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Not long ago, many legal marketing positions were filled by people who held various administrative roles in firms and transitioned into marketing roles with little to no formal training in the field. But that gap is clearly closing. Still, there is more work for law firms to do. That’s particularly true in digital marketing.

For those of us who have devoted more years in legal marketing than we’d care to admit, it’s heartening to see the field receiving the recognition it deserves. The demand for top talent has never been higher and marketing plans are getting more attention from firm management.

It’s no secret why marketing has become more urgent and important in the legal industry. During the past decade that followed the last recession, growth in demand for law firm services has been relatively stagnant.

That’s a huge change from the golden era of Big Law, when annual double-digit revenue increases at many big law firms were practically a given and partners could simply wait for the phone to ring. The landscape for high-end legal services is much more competitive today. If law firms want to continue growing, they’ll likely have to capture a bigger share of the market. And that requires sophisticated and nimble marketing.

Historically, of course, marketing efforts at law firms have lagged behind other professional services. Not long ago, many legal marketing positions were filled by people who held various administrative roles in firms and transitioned into marketing roles with little to no formal training in the field. But that gap is clearly closing.

Still, there is more work for law firms to do. That’s particularly true in digital marketing—all the critical tactics and strategies needed to engage and inform consumers of legal services online, ranging from website content to social media to UX design.

Most B2B service companies have long recognized digital marketing’s importance and are proving it with real dollars. A 2019 Deloitte CMO survey found that respondents allocated close to 80% of their marketing budget to digital marketing initiatives.

Most law firm marketing leaders we know also clearly understand the importance of digital marketing. They know it is fundamental to the strength of their firm’s branding. They know that buyers of legal services increasingly rely on—and are influenced by—a firm’s digital presence when making their purchasing decisions. And they know that skills for effective digital marketing are different than traditional marketing skills.

But the rhetoric we hear often hasn’t translated into clear commitment. Historically, allocations for digital marketing have been low: Law firms have spent the bulk of their marketing budgets on traditional tactics such as in-person events. Besides lack of dollars invested in digital, law firm marketing teams continue to face challenges including lack of understanding of its importance and buy-in from firm leadership.

To better understand these challenges, our companies recently partnered to conduct a survey about how law firm digital marketing departments are staffed, structured and resourced. We wanted the results to serve as an industry benchmark for digital marketing functions.

The results, detailed in a report now available here, provide insights from about 100 respondents from a range of firms: 43% from firms with 100-500 attorneys; 39% from firms with 500 or more attorneys; and 17% with few than 100 attorneys. Most respondents (53%) reported that they were at a director level.

The report’s findings are extensive, and we won’t try to summarize them all here. But suffice it to say that digital marketing needs more attention at law firms. A few results are worth highlighting.

First, the vast majority of law firms reported having either no digital marketing staff (26%) or very small teams consisting of 1-5 people (62%). These results seem to confirm that the importance of digital marketing has not yet manifested itself in many firms. The results are especially surprising given that nearly half the respondents came from large firms where we would expect to see more dedicated digital teams.

Results from another question we asked may explain those low figures. When asked how their firms approach digital marketing, nearly 30% reported that digital is in every marketing employee’s job description but that no one is fully dedicated to it. Only 14% reported having an integrated team of digital specialists reporting to a digital marketing leader.

How law firms structure their marketing department will depend on several factors, not least important how many resources are available. For firms with more resources, the Digital Marketing Institute offers guidance on roles it considers crucial.

Even if firms choose not to or are unable to devote a team to digital marketing, we believe that it is a mistake not to at least establish a center of digital marketing expertise in which best practices can be established and shared across the firm.

There is evidence that this is already happening in the area of social media. The vast majority of respondents definitely agreed (65%) their firm had a social media policy or somewhat agreed (22%). Those results are generally in line with other industries. According to a Conference Board study titled “The State of Digital and Social Media Risk Management,” 67% of organizations across industries said they have a social media policy in place.

Obviously, there is still room for improvement in these results, with 12% reporting that their firm had no social media policy or that they didn’t know if it had one. Further, more than half of respondents (51%) said their firms do not have a codified plan for deploying digital marketing in crisis management.

Of course, no marketing department can or should do everything. Which digital activities are best outsourced and which are best kept in-house is an important question every department needs to ask. In our survey, the top 10 skills that firms reported outsourcing are:

  • Website building (69%)
  • UX design (40%)
  • Video content development (33%)
  • Crisis communications (23%)
  • SEO/SEM (19%)
  • Public relations (19%)
  • Podcasting (19%)
  • AdWords (18%)
  • Email design (13%)
  • Marketing automation (10%)

Most CMOs and marketing heads we know don’t need to be convinced of digital marketing’s importance. But they do need support and buy-in from firm management to manifest that belief. We hope that the findings in our report will help them with their case.

About the Authors
Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is CEO of the management consulting and executive search firm Calibrate.

Jamie Diaferia

Jamie Diaferia is CEO of the international communications agency Infinite Global. 

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