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Commentary: Rainmakers share some business development tools

In the Chicago office of Foley & Lardner, partner Donna Pugh characterizes herself as a heavy user of marketing tools to develop clients.

“I’m constantly thinking of unusual ways to engage clients and prospects,” says Pugh, who works in the real estate practice area. “Frequently I have cocktail parties on a boat or roof deck or in a skybox at a rock concert to create a unique experience.”

Pugh also positions herself as an expert through writing and speaking engagements in front of target audiences. But beyond these strategies, she has found success in simple online approaches.

“One of the best things I did was to improve the content of my bio on my firm’s Web site,” says Pugh, who has handled large land use and zoning issues for the likes of the United Center in Chicago. “Simply moving keywords toward the top of my bio on the website improved my search ranking and click ratio.”

Pugh even delves into purchasing Google AdWords and online directory space. Opinions are mixed among lawyers as to the effectiveness of such tools. But Pugh says the key to managing costs and return on investment derives from a narrow focus.

“I’m targeting general counsels’ younger staff members who use online searches to compile the initial list of attorneys specializing in land use and zoning issues in Chicago,” Pugh says. “I receive two calls a week. Some callers are outside my focus, but I refer those to others. This builds goodwill among professionals who in turn refer business to me.”

Expand your contacts

Business development efforts often depend on the strength of one’s client and prospect database. An efficient way to develop a qualified prospect list is by commissioning an industry trend study with a qualified research group.

According to Business Development Directives’ William Lowell, who has worked with several top 25 U.S. law firms, the research “doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive. A trend study costs around $10,000-$20,000.”

Lowell works with one of the nation’s largest law firms on an annual industry study about issues facing its clients. The firm, which has offices in more than a dozen cities in the United States and five other countries, is able to get a lot of mileage out of its study by posting the results on its website, authoring articles about trends identified in the study, hosting breakfasts to discuss the study results and using the results to obtain speaking engagements.

New York City’s Furnari Scher LLP faces marketing challenges common to most small firms: striking a balance between marketing time and time spent on client work, while working with a limited budget.

Attorney Stephen Furnari says that success in marketing comes not just from the technique you use to get in front of prospective clients, such as speaking, publishing articles and networking, but the follow-up system you have in place to stay in touch afterward.

“We have scheduled points of contact so when we meet new prospective clients they are contacted again with pre-written correspondence that our staff sends on our behalf,” Furnari says. “Within a few days of meeting a new contact, they will get an e-mail recapping the meeting, an invitation to connect on LinkedIn, an invitation to get access to an e-course with messages and an invitation to receive our monthly newsletter.”

Admittedly not all prospects are ready to retain the firm’s services immediately, Furnari says. But frequent and consistent contact with prospects and referral sources increases the likelihood they remember his firm before calling another lawyer.

Furnari’s firm also schedules specific points of contact throughout the year. Examples include a gift on the date a client’s business incorporated or a gift bag filled with snacks and sport drinks to CPAs at the start of tax season.

“Whenever we engage in a marketing activity, our goal is to accumulate contact information,” Furnari says. “If we publish an article or speak to a group, we always make an offer of free information like the audio of an interview or a sample legal clause for their contracts. Accumulating data widens our marketing funnel substantially, which increases qualified leads.”

Karl Robe, APR, counsels attorneys and executives on communications strategies that support achievement of growth objectives and overcome business challenges. Contact him at Karl James & Company LLC by emailing karl.robe@karljames.com.


  1. Given that these “marketing” tools like skyboxes and sports events are tax deductible as business expenses, it seems the taxpayers are actually the ones paying for this “marketing.” They pay for it but do not share in the profits. That is classic “capitalism,” one person pays while another makes all the profits.

  2. I would imagine that those who are still employed by the small charter boat businesses, ballparks, restaurants and other local business would have a different viewpoint about the government’s (ie, our) investment in the economy.

  3. No, Martha, capitalism is the system in which the law firm puts its own capital at risk — they’re the one writing the checks for the sky boxes (have you ever written a check to cover a law firm’s sky box?). Capitalists seek to maximize their own profit, which means that they have a natural incentive to minimize their business expenses relative to the income they generate. If you’re worried about how much corporations deduct in marketing expenses, the only consistent approach is for you to hope they’re maximizing their profit. Which means that if sky boxes and rock concerts are more efficient methods of getting new law clients than, say, mailing 10,000 pieces of junk mail, you would be a huge supporter of sky boxes and rock concerts.

  4. *LOL* Right on Steve and Jordan. There is no risk when a law firm deducts 75% of its “marketing” costs from its taxes. What is happening is that the taxpayers are paying for these junkets – why should giant law law firms be able to attend Brewers games in luxury boxes and write off most of the cost while the average person cannot? It’s called socialism, where all pay for the profit of a few. Eliminate tax deductions for these junkets and law firms would stop doing them.

    Of course, what is good for large firms is good for only them. They risk almost nothing, the taxpayers are the ones left holding the bag for these corporate excesses. But that is THE big law firm way – make the small guy and the taxpayer pay for their excesses.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with working creatively, diligently, and efficiently to foster successful personal relationships in one’s work. This allows the practitioner to learn just what her clients really need, which is good for them and for the profession. That the tax code also fosters better client/professional connections is a good thing–it’s what makes our markets work. The ethics test is in the promises and content of the communication, not the manner of communication. “Sour grapes” I say to those who are made uncomfortable by a hard-working, innovative attorney–who also like to have fun.

  6. I’m not understanding why there is such concern over methodology, and who is getting “hurt” by such marketing approaches. Money that gets applied toward marketing is money that has to be earned by a company. If company X opens its doors and throws a big party for its potential clients, but does not make any sales, who is paying for the expense – you and I? I’m pretty sure that it’s company X (the last time I checked, there is no “rebate” money that comes to my office for my expenditures.) Matha – you seem to be objecting to the form of the marketing utilized by Ms. Pugh – why does that make a difference to you? Would it be okay to you if her firm spent the same money (and likely even more) for a media campaign instead? Would that offend you less? It’s no less of a tax deduction than some of these other marketing methods. With the economy the way it is, we ALL need to look for that competative edge. Kudos, Ms. Pugh. Keep up the creative approach.

  7. Taxpayers should not be paying for big law firm marketing campaigns, or for any business’ marketing campaigns. This is just another hidden “tax” on a public that was created by the elite in D.C. for the benefit of their rich friends. It is just another way the government transfers wealth from the poor to the rich.

  8. This is a fascinating discussion generated by a column on new business development. It seems to me we need to play by the rules as written, and work diligently to change those rules if in fact we disagree with the way the game is currently played.

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