For the past few years, all the news about our economy has been grim. Long-time large law firms have been forced to layoff large numbers of attorneys, or even disband completely. This has caused a drastic shift in the legal services market as many of those displaced lawyers have formed smaller “boutique” firms or decided to “hang out a shingle” as solo practitioners. More drastically, other lawyers have left the profession altogether.
For those attorneys who have chosen to become solo practitioners or create a small firm, marketing has now been added to their “to-do list”. Although most firms require some level of marketing for associates on the partnership track, it is really only a select few that are the true rainmakers within the firm; those in solo and small firms must now not only embrace marketing but, more importantly, make it a “systematic” function of their office in order to maintain a steady flow of cases. Whether you are new to solo practice or have been a solo or small firm practitioner for many years, marketing is even more critical in this new economic climate.
This article is meant to provide a few new and traditional cost-effective ideas that you can immediately employ to improve your marketing efforts. The ultimate goal – to be more competitive in today’s legal market.
Back to Basics
Just because we have entered the digital and paperless age does not mean we must abandon historically successful techniques. We can take some of the ideas from the past and use them to our advantage. Over the years, we have seen this take many different forms, such as newsletters, holiday and/or birthday cards, etc. The popularity of the Internet has made these methods of communication easier and less expensive.
Electronic E-mail Marketing
There are several free or open-source e-mail marketing programs such as PHPlist and Open EMM, but both require some level of technical knowledge to efficiently send out e-mails on a systematic basis. There are other “paid” services such as Icontact (www.icontact.com) and Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com) that streamline and simplify the process for those who are less technologically sophisticated. Most e-mail marketing services allow for the importation of CSV (comma-separated values) files. Used properly, these services can be a very powerful tool. Most paid services offer free trials and monthly subscriptions as low as $25 a month.
Electronic newsletters can be an invaluable source of generating client leads. The newsletter should be informational in nature and provide legal “tips”. For example, if you handle drunken driving cases, you may want the newsletter to focus on “what to do (or not do) in case you’re pulled over”. Note that you only want to send these newsletters to potential clients who sign up to receive them and at that keep them to a minimum.
The newsletter can also be sent to inform clients about recently changes to the law in your jurisdiction.
The newsletter should be sent out on a quarterly (or even less frequent) basis. Alert: Overuse of the “electronic newsletter” concept may cause the recipient to view and/or report your communication as spam. In that event, most e-mail services will shut down your account and refuse to allow you to send further such electronic newsletters.
Though it is good practice to send such cards, “timing can be everything”. Cards can be sent at any time, for any holiday, and do not need to say Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah or Joyous Festivus. Cards can be sent to wish a client (present and former) a happy birthday, Independence Day or St. Patrick’s Day.
The idea is to separate yourself from the rest of the crowd and get your name in front of the client. (Besides, who does not love being remembered on his/her birthday?)
Set Up a Contact Management System
Most attorneys have a large network of contacts, but very few harness and channel this information into something productive. In order to market your law practice efficiently, you must take the time to not only “collect” contacts but also properly organize all of your contact information in one place. This means clients, friends, acquaintances, relatives and even fellow attorneys. There are several contact management programs available to the general public. Microsoft Outlook is one such contact management system, but there are others which cater specifically to the legal profession. MS Outlook allows you to export your data to a CSV file. In addition, the two leading case management systems for solos and small firms, Amicus Attorney and Time Matters, allows for creation for contact management. There are also two new “cloud systems”, Rocket Matters and Clio, to consider. Credenza is another new product for case management that works through MS Outlook and has received excellent reviews.
For starters, you or your staff should follow up with each person on your contact list to ensure their information is accurate and current. Thereafter, you should periodically (i.e., once or twice a year) have your staff confirm the accuracy of your contact list. An added benefit of keeping in touch with members of your “contacts” list is that a simple telephone call to verify the accuracy of contact information may very well result in the inheritance of a case or a referral of a client.
Develop and Maintain an “Online” Presence
Despite warnings, the Internet is not yet dead; indeed, it is now an integral part of our daily lives, and in the future it will only become increasingly more so. It is a rare day that you do not send or receive an e-mail message, download a file or Google something. Over the last 10 years, Internet usage worldwide has virtually tripled.
At some point, most of us have purchased airline tickets, hotel reservations or other goods and services on the online. Others have used the Internet to find a car, a home or even search for a soul mate.
However, consumer trust in the Internet does not cease when it comes to shopping for legal services. Many use the Internet, if not to find an attorney then to research an attorney or a firm. Internet searches are becoming more precise and detailed, as today’s Internet users become increasingly sophisticated about how to fine-tune their Internet searches.
Many bar associations have established online “attorney directories” on their websites where attorneys can list themselves under various practice areas for a nominal fee. Yet other paid sites such as Findlaw and Lawyers.com offer similar services bundled with web design and hosting. Finally, there are free sites such as Plaxo and LinkedIn that serve the same function to some extent by allowing you to post a free profile and classify yourself under a particular occupation or area of expertise.
Websites and Social Media Sites
Once an attorney makes the decision to develop an online presence, he or she must then decide the form the online presence will take. There are several options, but for purposes of this article, I will address websites (the March column will discuss social media, as these are the most widely used methods by which individuals currently obtain information on the Internet).
Before Google and other search engines came along, if a client needed to consult an attorney, the client often turned to the yellow pages or a referral from a friend, relative or co-worker. The Internet has provided consumers with the ability to perform their own “due diligence”. Thus, public perception of your online presence becomes paramount, and attorneys cannot hope to remain competitive in today’s legal marketplace without an online presence.
It is critical to have a well-designed website that can be easily found, is easy to navigate and contains helpful information. The site should provide some basic information that consumers and potential clients want and need to know about the attorney’s office, such as types of cases the attorney handles, results on similar cases, fees charged, office hours, location and directions, etc. The absence of a website dramatically reduces your chances of being contacted by a potential client who was given your name. In other words, the importance of having a website to remain competitive in today’s legal economy cannot be understated.
The cost of setting up and maintaining a website can range from the very affordable to ridiculously expensive. There are several free services available as well as other companies that charge a modest fee to develop and host your site.
In order to determine where to go for a website, the best way to start is by looking at the sites of other solo practitioners and note who designed the sites. You can also post a question on some of the MSBA e-mail discussion lists. Another site, http://bestlawfirmsites.com, is also a good place to start. In addition, Law.com (http://tinyurl.com/4ztnsoz) and The Lawyerist Blog (http://lawyerist.com/5-reasons-your-law-firm-website-is-failing/) will help steer you away from bad websites.
Like many bar associations throughout the country, the MSBA endorses ESQSites123, an Internet marketing company which specializes in content management websites for solo and small firm attorneys. Contact them at (877) SITES-123 [877-748-3712] for a free 10-minute online demonstration, or visit www.esqsites123.com/msba. MSBA members receive a discount.
This article was originally written by Anthony Kalikas, a former solo practitioner from California and founder of ESQSites123. It was edited by Pat Yevics for this column.