How To Differentiate Yourself and Your Law Firm as a Legal Marketer with Heather Morse
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel speaks with Heather Morse, the chief business development officer for McGlinchey Stafford resident in the firm’s New Orleans office. With more than 20 years of legal marketing experience working in firms of all sizes and strengths, Heather is most proud of her work outside the office, including her role on the State Bar of California’s task force on access through innovation of legal services. A frequent speaker and commentator, Heather’s independent research on the generational divide between law firm leadership and corporate CEOs and CFOs has been featured in the New York Times and American Lawyer to contribute to the conversation surrounding the business of law. Heather launched The Legal Watercooler blog in 2008 and manages a private Facebook group with more than 1,500 legal marketers throughout the world. She is a fan of the Oxford comma and once researched for a partner, a law firm partner, with three separate sources, why a single space after a period is the correct mode of punctuation.
According to Heather, “There’s legal writing and then there’s marketing and communications. When it comes down to marketing and the external communications that a law firm is putting out, marketers and lawyers have to be on one page.”
This interview was recorded on Friday, March 27, 2020, in the nation’s second week on coronavirus lock-down and third week of the pandemic in the United States. We were working from home, meeting via Zoom, and trying to navigate the new normal. The nation had hit it’s first level of fatigue, going nonstop for several weeks.
What makes McGlinchey Stafford special?
I was looking for the type of firm that would welcome a legal marketer like myself; That is somebody who is hands on yet strategic, who is willing to push envelopes, who wants to think further down the road than a lot of other people might be thinking, especially within the firm. Attorneys usually are conditioned or have been conditioned to think January 1 to December 31 because they get paid out. That’s when the bills are done. What I have found over my career is that most lawyers can’t think December 31st — so I found a law firm that at least from leadership was thinking past December 31st. I also really love the mid-size law firm platform. The firm is big enough that we have the ability to do a lot of different things and yet it’s small enough where I am able to get to know a lot of the lawyers and I’m not going to be stuck in just a lot of politics and bureaucracy. I’m able to get things done.
What does it mean for a law firm to have an entrepreneurial spirit?
Entrepreneurial spirit is that you move quickly. We move quickly and everybody has their own experience. We’re also in the process of a generational shift. We’ve got that Gen-X partnership that’s really rising. And they’re very excited and there are a lot of go-getters and Gen-Xers are known for being a lot more entrepreneurial than Baby Boomers because of how they were raised. And what I love most about it and you find it in moments of crisis is when everybody steps back and lets you do your job.
We saw this in these last couple of weeks with the COVID-19 crisis hitting us both internally as a business and externally with our clients and the world at large. We were able to start pivoting very quickly and it was because the entrepreneurial lawyers step out of the way and let other people do their jobs. We really found it to be very successful in the fact that we’re getting things done while a lot of firms out there are just still trying to catch up to.
How is your firm coping with the coronavirus pandemic?
We’re dealing with it. So, how are we coping and adapting to this new normal? We are dealing with it as a firm. How are we operationally? The one thing about being in New Orleans is that we have the experience from Katrina and our managing partner today is the managing partner who was in office during Katrina and who made good business decisions. That’s another reason I came to this firm. It really is about the people and it’s the people I get to work with. And Rudy Aguilar, our managing partner was able to just really put good systems in place during that time of Katrina. As we went into this, he started planning for the pandemic. What was happening a couple of weeks ago, our systems were already in place. We just had to test them. We’d already moved everything offline and into the cloud. Everyone was already on laptops. We had a VPN that was able to handle everybody working at once from home. We had a lot of these systems in place. One thing that is different between this and Katrina is it’s hitting every single one of our offices at the same time opposed to just one or two of the offices, which we would normally see at a time of a national disaster, weather disaster. We’ve been able to pivot very quickly and gather the resources because we already had them in place. We had the crisis team in place. We just had to figure out the details.
How did coronavirus cause you and the attorneys to have to pivot or shift the way you’re communicating the way you’re doing business?
With the client communication, you must hit in all different directions. One thing we realized was that there were a lot of questions, everybody had questions. They had no idea how they’re going to handle this. How are they going to be able to take hourly employees and move them offsite? How are they going to to be able to have people logging in who normally can’t log in from home? How are they going to set up? And we were looking at the questions we had internally and recognized that clients are having the same questions externally. We started with webinars. We had a webinar last week. It was the first time this team and our labor and employment group put a webinar together and they just said, bring your Q and A. Just bring your questions. We had 300 people attend. We had another hundred who couldn’t show registered who didn’t show up. And we had over a hundred questions submitted to us.
We’re still going through and answering and getting back to everybody. Taking the best of what we were learning internally and being able to apply that to our clients was important. Recognizing that we were going to have to do both. I was having to move my team to work from home, but at the same time having to meet the needs of our clients and ensure that we were meeting their needs. And I’m always saying that I need to treat the attorneys within the firm the way I expect them to work with their clients as well. It’s picking up the phone and calling, shooting out emails with little communications: how are you, what can I do to help?
What did you send out to the attorneys and ask them to communicate with clients?
I sent out just a little communication to the attorneys just to remind them to pick up the phone, call your clients, ask them, how are you just on a personal level, how are you doing? And then secondly ask what you can do to help. Get them talking because it’s going to be different for every person. I can do the marketing, the one to many, but when it comes to the business development, that’s the one to one.
What should every legal marketer be focused on regarding public relations?
You need to get into the story of today. What’s the story of today? And we talk about being relevant and you want your lawyers to be relevant, you want your service providers and trusted advisors to be relevant. And what’s more relevant than talking about what’s in today’s story. And that’s going to be different for every lawyer and every practice and every client. What it comes down to is that lawyers’, intellect property, not intellectual property, but their intellect is what they’re selling. They have the answers to questions out there. Sometimes they might not have the answers, but they can figure them out.
How can lawyers differentiate themselves?
Lawyers often have a hard time using language that differentiates themselves and yet when they advocate on behalf of a client, they can easily find those little nuances, those things that differentiate the message to tell a client’s story, whether it be through litigation or through a the written word. In addition, lawyers need to meet their clients where they are. Clients are not always going to pick up the phone and call. Sometimes attorneys need to send out breadcrumbs. In fact, most people don’t realize that they have a legal problem. They just have a problem. There’s something that’s going on. They’ve got to have help with employee matter and they’re not realizing that there’s a legal issue there. That’s what we let our clients know is that for things that are going on out there in the world of COVID-19, there are legal solutions. A lot of this is about developing and building that relationship, providing value. We talk about the value proposition. Sometimes the value is the fact that you’re just going to listen to them and help them through a situation that might not have anything to do with the matter of law that you practice.
Will there be post-coronavirus law firm consolidations for corporate clients?
I think we’re going to go through a consolidation because what the clients are going to realize is that all these law firms are doing the exact same thing. They don’t need 50 law firms. They really don’t if there’s all saying the same thing and sending out the same firm alerts and they have the same concerns and they’re not differentiating. If they’re going to consolidate law firm partners, how do you differentiate yourself? You go into a little bit more specific or niche area. For example, While we McGlinchey Stafford represents a lot of financial institutions and we can basically do everything as a full-service firm, we have a sweet spot with our financial institutions. We focus on those niche areas within this larger sector. That helps us to differentiate ourselves from another law firm and become that subject matter expert.
and sometimes you don’t even know or recognize the people in the other divisions of that company
What can in-house marketers do to differentiate themselves inside a firm or an institution?
You have to know and understand who you are. I’ve gone through those processes to find out what is it about me that differentiates me? And I was asked a question several years ago by Ross Fishman. He said, “Heather, I know you’re really good at your job. You’re really good at what you do but I have no idea what you do. how do you differentiate yourself?”
I took a step back. I was probably 18 years into my career and realized that I really wanted to be seen as a thought leader. I wanted to be seen as a strategist. I had to start promoting myself that way just as I would with an attorney starting to market the attorneys and train them how to differentiate themselves.
I was well known for social media. I was known for the generational work I was doing, but I changed the way I wrote. I changed what I published on my blog. I changed the things I commented on. I changed the things I started posting on LinkedIn and I realized that I didn’t need to participate in every single conversation that was going on out there. I just needed to participate in the conversations that would reinforce what it was that I wanted other people to think about me and what I wanted them to know about me. And once again, putting out those breadcrumbs so that when you read things that I wrote, they were meaningful, and I recognized that I didn’t have to write weekly or monthly. In 2019, I wrote seven blog posts and that’s because that’s really all I had to say. Then, when there was something I needed to say, people listened.
What’s the one thing listeners need to know about you?
It’s something that was said to me several times that I kept hearing it over and over: you just think differently. The best way I can describe it is that when everybody in the room was arguing about whether the glass is half full or half empty, I feel like I’m the only one who notices that there’s a hole in the cup. I start to see problems that are out there and solutions to the problem.
Is it important to be active in the community outside of work?
I am very proud of the work I do outside of the firm. During the last couple of years, I was involved with the State Bar of California access to justice through the innovation of technology. The task force was looking at what was happening in the state of California when it came to providing legal services to people, people law. Other states are looking at it as well. Hopefully, we’ll see some changes to the legal industry because we do need to make changes in corporate law because we’re not innovating. We are not.
Should lawyers be looking at innovation to differentiate themselves?
You’ve got to look to the future. And lawyers aren’t trained to do that. It goes against their nature. We need to bring more business people into the legal industry. That process is going to be a challenge. And yet, what we’re going to see it. It’s like the COVID-19 crisis that we’re facing right now. It is going to force innovation.
What else are you proud of?
I’m a mom and I’m married to my high school sweetheart. I’ve got two great kids that are being raised and to be very independent thinkers. Just watching them, especially walking through COVID-19, makes me proud. The best thing about being a mom, especially when your kids are a little bit older, is that they came home and know that they wanted to come home.
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