The Evolution of the Law Firm Client Alert

For decades, law firms big and small have been creating marketing content about changes in the law to clients and prospects as part of their marketing and business development strategy. These law firm branded pieces authored by lawyers are typically called “client alerts” or similar terminology such as “client insights” or “legal updates.”

When firms first started issuing these items, they were often printed newsletters that included multiple articles from lawyers across the firm that were mailed monthly or quarterly. Innovation arrived in the form of the internet and CRM software tools that allowed firms to transform newsletters into stand-alone alerts that could be circulated in typically 6 - 72 hours to tens of thousands of contacts with one click of a button. There is very little to differentiate the average law firm client alert from peer firm alerts as far as format, content and similar value provided to the reader. 

“Modernizing the client alert process is a great opportunity for a law firm to use technology to create a competitive advantage and differentiate from your competitors.”

Law firms should consider surveying their clients to better understand the value of the marketing and educational content they provide. Firms should be asking their clients what is most valuable to them, their preferred format and style of content.

Depending on the feedback, firms may be able to move those valuable non-billable hours to more productive business development or client service initiatives.   Smaller law firms with less resources to dedicate to non-billable items might want to consider if it is more effective to use those firm resources on other initiatives. For example, could a firm derive more revenue by spending that time focusing on setting up direct phone calls or meetings with a few specific clients with a customized pitch about the new law and how the firm can help them solve any issues it presents for them? 

But if law firms are going to continue using alerts – it’s time to consider how to make them better. 

Below is some anonymous feedback from in-house counsel on the value of law firm clients alerts and best practices. 

 “With an increasingly high volume of email communication daily from a variety of sources, the effectiveness of client alerts is decreasing as a useful tool in my professional practice. I am much more inclined to read a client alert when accompanied by a concise note from a trusted advisor explaining why the issue is relevant to our company.” - Vice President, General Counsel, Investment Management Company

“Unless an alert is coming from a firm that I already identify as a leader in the field, I am inclined to ignore it. Most alerts pretty much read the same.

I tend to rely on curated sources (e.g. media vendors) rather than whatever firm alerts I can find on the Internet.”  - General Counsel, Banking Industry

*Note – Time will vary based on law firm size and resources available. “Breaking news” alerts are often completed and sent within 2-4 hours at times for larger law firms. Quality of message may vary as these tend to be more sharing the news vs. thoughtful insight.

 Problems with the Current Process

Inefficient use of firm's resources / Lack of return on investment 

As you can see from the above chart, there is a tremendous amount of time by lawyers and marketing professionals being put into client alerts. Are law firms tracking and measuring the return on the investment? One way that law firms measure effectiveness is by the click through rate. 

Surprisingly- or maybe not to some -  the 2018 Law Firm Digital Marketing Survey notes that 19% of law firms do not measure click-through rates. The below chart from the survey notes the average click-through rates.

43% responded under 5%

Meaning almost half of responding firms think 95% of their client alerts are going straight to the trash.

Nearly 20% of responding firms are NOT measuring performance.

But firms should dig deeper than the click-through rate when possible. You really want to know how many client alerts led to new matters. One-way firms can measure that is via the new matter file opening process. When a lawyer opens a matter, a mandatory field on the form should be “how was the matter developed?” One of the drop-down options should be client alert/marketing newsletter. This will give firms better insight into return on the investment of client alerts. 

Unless a firm can find a way to provide content in a format that clients value enough to spend time on, they should rethink their approach.

Ask clients what content, format and style they want and develop a strategy based on your feedback – or move away from alerts altogether. 

Inability to Provide Customized Content

When drafting a client alert that is being distributed to thousands of people across different industries, it’s nearly impossible to provide in-depth customized perspective. Your content needs to be broad-based in so that it is relevant to small, midsize or large companies, often across a variety of industries.

Especially for large firms, alerts are often being distributed to massive mailing lists, sometimes with as many as 50,000 contacts on them. Addressing such a broad audience restricts the author’s ability to provide content focused enough for the reader to really understand how the law will impact their business strategy. Some address this issue by suggesting partners forward specific alerts to clients with a personal note as to why they would find this alert of interest. While this is a good step, it doesn’t happen enough and the majority of the alerts are distributed in a spam-like fashion.

Too Much Legalese

Corporate counsel are extremely busy and stretched thin for time. Most are not looking for the “Taj Mahal” of client alerts with dozens of footnotes and legal annotations that read like an academic paper. They want to know in plain English how the change in the law will impact their business, what they may need to do to be prepared to handle the issue at hand, and what the potential outcomes may be if the matter is not addressed.  The way the content is curated and delivered needs to be modernized to fit the way corporate counsel prefer to receive information in today’s age.

Firms need to consider the best strategy. Do they want to be the first alert out the door, or do they prefer to take longer to produce the content but the final product is a more comprehensive deep dive into the issue. Regardless of content style approach (long vs. short) in-house counsel has repeatedly been quoted as asking firms to write the content in a business-friendly tone so that they don’t have to spend additional time translating your content to show to their C-Suite. They want to be able to forward or print immediately and hand to their CEO or CFO and have them able to understand the business implications.

Innovating the Client Alert 

This is an area of low-hanging fruit for a marketing team to innovate and incorporate video or audio developments in technology to modernize the client alert function into something that separates their firm from peer firms and helps cross-sell current clients.  

Producing high-quality short video blogs or audio podcasts branded to your law firm can be recorded with a cell phone or tablet in short order and can be edited in-house or by a third party for a reasonable cost. In-house counsel with limited resources are more likely to find value in a 2-5-minute video/podcast than in a 10-page alert. If they are interested in a deeper dive or in-depth analysis on the legal issues, there are plenty of options in the legal market or through media vendors they can turn to. 

“I already listen to podcasts during my commute so I would welcome substantive legal content via podcasts or video stream on emerging legal trends.” - General Counsel, Financial Services Industry

Video has been slowly making its way into more law firm marketing initiatives. While no law firm stands out as the front-runner for client alerts, many firms are using the technology to differentiate themselves in the market in other areas. 

Eric Weil, President of Reservoir Films, works with law firms to build strong, succinct multiscreen content that captures the firm at its best and in turn provides years of use and return-on-investment.  

“We’ve made multiple recruiting videos for associates and laterals – some “firm-wide” and others focusing on one practice group or some facet of inclusion at the firm. Another popular assignment for us are videos that engage a firm’s alumni community. We’ve also been hired for videos that are subject matter pieces.”

“There’s much more that law firms can do with video, inventively and sustainably, to pitch business, deepen existing client relationships or tout their impact in the community or firm principles.” - Eric Weil, President, Reservoir Films

In 2016, Pennsylvania-based McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC implemented the use of video to share thought leadership via an outside vendor.  By 2019, the firm had established in-house video capabilities which allowed the Business Development and Marketing Department to offer the on-demand recording of thought leadership pieces, practice group overviews, firm event PSAs, off-site speaking engagements and firm-involved charity events.  

“The benefits of sharing thought leadership videos go beyond educating clients on legal issues. It provides a more personable experience and strengthens the attorney-client relationship in an efficient manner. We still produce traditional client alerts on a regular basis. By using both formats, we ensure the content reaches the largest possible audience.” - Toshiko Macaluso, Communications Coordinator, McNees Media

While not the same as video, many law firms have incorporated podcasts into their marketing communications strategy. Firms can combine the client requests for more condensed business guidance through legal communications with the necessary marketing tactic of reaching audiences where they’re at. Overall, podcasts are on the rise, with listeners across the country engaging with 51% of the population engaging in podcasts regularly, up 7% from 2018. Podcast listeners tend to listen to them at home (49%), commutes (26%), at work (11%), or during exercise (4%) (Source: podcastinsights.com)

Not only are you providing condensed, thoughtful content, you’re also bringing the element of personal connection in as listeners can get a feel for your personality by listening to your voice. By using vocal connection vs. relying on your written words to convey your meaning, you are creating an emotional connection with your clients and prospects that separates you from the competition.

...voice takes any mystery of delivery away

Stop and think about the last time you read a text message or e-mail and may have misconstrued the intention behind it or that it fell flat because it didn’t elicit any emotion from you. The use of voice takes any mystery of delivery away while also providing you the ability to make a greater impression with your voice than your words.

If you think that emotion shouldn’t play a role in the connection, consider the findings of AdWeek that state, Seventy percent of emotionally connected consumers spend twice as much on brands they have an emotional attachment to than those who do not. Significantly, 81 percent of those respondents also promote their favorite brands to family and friends.” 

Podcasting presents the opportunity for three things that we all want from clients: connection, loyalty and referrals.

Opportunities for Marketing Departments to Lead the Change 

One trend we are noticing in the industry is more roles being created within marketing departments to focus on incorporating technology into the firm.  A current job opening at an Am Law 50 firm notes the new technology role as one that is responsible for “developing strategies for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the firm’s marketing and business development efforts using technology” and to “evaluate, select and oversee implementation of new and upgraded marketing technology.”

The opportunity is there to make change for  firms willing to take some chances in a historically conservative industry. For example, large global firms are in a perfect position to go even further to innovate technology into the client alert process. Many firms have all the tools to provide a synopsis of legal issues and how they are impacting different regions across the globe in an easily digestible format. They have the in-house expertise and technology available to create a weekly or monthly legal news program that could be viewed by corporate counsel who are looking for a one-stop avenue to learn what the latest issues they need to be aware of are. Programs could be hosted and stored on the firm’s YouTube channel with relevant links to supporting materials and the firm’s key contact people, should the viewer have follow-up questions. Imagine the cross-selling opportunities of a legal news program for clients, contacts and prospects that would brand the lawyers as experts across the firm in a consumer-friendly format versus the current client alert product. 

In a legal market where law firms are looking for ways to incorporate technology and innovation to differentiate themselves, many law firms are looking past some low-hanging fruit. Smart firms will develop a strategy based on client feedback as to how to best distribute marketing and educational content from the law firm in a mutually beneficial and innovative way. 

Things to consider

  • Videos and podcasts provide enhanced personal branding by incorporating their voice, expressions and/or facial recognition when connecting with a prospect.
  • Be sure to add closed- captioning to your videos as approximately 85% of videos online.
  • Video attracts two to three times as many monthly visitors to websites.*
  • Viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in text.*
  • 59% of executives agree that if both text and video are available on the same topic, they are more likely to choose video.*
  • Video generates 12 times more shares than text and images combined.*
  • Firms can replace alerts with live-stream video available through the top platforms currently used, including LinkedIn, YouTube and Facebook.

*Source – WordStream.com

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Rich Bracken is the Director of Coaching for Society 54 and advises attorneys and professional services firms on revenue generation initiatives by leveraging client service strategies, unique business development tactics, multimedia and social media campaigns and differentiated branding. He is also a recent Chair of the Legal Marketing Association of Kansas City, frequent conference speaker, professor of leadership at the University of Kansas Graduate School and a regular contributor on Fox 4 News in Kansas City. For more information, visit http://www.society54.com.

Matthew Prinn is a Principal with RFP Advisory Group, where he provides consulting services in the areas of business development and request for proposals (RFPs) for law firms and corporate counsel. He has nearly 20 years of experience driving revenue in the professional services industry. For more information visit https://www.rfpag.com/. 

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