Countering the ‘Home Court’ Advantage: How to Successfully Market the Branch Office of a Major Law Firm

By Carl Whitaker

[This article first appeared in the February 11, 2004 issue of The Recorder.]

Lawyers in small to medium-sized branch offices of major law firms often feel like poor stepchildren of the home office. Even in the most democratically run firms, it’s hard to avoid the perception that headquarters is calling the shots. From the branch office’s point of view, lawyers in the home office have an exaggerated idea about the firm’s importance in the legal universe and a lack of understanding of the problems that branch office lawyers encounter when trying to build their business in enemy territory. When a potential client or opposing counsel or reporter responds with a blank stare when you mention your firm’s name, you know that you have a mountain to climb when it comes to developing business. You can start to overcome the home court advantage enjoyed by the large home-grown competitors in your market by developing and carrying out an integrated marketing program. A successful program will include elements like building brand identity, publicizing key local practice areas, raising the profile of individual lawyers, leveraging firmwide strengths, and targeting key clients for further development.

The first step in developing a local marketing plan is to review why it is that the office was created in the first place. Your firm may simply have been putting lawyers on the ground to better serve an existing client or perhaps your office was part of the firm’s strategy to be a player in an emerging market. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, firms from around the country wanted a piece of the action in Silicon Valley during the Internet boom and many of them were left gasping for air when the technology economy took a dive. In reviewing your local strategy, you will want to take a look at what has worked and what hasn’t; what practice areas are successful and what areas are not; where you are strong and where you aren’t currently competitive. Based on your review, you can then develop some realistic priorities and a marketing plan to support growth in key areas.

It’s instructive to look at successful branch offices and see how they developed. When Morrison & Foerster moved into San Diego in late 1999, for example, the firm was focused on making up for lost time with the San Diego technology community. Many other firms, both local and national, had been players in the thriving local tech economy for sometime, and MoFo was viewed as being somewhat late to the party. The firm launched their San Diego venture with the idea that they would play to the firm’s core strengths — providing high-level patent prosecution and counseling, patent litigation, and corporate finance advice to the San Diego technology community. Mark Danis, who was Managing Partner of Morrison’s San Diego office from 1999 to early 2003 and now serves as one of the firm’s three firmwide Managing Partners for Operations, emphasizes the importance of creating a strategy and sticking to it: “We were tightly focused on technology. We didn’t try to be all things to all people. We felt we had real strength in the biotech and high-tech sectors and concentrated our marketing efforts on the local trade groups that served those industries.”

Morrison’s technology focus in San Diego paid dividends. The firm brought in a nationally known patent lawyer from another office to anchor the office’s IP practice, lured away one of the region’s top patent litigation group from a competitor, and recruited top corporate talent from other firms. The heads of the firm’s intellectual property group helped sponsor the office and devoted a great deal of time and energy to the new enterprise. Lawyers from around the firm assisted with introductions to local clients. Danis notes, “San Diego is a small community in many ways — the most important thing we did was to introduce ourselves to the right people in the business community and make it clear that we intended to become active participants in the local technology scene.” The firm supported these recruiting and development efforts with an aggressive public relations strategy in the local press, sponsored key local trade groups, advertised regularly in local business and trade publications, and staged seminars on timely topics — an overall positioning effort aimed at portraying the firm as a player in the local technology community. Four years later, despite the tech downturn, the firm has 50 lawyers in San Diego with strong local connections and name recognition and has its sights set on further growth.

What does it take to successfully market your branch office? Here are some of the key points to keep in mind:

Position the office based on practice niches. As mentioned in the context of the San Diego example discussed above, it’s critically important to develop a local strategy and business plan and stick to it. The home office may be a full-service firm, but chances are that your branch office is strong in two or areas and not ten or twelve. From a business development perspective, it makes sense to focus on those areas and market the firm as a niche player. It doesn’t hurt to have the support of a 1,000 lawyer international firm, but your credibility and ultimate marketing success will depend on the specific expertise and experience that you have in the local office.

Leverage the firm’s overall brand. Niche marketing is important, but don’t lose sight of the strengths of the firm as a whole. Carl Leonard, a senior consultant with Hildebrandt International, emphasizes the importance of building a marketing strategy based on the practice specialties that have made your firm successful in other markets. Leonard notes: “You should be asking yourself what distinguishes your firm in the minds of other lawyers and potential clients. In other words, what are you famous for? If you can show that you have local expertise in a particular area, as well as the backing of a world-class firmwide practice, then you have created a powerful argument for a client to use your firm.”

Create an entrepreneurial culture in your office. According to Morrison & Foerster’s San Diego Marketing Manager Rajka Hayden, “The most successful branch offices are led by partners who have a strong vision of what the office can be and focus their energies on fulfilling that vision. There’s no easy formula for success — the important thing is to have a group of entrepreneurial lawyers and staff who are able to find creative ways to differentiate the firm and build the practice.” Hayden thinks that when you’re starting out, you have to use every available advantage to gain a foothold: “There are ways to use the firm’s reputation to make the local office seem bigger than it actually is, especially when pitching potential clients for a major piece of work.”

Create a local identity through the activities of local lawyers. Remember, most of the people in your local and legal business community haven’t heard of your firm before, even if you’re the biggest thing around in Miami or New York or Chicago. You’re going to need to work at building name recognition for your firm and for your individual lawyers. Leonard thinks that the office’s managing partner plays an important role: “I always think of the managing partner as the ‘ambassador’ of the firm to the local community. He or she should be taking an external leadership role to demonstrate the firm’s commitment to the region.”

Hiring high-profile laterals with strong local connections is one way to get off to a fast start. It’s also important to encourage the lawyers in your office to develop individual marketing plans. If you’re in start-up mode, then it follows that your lawyers should be networking aggressively — individual lawyers who become active in bar associations, trade associations and community groups can help put your firm on the map. Pro bono and community work should also be part of the mix — for a firm with a litigation practice, taking on a high-profile pro bono case is a way to make a statement about the firm’s commitment to the local legal community. Public relations is also an important avenue for increasing your profile — the office’s managing partner and practice leaders should be encouraged to cultivate local reporters and editors in the legal and business press.

Ask lawyers in your other offices for referrals. It’s also important to take advantage of the full resources of the firm in developing business. Bringing partners from other offices to help start the office provides an instant connection to the rest of the firm. These partners can become spokespersons for the office within the firm and lead the internal marketing effort designed to make firm partners everywhere aware of the strengths of the office. Identify client companies that have major operations in your local area. Seek out the partners who represent those clients and discuss how best to approach the local client representatives. Secure introductions with inhouse counsel of clients in other regions who may have work to hand out in your local area. Be as proactive as possible in identifying targets and strategizing with your partners about opportunities with these existing clients. Don’t forget about your niches when communicating about the office within the firm — lawyers in your office may have areas of expertise that are valuable to clients around the firm, regardless of location. Make sure that lawyers throughout the firm are aware of these special areas and take advantage of them.

Leverage firmwide resources. Look to your firmwide practice groups for support in your marketing efforts. If, for example, you’re trying to grow a patent litigation practice and you have one of the nationally known stars of the patent bar resident in an office on the other coast, then it makes sense to use your star as a local drawing card for seminars and client meetings. If your practice group publishes a newsletter, make sure that you send it to local contacts. Find ways to place yourself within the context of the larger group in seminars and sales calls. Although you can’t position your local office as full service, you can utilize the firm’s broader resources to provide clients with needed information or spot advice on important issues. In my experience, clients aren’t very impressed by the fact that you have 400 lawyers back at the home office, but they sit up and take notice when you can introduce them to one of the top lawyers in the country in a particular area or demonstrate that you can staff their bet-the-company case with a cross-office, interdisciplinary team drawn from offices around the country.

Be willing to invest in marketing. Like any company trying to introduce a new product to the public, you have to expect to make an investment in marketing. Show firm management that your marketing plan has been built to support the overall strategic goals of the office. Make a case for a healthy marketing budget that will allow you to cultivate key clients, raise the firm’s profile in the local press, sponsor key trade associations and programs, advertise in the local legal and business press, stage seminars and events, and so on. Yes, you’ll probably be spending more per lawyer than the home office, but that’s part of the price a firm pays for starting a new enterprise. Even if your office is small, consider hiring a marketing professional, at least part-time, to help you develop and implement your marketing plan. Remember that effective, aggressive marketing can greatly enhance recruiting efforts. If one of your goals is to recruit lateral talent, it’s important to convey that your firm is a player on the local scene. Your firm has gone to great expense to recruit lawyers and open an office — it only makes sense to support this large investment with a thoughtful and well-funded marketing plan.