irritation comes from the bottom 30% of your clients, whose demands far exceed their value.

By targeting, not only will you increase the amount of business that you originate, but you’ll acquire clients that you really want. Because you’ll have a higher percentage of work that you love, and clients who love your work and appreciate you, both your clients and you will find your practice more interesting and rewarding. This mutual satisfaction will earn you additional referrals, so that each year you can increase your percentage of “A” work, shrinking your 80–20–30 percentage even more.

What of those matters and clients that fall between the “A” level and the 30% “I hope I can replace them” level? They come from numerous sources, most of which you’d be hard-pressed to identify. Will you keep getting them once you focus on the A’s?

Don’t worry. They’ll continue pretty much as they have throughout your career. Call them the return on your 15 years invested in being a good lawyer, writing articles, speaking, and maintaining relationships with colleagues and fellow lawyers. Many of these matters use skills outside your specialty, skills that you enjoy using occasionally and that introduce some welcome variety into your practice. Sure, over time there’ll be attrition as each year you devote more of your marketing and selling time to your optimal market. But, whatever erosion you experience in the “miscellaneous” category will be far more than offset by your increasingly strong proactive position.

Many lawyers’ current business mix is an accident of history, the result of a 20-year demand (seller’s) market. We’re now in a supply (buyer’s) market. The reactive strategy of the past won’t produce the same results now, and it’s naive to hope for a steady stream of favorable accidents. Follow the steps above to begin taking control of the makeup of your practice. It will simplify your life and pay big dividends.

2019 Lawyer Business Development Confidence Survey

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