Marketing for the Small Law Firm
and Solo Practitioner
As a solo practitioner or the member of a small firm, you must wear many hats. Besides being an attorney, you must be the accounting department, the personnel department, the accounts payable and accounts receivable department, and handle a host of other issues all at once. One area that is critical to your success, and an area with which attorneys often feel uncomfortable, is marketing.
Marketing takes on all the more importance to the solo, because your revenues are almost completely dependent on your own ability to market your practice. There are no other rainmakers on which you can rely to bring work for you to do. If there is going to be billable work on your desk, you are the one that has to go out and get it.
The Importance of Marketing
As important as it is, most solos and small firm practitioners are at a loss when it comes to marketing. They are either intimidated by the whole idea, or feel as if they shouldn’t have to resort to begging for business. They make a few phone calls to their friends, put an ad in the yellow pages and hope to stay busy. This approach leads to a frustrating practice full of small matters, many undesirable clients and difficulty getting paid. It causes practice drift, forcing a solo to become a generalist to have enough clients to be able pay the bills.
In a lot of small firms, there will be one natural rainmaker and a number of attorneys who are content to grind out the work that is provided by this person. There are a number of reasons that this is not prudent for the grinders. First and foremost, there is no security in being a grinder. Grinders are easily replaced. Originators are not. Being a rainmaker gives you options in your practice. Within a firm, originations are power. The more business you are bringing in, the more your opinion matters in decisions about the firm. If you have a large book of business, you have the option of staying with one firm, moving to another firm or starting your own firm. Without originations, you are expendable and your destiny is at the mercy of others.
Beyond the security consideration, there are many other reasons that good marketing leads to a better practice. One of the most important is that when you are a good marketer, the quality of your practice improves. When there is less business coming in, attorneys are forced to take matters they’d prefer not to have, working for clients they often consider less than desirable. The greater the flow of matters, the more selective you can be about matters and clients. If you have more than enough work to do, you can choose to fire difficult clients, who are either uncooperative or delinquent on their payments. You can narrow your practice, which will make you more knowledgeable and effective in your area of law.
Another important result of good marketing is that as the demand for your services increases, your hourly rate can also increase without fear that you will lose revenues. So, not only will you be working on matters you enjoy with clients you like that pay you on time, but you will be making more money doing it.
In contrast, if you depend on someone else to do the marketing, you will have no control over the types of matters, the quality of clients or the amount of income you make. All these things will be decided by someone else or compelled by desperation.
If you are a solo and you neglect marketing, your practice will tend to drift away from the matters you would prefer handling and you will be forced to become increasingly general in your practice. If one’s entire objective is to keep the lights on, one has difficulty being selective in the matters taken. Thus, rather than the attorney defining his or her practice focus, it is instead decided by luck and depends completely on who walks in the door. The result is usually bad matters, undesirable clients and low income.
The Importance of Strategic Planning
Imagine you were lost in a strange city, driving in your rental car with a destination but no idea how to get there. Further suppose that you have a map in the glove compartment and no GPS. Would your plan be to just drive around and hope you came upon the destination? What would be your chance of succeeding with that approach?
While this seems silly, in many cases this is how lawyers run their practices. They concentrate on being good drivers, but don’t have a specific destination and if they do, they really don’t make any plan as to how they are going to get there.
What most people would do in the situation above would be to pull over, take the map out of the glove box and make a plan. Step one would be to look around and find some means of identifying where you are and finding that spot on the map. The next step would be to find the place on the map that corresponds to your destination. Finally, you would look for the best way to get there from where you are.
All strategic planning, no matter how complex, comes down to answering those three basic questions:
Where am I?
Where do I want to go?
How do I get there?
Creating A Strategic Marketing Plan
If you are going to be successful at marketing you must have a plan. A good marketing plan has the following elements:
Defining your practice (Where am I?)
Defining your target clients and matters (Where do I want to go?)
Outlining tactics to reach your target clients (How do I get there?)
Defining Your Practice
Many lawyers run their practices as if they are taxi drivers. They concentrate on being skilled drivers, but the destination is always decided by the passenger. This does not generally lead them to places they would prefer to go.
Your practice should not be defined by who happens to walk in the door. You should think of your practice more like a bus line. The bus is going on a certain route to a certain destination. Only the passengers that want to go in that direction should be on the bus.
You should be the one to decide the type of matters on which you would prefer to work. This does not necessarily have to be the area in which you currently have the most experience. Most lawyers fall into their experience by accident. Either they were given work in a certain area when they were associates, or their practices drifted into an area where old clients kept referring new clients with matters similar to theirs. This often traps lawyers into doing work they don’t enjoy, because they feel it is the only kind of work they know how to do. Don’t fall into this trap!
If the work that interests you falls outside your current skill set, then spend time educating yourself. Take CLE classes, read legal publications and associate with lawyers in your desired area by joining the appropriate bar sections. I have helped numerous lawyers transition their practices into their preferred area starting with little or no experience in that area. The full transition may take three years, but by that time you will be working on matters you enjoy and probably earning more than you are now.
Whether you are a solo, a member of a small firm or a large firm, it is very important that you have an area of specialty. An attorney with a focused practice will be much more successful at marketing than a generalist. The first reason for this is because clients prefer specialists over generalists. They are also willing to pay higher rates for a specialist.
When a client has a legal problem, it is not a general problem; it is a specific problem. To the client, it requires a specific solution and he/she would prefer that it be solved by a person that has a high level of competency solving that type of problem. You will be more desirable to the client as his/her prospective attorney if he/she feels you are an expert in that area of practice.
The second reason it is better to have a focused practice area rather than being a generalist is because you will receive more referrals from other lawyers. Other lawyers look at a generalist with dubious expectations of receiving any business in return. They realize that as a generalist, any matter you receive, you will probably keep yourself. However, if you have a very narrow focus, they will be more interested in establishing a business relationship because they know that you will be referring out matters that are not within your area of concentration. The same is true of small firms. A boutique will have a much easier time garnering referrals from other lawyers than a firm with a more general practice.
The final reason for specializing has to do with the quality of work you do on behalf of your clients. Being a generalist means having a broad knowledge of many areas, but not necessarily a deep understanding. This means that when you handle a matter, there is more likelihood that you will miss something, or not be current on the latest legal strategies. Even if you are meticulous, it means that you will spend a lot of time educating yourself so that you are competent to handle the matter. If you bill the client for educating yourself, you are doing him a disservice. If you do not, you are doing yourself a disservice, racking up hours of non billable time and lowering your productivity. Having a focused area allows you to give clients the best possible legal services without having to reinvent the wheel with each new matter.
Defining Your Target Client
Once you have decided on a practice area, you must decide what type of client you want. Do you want businesses or individuals? If it is a business, what size and type of business do you seek? Do you prefer retail, manufacturing, or service businesses?
If you will be working with individuals, what is your target demographic? Will they be educated, upscale clients with high net worth (good for a high end divorce practice or estate planning practice) or will they be working class (better for plaintiffs’ personal injury or workers’ compensation)?
Defining your target client is very important because to develop strategies to reach them, you must know who they are. If you are seeking working class individuals, you will need to take a very different approach than if you are seeking closely held corporations with sales of $5 million or more per year.
Marketing Tactics for the Solos and Small Firms
Once you have decided on your practice focus and your target client, you must then set about the task of attracting them to your business. The first inclination that most solos and small firms have is to run right out and get a yellow page ad.
Take a look at your local yellow pages under “Attorneys”. The yellow pages have become so saturated with lawyer ads that it keeps requiring larger and larger ads to get noticed. This means that the cost per inquiry continues to climb. In addition, the leads are very raw, requiring a good deal of time to screen, and leaving you with a low client/inquiry ratio. This screening will either cost you in office efficiency if it is done by staff, or in personal productivity if you do it yourself, since screening such calls is generally non billable.
My rule of thumb is that you must make at least $3 in attributable revenues for every $1 in cost for your yellow page ad to break even. The first dollar goes to pay for the ad. The second dollar goes to pay for overhead necessary to work the clients’ matters. The third dollar is necessary to compensate you for all the lost productivity that comes from screening the calls. It has been the experience of most of my clients that they come nowhere near a 3:1 ratio. Even the ones that do manage to exceed 3:1 wish they didn’t have the hassle of screening all the calls, and often complain about the quality of their clients.
By far, the most productive method of procuring clients for attorneys is through networking with other professionals. The benefits of networking are numerous. The quality of client is generally much higher. Clients come pre-screened by the referring professional and produce a much better client/inquiry ratio. The client will also be much more likely to bring a matter that is in your desired area of law.
Most lawyers have a fundamental understanding of the importance of networking. However, they are not very knowledgeable about what to do and why. For the most part, they try to meet as many people as possible and hope some of them will send business. While this will produce some results, it is not very effective. I’ve had numerous lawyers say they have done networking and it really doesn’t work. Based on the things they call networking they are right.
To be effective in networking it is helpful to understand networking and what the objectives of effective networking are. Let’s start with a definition of networking:
Networking is making use of the relationships people have with one another to increase your exposure to information and opportunity.
The critical thing to understand about networking is that you need to be focused on what kind of relationships your contacts are likely to have. If you are making contacts with people who mostly know others who live in trailer parks, what type of client are you likely to be referred? You will be making use of their relationships alright, and it will increase your exposure to opportunity among a specific demographic. However, is this demographic your target client?
One of the rules of networking is that if you network randomly, you will get random results. People are fairly predictable as to the types of people they will have in their networks. If you hope to reach a certain target client, you must be networking with contacts likely to have these people in their networks. This is a technique I call Leveraged Networking.
Leveraged Networking has three objectives:
Expand the network among high probability contacts
Create lasting relationships with the most promising of these contacts
Gather information that can help your networking and your practice
The first objective requires that you identify your target contacts. These will be contacts that are likely to have your target client in their network. For instance, if you are a family lawyer, psychologists that do marriage counseling would be leveraged contacts. If you are a workers’ compensation lawyer, personal injury lawyers would be good leveraged contacts. If you are an estate planner, accountants and financial planners would be good contacts.
After you have met a person who is in one of your target contact categories, you should begin pursuing a business relationship. Start by inviting the person to lunch to get acquainted. The contact will be motivated to go because he or she is hoping you might send business as well. This is an invitation to begin a relationship. Too often, lawyers have one lunch and never talk to the contact again. That is not a relationship; that is an encounter. A relationship requires continued periodic contact over time and if you hope to get referrals, the contact needs to feel there is a continuing relationship. This means follow-up calls, follow-up lunches or dinners, special events like sports, theater, etc., and even inviting them over for a barbeque. The more of these types of events you do together, the more the contact begins to think of you as a friend, and friends get first consideration if there is a referral to be made.
The final objective of networking is to gather information that is helpful to your practice. People are vast repositories of helpful information and most people are more than happy to share much of it with you. This information may include the names of useful leveraged contacts, or a good organization to join, or perhaps a tip that can help you be a more effective lawyer. Make the most of every meeting. Be a curious networker. You may be sitting across from a person who will never send you a referral, but can give you information that can help you win that big case you are working on. Not all the opportunities that networking presents are referral opportunities.
Clients and contacts alike are impressed by leaders. If you want to make yourself more attractive to referrals, become a leader. Become active in professional organizations or industry organizations if you have targeted a specific industry (like construction or technology). Take a leadership role by joining committees and working hard. Most people that join organizations are inactive members. Even the active members tend not to volunteer. If you volunteer to do work for the organization, you will rise to a leadership position very quickly.
To build prominence in your practice area, you should lecture frequently, at least twice per year. Give CLE lectures, or lectures to business or church groups that might include prospective clients. Also, seek to be published in law journals and newsletters, as well as client-oriented vehicles like industry publications.
Prominence building is a very important method of indirect marketing. The activity itself will not be likely to bring you immediate referrals, but the cumulative effect of the activities will be to make your contacts look at you more as a leader, improving the likelihood that they will refer. The more prominent you are, the more credibility you have as a highly competent lawyer.
Prepare a practice profile that includes all your leadership activities, publications and lectures you have presented. Send this to all new contacts and send an updated version to your existing contacts periodically. Post this profile on your website as well. As this profile grows to three or four pages, your contacts and their prospective referrals will become more impressed with your leadership. This will result in greater confidence by your contacts and a greater desire to have you as an attorney on the part of prospective clients.
Marketing is such an integral part of a successful practice that you must have an organized and cohesive plan to assure your effectiveness. An attorney with a focused practice, a prominent reputation and a large network of targeted contacts will be a magnet for business. If you take a systematic approach to developing and executing your marketing plan, you will be rewarded with more interesting work, better clients and greater profits.
Copyright © Art Italo, 2015, All rights reserved.
Art Italo is a consultant working exclusively with attorneys in the areas of legal marketing, strategic planning, law practice management and success coaching since 1992.
He has developed and refined the concept of Leveraged Networking after over 15,000 hours of individual consultations with attorneys. He has personally consulted with over 500 attorneys in Atlanta and across the U.S. with practices ranging from solo practitioners to partners with major firms. Art has more than 35 years of marketing and management experience and holds an A.B. from Brown University and an M.B.A. from Pace University.
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