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Tales of Fails in Lawyer Marketing in 2019

By Jim Calloway

Everyone’s a critic.

I must confess to frequent aggravation as I read some pieces of criticism directed at lawyers in private practice, especially ones written by those who have never spent any time working in a law firm. So, let me open with my response to all of them. If you have never worked in a law firm, it is challenging to appreciate the pressure, the stress and the responsibility of handling very important matters for many clients. Often, lawyers are dealing with the most important and stressful situation in their client’s lives.

It is also hard to appreciate the workflow of law firms and how one thing, like a judge requesting additional briefing on an issue, can impact a week’s workload. Some time ago, I read a tweet from a lawyer that said,, “Being a lawyer is easy. It’s like riding a bike except the bike is on fire, and the ground is on fire. Everything is on fire.” (An internet search reveals that that statement is used for almost every profession and now adorns everything from blank notebooks to cards.) Hopefully your law practice is not like that every day, but most lawyers do have days (or weeks) that feel that way.

As I read social media and blog posts criticizing lawyers for failing to adopt the latest technology tool or other shortcomings, I sometimes think the author might approach the subject differently if they had ridden that bicycle for a while.

SOME SHOCKING STATISTICS
Having said that, two recent items revealed by surveys and studies about lawyer marketing “fails” actually shocked me.

The first “shocker” was from the 2019 Legal Technology Survey Report from American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. The survey reported that 43% of solo lawyers do not have websites. That is hard to believe. For law firms of two to nine lawyers, 92% reported having a website. I would note that some firms of that size are likely “single client firms,” for which a website is arguably a low priority.

If you are interested in more of this survey’s data on marketing, read legal journalist Bob Ambrogi’s article on LawSitesBlog.com “Nearly Half of Solos Have No Website; Two-Thirds of Firms Not on Twitter; 30% Have Blogs.”

However, that wasn’t my biggest shock. The biggest shock was contained in the 2019 Legal Trends Report released by practice management software solution Clio. This is the fourth such annual report, and it contains a lot of interesting data.

The shock was data indicating how poorly law firms today respond when contacted by potential clients. Marketing is about generating leads. If you are dropping most of the leads you generate, your marketing efforts are largely futile.

Clio asked clients what reasons they had for not hiring the lawyers they contacted, and 64% indicated they contacted a law firm that never responded either through phone or email. Contrast that with the 89% of legal professionals who say they respond to email or phone inquiries within 24 hours.

I found that data very hard to reconcile. Apparently, Clio did too. Given the gap between the responses of lawyers and potential clients, Clio commissioned a study. One thousand law firms were emailed and 500 phoned about a possible engagement. The methodology of selecting the law firms sampled is detailed in the report.

Are you ready? 60% of law firms didn’t respond to the emails at all.

The good news is that those who did respond mostly responded within 24 hours. The bad news, at least from the consumer point of view, was the majority of responses indicated that the potential client should call the office instead of communicating through email.

Phone calls were somewhat better, likely because law firms have someone whose job is answering the phone, but the data in the study was still surprising:

  • 56% of law firms answered the calls
  • 39% of the calls went to voicemail – of which 57% didn’t return the call within 72 hours
  • 5% of the calls were unanswered

So approximately 27% of law firms were not reachable by phone.

It is possible to rationalize some of this data. There are many email spammers and scammers. Emails attempting to set the law firm up for a scam may have conditioned some lawyers to only talk to new clients on the phone. Maybe lawyers have been listening when we talk about the inherent insecurity of email. Maybe lawyers have decided that responding to these emails rarely results in clients retaining them, but dropping so many potential leads, whether from email or phone, is not a good business practice.

NEW CLIENT INTAKE
As we prepare to begin another calendar year, it is a good idea for all law firms to examine how they handle contacts from potential clients. The smaller the law firm is, the more likely it is that someone may not be available every time the phone rings. The firm that handles only a few types of matters may decide to empower staff to tell callers the law firm doesn’t handle that type of matter. However, the lawyers may want a different rule for a client the firm has represented previously.

It’s not good for a lawyer’s reputation to fail to return phone calls. When it is client phone calls that are not being returned, this may set the stage for a grievance against the lawyer. When it is potential client phone calls that are not being returned, these lost opportunities may impact the firm’s revenue.

Larger law firms should have a formalized written intake process. This plan should deal with responding to potential new client inquiries when the lawyers are unavailable to respond promptly.

A solo or small firm lawyer, particularly those without full-time staff, should strongly consider hiring a virtual receptionist service and providing them every week with some open hours that they can schedule appointments and the criteria as to whether they should schedule an appointment or just take a message. The lawyer should also keep track of those new client engagements that the firm might have missed without the virtual receptionist service.

Hiring and working positively with a virtual receptionist service may provide better client service and keep the lawyer from dropping the ball when a potential client contacts them wishing to hire the law firm. Some lawyers may find that service pays for itself.

WEBSITES FOR SOLOS
I think many solo practitioners do not have websites because they have been conditioned to the idea that they have to do everything themselves and they do not know how to do this project.

Today, a website is just as necessary as a listed telephone number and law firm address for a lawyer in private practice. Your website is your address for those who are looking to hire a lawyer and almost every potential client today will check out your website before contacting you directly. Many times, failing to find a website for a lawyer means the potential client will move on to the next potential lawyer.

What makes a website valuable for marketing has changed over the last several years. Today the first rule, particularly for those firms that cater to individual consumer clients, is that the website needs to look good on the phone and other mobile devices. Hopefully the website will look good on a computer as well.

For many years it was a smart and thrifty decision to hire someone with a little bit of HTML coding experience to build your website for you. Today, we must consider whether an amateur or hobbyist will include the proper tags for search engines to index your website and whether the result will be mobile friendly.

There are three aspects to having a website. It is important to understand all three aspects because many companies attempt to bundle all of these services together. That just makes sense as most customers prefer a “turn key” all-in-one service, but it’s good to understand the basics as a consumer. You must 1) select and register a domain name, 2) have your website design created and 3) the site must be hosted online where it will be accessible 24/7.

While these are all separate functions, they are often bundled together by providers.

First, the Domain Name

For the law firms that do not yet have a website, one of the most challenging parts is to come up with a unique and relatively short domain name. This is particularly true if your name happens to be a very common one such as Jim Smith. Law firm domain names (and domain names in general) are very significant. Picking a good domain name is very important as you may well live with it for the rest of your legal career. If possible, it should be short and easy to type. Likely at some point, your law firm business email addresses should use this domain name.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a nongovernmental organization that oversees “top level domains.” They have approved many registrars. You can search for potential domain names through ICANN or one of the registrars. The registrars have variable fees, with some charging below their actual costs the first year because they want to sell you other services. Prices vary, but $10 or $12 per year is a good rule of thumb for this. Some are free, but if you don’t use the company for other services, there is likely to be a fee.

Next: The Host and Design

There are many companies that do website hosting.

There are also many people who have the skills to design websites, but finding someone is often a challenge today. You can also ask fellow solo or small firm lawyers with websites you like for referrals for who they used. There are designers who can build and even help you maintain your website for a reasonable cost.

WordPress now dominates as the platform of choice for many basic websites. It is easier than ever to build your own website with the tools available. Some lawyers with an interest can build a site using WordPress, but beware that “easier” does not mean “easy.” That is why WordPress classes are widely available.

The nice thing about the WordPress platform is because of its history as a blogging platform, a well-designed site will allow someone to update and add posts without requiring much technical skill, but be cautious about the numerous WordPress plug-ins that are available. Most are, no doubt, useful, but everything you add is something else that needs to be maintained and regularly updated. A plug-in that is not updated can become a significant security risk.

A do-it-yourselfer without much experience is probably safer to use services like Wix, Weebly or Squarespace as opposed to WordPress. These are better geared to help the inexperienced create simple websites in a relatively short amount of time.

Note that it is important that the lawyer ultimately be the one listed as the official owner of the domain and in possession of the username and password for their website. You do not want to be the lawyer whose domain name is expiring and the person who registered and created the site cannot be located.

The goal of website design is to have a simple and attractive website design that looks good on the smartphone and provides the information potential clients are seeking.

Content

Here are a few things I think a law firm should have on its website.

  • The names, photos and contact information for all the attorneys. Have an appealing picture. Posing in front of a wall of law books is just too cliché, in the opinion of many experts.
  • A map to the office. Unless your office is on the main street of a very small town, you should have directions to your office. Often this can be done through Google Maps.
  • Your practice areas. Whether you handle many different types of cases or a few, potential clients are looking for someone who handles their kind of matter. Don’t be embarrassed to use more than one term that means essentially the same thing. Potential clients may not know what certain legal terms mean.
  • Flawlessly written content with no misspellings or poor grammar.
  • Simple, clear and serious content.
  • Appropriate disclaimers. A website is informational, not legal advice. You are only licensed in certain jurisdictions. No attorney-client relationship is created merely by visiting the website. The usual stuff.
  • Compliance with the ethics rules. As you are preparing the content of your website, be sure and review rules 7.1 through 7.5 of the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct.
  • Attractive pictures and graphic elements. You don’t have to go overboard here, but the internet is a graphic media and you need some graphics. Take some pictures with your smartphone to produce graphics you can use that you don’t have to purchase or license.

Don’t spend months perfecting the most ambitious website. Start simple and do it right. Make notes of what additional things you would like to do for the next version. Then add your site’s web address to your stationery, your email signature block and your business cards.

Website Goals

Remember that your goal is to attract clients, not to impress other lawyers.

Clients rarely care about most items that are typically contained in lawyer biographies. They have a problem and they want to know if you can help them with their problem. Use language that describes the problem and your services. This is not to say you should omit important biographical information. After all, lawyers from other regions seeking to refer a case may be interested in that, but your website shouldn’t focus on the fact you were named to the law review 15 years ago in law school.

If you want valuable feedback on your website, ask friends and relatives who have nothing to do with the legal profession to give you their feedback. They better reflect your intended audience than you do. Of course, they may not understand the ethical limits on what a lawyer should publish online.

CONCLUSION
We have covered two main points this month, both of which are critical for the success of your law practice.

All law firms, regardless of size, need a formal procedure for dealing with inquiries from potential new clients. This varies significantly depending on the particulars of the law firm, but the bottom line should be that everyone who reaches out to your law firm deserves a response even if the response is to refer them to a different lawyer or to tell them you cannot help them. Solo practitioners may need to consider virtual assistant services to respond to new client inquiries and schedule appointments.

Solo practitioners need an online presence so that potential new clients can locate them. The foundation of this online presence is a website. If you’re a solo practitioner who doesn’t have a website, it’s time to prioritize setting one up.

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org. It’s a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar JournalDecember, 2019 — Vol. 90, No. 10

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