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Marketing Magic for Lawyers

By Jim Calloway

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part article on marketing for lawyers and law firms.

It is always interesting to discuss marketing with groups of lawyers. Some lawyers tend to get a bit queasy even discussing legal marketing. But, even in good business times, there are very few lawyers who are not interested in getting some more good business or concerned about maintaining their client base. It is also interesting for me personally to make marketing presentations because state bar associations were the entities who traditionally fought against advertising.

Some of you may have previously read parts of the following in CLE materials, or heard this presentation at OBA Solo and Small Firm Conference or OBA Annual Meeting. Read it again anyway. We learn through repetition.

Many of us would definitely agree to turn the clock back to the good old days when lawyer advertising was prohibited before Bates v. State Bar of Arizona1 in 1977. This is particularly true for the attorneys in solo or small firm practice where, in addition to the numerous hats they already wear, they also serve as the "Director of Marketing." Lawyer advertising still just doesn’t seem that professional to many, even those who believe that they are forced to do it. Why is in-person solicitation of clients prohibited and yet direct mail, TV commercials and other intrusive advertising methods allowed?

Certainly we all have to realize that lawyer marketing is here to stay, whether we like it or not. It is important to the success of any law firm to have a focused, thought-out and business-like approach to marketing.

A recent edition of the Oklahoma City Yellow Pages has over 60 pages of lawyer advertisements and listings with no less than 20 pages of full page or double full page ads. A lawyer with only a quarter-page size advertisement is relegated to the final one-third of this mass of advertising. Clearly a lawyer setting up a new practice should not assume that placing a small advertisement near the rear of this collection will generate enough clientele to start and maintain a business. It will certainly generate an obligation of several hundred dollars per month to the Yellow Pages publisher, however.

In the accounting section of the same Yellow Pages there are no display ads and less than a dozen or so in-line box listings.

Why don’t accountants advertise? Don’t they believe in marketing? Don’t they want new clients? One possible answer is that those individuals who seek to retain the services of an accountant make their selection by methods other than picking out the flashiest Yellow Pages advertisement. Whatever the reason, the economic result is that Oklahoma City attorneys spend millions of dollars, paying for Yellow Pages advertising while accountants spend very little on that. So, the next time you go to lunch with your accountant feel free to let him or her pick up the check.

We did learn from the MDP debate that accounting firms are now spending huge amounts in marketing. They just are not spending it in the Yellow Pages.

Many lawyers tend to disdain marketing because they equate it with advertising. The most important thing in making good market decisions in my opinion is to distinguish between lawyer advertising and lawyer marketing.

Marketing is the process where a business attempts to inform potential customers of its products and services and motivate them to purchase the same. Advertising can be a component of marketing, even sometimes a very important component. But lawyers need to understand that, for any kind of business, advertising is at most a component of an overall marketing plan and for many types of law practice settings it is the most expensive and least effective method of marketing. Think of a very heavily advertised product like motion pictures where literally millions of dollars are spend on marketing. Do they just rely on TV and newspaper advertising? Not at all. They attempt to garner as much free media as possible by sending the movie’s stars to appear on local and national TV talk shows. They arrange for reviewers to screen the movies in advance so the reviews can be published before the movie opens. They have selected sneak previews to stimulate discussion of the movie. They have web pages, action figures, T shirts, and tie-ins with fast food vendors. They utilize every possible communications outlet.

Marketing campaigns may waste a lot of money. A political consultant once said, "We may waste 80% of the money we spend. We just don’t know which 20% is the effective part."

My main point can be summed up in four words.

"Marketing is not advertising."

The truth is that long before the Bates decision was announced in 1977, lawyers engaged in marketing activities. Certainly advertising was prohibited (and the members of the bars did not ship millions of their hard earned dollars to advertising companies) but lawyers worked hard on developing clientele and developing a good practice. Young lawyers just opening a practice attended family reunions, neighborhood gatherings and civic association meetings with gusto, passing out business cards at the drop of a hat. Established lawyers from silk stocking firms entertained wealthy businessmen at country clubs and business lunches on a very frequent basis. Criminal defense attorneys gladly crossed the street to warmly visit with bail bondsmen, law enforcement personnel and, in particular, the members of the local bar who did not practice criminal defense law.

Even though lawyers, in the "old days," professed not to go out and seek clients, everyone understood that getting new business in was an important consideration for all law firms and an outstanding rainmaker in any law firm never had to be concerned about whether he or she was on the partnership track.

The term "rainmaker" is itself suggestive of how things really work in the "real world." Some lawyers sit around waiting for clients to appear, in effect waiting for the rain to happen. Others, a dynamic few, have perfected the art of acquiring clients, the talent of "making it rain."

Professional and appropriate marketing has always existed among many members of the legal profession. Advertising was what was legalized over twenty years ago. One can make a convincing case that lawyer advertising has been a huge boon for the advertising industry in general and some lawyers in particular while contributing to a overall negative public perception of the legal community.

In the book "Marketing Without Advertising" by Michael Phillips and Sally Raspberry (Nolo Press, 1997) the authors ruthlessly attack the idea that advertising generally helps small businesses. They note that perhaps one of the most recognizable advertising campaigns in the history of advertising was the famous "dancing raisins" campaign in the mid-1980's. Most all of us remember them. The images of the dancing raisins and the song "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" generated nearly 200 million dollars in sales from dancing raisins dolls, toys and, even a Saturday children’s television program.

The dancing raisins actually worked briefly in terms of increasing raisin sales. Although Phillips and Raspberry contend even that increase was due to breakfast cereal producers increasing their content of raisins to cash in on the perceived popularity of raisins (Remember "two scoops?"). In any event, when the promotion was canceled after four years, raisin sales were lower than they had been when the promotion started. Whatever your view, you must admit this is interesting material to consider given the fact that most everyone reading this probably still remembers the campaign.

So when you prepare to market, you should place advertising in its proper context and develop a marketing plan and a marketing budget before you meet with the advertising salesperson.

Another thing to bear in mind is the economics of advertising. Suppose you run a great advertising campaign that brings in $25,000 in new business-- billed and collected. You have that many brand new clients who pay you that much money and assure that they are responding to your advertising campaign. Suppose you paid $15,000 for the advertisements. So, the advertising campaign made you $10,000, right? Absolutely wrong! What the advertising campaign did was to allow to make $10,000 by doing $25,000 worth of work. If you are an hourly biller only at say, $150 per hour, you spent one hundred hours working for the advertising medium before you made a penny. But the analysis doesn’t stop there.

We all have overhead to pay. We all have unreimbursed costs associated with our cases. You don’t charge a client for a file folder for opening a file, do you? Assume, for example, that your overhead averages 25% of your gross. (Many lawyers would envy that rate.) Your gross was $25,000 even though you only kept $10,000. So your overhead associated with this $25,000 worth of work was $6250 leaving your "true" net at $3750. Who in their right mind would want to do $25,000 worth of work to only keep $6250 (before taxes, of course)?

Some types of practices involve primarily those people who have never needed a lawyer before and who might be hesitant to ask friends or family members for a referral. Clearly, DUI and bankruptcy cases can be developed through Yellow Pages advertising. Obviously, from a brief look at the Yellow Pages, there appears to be a favorable advertising market for bankruptcy, personal injury and worker’s comp cases.

But where do your best clients usually come from – those who accept instructions, trust your judgment, pay their bills and, hopefully later, refer more business in your direction?

We all know the answer to that – they are typically referrals from other satisfied clients. They are usually your very best clients. They come into your office, smile and say, "You represented my dad a long time ago and my Uncle Harry and they said you did a good job for them. Now I’ve got a problem I want to talk with you about if you have a moment." Clients referred to you by people that they trust are predisposed to trust you.

On the other hand, anecdotal evidence suggests to many of us that many of our problem clients were developed through advertising. They have no connection to you. They often treat you as a part of a legal system that they feel treats them unfairly. They often have no idea of the price of legal services, except for some ridiculously low price advertising for routine matters. There are exceptions. I once had a client who looked up our office in the phone book and flatly told me she picked me because my office was on her drive home from work. She was very satisfied and over the next several years referred many of her family members to our office – including some who had to drive over twenty miles to get there. But overall, clients developed through advertising are not necessarily your best clients.

So, if you accept the premise that referrals from satisfied clients and others that potential clients know and trust produce the best clients and advertising produces...... well, let’s just say..... more problem clients, and then you combine that with the fact that advertising costs you money, toward which clients should you be focusing your marketing efforts?

The Golden Rule of Effective Marketing

Do everything possible to produce satisfied former clients for they will serve as ambassadors and marketers for you for years in the future.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, your grandfather’s lawyer had this part figured out exactly right. A lawyer’s business lives and dies on his or her reputation.

This is perhaps even more true for those lawyers practicing in smaller communities.

If you are a lawyer who does a lot of family law practice in a county seat community, would you rather (A) have the world’s best interactive family law website with all of the statutes online and eighteen pages of Frequently Asked Questions on Family Law or (B) have one of the town’s most talkative beauticians think that you are the greatest family lawyer God ever created?

Disgruntled clients will, of course, have the opposite effect.

So your first focus of effective marketing is the same as your first rule of avoiding the bar disciplinary process, which is also the first rule of having a financially rewarding practice, which is also the first rule of reducing your stress at work. Do a good job and communicate with your clients that you are doing a good job. (Isn’t it nice when everything fits together like that?)

Today, we must focus on creating satisfied clients in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Legal ethics and obligations to protect the client's best interests may prevent us from adopting the old adage — "The Customer is Always Right." But we can strive toward the goal of "The Client is Always Satisfied." This does not mean necessarily satisfied with the outcome of a particular case. It does mean that the client's perception of the lawyer's advice, efforts and reliability should be satisfactory. For it is the client's perception that will result in either future referrals or bar complaints. Many lawyers never recognize that the skill of a lawyer or even an outstanding result may not weigh as heavily in a client's positive or negative perception as other matters. The tone of the receptionist's voice, the amount of time left on hold, the promptness of returned phone calls, the appearance of an attorney's office, or whether copies of pleadings and correspondence being mailed to the client; all of these factors may contribute more to your client's attitude than the matters we are trained to consider important.

Clients tend to base their perceptions of their lawyers on many things that were simply not covered in law school. Whether your brief was letter perfect while the opposing counsel had five misspellings and three dangling participles may blow right by the client. But if the receptionist is snooty or you always sound like you are trying to get rid of them when you are talking with them on the phone – that they will remember!

Return phone calls from the client promptly. It is the number one source of client complaints. It is the number one source of client frustration. It just takes commitment and discipline.

In November 1999, I published an article in the Oklahoma Bar Journal entitled: "Everything I Need To Know About Practicing Law I Learned From My Mom. " Some of that material applies here. Mom has some good rules to live by. One of them relates to successful client marketing whether it is in the short term or for long term.

Mom says, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

First Impressions

When you next walk into your office, the very first thing to do is look at your office building, your reception area and your office. What message do these rooms send? Professional or second rate? When first walking inside the reception area, what impression would a stranger get? Busy is fine. Chaotic is not!

Are there coffee stains on the carpet? Is the furniture appropriate and comfortable? Are client files in view of the reception area so that a curious visitor to your office could read the transmittal letter on top of some local citizen’s divorce file? Is there a warm greeting to those who enter from the receptionist? Does the receptionist communicate when the lawyer will be available?

Does this look like a place that you would trust if your life depended on it? For most clients, especially those coming into a lawyer’s office for the first time, this may involve the most important things in the client’s life. Being sued, getting divorced, getting arrested, injuries and death; these types of things are monumental.

Give the same once-over to your own office. Sit in the client chairs and note what you see. Is the desk overflowing with files and paper, causing the client to think "How could this lawyer ever keep track of anything?" Are other client’s matters available for viewing during this interview? Do piles of client files give an appearance of inattention?

Maybe your marketing plan starts with buying a new sofa for the reception area -- one that is easy for the elderly clients to get up from when they wish. Maybe it’s new carpet or a new file cabinet. Any improvements to your office appearance will definitely outlive this week’s newspaper advertisement.

Looking in the mirror is the final step. Do you regularly interview clients in wrinkled clothes? Or with a five o’clock shadow? Certainly, dress codes in the office have relaxed in many places, but your marketing plan should include discussions with all of your employees about what is appropriate behavior and dress in front of clients.

Actions in front of clients or potential clients are clearly important. If you are a lawyer walking down the hall with a new client about to start an interview and the helpful receptionist says to a phone caller with a wink and a smile, "I’m sorry, but he’s out of the office now," then you can bet that this client will never ever believe that you are really out of the office when she calls. On the other hand, if the receptionist says, "I’m sorry, but he is just starting an interview with another client and cannot take your call right now," a truthful opinion is developed.

Marketing therefore is a continuing commitment. Take care of your clients and they will take care of you. Many lawyers who do an outstanding job for their clients still fail to communicate that to the client. Sending the client copies of all correspondence and pleadings, detailed billing statements, promptly returning telephone calls, delivering work in the time frame promised and at the cost discussed— these are the hallmarks of the true "marketing magic."

So let’s now discuss some specific marketing ideas.

What marketing question do lawyers get asked on most days of their lives and why do they answer it wrong?.

Everywhere you go, you meet people. Everyone is a potential client. When you introduce yourself and you mention you are a lawyer, and people tend to ask the same questions, "What kind of lawyer are you?" or "What kind of law do you practice?" Many solo practitioners have a broad range of practice areas. And, so they often respond to this query by saying, "I do just about everything," or "A little bit of everything" or "I’m a general practitioner." One assumes that the intention here is to be truthful and also not to limit any possible subject matter that the other person might possibly want to consult with the lawyer in the future. But most people now believe and understand that lawyers have certain areas where they concentrate their practices in a few areas. Therefore it is unlikely that they will believe that you are the Master of the Universe in all matters legal. More likely, they will believe that you didn’t want to tell them what kind of law you do practice or you are so desperate that you will take any case. But it is most unlikely when a family member has a legal problem in a few months, that they will remember you.

Better, but still not perfect is the lawyer who at least says "I’m a family law practitioner" or "I work in estate planning." Of course, your client may not be planning any estates right now. He may be worried about the family business his ailing father owns and all of these "death taxes" he keeps hearing about. Newspaper writers are taught to write for an eight grade level of reading. You want to use clear language that everyone will understand. We would also suggest that the word "help" might prominently figure into your explanation. Regardless of some of the public misconceptions, what we primarily do as lawyers is help people and businesses with their problems.

Here are some suggested answers – we want you to be truthful, but we want you to convey something that might be understood and remembered as well.

"I do a lot of different things, but I really enjoy helping small businesses and small business owners with business type problems, like taxes." (Big smile - everyone knows taxes are a problem.)

"I give people advice about wills and probate. We try to help minimize the taxes that are paid when people die."

"I am a family lawyer, which means I help people with situations involving divorce, child custody and child support. I also handle guardianship cases."

"I handle a lot of cases in the elder law area, which is helping people with the special problems they have as they get older."

"I represent people accused of crimes in court."

In truth, there’s nothing magic about it. It’s not about soliciting a client. It’s about giving a clear message that is understandable and likely to be remembered to all in response to a question about what you do. Sure, it is about making an impression, but isn’t every introduction?

And, if two months later, when that person is bailing Uncle Hogshead out of jail, he says "Hey I met an attorney at the ball park who says he represents people accused of crimes. Maybe you should give him a call." Well, that’s great, isn’t it?

Well, that’s enough for marketing this month. Next month we will cover developing a simple marketing plan, getting feedback and other data for a marketing plan, some high tech tools for some low cost and virtually cost free marketing.

1. 433 U. S. 350, 97 S. Ct. 2691, 53 L. Ed. 2d 810 (1977)

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal August 5, 2000 - Vol. 71; No. 23