About this time each year, law industry publications are rife with all kinds of advice about “holiday marketing,” and the advice is both well worn and easy to summarize: Give gifts that show you appreciate the person receiving the gift. Give gifts that are thoughtful. Make a good impression with your gift. Leave the law firm logo off the gift. Personalize the gift. Be classy about your gift giving. Good advice all.

However, today’s legal environment requires more substantial analysis and strategy, a “Holiday Marketing 2.0,” if you will, for three important reasons:

  1. Legal marketing and legal business development is getting more ethical scrutiny than ever before. State bar overseers are paying new attention to non-lawyer lead generation services and the entire lawyer client referral process.
  2. The market for legal services is more competitive than ever. In the past, simply showing up and sending a holiday gift was adequate “holiday marketing.” Sadly, the sellers’ market for legal services—with 100 lawyers for every 150 cases—is over. Lawyers today need to shift from a product-centric focus to a client-centric focus, and do it well, in order to win business.
  3. Today’s technology and the rise of online networking change the nature of “holiday marketing,” which is inherently social. Lawyers not only need to own a Twitter account, but they need a clear understanding of how online and social media marketing works together with their overall business development plan before being able to effectively leverage these technologies around holiday relationship-building opportunities.


Holiday Gifts and the Rules of Professional Conduct

As bar overseers increasingly take a closer look at marketing activities such as pay-per-click and the non-lawyer lead generation business, the rules of professional conduct in a growing number of jurisdictions are expanding to specifically address gifts from lawyers not only to clients but to potential referral sources as well.

Greater Philadelphia ethics attorney Micah Buchdahl notes that “for ‘referral sources’ you need to make sure not to be providing something of value that can be misconstrued” (as prohibited legal fee sharing or compensation for legal referrals—past, present or future).

The Louisiana Bar Association echoes this sentiment in an ethics opinion that notes “prospective recipients of proposed gifts from lawyers should not be encouraged or allowed to conclude easily but mistakenly that, in exchange for or as a result of the gift(s), the recipients are expected to try and solicit prospective new clients for the lawyer.” Even if the recipient of a gift is not a “referral source” but rather a former client, the gift should not encourage the former client to solicit new business for a lawyer as a type of compensation.

Gifts given by lawyers to clients during the holidays are not prohibited; however, lawyers need be cautious about the advice they choose to follow and the cost of the gifts they provide. Blog posts found online by private ethics counsel in Florida seem to focus on the cost of the gift in relationship to good taste and whether the recipient “put thousands of dollars in your pocket,” but in contrast the Louisiana Bar Association suggest that “it would be best to keep the size/value of the gift at a very reasonable—perhaps even nominal or de minimis—level” so that is appears clearly to everyone that the gift is not some form of payment.

A gift should be a token expression of the lawyer’s appreciation, gratitude, or friendship only—with the emphasis on “token” (adj.: done as a symbolic gesture). A “modest” gift in relation to the comfortable lifestyle of a successful lawyer may be pushing the ethical boundaries. Lawyer bloggers in Florida may love to give and get fancy packages full of fresh lobsters from Maine, but a lawyer in Louisiana was disciplined for maintaining a “ham list”—a list of clients to whom the lawyer sent a ham at Christmas time; many of these clients were only on the list because of the suggestion that those who referred new business would get the gift. Ham-handed holiday marketing indeed.


Holiday Marketing vs. Strategic December Business Development

Unfortunately, too many of the traditional “holiday marketing” articles on giving gifts also proffer suggestions about how to get business during the social season. Here’s our simple guideline: Don’t do it. Don’t attempt to get new business during the holiday season at all.

Why? Think about yourself and your personal appetite for someone marketing or selling to you during the hectic holiday season. Think about the chaotic composition of most successful lawyers’ final three weeks of the year. Activities such as completing work in progress before an end-of-year deadline, taking care of any end-of-year issues with your own practice, social obligations to clients, social obligations to family and friends, and travel for all the above.

How different do you think are the comparable lists for those with whom you do business, or wish to? How receptive are they likely to be to your marketing or sales overtures? Setting aside concrete business obligations, market contact during the period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve is predominantly social. And most people prefer it that way.

This doesn’t mean that you ignore business development then, only that you apply a different perspective and align your expectations to reality, and reality is that, barring someone you know well dealing with a sudden emergency, you’re extremely unlikely to get actual new business in December. December is for teeing up calls and meetings for January.

Here’s how to make December a reliable new business accelerator for January without creating discomfort for anyone:

  1. Begin converting social relationships into business relationships without jeopardizing the friendship. Your instincts tell you that anything resembling a pitch will put a friendship at risk, and it should. The root word in “relationship” is “relate.” Your social relationship is based on relating to each other’s lives. Similarly, a business relationship is based on relating to someone’s business life. As you learned when you were very young, to be interesting, be interested.
  2. Associate yourself with business issues—and terminology—that your potential referral sources actually care about. Your sources want to help you, but you make it hard by using language that disconnects you from their contacts’ conversations. Relevance is key to any conversation and relationship. Whether the context is social or business, if what you discuss isn’t relevant to people, they will tune you out. Commit now to raising your awareness of what’s happening in the business world generally and in your prospects’ industries particularly. Your referral sources will rarely hear their contacts using your practice group terminology (M&A, employment, litigation, etc.), and when they do, it is usually too late in the decision cycle to introduce a stranger. What they will hear is their contacts discussing business situations, problems, challenges, and opportunities. If they associate you with these topics, when they hear them you will come to mind and trigger their intent to introduce you.
  3. Begin conversations that can’t (or shouldn’t) be completed in a social setting. This makes it natural to suggest continuing the discussion in a January lunch, meeting, or phone call. No matter how fascinating your topic, nobody wants to hear everything you know in a social setting. As the public-speaking axiom goes, “it is better to leave them begging for more than begging for mercy.” Tee up an interesting topic, stay with it just long enough for the other person to demonstrate real interest, then graciously suggest that you don’t want to monopolize their attention and ask if it makes sense to pick up the phone later.

At this juncture you’re forgiven if you feel frustrated at reading so much about what you should do and so little about how. “The devil is in the detail,” and the detail is the “how.” To learn how to do what we urge, you have to invest a little time and money on business development training, and the holiday season is a great time to do that. New approaches leverage technology to deliver on-demand, just-in-time training to give lawyers the discrete business development skills they need for holiday events to effectively and confidently address immediate challenges in turning the holiday season into a reliable client accelerator for the New Year.


Leveraging Online and Social Media

Obviously, online technologies are not limited to business development training, and the huge growth in both lawyer and potential client use of online and social media should not be ignored when planning and participating in holiday marketing or holiday business development.

Lawyers may integrate online networking into holiday marketing and business development in two ways:

  1. Use online networking as a research tool. Not only are business contacts connecting on LinkedIn after an event, savvy networkers use information online to learn more about their networking targets before the event in order to be more effective networkers and relationship builders.
  2. Use online networking to understand what online and social media marketing should be doing in the first place, so that holiday marketing, networking, and business development activity can work seamlessly with this process rather than as another disconnected or, worse, another random marketing activity.

Pre-event research. Generally speaking, it isn’t hard to find event attendees, and many businesses and professionals of all types are publishing their own content on blogs, on Twitter, and to their LinkedIn and professional profiles. Learning about what your networking targets care about enough to publish will better enable you to build relationships with them. Some content is only available to connections, online networking group members, or second- and third-degree connections, and this is yet another instance where having a large social network provides benefits to better enable you to find people you don’t know yet, but who may be a marketing or networking target for you.

Attention to various social media platforms when doing this kind of pre-event work is critical. Finding someone on Twitter and following them is generally acceptable. LinkedIn helps you find professionals of all types, and if you are interested building new referral relationships with other lawyers, the robust mix of content in a lawyers-only social network such as wireLawyer is the place you want to be. Stalking people’s personal profiles on Facebook should be avoided.

Understanding social media marketing. In addition to pre-event research, having a clear understanding of how social media marketing is supposed to work is critical to using holiday events and holiday marketing in an integrated and seamless way. We meet countless lawyers of all ages and in every practice area who say things like, “I’m on LinkedIn and I never got a client out of it.” Unfortunately, in today’s competitive legal services market, simply having a social media profile isn’t enough to win new business.

Generally speaking, legal social marketing needs to break down each practice area like an individual business, and the marketing targets (for a consumer-based practice) and networking targets (for a referral-based practice) should be identified and profiled for each practice area. Once identified and profiled, the creation of social networks or groups of these marketing and networking targets is the work of social marketing. These groups may be Twitter followers, Facebook fans, wireLawyer contacts, LinkedIn connections, blog subscribers, or groups within social networks such as Employment Law Professionals on LinkedIn, or a Twitter Twibe of personal injury lawyers. Holiday events and communications may be an opportunity to grow these social networks, and once grown to a healthy population, these groups can in turn support real-life events, holiday and otherwise.

Sharing high-quality, high-demand content that demonstrates your expertise to these social networks is much of the remainder of the work of social marketing, along with developing a law firm “client-funnel” for each individual practice area that steers online connections into your traditional real-world networking and business-development activities. As you increase the size of the social networks of your marketing and networking targets, and as you provide them high-quality and high-interest content that solves actual problems of theirs, your Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, or wireLawyer contacts should be turned into networking phone calls, which turn into networking coffee meetings, which turn into lunch meetings, which turn into professional relationships.

Unfortunately, many lawyers fail to understand “what it means” to make social or online media connections, and many keep these contacts “limited” to “only people (they) would personally recommend.” I have yet to see the benefit of that kind of online media strategy. By adopting an open network-style connection strategy with online media, new connections and contacts initiated during the holidays can be blended into a process that is understood before the holiday season begins.


Holiday Marketing 2.0

Holiday marketing should not be done as it has been done year after year in the past. Lawyers and law firms need to develop business in an entirely new legal services environment, and this requires a “Holiday Marketing 2.0” or “smart marketing” approach. This new style involves skills that help make rain even with heavy competition, leverage new social and online technologies, and work carefully within trends in the rules of professional conduct.

Mike O’Horo is co-founder of RainmakerVT, the first just-in-time virtual rainmaking training for lawyers. He has been helping lawyers generate new business with sales training for the legal profession since 1991. 

David A. Barrett, Esq., is a legal marketing consultant and owner of The World’s Largest LinkedIn Lawyer Network; he has been a legal convention speaker and commentator on legal social media topics since 2006.