Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

January 2008Volume 96Number 1Page 20

January 2008 Illinois Bar Journal Cover Image

Law Office Management

Law Firm Marketing 101

By
G. M. Filisko

You didn’t go to law school to be a salesperson, you say.

But you still have to sell yourself to prospective clients, especially if you’re a solo or small-firm lawyer. Here are fellow lawyers’ and marketing pros’ tips for building your book of business.


Have you heard the tale of the insurance agent who’s golfing with his regular foursome and learns that one of the golfers bought insurance from another agent? When the disappointed agent asks his golf partner why she didn’t come to him for her insurance needs, she says, “I didn’t know you sold that type of insurance.”

That insurance agent flunked a fundamental test of client development in any field: You have to let people know what you do and then ask for their business. “A lot of people don’t get business because they don’t follow through with potential clients – they don’t make the ‘ask,’” says Springfield attorney Roger Rutherford.

That all-too-true story highlights just one of the fundamental rules of client development for small and solo firms. To develop a thriving practice, you need to know – and follow – all the rules. Here’s a guide.

Earn tomorrow’s money today

“Typically, attorneys don’t have a background in business and don’t really understand what marketing is,” says St. Louis law firm management consultant Dr. John W. Olmstead, Jr. “The biggest enemy is time. Their entire focus is on immediate gratification and servicing clients, and anything that isn’t immediate revenue-generating work tends to be time they don’t put any effort into.”

If that description hits too close to home, you need to change your mindset. “If you’re doing billable work, that’s today’s revenue,” says Rutherford. “Marketing is tomorrow’s revenue.”

To help yourself make that shift in focus, take the time to write a business and marketing plan. “It’s hard to focus on client development if you don’t have a business plan and goals,” says Olm-stead. “Create a plan, even if it’s a twoto three-page outline that says, ‘Here’s where we are, what we want to do next year, the measurements we’ll use to see if we’re meeting those goals, and what we’ll do to reach those goals.’ Then break that down to your monthly and weekly plan.”

Your marketing plan should be wide-ranging and include everything from personal contacts to phone book advertising to letters to clients to your Web site. “Look at your market, what kind of work you do, and figure out the opportunities to get that kind of business,” says Champaign attorney John Phipps. “Then follow up on targets of opportunity. Look at Yellow Pages advertising; maybe do radio advertising; newspaper advertising works in some areas, but in others, it doesn’t. It depends on where you practice.” The key is to not rule out any opportunities before you’ve developed a plan and investigated each strategy thoroughly.

Of course, earning money usually costs money. So as you create your marketing plan, develop a budget. “Look at what you want to do to develop your client base and what each of those things will cost,” says Phipps, who has a rule of thumb for marketing expenses. “When you spend money on marketing, ask whether it’ll generate enough money to pay for the marketing itself, overhead, and you.”

Also, as you work to build business, always keep ethical considerations in mind. “The key to ethical marketing and advertising is to be truthful,” says Rutherford. “Avoid boasting, deception, and puffing like, ‘I can get you a settlement no other attorney can.’ ‘I’m the best attorney in this area,’” he says. “You must have regard for professional rules, and then you’ll be fine.”

Establish a system to make personal connections

The most effective client generation strategy has always been personal marketing – or meeting people face-to-face and making personal connections. It should be the starting point of your marketing plan. “Personal networking is still number one, particularly with institutional and business clients,” says Olm-stead. “But for many attorneys, this relationship-building thing isn’t as well oiled as it should be.”

Olmstead advocates creating a 10-10-10 plan. That involves making a list of your top 10 clients, your top 10 targeted (would-be) clients, and your top 10 referral or potential referral sources. Commit to meeting face to face with each person on each list quarterly.

“If that’s too much, make it 5-5-5,” he says. “Embed this into your practice plan so that for these people, you’re enhancing your relationships through things like lunch, dinner, a ball game, or the theater.”

Though making that many face-to-face contacts may sound daunting, it’s not, says Rutherford. “It’s as simple as having lunch with a potential referral source or friends you worked or exercised with,” he says. “People don’t think they have the time, but you have to set certain goals to provide the discipline to do these things.”

Don’t stop with a 10-10-10 plan, recommends Olmstead. “Then take the next 25 people in each of those three categories, and twice a year give them at least a phone call. Everybody else gets at least a quarterly paper or e-mail newsletter. The point is to have a contact plan for all of your clients, prospects, and referral sources. You’ve got face-to-face contacts with key relationships, phone contacts with people further down the list, and some other type of communication for the rest.”

If your reaction to Olmstead’s plan is that you’re too busy practicing law to manage all these personal contacts, you’re forgetting the benefit of technology. A good database can ease the burden.

“In many cases at smaller firms, a client development infrastructure doesn’t exist,” says Olmstead. “For example, the first thing you have to have is a database. Law firms might have a computer to create and send invoices, but most don’t have clients’ and prospects’ e-mail addresses in it. Or they don’t have them stored in a good, usable database that allows them to do mail merge and facilitate other communications. Having a good database is critical.”

A quality client database will allow you to identify and track referral sources and people who’ve inquired about your firm’s services. Olmstead says his own company’s system is a good example. Lawyers who’ve asked about his company’s services are classified as prospects in his database.

“If they become clients, they go into an accounting system,” he says. “If they don’t, we still track them. If we do a seminar at a state bar association, anybody who gives us a business card goes into our database.” When Olmstead sends out his company’s regular newsletter, the e-mail addresses captured in the database are uploaded, the newsletter is loaded, and the newsletter is sent – and Olmstead has met his goal of maintaining regular contact with those prospective clients.

Olmstead says another smart investment is a staff person who’s versatile enough to help you oversee your client development plan. “Usually in small firms, one thing on the list in creating a marketing infrastructure is a marketing or client development coordinator,” he says. “It could be a receptionist or secretary, but that person’s responsibility isn’t just to get newsletters out. That person is responsible for the firm’s image. For example, if you win a case, the client development coordinator is the one who bugs you, saying, ‘Shouldn’t we get a press release out?’”

Network with professionals

Don’t forget that personal networking is much more than meeting potential clients for a bite to eat. It’s networking with other lawyers and professionals outside of the law and being engaged in your community.

“If you’re going out on your own and starting fresh in a new area, it’s probably best to introduce yourself to other attorneys and tell them you’ll take the stuff they don’t want,” says Phipps. “I know attorneys who’ve done that and done very well. That gets business coming through the door. You may not make a lot of money in the beginning, but if you do good work, your clients will tell people.”

Establishing solid bonds with other attorneys is a technique that Peoria lawyer Rynell Benckendorf is focusing on.

The 1996 law school grad has the benefit of working at a family-run firm, which gives her a head start in name recognition in the community. But she’s also working hard to build her own client base by establishing a professional and approachable presence with other attorneys.

“When you’re standing at the courthouse [with colleagues], say, ‘Hi,’ and speak about things you aren’t going to argue about,” she says. “When you’re done arguing, say ‘Good job.’ Talk to other attorneys as most co-workers in other fields would talk to each other.”

Arlington Heights lawyer Stuart Wolf has had solid success by joining forces with other professionals and working with community organizations. “I’ve been active in the Chamber of Commerce, religious organizations, and the YMCA. You can do good for the community, but the community also gets to know who you are.

“Also, work with good bankers and local accountants,” he recommends. “For example, find two or three accountants whose work impresses you, and form a professional relationship.”

Rutherford has done just that. “When I do estate-planning seminars, I bring in another professional, like a CPA or an insurance agent, to speak at the same luncheon,” he says. “That way, my clients can also hear a person in a related field talk about the topic. It’s also a good way to reach out because you can get exposed to and connect with those professionals’ client base.”

Host seminars for your own client base, but also offer to do them for local community and business organizations, recommends Wolf. “Let the Chamber of Commerce people know that you’d be happy to do a noon-time seminar on a topic of interest,” he says. “I’ve done a couple on succession planning for small businesses, and I’ve developed a couple of clients from that.”

Another way to introduce yourself to your community is to run for political office, says Belvidere lawyer John Maville. “Early on in my career, I ran for and was elected state’s attorney,” he says. Though it was 40 years ago, Maville’s three four-year terms in political office helped him transition into operating his own firm. “That was a way to get my name known in the community,” he says. “You tend to meet people in that capacity also.”

Running for political office costs money, admits Maville. “At that time, it wasn’t as expensive as it is today,” he says. “Even so, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re trying to let people know you’re a lawyer, you may not win, but running for office gives you an opportunity to meet people. That journey is a terribly important part of client development.”

Regardless of the technique you use to meet people, the bottom line is that you must treat each personal encounter as a potential business relationship. If you’re cringing, thinking that means hyper-promoting yourself every time you meet someone, you’ve got the wrong idea. The best way to be successful in personal marketing is to be professional and sincere as you talk about your business.

“You have to develop a relationship and gain people’s confidence and then ask for business,” says Rutherford. “Then it’s fairly straightforward. Let people know you practice in a certain area, are available, and provide quality services in a timely manner and at a competitive price.”

“It’s basic, and it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true – knowing who you are as a person and behaving like a person is key,” says Benckendorf. “More than anything, just be a normal, social person. I see people who don’t practice decent human behavior, let alone professionalism. I’d never refer clients to them because they’d reflect poorly on me.”

Work the Web

Though personal marketing remains the king of client development, there’s much more you can include in your business generation plan. Today, many attorneys say they’re cutting back on newspaper and phone book advertising because they don’t consider them as effective as they were before the Internet revolutionized the business world. Instead, they’re focusing on Internet-based marketing.

A Web site is a must, say lawyers, but Olmstead says it should be part of a bigger firm identity program. “Before you do that Web site, create a brand that you consistently use on letterhead, brochures, press releases, business cards, and your Web site,” he says. “Think about how you’re going to be unique, what you’re trying to convey, and how your services will be different. That becomes your brand or image.”

Once you’ve created your brand, build your Web site in a way that highlights that brand. “Web sites are useless if they’re nothing more than a page and your bio,” says Olmstead. “You need a content-based Web site to showcase your expertise. It should have articles, case studies, recent verdicts – anything that can highlight your firm’s recent accomplishments.”

Rutherford created a Web site about three years ago and says it’s been “very

Lawyer marketing Web sites

effective” because he ties all of his other marketing efforts into the site. “I direct people to the Web site,” he says.“When I send written communication or speak, I tell people to refer to articles on my Web site.”

He spends about two hours each month updating the site and monitors its draw with a program that tracks how many hits he gets each month (it averages about 60-70, which he’s very pleased with), along with how long each person stays at the site. “I’m thinking of updating it,” he says, “because the problem is how to keep people coming back.”

Godfrey attorney Evan Schaeffer also has a Web site, but it’s his two Weblogs, or “blogs,” that keep people coming back. “I had a law firm Web site, and I was having trouble getting it to show up in Google search rankings,” explains Schaeffer. “I’d read that having a blog might make your Web site more visible to Google because blogs that are updated frequently often show up higher in Google rankings. That was initially why I wanted to try it, and it worked.”

The technique Schaeffer’s referring to is called search engine optimization. That’s the art of creating a Web site in a way that search engines like Google and Yahoo! can easily read it. The easier your site is to read, the more likely search engines will rank it highly when people search for terms included in your site.

For instance, if consumers search for “Carbondale personal injury lawyer,” search engines list the results based on several factors, including how often your Web page identifies those terms and how many times people visit your site. The more visitors you have, the higher your site will appear in the search engine rankings. That’s why building an information-packed Web site that draws repeat visitors helps raise your search engine rankings.

Schaeffer created his blogs – the Illinois Trial Practice Weblog (http://www.illinoistrialpractice.com) and Evan Schaeffer’s Legal Underground (http://www.legalunderground.com) – in 2004.

Today, both get about 800 hits a day.

“Usually we ask callers how they found out about us. Before 2004 we didn’t have any traffic from the Internet, because the law firm’s Web site was all but invisible and we didn’t have a blog,” he says. “That’s changed a lot. Now our Internet-based business is probably about 50 percent of our business.”

Because his blogs have been so successful, Schaeffer spends less money on marketing. “It’s cheaper to have a Weblog than it is to advertise in the newspaper,” he says.

In addition, he’s become better known among lawyers who might refer business to him, the media, and

in the publishing world. “Most of our business comes from other lawyers, and the blogs give me visibility among those lawyers. Also, when I wrote on things like the Class Action Fairness Act, reporters started calling me. I’d get my name in the newspaper, which confirms your credibility.”

The blog also attracted the attention of a publisher, and now Schaeffer is a published author of a book about depositions. “It’s nice to be a published author, and the money’s important, too,” he says.

Northbrook lawyer Alan Pearlman also launched a blog, http://www.chicago familylawblog.com/, more than five years ago, and he knows it’s brought business to his firm. “I have a case where the young lady is in Georgia. She retained me via the Web site, saying ‘I liked your Web site the best,’” he says. “I have about five clients like her at present, and those are five clients that without the Web presence, I wouldn’t have received.”

Enticing? Sure, but before you jump on the Internet and launch a blog, Olm-stead offers a warning. “I’m a little cautious of blogs because most lawyers won’t put the time into having a respectable blog,” he says. “They can get by being more static on a Web site, but with a blog, you have to put a lot more time and effort into it.”

Schaeffer agrees that blogs require a time commitment. “I used to spend an hour a day on them,” he says. “I’ve got pretty fast at it. The technological part is easy – it’s like writing an e-mail – and I write pretty quickly. I spend less than that now, probably on average about a half hour.”

If you think it would be worth it to devote that kind of time to a blog, Schaeffer offers a few tips. Target your blog specifically to the type of work you do. “If you use the words ‘mass torts’ in the text, somebody looking for that will find you,” he says. And don’t forget to connect with other bloggers. “In the beginning, it helps to communicate with other bloggers so they’ll cross-link with you,” he says. “That makes your blog more visible.”

Most critical is remembering that your blog is part of your image. “It’s important to present a quality product,” says Schaeffer. “Blogs have a negative connotation for some people, as something slapped together. You’re going to be judged by the quality of your writing and work product, and you have to be polished.”

Try, try again

What’s important about client development isn’t where you put your time and money. It’s having a well-thought-out plan so you’re not sitting at your desk hoping and wishing clients will continue to come through your door.

“I don’t think anybody has the right answer on marketing,” says Phipps. “It’s so individualized that you have to think about your marketing and do what you think is going to work. Then, continue those things that work, and discontinue those that don’t. And don’t worry about what didn’t work. Just keep trying things to get the best combination of marketing techniques that work for you.”


G.M. Filisko is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.


 

Don't take current clients for granted

 

As you figure out where new clients will come from, don’t forget to do the things that help you retain current clients. Here are suggestions for keeping your existing clients happy and singing your praises.

“Do good work and do it on time, and listen to your clients,” advises Champaign attorney John Phipps. “Many clients’ basic complaint is that their lawyer wouldn’t listen to them,” he says. “We all make that mistake. We sometimes think we know better what the client should do. We probably do, but it’s the client’s call.”

Another thing that drives clients to a new attorney is mishandling bills. “One of my medical clients told me he got billed for 20 minutes for asking his former attorney questions about a bill,” says Arlington Heights lawyer Stuart Wolf. “Lawyers are so myopic at times that they don’t know how to do a ‘no charge.’ That could be the biggest mistake on earth. I’ve had clients call and say, ‘Your bill was for a lot of money, and I have a number of questions. But I saw the number of no charges, and I appreciate that.’”

You must also communicate with clients. “Have frequent and prompt communication all the way through the bill,” suggests Belvidere lawyer John Maville. “If you’ve gone to court, let the client know what happened and the next court date. If I get a pleading, I forward it to the client right away. It’s important to explain what you’ve done so that clients have a better appreciation of what you’ve accomplished for them.”

“I believe in contact with clients on a personal basis,” says Wolf. “People like warm, fuzzy contact with their lawyers, so for my business clients, I call and say, ‘I’m going to be in the neighborhood. Can I say hello?’ If you hide yourself in your office, you’re making a huge mistake.”

How do you know if you’re communicating enough? “Get feedback from your clients, whether it’s informal or through a survey,” says Springfield attorney Roger Rutherford. “Ask whether your staff is professional, whether they’re pleased with your services, and whether you perform in a timely manner. Your staff, whether they know it or not, are marketing your firm 24/7.”

Finally, advises Phipps, cross-market yourself. If you represent a client in a divorce, remind that client that you also handle real estate closings and estate planning services. “When I close a client’s file, I send a nice letter, saying, ‘By the way, we do this, this, and this. We’d appreciate it if you have any of those problems that you call us. And if you have friends, we’d appreciate it if you’d tell them about us,’” he explains.

“I want to have my clients think of me as a resource,” says Rutherford. “I tell them that I should be their first call, even if they don’t think I practice in the area they need help in. If I don’t, I’ll find them the right resource.” – G.M. Filisko

 

Lawyer marketing Web sites


Here are a few law-firm marketing resources not mentioned elsewhere in this article.

 

Market online – for free

 

Web sites and blogs aren’t the only way to generate business on the Internet. Attorney Steven Choi of Oakland, Calif., recommends that you consider joining an online social network for lawyers and advertise on free sites like Craigslist.

What’s a social network for lawyers? Think MySpace or Facebook – which are all the rage with the Generation Y crowd as Internet-based vehicles to introduce themselves to people throughout the world – exclusively for attorneys.

Choi has a vested interest in recommending that lawyers join an online legal community because he launched one in August 2007 called Lawlink.com. There’s no cost to join, and you can do such things as create a profile, a “brochure” in which you list your accomplishments and others’ endorsements, and advertise your services and look for jobs in the classified section. Lawlink.com also includes forums that allow attorneys to discuss such topics as ethical issues, law firm marketing, and news and gossip.

“Most attorneys want to be known among other attorneys and in the public,” says Choi. “These social networking sites are specifically targeted to increase other peoples’ awareness of you. They’re places to get together with, share information with, and meet attorneys you wouldn’t otherwise meet.”

Peoria lawyer Rynell Benckendorf joined Lawlink.com, and she’s already connected with other members with a similar interest in animal law. “I was contacted by a New York attorney starting his own practice, and I found a woman practicing animal law,” she says. “I can also get a feel for other attorneys’ experiences and learn from their brochures.”

It’s no wonder Choi is a fan of Internet marketing. He advertises on Craigslist San Francisco, and he recommends that any attorney whose clients come primarily from the public do the same. “Craigslist is probably the easiest of all the marketing tools in the Internet,” he says. “We post advertisements in its legal services section. It’s free, very easy, and we get pretty good results.”

Each ad stays online for seven days, but you can automatically renew it, making the task of posting easier. Within the text of your ad, Choi recommends including key words related to your practice – such as murder, rape, and criminal defense for a criminal defense attorney – so that people searching for those services can easily find you.

But Choi doesn’t recommend text-only ads. “A bunch of words isn’t going to be attractive,” he says. “You can add images, links, and font changes, and for that, you need to learn how to do HTML. But the HTML knowledge you need is kindergarten level. If you’re an attorney and can’t figure it out, it’s sheer laziness.

“We regularly get new clients from Craigslist,” he says. “It’s a no-brainer if you’re marketing to the public.” – G.M. Filisko