Law Firm Holiday Cards – Do’s and Don’ts

Q: Are holiday cards effective?

A:  I think that they can be considered one more nice way to stay in touch, to send a friendly communication to a large number of clients and prospects all at once.  Of course, I said that they can be effective, not that they typically are.

Holiday cards pose complex issues of database management and client ownership, combined with the logistical questions of who signs which card(s). Through hard work and discipline, these are mightily overcome, only to become one of a dozen bland, look-alike cards depicting politically correct images like pine trees, ice skaters, snow-covered skylines, ambiguously decorated snow men, or handicapped children’s artwork — which are then sent to dead former clients. All in the name of strengthening client relationships? 

Done well, the cards should reinforce your firm’s unique brand message, or at least stand out somehow, so they don’t get immediately discarded and forgotten.  When I was the marketing partner of a law firm, it wasn’t unusual for me to get as many as 25 generic holiday cards per day from vendors all wanting our business.

Glance, toss, forget.

Glance, toss, forget.

Glance, toss, forget.

It helps if you have a strong brand message, or at least an interesting look.  For example, last year, for “Small but Mightysm” Novack and Macey (a litigation boutique whose message is that they’re disproportionately powerful for their size, see www.novackmacey.com), we sent a card showing a small, festively decorated red box and a “Good things come in small packages” headline.

Sally Crocker’s annual mailers at Wolf Greenfield are always interesting – a very targeted message connecting creativity to IP (see http://tinyurl.com/26nqpml), below:

The point is — the card represents your firm and your practice.  Don’t rub clients’ noses in your firm’s lack of creativity by doing the same thing as everyone else.  Find some way to do something different.

And if your lawyers can’t make the time to sign the cards personally, don’t send them.  Nothing says “I care about you and deeply value your business and our relationship” like a generic, unsigned card with the firm’s name foil-stamped on them.  You ever get one of those from your accountant?  Don’t they make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

I always get that special feeling, knowing that he took the time out of his busy schedule to have his secretary include me on the same mass-mailed list as hundreds or thousands of clients and prospects.  Oh, if he’d only send me a pleather calendar with his firm’s name embossed on it, then I’d know for certain that he’s going to do his very best for me in 2011.

Email versions of holiday cards are gaining in popularity because they allow more creative freedom, with Flash animations of holiday-themed items zooming and spinning and morphing needlessly into each other.  The high-minded explanation is that they’re green and save paper.  Internally, they’re thinking that no one has to sign anything via email.  It’s easy.

Because you can effortlessly send them from a simple database to tens of thousands of recipients with the click of a button, they are arguably even less personal than unsigned paper cards where someone, somewhere, at least had to lick a stamp.  Those that avoid the spam filters don’t generate much goodwill.  On rare occasion, terrific creative work might cause one to stand above the pack and get a notice or a smile. (See e.g. Fish & Richardson’s fun fish-themed holiday movie at www.fr.com/holiday2009/.)  Screen shot:


Most get the typical treatment – Glance, Shrug, Toss .

I always get a holiday card from my best friend, a terrific lawyer I’ve known for 30 years.  We shared our first beer together.  He was the best man at my wedding.  He held my first son within minutes of his being born.  I refer him lots of business.  The card, his 15th consecutive snowy Chicago skyline, wishes me “Happy Holidays from [his law firm],” signed with a badly pixilated low-res scan of his signature, “John.”  (Not his real name.)  No note.  I’m going to have to talk to him about this.  Again.

I know he’s really busy but, frankly, I think those types of mailings do more harm than good.  Few people have ever said, “My lawyer didn’t wish me a generic “Seasons Greetings” this year; I’m taking my business elsewhere!”  That is, if you’re going to do it badly, just don’t do it; no one will notice its absence.

But if you can find, that is, make, the time, a personal, handwritten note is incredibly powerful.  In our instant era of type-and-click email, 140-character tweets, and Facebook pokes, a personal snail-mail note with a handwritten address creates a big impact.  Today I might get 100 emails and 25 generic holiday cards that I’ll forget by tomorrow, but a decade later, I still have the handwritten, 15-word “Congratulations, Ross!” note in a thick, blue, felt-tip marker from one of the nation’s best lawyers and nicest guys, Mike Coffield.

Even though I know he dashed off at least 25 short cards each week in a stack organized by his secretary, it still feels special to receive one.  It’s the difference between sincerely caring about people and doing the least amount necessary because you’re “supposed” to send cards.  The recipients can tell the difference.  It’s quality, not quantity.

Finally, while I know this whole rant is making me sound like Scrooge, I’ve never been a big fan of cards that promise “In lieu of a personal gift to you, we’re making a donation in your name to the following charity(ies).”  In my actual name?  Does that mean I get a tax deduction on that money?  Did they ask me whether I’d prefer receiving the gift?  Or at least help select the charity?  And because they never tell you how much they’re donating; everyone I’ve quizzed about this assumes that they’ve taken this approach because it was cheaper and easier.  And generally, from my experience, they’re right.

At least that’s how I see it.

Season’s greetings,

Ross

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  • Ted says:

    Ross, enjoy the article. We gave up cards and candy for folks in favor of a "Client and Friends Appreciation Night of Music" where we invite 1500 clients and friends we would have sent cards to join us for a night of good music every couple years. Gershwin, Carmichael etc. But the concert is in September, and only get about 250 of the invited to come, making about 400 in attendence. Any ideas how to remind clients and friends that we did something even more special for them than a card or box of candy?

  • Ross Fishman says:

    It sounds like a nice event and a good idea. Actually having 1 in 6 general invitees join you is a pretty good return. Who shows up? Are they mostly clients? Your best clients? If the "right" people are attending, I'd consider it a big win. How much follow-up communication is there to remind people? Firms can usually significantly increase attendance with a systematic approach. Are your lawyers involved in personally inviting the people they REALLY want to attend?How is this event structured? Is this just a nice classical concert or is it supported by a cocktail party/reception? I think it's nice to host a thank-you party for clients and friends, but it's important to ALSO have your people spend a few minutes chatting with every single one of them. We're in a relationship business, so these events should be designed to strengthen the relationships. Without that part, you're just sending out 1500 tickets to a free concert. Philosophically, free tickets are nice but that's still a mass-mail strategy. It feels qualitatively different than being personally invited by your lawyer to sit next to them at a concert. If you're not doing one or more of these activities, then changing things a bit can improve your results. Does that answer your question? With a little more info, I could be a bit more specific. Thanks for asking.

  • Armando says:

    I send out signed cards every year. The cards returned by the post office, help pair down the mailing list. It may be coincidence, but January is usually a very busy month. The most difficult thing is how to thank those lawyers that consistently refer clients throughout the year. A cookie basket?

  • Ross Fishman says:

    Good question – good referral sources are like gold, you can't afford to lose them. First – a sincere handwritten note is among your best marketing tools. Emails are fine, but in this high-speed time, a handwritten note card with an actual postage stamp is coveted. Second (and maybe this should have been listed first), is that doing a great job for the clients they refer you is your best marketing, and the best way to say thanks. Go above-and-beyond with the client service – responsiveness, communication, etc. Make the referring lawyer look great to those whom they've referred to you and they'll remember you. (I'm guessing that you already knew that, which is why you get repeated referrals.) However, for the steady referrals, those you can't afford to do without, a nice gift is always appreciated. Omaha Steaks, that sort of thing are valued, and occasionally can tip the referral-balance in your favor. But once you start, you've set a precedent, and the steaks/gifts will probably be missed the year you stop sending them. Don't create an expectation if you're not committed to meeting it annually. These are especially valued if they are particularly tailored to the individual. Gift baskets sent from an online store are nice, but not nearly as nice as something specially selected for the person's interests and hobbies. Show that you remembered that they mentioned once that they like fishing, for example. Finally, to beat the year-end rush, consider either (1) sending it immediately following a referral, to connect the thanks more closely in time to the behavior you're rewarding, or (2) connecting it to a different holiday or season. Perhaps say "thanks" by using Thanksgiving as the hook instead of the standard year-end holiday season?

  • Rob Corwin says:

    I thought you might appreciate the holiday greeting from Hanson Bridgett this year.This was provided to attorneys and staff as an easy-to-edit email template that made it simple to send personalized notes to individual clients and colleagues.Here's a sample:http://www.hansonbridgett.com/holiday/2010/card.html

  • [...] risking offending people.  It’s a fine line, and most firms err on the side of boring.   Here’s a link to my historical screed on this subject; I really hate bad holiday cards.  (Or see “Your Law [...]