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Special Report: ‘Thought Leader’ Tactic Goes Viral on Social Media

Television, billboards and online ad campaigns might work for some lawyers, but what about attorneys who only deal with corporations? For them, mass marketing doesn’t make sense. Nicolas Roxborough ran into this obstacle early in his career. So he decided to select an emerging specialty – in his case, workers’ compensation – and become an expert on it. He began by writing free articles and submitting them to law magazines and insurance trade journals. After publishing a few, he approached trade organizations and offered to speak for free at their events. “Next thing you know, I’m speaking at conventions on these topics,” said Roxborough, a partner at Roxborough Pomerance Nye & Adreani LLP, a Woodland Hills firm with 14 attorneys and a strong practice in workers comp. “And from there, it’s all about winning. If you win a case, publicize it. Today, I have a Twitter account and a marketing person who sends out a press release when I win a case.” The strategy employed by Roxborough is called “thought leader” marketing, and it has become more competitive and expansive with the rise of the Internet and social media. In a forward for the 2012 book “Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders,” Tom Angell, partner at accounting and consulting firm KPMG, defined thought leaders as communicators who go beyond immediate business concerns to look at larger issues such as trends, innovations and the definition of success. “Thought leadership is about having meaningful answers to those higher-level questions, effectively communicating those answers to your market and leveraging the resulting reputation for the benefit of your firm,” he wrote. David Ackert, president of Ackert Inc., a Sherman Oaks business development consulting and software firm, said the biggest challenge with the thought leadership strategy is that it requires an investment of time rather than money. And time is the main commodity a law firm sells. “When lawyers start as associates they are workhorses, and firms monopolize their time for billable hours,” he said. “Some lawyers have a passion for writing articles and they make the time, but most find business development falls very low on their priorities. Over time they become service lawyers versus rainmakers.” The good news is that with the Internet, one article can serve multiple audiences. At one time, an informative article would appear in a legal newspaper for other lawyers, but now it gets posted on LinkedIn, emailed as a client alert and then repurposed on a blog, Ackert said. Roxborough advises other attorneys who want to follow the thought-leader model to not write like attorneys. Articles need 10-word sound bites to interest readers, not legal dissertations. Also, he subscribes to the conventional public-relations wisdom that “All news is good news.” “Even if you lose, it’s better to be included in the conversation,” he explained. “The impression is that Roxborough is everywhere, he’s involved, he’s always on the cutting edge. But it takes a couple of years to get there.” Of course, a thought leader must maintain a presence on social media. Roxborough has hired a PR person to send out press releases and post items on the Internet. “I was not excited about Twitter, or even building a website, but you have to make it easy for people to find you quickly,” he said. “In social media, you can get your word out there exponentially, but the message must be clear. Then if your website is hard-hitting, they will pick up the phone.” Proliferating lists One business-to-business marketing strategy that neither Roxborough nor Ackert recommends are directories or magazines that purport to list the best lawyers in a specialty. Since 1931, Martindale-Hubbell has published a directory of attorneys that became the gold standard for corporate counsels. The format produced competitors, so today the market is flooded with the Chambers USA, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers and Lawdragon directories. Even Fortune magazine publishes a list. R. Rex Parris, the mayor of Lancaster and co-founder of the R. Rex Parris Law Firm in the city, goes through the nomination process and pays for his attorneys to appear on lists, but he has no idea if it works as a marketing tool. “The only people who read it are other lawyers,” he said. “It doesn’t pencil out very well, but we do it for our own egos.” Roxborough says his main audience is in-house counsels, and in the past they referred to lists, but now they are more likely to check their smart phones to research an attorney. For most of the lists, an attorney is selected and then invited to participate – at a fee of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, Roxborough said. Ackert noted that in some cases, the selection process involves nominations from other lawyers, which can become political. Research shows lists are a minor factor in hiring decisions, in part because the main readers are attorneys familiar with the selection process, Ackert said. “They know these lists are often popularity contests, involve a lot of politics, or are just pay-to-play,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the lawyer is super, just that he or she participated.”

Joel Russel
Joel Russel
Joel Russell joined the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2006 as a reporter. He transferred to sister publication San Fernando Valley Business Journal in 2012 as managing editor. Since he assumed the position of editor in 2015, the Business Journal has been recognized four times as the best small-circulation tabloid business publication in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. Previously, he worked as senior editor at Hispanic Business magazine and editor of Business Mexico.
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