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Lessons for Content Marketers from HBR

May 21, 2015, 4:55 PM

Editor’s Note: This post is written by an independent law firm communications consultant.

By Lee Feldman, Law Firm Communications Consultant

Two recent articles in Harvard Business Review spotlight important attributes that are often absent from Big Law marketing. Though written in the context of career development, both articles hold important lessons for legal content marketers.

The first, “How to Show Trustworthiness in a Job Interview” by Heidi Grant Halvorson, focuses on the importance of demonstrating the two essential elements of trustworthiness –warmth and competence – to potential employers. According to the author, a Ph.D. and researcher in motivation science, “the most important thing to get across in an interview is not that you are smart and motivated – it’s that you are trustworthy.” Competence without warmth is likely to generate concerns and questions on the part of interviewer, whether conscious or unconscious.

The second, “Get People to Listen to You When You’re Not Seen as an Expert” by Dorie Clark, explores influence, authority and perceived expertise, and offers strategies for new entrants seeking to build presence and awareness. As the author reminds us, “…When a Nobel Laureate raises questions about a certain economic policy, we’re likely to pay much more attention than if a random person offered the same counsel.”

Big Law firms, their partners and their marketers face these challenges every day. If you don’t believe these issues are relevant, consider the following quotes from GC interviews published recently on the Big Law Business website:

• “Another aspect I think about, which maybe firms don’t, is the way attorneys carry themselves and communicate, not only with my legal team, but also with our business partners.”

• “I require of my own lawyers an ability to communicate — in crisp and clear ways, in business friendly language — a digest of complex legal issues into actionable business prose, whether it’s spoken or written. And I really don’t find enough of that in the outside counsel. That’s one dimension of style where I think law firms could do a lot better.”

• “The last thing [I look for in a trial attorney] is rapport with the jury. You have to make the facts very simple and understandable. Also, credibility and likeability. I always put those together. They’re different, but they’re both important. You’ve got to have credibility and likeability with the jury.”

• “It frustrates me to no end when a law firm comes and does a pitch for us, and the only thing they talk about is what the law firm does. I refuse to sit through most of them these days.”

• “..I’ve found I’ve developed relationships based on common interests more so than wining and dining at law firms or events.”

These and many other quotes and comments from GC interviews, panels and speeches, underline the need for Big Law partners and staff to recalibrate many aspects of their marketing and rethink how they present themselves to potential clients, whether on a firm website, a bio or a new client pitch.

Too often partners and marketing materials focus solely on competence and overlook personality and warmth. They fail to communicate an understanding of the broader business context GCs operate in or convey the ability and interest in working with clients as part of a team.

Partners are often intent on demonstrating that they are the smartest lawyer in the room, but Halvorson says “research shows that if you exhibit some modesty with respect to your skills and abilities, people will add, on average, 20-30% to their estimate of your competence. Go overboard with the self-promotion, and they’ll subtract the same amount.”

For firms or newer partners who are looking to establish expertise and build reputation in a practice area, Clark confirms that creating original content is the single most effective way to develop an expert reputation. But for lawyers, that simply can’t be churning out more client alerts that regurgitate decisions or legislation in a welter of legalese. Successful content marketing efforts requires clear thinking and concise communication. All aspects of communication should reflect an understanding of intersection of the law and the client’s business, while conveying the personality of the lawyer and the firm. Creating and targeting content at this level requires real strategic thought and careful execution from partners and their marketers. Too often, unfortunately, partners are unable or unwilling to invest the time required to do this.

I’ve written before about what William Henderson calls “lawyer exceptionalism: a belief among lawyers that other disciplines and industries have nothing to teach them.” These articles are two small examples of how Big Law can learn from many disparate sources, understand what clients want and do a better job of marketing to them.