Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Evanston divorce lawyer Joshua Stern.
There are countless websites that promise to deliver traffic to a lawyer’s website. There are some services that go a step further and promise to connect potential clients with a lawyer. In fact, if you have an Esq. after your name, odds are at least one company has told you about the “thousands of visitors” that come to their site every month looking for a lawyer.
Wouldn’t you like to be the one they call?
When I set out to write this post, I intended to discuss a variety of online referral sources by name. The problem is that there are too many of them. Instead, I am offering my rules for creating an online marketing strategy. Specifically, what NOT to do. These are 6 rules I have used since I started my practice:
- Never Pay for Leads; Ever. Companies that promise to connect you with clients are incentivized to acquire as many “leads” as possible and then charge you by volume. It’s your job to convert them. The problem is, as anyone who has watched Glengarry Glen Ross knows, the leads are weak. The company has no incentive to screen the potential clients because then it would lose its unique selling proposition, which is volume. Additionally, many of these companies only give you access to the leads, they won’t pair them with you. That means you will spend your time combing through “leads,” competing against other attorneys to contact these “potential customers” first. To make matters worse, the “potential clients” are the ones who categorize their legal problem. Many of the leads will be miscategorized. Worst of all, these “potential customers” aren’t obligated to use the referral service. It’s distinctly possible that they will have found counsel by the time you contact them.
- Stop Caring about “Strategic Partnerships with Google.” Everyone has a “strategic partnership with Google.” Here’s the link where you can register your business as a partner with Google. It is a ubiquitous, and thereby meaningless, distinction. Don’t pay extra for it and don’t base your purchasing decisions on it.
- Leave Blind Faith at Home. If a company tells you they will get you to the top of Google’s search results, make sure they tell you how. Think of it this way: would you ever hire a travel agent that promised to get you to Paris but wouldn’t tell you how? How about a doctor that gave you a prescription without a name? Of course not. You wouldn’t because you’d be certain that you wouldn’t get the results you were promised or you would acquire them in a less than desirable way. Companies that promise results but won’t disclose their methods will either underperform or will use “black hat” SEO, meaning techniques Google frowns upon. While the former outcome is a waste of money, the latter is even worse. Your site may completely disappear when the next algorithm change comes out. Worse yet, if Google finds your SEO tactics to be in violation of their Webmaster Guidelines, they can impose a manual penalty. Remember the JC Penny fiasco of 2011?
- Don’t Buy What Your SEO Company Has Already Sold. Speaking of SEO, remember: there is only one #1 result in any Google search. Even if you find the perfect SEO company, you need to be certain they aren’t representing your competitors. Otherwise, you and your competitor are paying for the same thing, and only one of you can have it.
- Why Are You Listed in that Directory? For those of you who don’t know, directory submissions used to be an easy and reliable SEO tactic. There are more directories online than you can fathom and many of them allow you to list your site for free or for a nominal fee. Google rankings used to be influenced by the sheer volume of directories pointing back to a particular website. Those days are gone. Directories, generally, have little SEO significance. There are exceptions. By and large, you want niche directories or highly reputable directories. A niche directory would be something like Findlaw. A trusted directory might be something like the Yahoo! Directory or DMOZ (Google it). If you don’t have time to make that assessment, ask yourself this: “is this directory listing likely to result in phone calls or clicks to my site?” If the answer is no, don’t list your site. Also, stay out of bad or shady looking directories. You wouldn’t hire a lawyer based on the recommendation of an intimidating and ragged looking stranger and most users aren’t going to use a directory that looks like some late 1990s Geocities monstrosity.
- Don’t Stop. Online marketing is not something you can do in fits and spurts. You are trying to establish and maintain your professional reputation on the internet. It helps if you enjoy it, but no matter what, stick with it. Don’t underestimate the importance of momentum in marketing.
Online marketing can be confusing, but its importance will only grow. As lawyers, we have a tremendous opportunity to share our knowledge with the rest of the world, helping clients and strangers alike. We are fortunate that there is a demand for our training and that by helping others, we are given the opportunity to improve our reputation and grow our businesses. It’s the perfect marriage.
My 6 rules of what not to do when marketing yourself online should help everyone save some money and will hopefully free up capital to be redirected to more profitable marketing channels. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email.
Posted by Peter
on April 02, 2013
law firm management
Who remembers the Great Chicago Flood of 1992? I do. I was actually a senior in high school at the time and for those of you who don’t recall here’s a link for you. Basically some dredge and piling work being done on the Chicago River resulted in some old utility tunnel being damaged with many inter-connected tunnels that ran under large portions of Loop office buildings being flooded. I owned a cheesy “I Survived the Chicago Flood” T-shirt for many years thereafter.
My law firm survived a flood just last week. You don’t really expect flooding on the 32nd Floor of a Loop office building but that 33rd Floor above us does have a kitchen and bathrooms that use running water and pipes in our ceiling that deliver that water. Well, sometimes pipes leak…profusely!
Here’s how my firm survived the Flood of 2013:
- Our Practice is in the Cloud. This is such a key productivity issue for days you’re sick or to access documents when in court and, YES, to survive a flood. My associate attorney and I were displaced for 3-4 days but our work product was in same place it always is: Google Apps, DropBox, Rocket Matter. Our telephones are routed through Answeringservice.com which can be forwarded anywhere.
- Mobile Computing & Home Office. One lesson I took from our flood is that I should invest more in making sure every staff member has adequate mobile computing or home office computing options. I likely should invest in 2-3 laptops or tablets for general mobile computing with court appearances and such but also for emergency work at home circumstances. Because my associate attorney’s work at home set-up was a little lacking because I hadn’t given her the tools she needed and she wasn’t used to working at home. I have worked at home a lot over the years and enjoyed an extremely productive time working from home.
- Check Your Insurance. Thankfully most of damage caused by the flood was to the office structure itself and not to the contents of our office. Meaning, the office owner essentially damaged itself which they repaired themselves. Some items on the floor of our space were damaged which we submitted through the main tenant’s (we’re a subtenant) insurance policy. Check your coverage. If I would have had to buy several new computers or such, that would have been a big problem.
- Don’t Hold Client Trust Property/Documents. In a family law practice such as ours it’s almost never necessary to have a client’s original documents such as tax returns, wills, etc. This sort of paperwork is what could have been damaged by flooding.
- No Excuses…Get it Done. I so admire people who have success despite unforeseen adversity and that was the fun, flood challenge I faced. Remember the year when New England Patriot QB Tom Brady tore his ACL in week 1 and yet the Pats still went on to have an 11-5 season? Same with our flood or the day you’re sick or the day your computer crashes; be ready.
- Know Thy Landlord, Building Management Company. Almost all these guys are pretty good at signing a lease and cashing a rent check but how do they handle flood clean-up and repair? I give props to both our landlord and the building’s management company at 161 N. Clark, Chicago, IL. Yes, the flooding happened but the post-flooding reaction was very good. Check-out your situation in advance or when you’re looking for office space to be sure you’re covered when the sky is clear.
Posted by Peter
on March 06, 2013
law firm management
False Urgency is the biggest deficiency that I need to stamp-out in my Firm right now. And I mean internally (myself and our staff) and externally (clientele). What do I mean when I say ‘False Urgency’? I mean simply the many things from staff interruptions to unscheduled client calls that hinder the efficient use of time…and that’s the main stock-in-trade of a legal services business. It really goes back to the old Important vs. Urgent continuum…I want to be spending far more time on intentional, scheduled important matters instead of unscheduled, urgent but not important matters.
And I think it’s a pretty easy fix that I just need to implement. How?
Automate your calendar. I’ve been meaning to sign-up for timetrade.com for months. I used it as a free trial some time ago and then with various changes in my firm had let it expire. Basically it lets you put a simple button on your Website and then integrates with your electronic calendar so a prospect or client clicks through your calendar for meeting times you’ve set into your calendar in advance. I have no relationship with timetrade it’s just the product I’ve used and seen used in the past and the price is only $49 annually.
Train your clients. Include some ‘Client Responsibilities’ along with verbal direction to clients up-front regarding how meetings and telephone conferences are handled & NOT handled. For example, last week I took a spur-of-the-moment call from a client whom another attorney in the office had been corresponding with on some legal discovery. And he starts peppering me with questions that really should have been asked of the other lawyer on the case and I just sort of nodded and said yes to his questions. And the net result of that sort of conversation is basically 15 minutes of wasted time. If that call was set in advance through timetrade or scheduled through my legal assistant with meeting specifics set out in advance that time would have been far more productive.
Define a narrow emergency exception to the above. Basically this is the one exception to the above, like in family law land if some ex-wife has just grabbed the kids, has plane tickets to Russia, and is threatening to never let you see your 9-year-old daughter again. Or the folks from DCFS just showed up and want to take your kid. But this is also part of the TRAINING in #2…and this should be a very narrow exception.
Posted by Peter
on February 16, 2013
law firm management
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Posted by Peter
on January 30, 2013
This is my slightly different take on Rahm Emanuel’s little phrase, “Never waste a good crisis.” Because as a family law attorney and likely most non-criminal lawyers, I find that the wasted court date phenomenon is rampant. So many court dates have the potential to waste time/money, upset clients due to the impression that little is being accomplished on their matter, and frankly zap your professional satisfaction. This is one of the reasons why I look forward to my court dates over at the courthouse one of my colleagues affectionately calls the “Triple Nickel” (Domestic Violence Courthouse at 555 W. Harrison, Chicago). I don’t like domestic violence, however, this is the one area of our practice where cases are required to be treated on an expedited basis…thus you have substantive court dates with nearly each court appearance.
How do you NOT waste court dates?
The most important mechanism that our firm utilizes is simply updating each case’s ‘Next Actions’ within our law practice management software after each court date. Nothing too involved, simply a form of ‘To Do’ list for a client’s case that flowed out of the last court date and items that must be completed by the next court date. Because in many cases if I’m not pushing the case, NO ONE IS. The best judges are utilizing some form of this short-term ‘To Do’ list from court-date-to-court-date which helps. But other judges know next to nothing about specific cases and are not keeping notes to help them remember. So you don’t get much judicial help until the case is maybe 3 years old. And although many clients state that they want the case over with yesterday, I frequently find that their actions don’t support their statements. That’s why the ‘Next Action’ listing is so critical…it’s part office organization, it’s part office task delegation, it’s part client communication, and it’s part CYA email/letter to client when they’re complaining about their case taking so long.
The key: Get organized after each court date so you know what you want to accomplished before the next court date. First, create your ‘To Do’ list for your Firm and communicate these items to the client. Second, put follow-ups on your Firm’s electronic calendar so you’re seeing specific deadlines on the calendar. Simple, but these things must happen after each court date.
And then there are those cases that get filed way too soon…but I’ll save that for another post.
Posted by Peter
on January 03, 2013
Happy 2013 from Solo in Chicago and here’s hoping the new year is full of “Accomplishments of Significance.”
But, what is the most important month? It’s the month after your client has worked through his initial retainer deposit. And it’s so critical because this can become a time when clients get behind on their payments and if you let that happen it’s hard to recover…it’s hard to get those clients paying again once they have gotten out of the payment habit.
And I don’t mean for this to be an extensive post about overall billing strategies or evergreen retainers but rather simply that you must be ON TOP of a client when he gets the first bill after the retainer is used up. Our contracts require that clients pay their balance-in-full each month for all work done the previous month…remind clients of that fact. Sometimes we’ll accept a payment plan where a client can pay less than the full balance as long as a significant, monthly payment is made. But you cannot let a client pay nothing! Because each month without payment makes it progressively more difficult to get the client paying again. You must get your clients into the monthly payment habit.
The client who pays that “next month” will likely be a profitable client for months to come; the client who pays nothing may never pay anything again.
Posted by Peter
on December 11, 2012
I’m in year 7 of owning my own law firm as a solo lawyer and currently own a 2-attorney law firm. I’ve “officed” in 4 primary manners over that time and will layout below my experience and advice with regards to each set-up:
Lawyer Suite. This was my first set-up…using office space as part of another lawyer’s suite where my rent was working for 20 hours per month for my landlord attorney. I had access to the suite’s conference room and some receptionist support. This is a nice option if you can find it. Typically in the first few months of your practice there’s some time to spare but your cash-flow is tight. The downside? Many of these are rather informal set-ups and you’re beholden to the landlord. For example, in my situation some 6 months into the arrangement, the lawyer/landlord decided to work for a larger firm and my “lease” ended sooner than I would have liked.
Executive Suite. Here I’m thinking about set-ups that include the leasing of office space with various receptionist and office support added into the lease package…Regus is the largest player in this space but there are many other options too. The advantage to this set-up is you really have a nice, convenient set-up with plenty of support onsite if you have zero support staff. The disadvantages to this set-up are that they nickle-&-dime you to death for copies and phone call transfers and faxing, etc. + you’re not encouraged to really build office procedures because the support staff are not your people.
Home Office (w/ hourly office supplement). I liked this set-up as a family law attorney whose primary office need was for initial client intake meetings. With cloud-based telephone systems and basically cloud-based law practices this set-up was cheap and easy. But once you have more staff you probably want greater oversight over your personnel at least early on.
Traditional Lease or Sub-Lease. This is where I’ve been for the last year with 3 total staff at our firm. Myself and another attorney share a workspace, our legal assistant has a work “pod”, and there’s a very nice conference room that we share. We have a sub-lease with the main lessor whom is a group of small firm attorneys that formed an LLC to lease 50% of a floor at a downtown office building. We pay $2,100 per month that includes everything like telephones and receptionist services. Our firm and individual attorneys are listed in the building’s lobby but the firm is not part of any placard or such outside the elevator on the floor we’re on.
How do you office & why?
Posted by Peter
on November 29, 2012
I’ve known about Time59 legal billing software for sometime but have really experimented with it and gotten to know the software well over recent months. I like what I see and the price is right at $8.33 per month.It’s a great option for a start-up solo practitioner. I like it’s unQuickBooks-like simplicity…it gives you what you need as a solo or small firm lawyer without the crap that just confuses users and wastes time. The $99.95 annual fee provides the following:
- Clients Unlimited
- Projects / Matters Unlimited
- Invoices Unlimited
- Time Records Unlimited
- Expense Records Unlimited
- Timekeepers Unlimited
- Accounts Receivable
- Trust Accounting
Until my firm expanded and we started using a full law practice management suite I used WorkingPoint. It was an interesting cloud-based accounting option but to get the unlimited invoicing that most any lawyer needs your cost is twice as much as Time59. Plus it didn’t provide the lawyer specific features like trust accounting.
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**FTC Disclosure: Time59 is an advertiser on this Website.
Posted by Peter
on October 12, 2012
Historically I’ve been BAD at marketing my law practice. But I’ve gotten better. RJon Robbins always used to say, “Marketing is the highest and best use of your time.” He’s right. These are the 3 marketing channels that I’m investing in on a regular basis:
- Traditional Professional Referral Sources. This remains an important source of clients not so much for volume produced but rather for quality produced. The average client referral is more affluent and more easily engaged than any old cold caller. My associate attorney and I have created a spreadsheet with some 30-40 other professionals broken-down into some 10 categories with 3 persons per category in areas that we as family law attorneys need on a regular basis. Our minimum expectation is that each of us are “touching” (referral, e-mail, article forward, in-person meeting) at least one person on the referral spreadsheet on a monthly basis. Typically we touch several persons on the chart each month. Then through our general networking we’re constantly generating “leads” on persons who may potentially be added to our referral chart as we get to know persons better and are assured of their competence and referral sources for our clients.
- Internet & Social Media. I’m no SEO expert but I’d simply say that it’s worth the investment, particularly if you practice in a consumer-centric subject area. Beyond that we try to use our blog as the center of a social media hub. Meaning we post our substantive media or articles on the blog and and then distribute through Twitter/Facebook/Constant Contact/LinkedIn.
- Marketing to Your Base. With each passing year in the practice of law your customer list grows and its value as a business development does too. This group is very similar to category #1 but generally these persons aren’t in the same positions of influence to produce the quality of referrals as category #1. But these are people who know you, these are people who potentially need repeat business, and these are surely potential referral sources. Do something and do it consistently. We send a monthly, Constant Contact newsletter to our customer list on the first Tuesday of each month.