Trade shows and other similar marketing events are not just for vendors; they also can be an effective way for a law firm to showcase its services and network with existing and potential clients. But exhibiting at a conference requires planning well before the event, from negotiating the trade show package and working with event program organizers to arranging for your attorneys to gain visibility as speakers or on panels.

Exhibiting at events should be part of your law firm marketing strategy and, when done thoughtfully, can have qualified ROI for your firm when you choose the appropriate conference. Here is a primer for doing conferences right.

Which Event Is Right for Your Law Firm?

No matter what the practice area, there’s a relevant conference. The important thing is to choose the right one with your marketing strategy in mind.

Attending a show that won’t attract any prospects can be a waste of time and resources for your firm and the attorneys who staff the booth. That’s why you must do your research before signing up to be a sponsor and/or exhibitor. Ask the event organizer about the type and number of people or businesses that attend, what levels of sponsorship they are offering, and what perks/benefits are part of that cost.

Once you know the event details, choose the shows that will get you in front of your law firm’s core prospective clients or referral sources. It might be an event for a chamber of commerce or civic group, or it could be a practice-specific conference, such as for franchising, bankruptcy, IP, or real estate. It could be more client-specific, such as small businesses and entrepreneurs. There is a conference for every type of industry and they are not all created equal.

Remember, too, that you can often negotiate a better rate, additional features or extra conference tickets up front. This is particularly true if you sign up early. Not only does this often give you a better choice of booth placement, but, if it is a popular event, you will have more negotiating power.

What Do You Need for the Event?

To get the most return on your trade show investment, preparation is key. Here are some of the top considerations to have in mind as you plan your conference appearance.

1. Your visual presentation

What you need in terms of visuals depends on the type of space the event is offering. Local events might only offer a room full of tables, while larger conferences might offer 10-by-10 booth spaces (or larger). You do not want to take a small tabletop unit to a large booth display, nor do you want to take a large floor unit to a table-only event.

If you attend multiple events per year, then purchasing your display becomes more cost-effective. There are a wealth of options in the display industry, so it is best to work with your agency or design firm to help guide you in developing a strategy to make sure your display meets your law firm branding guidelines and that it will be easy to set up — in other words, require little training and instruction to build — and take down.

2. Handouts, brochures and giveaways

Attendees have a tendency to pick up anything and everything. Stay away from the large, glossy brochures. Instead, prepare quality print materials about your key practice areas that are targeted to your audience, and can be mixed and matched on the fly. By having a simple, clear handout with a variety of supporting materials available, you can spend more time interacting with potential clients. Or have a QR code linking to a dedicated webpage about industry-specific content related to the event.

Many sponsors set out swag (Stuff We All Get) for people to take away, and it can get taken quickly. Choice swag includes branded water bottles, hats, T-shirts or snacks. Try to get an idea of the anticipated number of attendees from the event sponsor. More importantly, decide whether having a takeaway is necessary at all. If your answer is yes, then having a unique item helps separate you from other attendees. While the choices are many, the item should be cost-effective and, most important of all, branded with your law firm’s name/logo. It’s also smart to choose items that last, rather than snacks that will be consumed and forgotten before prospects even leave the exhibit hall.

3. Prepare your staff/attorneys

The best people to represent your law firm are its attorneys and your experienced marketing/business development staff. Ensure that the people staffing the booth are outgoing and comfortable with engaging people. Consider having the head of the practice group who is a rainmaker attend the event, not a junior associate who may not be well-versed about what your firm offers. If one of your attorneys is speaking at a session, they should be at the booth afterward to facilitate follow-up discussions with their session attendees. This is a key factor — after all, they are there to develop business contacts.

To help your firm’s representatives prepare for the show, provide a brief memo before the event that outlines what the show is about, the expected attendees and what your law firm is looking to accomplish.

Remind the people staffing the booth to engage with all booth traffic. This means not chatting on a cellphone or standing at the back of the booth with the other staff. Most events have key times for the exhibit hall activity — usually breaks between speaker sessions that allow attendees time to explore the exhibit hall, grab a snack and engage with people in the booths. While these are usually the busy times, don’t discount the downtime when most people are attending sessions. Not every session will have value for every attendee. These slower times can be productive by providing more one-on-one interactions with potential leads.

After a day of sessions, larger conferences often offer evening events to network and mingle, so don’t pass up these opportunities to engage with attendees. If you have clients attending the event, this is a good opportunity for face time. Invite them for a drink or dinner, or host a small, client-specific event outside of the conference scheduled activities.

What Are Other Trade Show Considerations?

Make the most of your conference time. While at the trade show, visit some of the other booths to see what other law firms are doing and displaying — but only leave your booth if there is someone there to hold down the fort. An empty booth is a missed opportunity.

If the event runs from 9 to 5, make sure you get there with enough time to set up your space, turn on any display lights, set out your swag and be ready when doors open.

Finally, check your state’s ethics rules in regard to trade show participation before you commit or appear!

Trade shows can be either a huge waste of money or some of the most lucrative marketing investments your firm can make. Be sure to take a strategic approach to make this type of business development endeavor work for your law firm.

For more information about attending trade shows or best booth practices, contact asingles@jaffepr.com.