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Marketing 101: Don’t fall for the hype

Heather Abissi Author : Heather Abissi | March 23, 2023

Running a law firm is daunting but doing so as a solo practitioner or small firm is particularly demanding. Small firms are still expected to provide it all – best practices for compliance, bookkeeping, trust accounting, conflict checking, office management – there is a persistent trend of asking firms to do more, with less. 

The Marketing Dilemma

With revenues hit hard by COVID in 2020, internet marketing has become the business du jour for upcoming members of Generation Z. Firms are hiring marketing firms, and even scripting radio and TV ads, all in the hope of driving business in after the COVID crisis.  All are feeling the panic of their own technological ineptitude and are dazzled by the world of Generation Z Instagram “influencers.” Recent college grads and social media aficionados are providing social media services to the luddites of generations past. 

Non-commodity based law practices like criminal law, were hit particularly hard by COVID because the court closures were devastating to those practices. Attorneys who relied on paralegals to operate their computers and draft their documents were suddenly in their home offices and forced to fend for themselves with zoom, scanned documents, and docusign. 

It is easy to understand how this has translated into a general feeling of dependance on companies who can hold the hand of the unfamiliar, and offer the promise of business in a trying time. Unfortunately, much of this “help,” is predatory.

The reality is, if courts are closed, courts are closed. No amount of advertising will generate billable hours if there aren’t any to be had. The bright-side is that courts are opening and even though there may have been a moratorium on court appearances, there is a steady stream of work to be had now that dockets are restored to the calendar. 

Is Marketing Needed & to What Extent?

The Marketing 101: question remains – is marketing needed and to what extent? This is certainly not an effort to dissuade anyone from marketing. Nor is it a suggestion that marketing campaigns are not successful, indeed many are. The message is before spending huge sums of funds, it has to be established that there will be a solid return on the investment. The greatest return on investment is free from sincerely happy clients. Encourage happy clients to leave reviews, and do personal references or referrals. If you have the liquidity publish ads or tv commercials, certainly there is nothing wrong with them. But going into hock on the hope of a financial windfall has the same success rate as winning in the lottery.

Also necessary is to get client feedback on ad campaigns. Many lawyer ads are poorly received. They appear disingenuous and insincere. There is a reason culturally there are so many “lawyer,” jokes, there is a general distrust of an industry of people who can argue either side irrespective of merit, in exchange for money. This perceptive has led to distrust and an overall cultural narrative that lawyers are dishonest. If a marketing campaign comes across as insincere, it is a detriment to your firm’s professional reputation.

Attracting the Right Clients to Your Firm

Not all money in the door is the same. Clients who are well respected, and have substantial contacts, are going to have a broader network and be more trusted for referrals. All clients are valuable, but clients with broad reach and influence are more likely to bring you good referrals. Referrals are free and trusted advertising. People are much more likely to go to an attorney that someone they know trusts, than someone with a big ad campaign.

Trust begins by being honest about what you are skilled in, and what you are not. This also means that if you are not the best attorney to help someone, you let them know that, and refer them to someone with the expertise they need. This is another form of free and trusted advertising. Being the attorney who didn’t just take their money, when you weren’t the best person is memorable. Proving a stereotype false has a lasting impression, and will advertise you in prospective clients’ minds as “the honest lawyer.” 

Meet Clients Where They Are Emotionally

Beyond that though, clients need to be met where they are emotionally. If someone is coming to a lawyer it is because they need help with something that is beyond their knowledge and control. Sometimes it is something positive like buying a house, sometimes it is something catastrophic like being accused of a crime. In either situation, however, not having information or skill necessary to handle something on your own is a jarring and sometimes frightening position to be in. If you trust a lawyer enough to seek their help in this time of need the very last thing you need is hard-sell tactics.

The same notion should permeate any marketing campaign. Regardless of the size of the campaign, the theme should be personal connection. Although it may be seen by thousands, it should evoke a perception that it is speaking to one person at a time sincerely. 

Sell the Lawyer You Actually Are, Not What You Think They Want

Part of sincerity is being honest about your strengths and weaknesses, not only in your performance but as an attorney. This means referring cases if it isn’t an area of your specialty. It also means being true to yourself about whether what a client wants, and how a client believes the case should proceed, is consistent with your beliefs and how you want to practice law.  

For example, when I handled matrimonial cases I was very up front about the fact that having previously practiced as a therapist for teenagers and families before going to law school that I would not use the judicial process to damage anyone. I explained right up front that there are attorneys who will win not only your case, but also satiate the appetite for revenge that comes with having a broken heart and that I am not one of those lawyers. I explained I am aggressive and relentless in my pursuit of justice and the fair and impartial application of the law, and that I would protect their interests in all capacities. I would not however act with malice against their former spouse.

I candidly explained that part of keeping a client’s best interest in mind is ensuring that my actions will not have damaging consequences, and that hate in my opinion is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. It festers and prevents people from moving forward productively. That said – I’m sure many people, attorneys and clients alike, who disagree with me, and would want to throw the book at their ex-spouse. The only universally correct position you must take to come across as sincere, is the position you sincerely believe, and any marketing campaign must be true to your beliefs.

Values Sell

To identify your beliefs in a way that you or a marketing team can translate into an ad campaign requires that you define for yourself what are your core values, who are your ideal clients, and what are your deal breakers. I’ve always told everyone I work with, my value structure is, “The right things, for the right people, for the right reasons.” My ideal clients share similar values, and dishonesty, vindictive conduct, or victimizing conduct are deal breakers for me. Truly, everyone is entitled to a legal defense, but they are not entitled to a legal defense by me. If you don’t like your client, you will not as effectively advocate for them, and it is a mistake to undertake their representation. 

You core values should be a part of every facet of your firm. It should be part of a conversation you have with initial clients. It should be demonstrated in the nature of documents you file, and in the manner you deal with opposing counsel. It should permeate every facet of your legal practice, so when it is distilled to a tag line in an ad, it isn’t a cliché, it is who you are, and everyone knows that. 

Time is Money, Get to the Point

Next most important thing for successful marketing: Get to the point. I cannot stress this enough. No one in need of a lawyer has time to read meandering prose, or to watch a tome on legal practice. The structure of all marketing should be HEADLINE –> HOOK –> VALUE ADDED –> CONTACT INFORMATION. The headline should answer the question, “Why should I bother listening to, watching, or reading this? The hook should make a key point in furtherance of that goal in a catchy way. Value added is a short synopsis of how you can help, and of course how to contact you if they want help. Doing those four things in an effective manner is already challenging. Doing it sufficiently that someone actually calls and retains your law firm – even harder.

Marketing Groups Cannot Substitute for You Knowing Your Market

This is where marketing groups come in, not always because they are needed, but many times because people get analysis paralysis about how to affect those four points effectively in an ad. The truth is, if you can’t effectively market yourself, you don’t have enough insight or self-reflection to know when someone is marketing effectively for you. Fortunately, it isn’t that hard to acquire, you just need to think about what type of client you want.

For example, if you wanted to attract more real estate clients, you will need a campaign that appeals to both first time buyers, and savvy corporate buyers, so your headline needs to get the attention of both: Headline: Looking to buy real estate? HOOK: Everyone, even savvy buyers need help navigating the post-COVID market. VALUE ADDED: Whether it’s your first home, or a major corporate acquisition our attorneys will help your goals become your reality. CONTACT INFORMATION: We are here to listen, guide, and support you every step of the way. Call XXX-XXXX for a free consultation. 

This same structure can be applied to virtually any context because it accounts for how people think when they are looking for help. First step they take is identifying their problem. If your ad begins with echoing their problem, you will pique their attention. “Looking to buy a house?” “Why yes I am,” they will think to themselves. “Everyone, even savvy buyers need help navigating the post-COVID market.” “I wonder what the differences are in the post-COVID market,” the lack of explanation is the hook, they are left wondering if they are unprepared. “Whether it’s your first home, or a major corporate acquisition our attorneys will help your goals become reality.” “They sound really down to earth like they will help anyone, and I would rather have an attorney help with this.” And then the contact information is available. 

Memorable Marketing Personally Connects with the Potential Client

Think right now in your mind the attorney ads that you remember. Seriously, close your eyes for a second and actually think, “What is the last attorney ad I remember?” I guarantee it begins with a question pertaining to their area of practice. “Were you hurt in an accident?” “Do you have a will?” They all begin that way for a reason. It is effective and memorable because it personalizes the ad to the recipient.

What separates the ads that you just remember, from the ads that make you call, is usually one of two things, whether the person was also personally recommended, or whether you felt the person demonstrated sincerity and honesty with what they had to say. Someone remembering the jingle is useless if they do not trust you enough to call.

The Chemistry of Connecting with Clients

The je ne sais quoi that makes someone trust one person over another is an intangible chemistry. That click, is not something that any amount of marketing can reproduce. All that can be done is set up the ideal scenario for like-minded people to meet. If you make a catchy but vacuous ad campaign, when you are deep thinker and analyzer, you cannot be disappointed when you secure clients who perform puddle deep analyses. Like attracts like, you have to present who you are candidly, so similarly minded people will seek your assistance. 

This methodology naturally culls many of the mismatched potential clients, and the rest can be ascertained during consultation. It is essential to the success of an overall marketing plan that clients not only come into the door, but that they leave happy. One bad review can badly damage a practice. Your best chance at a bad review, is someone who never “got you,” to begin with. Unapologetically pass on taking any case with someone you don’t like and don’t vibe with. It is hard to rationalize when you want the work, but if your gut tells you someone is not for you, your gut is always right. Do not learn that the hard way.

Be True to Yourself

In sum, be true to yourself and don’t fall for the hype. Your marketing campaign will be successful if it is a true reflection of you, your vision, and principles regardless of how much money you spend. Even better, if you follow this advice you will only be working with people you like, which will lead to a better quality of life overall and greater satisfaction in your work.

 

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