Changing a mindset


Marketing runs through everything that a law firm does and is not just about creating a new brochure or a fancy logo, says Robert Sawhney

The idea that marketing is integral to the performance of a commercial organization is not new. However, within the professional services sector, and in particular law firms in Asia, the word marketing elicits notions of advertising and selling. This is unfortunate because research – even within the professional services sector – demonstrates that marketing is the key driver of financial performance and client value.

Robert Sawhney
Robert Sawhney

When I talk about marketing as the key driver of a firm’s success, I do not mean activities such as advertising or promotion in isolation. These are a part of marketing, but are not what marketing is really about.

As I see it, marketing is the guide for creating and delivering client value. As Tim Ambler from the London Business School rightly points out, trying to measure the return on investment (ROI) for marketing as a business process in its entirety is like trying to measure the ROI on eating – if you don’t do it you die!

From my experience of working with law firms in emerging Asian economies such as India, I have found that they approach marketing in completely the wrong way. Since the lawyers in these firms believe marketing is synonymous with business development, sales and promotion, they tackle it at a tactical level, thinking that new brochures, sales training and a website will solve most of their “marketing” problems.

In India, where law firm promotion activities are heavily regulated, they may even say that they can’t do marketing since it is prohibited. This is a nonsense, which I have found to be mainly an excuse not to address the systemic marketing problems they face.

Let’s take an example. Research from Asian Counsel magazine in 2009 shows that responsiveness, followed by expertise in a specific area, are the key factors that affect client choice of a law firm in India. Another way to put this is that responsiveness is at the heart of client value. But what is responsiveness? It’s not just about answering an email within one day.

Let’s say a client calls you and asks about an impending regulation change in their industry. You are not aware of that change, and you are not sure where to get information about it. Not only is your ability to respond limited by your knowledge of the client’s industry and the capabilities of your firm to access that knowledge, it is also affected by your mindset. Most professionals believe that technical legal knowledge is sufficient when clients are in fact demanding commercially oriented advice. They want lawyers to understand their business!

The second factor in client choice of a law firm, expertise in a specific area, also reflects the need to accept marketing as a business philosophy and mindset.

To develop levels of expertise that differentiate your firm from competitors requires choices in the practices you pursue as well as the industries you target. A market orientation allows you to develop a market-based strategy which produces client value and differentiation.

All of this is intended to stress the point that marketing is something that you do before promotion. Marketing ensures you have the right value proposition in place and that your clients, both current and potential, understand and value what you do. It is not an add-on or supplement.

In other words, marketing is a business process and culture that permeates everything that an organization does. It is anything and everything that affects your value for your client. Disagreements about marketing place too much emphasis on the role of promotion. Marketing is about client value, plain and simple. Every business is a marketing business whether you recognize that or not.

I am often asked why marketing within the legal profession is so far behind other professional service sectors and industries. One key factor is a lack of precedent. The legal industry in India is protected and, as demand for legal services grows, so do revenue opportunities for law firms. These firms see little need to become more client oriented.

Another key factor is the personality of the typical lawyer. Research shows that lawyers are much more sceptical than the general population and more resistant to change. Since developing a marketing culture is about change, it is natural for lawyers to resist such thinking and fall back on what they are comfortable with – a new brochure and a fancy logo!

As competition within the Indian legal sector increases (and if foreign law firms are eventually allowed into the market), Indian firms will have to face up to what local firms have discovered in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore: the need to become more client oriented or suffer the consequences.

Robert Sawhney is the managing director of SRC Associates Ltd, a Hong Kong-based firm that works with professional services firms throughout Asia on improving their competitiveness. He is also the author of Marketing Professional Services in Asia (Lexis Nexis, 2009) and Developing a Profitable Practice in Asia (Ark, 2010). For more information, see or contact