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Newsletters: Do They Really Bring in Business?

This article was originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on September 20, 2005 and is republished here with permission.

"I’ve already gotten seven calls in response to the alert we just sent out, including two new clients," a partner told me the day after we issued his group’s latest newsletter. “Newsletters don’t work. My clients don’t read them and I’ve never seen them bring in business,“ said another senior partner after I suggested starting a newsletter for his practice group.

Two partners, both with very successful practices, but with very different attitudes toward one of the most common tools in the law firm marketing world. Which one is right?

Both of them. Just like any other marketing activity, whether it’s public speaking, writing articles or just working the room at an event, newsletters aren’t for everyone. If you cannot or are unwilling to put time and effort into your newsletters, they won’t just fail to bring in business, they may actually harm your firm’s reputation.

But done correctly, newsletters can be an effective part of your marketing efforts. A well done newsletter puts your firm in front of your clients’ and prospects’ eyes on a regular basis, displays the skills and talents of your lawyers, and opens opportunities to talk to your clients about news that affects their business - which can and will result in new business for you.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  • What makes a great newsletter? The same thing that has been selling books, newspapers, magazines and, yes, newsletters, since mankind first started scratching out letters - good stories, told well. Fill your newsletter with timely, well written stories about developments important to your clients.
  • That last point is the most critical. Write your newsletter from the client’s perspective. You may know everything anyone could possibly know about the new bankruptcy bill, and be able to recite it chapter and verse, but that means little if you can’t explain to your readers - preferably in the first paragraph - why it matters to them.
  • Limit the self-promotional material in your newsletters. An occasional announcement about an upcoming event or an addition to your group is fine - so long as the event is on a topic of interest to your readers. Don’t clutter your newsletter with long-winded biographies of the authors or descriptions of the firm. Focus your newsletter on your clients, not on you.
  • Publish regularly. How often depends on the resources (i.e., willing and capable writers) available to you, but you should try to publish regularly instead of occasionally. A publication schedule offers several advantages - it keeps you in front of your readers frequently, your readers know when they will get upcoming issues, and it allows you to plan your issues and gather content more efficiently. A monthly schedule should not be too onerous even for a small group. Any publication schedule also should allow for sending out on occasional special issue on a particularly hot topic.
  • To the extent you can, humanize your stories. This can be difficult to do, especially when it is important to keep your articles as brief and concise as possible, and to keep them tightly focused on what’s meaningful to your clients. But stories about people are more compelling than dry recitations of legal developments. Of all the newsletters my firm produces, we get the most comments on Pro Bono News, which, as the name implies, covers the firm’s pro bono engagements. I’m convinced it gets more reactions because the stories, while always involving some legal issue, at heart are about people. Try to work people into your articles, but if you can’t, always remember to focus your writing on what will help your clients.
  • Newsletters are niche publications. A narrow focus is generally better than a broad one. Some firms produce a single newsletter, covering all aspects of its legal practice or the law in general. That may work well for a boutique, but it’s tough to pull off effectively for a large, general practice firm. Ideally, you want to give your audience information they can’t get anywhere else. Practice or industry-specific newsletters allow you to focus better on what is important to your audience. Have a partner who knows everyone and everything about the zinc industry? Zinc Law Alert is far more likely to be read by that practice’s clients than the XYZ Megafirm All The News That Fits Newsletter.
  • Newsletters are an opportunity to showcase your lawyers’ analytical and writing skills. It’s fine to get first-year and other new lawyers involved in initial research and drafting of newsletter articles, but be sure to have every article reviewed by a partner who knows the topic well, and just as important, knows what is important to clients. Get a good editor to review all your newsletter copy - a good editor reduces jargon, tightens copy, converts passive sentences to active voice, ensures a consistent style and tone throughout your publications, and in general makes your articles more reader-friendly. Even if the audience for your newsletter is other lawyers, they likely don’t want to read dense, heavily footnoted law review-type articles in their spare time.
  • Get a professional graphic designer to lay out your newsletter. A clean, professional-looking design aids readability, and a pro also will ensure that the design is compatible with the rest of your marketing materials. Don’t obsess about fonts, type sizes, colors or other graphic elements - let the designer handle it. Design is important, but the real key to a top-notch newsletter is the content - concentrate on that.
  • Don’t fall for offers from companies offering canned newsletters - pre-formatted, general-interest articles on legal topics that are “customized” by slapping your logo on top. Beyond the issue of whether you can (or more important, should) trust the company’s legal acumen and writing skills, imagine what your clients will think if they receive the exact same newsletter from another firm, or even several other firms. If you don’t have the time, interest or resources to produce your own newsletter for your clients, don’t do a newsletter.
  • Don’t forget the “news” in newsletters. Articles should be timely. Ideally, you want your newsletter to be the first on a given topic to cross your client's desk. If yours is the 12th newsletter on the latest wrinkle of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to reach your client, how likely will he or she be to read it? This does not necessarily mean you’re out of luck if other firms beat you to the punch on a certain topic - see if you can cover it from a fresh angle that no one else has written about and that is important to your clients.
  • Timeliness brings up the question of delivery - which is better, e-mail or print? E-mail is faster and cheaper than regular mail. But increasingly, law firms are finding their newsletters deleted by ever-more efficient spam filters at client companies. Also, some readers just prefer the look and feel of print. Your best bet is to give your readers the option - let them decide if they want to receive it by e-mail or regular mail.
  • Getting your newsletter in the right hands is just as important as getting it there quickly. Pick your mailing lists with some thought. Will the in-house counsel in charge of IP at a pharmaceutical company really be interested in your real estate newsletter?

Like any other marketing activity, newsletters are worth doing, if you do them right. And doing them right will bring in business.

Jim Austin is the publications director at Pepper Hamilton. Two of the firm’s newsletters, Commercial Litigation Report and Pro Bono News, earned the 2005 Burton Award for Best Law Firm Newsletters from the Burton Foundation, which recognizes excellence in legal writing

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