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6 Lessons for Law Firms from Mad Men

By Jeanette Blalock, posted on June 27, 2013.
6 Lessons For Law Firms From Mad Men

The hit television show Mad Men just wrapped up its gripping fifth season, and the show has taught viewers a lot of lessons about life, love, and advertising along the way. Those ideas can also translate to advice for lawyers looking for advice about how to run their law firm in a competitive market. Keep reading to find out how Don Draper, Joan Harris, and Roger Sterling—among others—have given lessons in marketing that work for law firms in the 21st century.

#1: Names and Brands Matter—A Lot

One of the things that Sterling Cooper knows is that brand names and brand images absolutely make a difference to consumers. Consumers emotionally associate brands with particular feelings, memories, and sensations—something Don Draper knew in this season's finale, where he dropped a bombshell on executives from Hershey by telling them about what a Hershey candy bar meant to him during his difficult childhood.

In the law, this remains the same. While not all attorneys are thinking about branding and making their firm name into a brand name, it's definitely something that every attorney should be considering. Whether you want it to or not, a brand will start to develop that is associated with your firm—a brand based on the perceptions of clients and those who see your marketing materials. It's better to develop your brand consciously than to let it develop completely on its own.

#2: Know Which Clients Aren't Worth It

In Season 4 of Mad Men, the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency faces a dilemma many new law firms are familiar with: they have a beautiful office, but they don't yet have the client list to match it. In their race to bring in new clients, the agency begins to court Jaguar. Soon, though, they find that there's a catch: in order to make the sale to Jaguar, they'll need to get a “yes” from a man who is only interested in Joan, the firm's long-suffering and very buxom secretary.

After a round of tense negotiations, they end up agreeing to make Joan partner if she'll clinch the sale—which she does. However, less than a year later, the client gets difficult again and the agency is forced to drop them from the client list. This goes to show: when a client makes unreasonable demands at the beginning of your business relationship, even if you really need new business, it's often best to just let the client go. Clients who are too demanding and unreasonable make your workplace worse to work at, and decrease morale across the board. It's even worse when you need to rely on that demanding client's business at the risk of having to shut down. Cut it off before you have to rely on a client who will be more trouble than he or she is worth.

#3: First Impressions Make All the Difference

The reason that SCDP got a big office in the first place is that they knew: you can't build a client base working out of a dingy basement. While it's not a good idea for new attorneys to hock everything they own to get a big spacious office, it does pay to make a good first impression for clients. Remember that your clients are paying a fairly high amount of money for legal services—they tend to want to see that their attorney's office is clearly professional and that some thought has been put into the décor and the general layout of your space.

#4: Maintain Long-Term Relationships

One of the things that the partners at Sterling Cooper have the hardest time with is fidelity—and that goes in their business lives as well as their love lives. In several different situations throughout the five seasons of Mad Men, the firm's partners have not only cheated on their spouses, but have also been duplicitous about soliciting business from competing firms—business that would require them to end longstanding relationships with other companies.

While this has sometimes worked for the Mad Men, it's often a lot more trouble than it's worth. Your longest term clients are the ones you want to keep around most: they're loyal, they clearly like your work, and they are very likely to recommend your firm to other people. Courting new clients at the expense of your existing relationships is rarely a way to get ahead, and often a way to tank your reputation as a professional.

#5: Small Firms Can Do Big Work

Throughout the show, Sterling Cooper is never one of the biggest agencies on Madison Avenue—and they're not trying to be. Sterling Cooper presents a great example of why you don't have to be a big firm to do work that matters and gets results, and why big clients might choose a relatively small and nimble firm as opposed to one of the older giants.

The lesson law firms should take from this is to think big, even when you're still fairly new and unestablished. Don't limit yourself by thinking that your firm isn't yet large enough to get the kind of business that you want. Make yourself into a specialist and do the research, pick a mentor, and start doing the kind of work that your firm wants to be doing. Smaller firms are often preferred by legal clients because they can give a more personal touch and offer substantially more flexibility than larger firms. You can also offer clients at a small firm the same attorney throughout the process of their case, while larger firms often have clients talking to several different people (some of whom they may get along with better or worse than others).

#6: Change the Conversation

Early in Mad Men, Don Draper gives one of the key rules of marketing in any industry: “If you don't like what they're saying about you, change the conversation.” Too often, when marketing professionals try to respond to critique of their brand online or offline, they get too defensive and reactive. Instead, you should consider talking about a different topic and highlighting your services in a creative, proactive way.

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