How do you attract new clients and retain the ones you have in a tough economy? Law firm consultants and lawyers from different practice areas offer battle-tested marketing tips.
Attracting and retaining clients has always required strategy and hard work, but that's especially true since the retrenchment of the recession years in the late 2000s has given way to a "new normal" of client conservatism when it comes to outside legal work, attorneys and law firm consultants say. How to best market one's legal practice varies somewhat by practice area and geography, but general principles apply to all private practitioners.
"Everyone at every size firm is scrambling to hold on," says Karen Kaplowitz, president of the New Hope, Pa.-based business development consulting firm The New Ellis Group, who spent a quarter-century as a litigator. "There are a lot of lawyers who are finding that the demand for their services has contracted.…This has been the most challenging time in the legal market that I've ever seen, and I've been in it for over 40 years. It's a very hard time. I talk to lawyers every day who have very little work to do."
For all types of lawyers, being pro-active is essential, says Stephen Fairley, CEO of the Gilbert, Ariz.-based Rainmaker Institute, which currently consults with "a few hundred" law firms, probably 80 percent of which are 15 attorneys or fewer.
Fairley wryly refers to those who say they don't have the time for marketing as ascribing to the "ostrich theory," and he adds: "I tell clients, 'Either you make time to do marketing now, or you'll have plenty of time later - when you have no clients.'" (Learn more from Stephen Fairley at a July ISBA webinar and the 2013 Solo and Small Firm Conference - scroll to the bottom for more.)
Solos and small firm attorneys who are continuing to make the rain fall have become more strategic and disciplined than ever, Kaplowitz says. "Maybe it was a luxury at one point for people to have a business plan or be strategic about business development, but it isn't anymore," she says. "People have to be really thoughtful and work hard at these issues in a persistent way."
That means homing in on how to most efficiently and effectively get your name out, Kaplowitz says. "Try to identify…the people who know you the best, have seen you in operation, know the quality of your work, trust you and are in the position to give you work or refer work to you," she says. "Those can be former adversaries, those can be former clients; it can be whoever it is."
Rule #1: keep existing clients happy
As in any business, the cheapest and easiest way to maintain your client base is to hold onto as many existing clients as possible. But that might mean being a little extra flexible, such as changing the way you bill, if it's what the new normal requires, Kaplowitz says.
"This is a time when it is really important to avoid triggering loyal clients deciding it's time to look elsewhere," she says. "People have to be really careful. They can't blow it off and hope the client will be satisfied with minor attention to whatever the issue was."
Solos and small firms often have a greater ability to be flexible, whereas even a partner at a large firm can't necessarily decide to discount their billing rate, for example, Kaplowitz says. "Clients are really hungry for different approaches these days to paying for legal services," she says. "That can be a real advantage for a smaller firm. They don't tend to be as bureaucratic."
Annette Hurley, principal at the Evanston-based Hurley Law Office LLC, who launched her solo practice in wills, trusts and estates in mid-2012, says she's kept her marketing very targeted and has eschewed any mass marketing on the advice of others with similar practices. "It's not the best way to build a client base," she remembers people telling her. "You get a lot of irrelevant calls."
Hurley took the vast majority of clients from her previous firm for two reasons: her practice area lends itself to deeply personal relationships given that people are sharing not only asset information but other special concerns they might have, such as care for a disabled child; and secondly, she was able to lower her rate significantly from her previous firm (and meaningfully from an earlier firm in downtown Chicago) due to less overhead.
Also helpful in retaining clients, Hurley says, is that "I'm very focused on producing high-quality work" and "I try to be super-responsive with the service I provide," for example, repeatedly paying house calls to one client who has a disability. Her retention record from the prior firm "is not because I'm oh-so-smart," she says.
On the business-to-business side, Geneva-based insurance defense firm Adams Swatek LLC has kept many longtime clients during its decade of existence for similar reasons, says Martha Swatek, principal of the five-attorney firm. In generating new business, Swatek says she and her partners work through their existing networks, but they've had to dig deeper in recent years than previously.
"With the economy changing, you just have to continue to look even farther and wider," she says. "Every single day, you have to think about who you haven't reached out to, who haven't you talked to in years because they left the [client] company."
For example, Swatek just re-contacted a former client in March who had moved to a brand new insurance carrier, and "he was able to help us get a new file," she says. "It's trying very hard to remember your connections. It's someone you know and someone you trust, but you just haven't had a chance or the time to say 'hi' to them. That's a huge part of marketing, to be honest."
The power of word of mouth
New clients often come through referrals from old ones, says Kim MacCloskey, principal with MacCloskey, Kesler & Assoc., a four-attorney personal injury plaintiff's firm in Rockford. "Word of mouth is really the gold standard," he says. "You seem to get the best cases with word of mouth, but it takes time to build up. You just keep trying hard to provide a good product and do the best job you can."
Sometimes referrals come from other professionals in related fields like financial services, says Elizabeth Garlovsky of the two-person estate planning and probate firm Froum & Garlovsky LLC, based in Chicago. "It's all about maintaining those relationships, but for the purposes of helping the client and the client relationship, and perhaps also being able to meet these individuals' other clients," she says. "It's just a lot of lunch, and coffee and dinner and things like that."
Word of mouth also can extend to situations where you might not expect to be marketing, Garlovsky adds. "You could meet a client anywhere," she says. "When you have your own business, you always have to look at yourself as representation of your firm. When you're an employee of a larger organization - or even sometimes partners at a large firm, they have that mentality of, 'It's the weekend, and I'm off now.'…You're never off when it's your own business."
Hurley echoes both of the points that Garlovsky makes. "I try to meet clients' advisers when I can," she says, adding that she gives new clients a questionnaire to find out whom they work with in related fields. "They have a similar client base but serve a different need." And as for being "always on," Hurley says, "I have to tell people what I do - not in a sales-pitchy way - but if I'm standing on the sidelines of a soccer game or at a school event, I tell people what I do now. I tell them all the time, so they think of me as a resource: 'Oh, I know someone who does that.' "
Other attorneys in different practices can also pass along work. Jenny Jeltes, who handles family, guardianship and probate work through her solo practice, started a networking group of solos and small firms called Simply Solo (www.simplysologroup.com). "I feel as though there is not a solid, cohesive community of solo lawyers," she says. "I don't have the benefit of going next door and bouncing off an idea. It's not only for referrals but also support."
Audrey Cosgrove, a Chicago-based solo practitioner who handles administrative law, criminal cases, and real estate, regrets that she didn't do more outreach earlier in her career - but her young family and other priorities took precedence. "Now I do it, and I can see how important it is," she says. Earlier, "I just worked on my cases and didn't work on developing the practice.…I didn't want to go out in the evening and network."
Old and new media
While personal networking is certainly central to client development, attorneys to differing degrees and in divergent ways turn to advertising and marketing in the media. That once meant the Yellow Pages, but increasingly it means online.
Fairley of the Rainmaker Institute said he seldom advises attorney clients to use the Yellow Pages anymore, unless perhaps if they're in a rural area. "We've advised a majority of our clients to get out of the Yellow Pages," he says. "By and large, that's not a very effective use of your marketing spend for a suburban or urban attorney."
Jeltes says she doesn't do much "traditional advertising" and notes that "the Yellow Pages and things like that can be cost-prohibitive." Sarah Toney, a solo criminal defense attorney in Chicago, remembers that when she first joined her previous firm in the early 2000's, the Yellow Pages were a frequent source of new clients. But when she started her firm two years ago, "That was not even a consideration," she says.
MacCloskey says his firm, like others in the relatively well-heeled personal injury space, does advertise on television in the Rockford area. They update their messaging about once a year to keep it from getting stale, he says, "but the general thrust has been the same." Like Jeltes and Toney, he doesn't advertise in the Yellow Pages.
But websites and, increasingly, social media are catching on as ways for solos and small firms to connect with new clients and reconnect with older ones. Fairley estimates that 95 percent of firms have websites, even if "not all get clients or leads off of them."
And when the Rainmaker Institute worked with an independent research group to conduct a phone survey of 1,000 adults, of the 25 percent who said they had looked for an attorney in the past 12 months, 56 percent said they had used social media as part of their search process.
"That was shocking to me," Fairley says. "That's huge. A few years ago, that [percentage] would have been single-digits. It's growing rapidly." But he estimates that less than 10 percent of law firms "have any meaningful presence on social media."
For those in business-to-consumer practice areas like personal injury, family law, bankruptcy, or criminal defense, Fairley recommends a different approach to social media than business-to-business practice areas like commercial litigation, intellectual property, or transactions.
"If you're business-to-consumer, and if you're not on Facebook, you're foolish," he says. "However if you're business-to-business, we'd recommend that you take a serious look at a much bigger presence on LinkedIn, not only for clients but also referrals."
Garlovsky says her firm constantly puts updating its website high on the "to-do" list, and has retained an outside agency that works with small law firms for that purpose. They've considered social media but "as attorneys, it's hard to keep up on what you can and can't do, and what you can and can't say," she says. "We certainly don't want to risk offending anybody.…Lawyers are worried about getting embarrassed on Facebook."
Cosgrove has used both a website and Facebook page, and she says that clients have come through them, although they tend to have more questions upfront than those who come via word-of-mouth. "The speed of things has changed, the immediacy, and there's more anonymity, too," she says. "The clients are a little more suspicious. They really vet you when they talk to you for the first time." (For more about using social media to market your practice, see last month's IBJ cover story.)
Jeltes has both a business page for her firm and a separate page for Simply Solo on Facebook, and she also uses LinkedIn. She tries to post something on her own Facebook page about every other day, whether it's thoughts of her own or a link to an interesting article, and she separately sends out an e-newsletter every couple of months.
"It's a way to stay on everyone's radar," she says. "I try to do it at just the right frequency where it's not annoying.…The key is to give information, wanting to help people and not expecting to get anything out of it. If it comes off too 'sales-y,' people are going to get that right away. They know what is pure advertising and what is genuine information. You have to walk a fine line. If I'm providing information, it will result in business, you just don't know exactly when or how."
Toney has turned to a multi-pronged online strategy, with a website that she made sure to "optimize" so that it turns up high on search engines, claimed her profile through the attorney review website Avvo.com, and has done "a ton" of social networking through Facebook and Twitter, posting news about cases she's won, awards won, and "any time an interesting new relevant law comes out."
Avvo has been helpful, Toney adds, because, while consumers don't know about the site, it tends to pop up high in Google searches. And because she's received positive reviews from other attorneys and former clients, "[Newly referred clients] don't even want to meet me before we go to court," she says.
Getting out and speaking up
Social media might produce large pools of potential clients in one place online, but Kaplowitz of The New Ellis Group notes that such gathering places exist in the physical world, if only temporarily, in the form of conventions and other industry meetings. Yet attorneys don't necessarily think of them: Kaplowitz attended a manufacturing convention with 800 or 900 attendees last year, yet there were only a handful of lawyers, she says.
"I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, what a candy store this is of potential business, and where are the lawyers?'" she says. "Be thoughtful about, where else are you going to meet people who need what you do? If you've done a lot of work in an industry, talk to clients about whether there is a trade association to which you can speak or belong."
Hurley has spoken to such groups from time to time, like the Illinois Manufacturing Association, and she can't recall any clients specifically telling her that they learned about her work from seeing her speak. But being able to list such speeches among her credentials could very well be prompting people to retain her, Hurley figures. "It's something that shows credibility," she says. (For more on using speaking opportunities, see What Do You Know? Give a Talk About It by Karen Erger in the February 2013 IBJ.)
Discovering, not selling
Kaplowitz says the ability to offer such speaking opportunities at bar association gatherings, for example, can be a way to reciprocate to other, more senior attorneys who have provided referrals in the past and might not need the same help in return.
"It's critical to be analytical about where have your referrals come from, and to ask the question, what have I done lately for those who have referred the most work to me?" she says. "It isn't always tit for tat. Some prominent lawyer may think well of someone else and not have that expectation. But maybe the prominent lawyer would appreciate the opportunity to speak on a program or be invited to some gathering. The idea is to be thoughtful about, how do you take care of people who are taking care of you?"
That ties back into the broader notion of honing one's marketing skills, Kaplowitz says.
"Professional services marketing is not about selling," she says. "It's about discovering, in a consistent way, what clients need that the professionals can help with. The people who are the most successful are the people who are best at ferreting out what needs clients and prospective clients have that they can satisfy and resolve."
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
Get more business development tips from lawyer marketing expert Stephen Fairley on the web next month and at the 2013 ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference in Itasca in October.
On the web at noon, July 17. In Business Building Strategies for Lawyers: Using Technology, Finding Clients, Getting Referrals, Fairley explains why you can't afford to dismiss social media any longer (Google is forcing you to use it), three ways to triple your website traffic in the next 90 days, how to use online tools to generate more offline referrals, and much more. To register and for more information, visit www.isba.org/cle/upcoming.
At ISBA's 2013 S&SF. In his Friday, October 4 Solo and Small Firm plenary session, 5 Proven Ways to Renew, Restore, and Revive Your Law Practice…Starting Monday, Fairley will share practice development tips and tactics he learned from working with over 9,000 attorneys across the nation. Watch for conference details and register at http://www.isba.org/soloconference.