How Do You Keep Up with Legal Marketing? Don’t Bother

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We like the “I can’t keep up” story when we’re feeling inadequate about our marketing. We see change everywhere we look and we feel a sense of overwhelm. But that’s just the story we tell ourselves when we’re stressed about revenues. The fact is that very little has changed. Grounding ourselves in that reality makes it easier to “keep up.”

I got interested in lawyer marketing in the early 70s. I was eleven years old.

My father practiced law in North Miami Beach. He was a networker: that’s how he built his practice.

Here’s how he did it:

  1. He had breakfast with a group of local business people every weekday at Corky’s. His group of buddies gathered at the same big table each morning when they could make it. Of course, if my dad had to be in court in downtown Miami he’d eat downtown. He had some lawyers he’d sit with in a grungy cafe tucked in a downtown corner.
  2. He served as President of the North Dade Bar Association for a term. The process of moving up through the ranks involved getting to know everyone in the group. That, of course, generated some referrals over the years.
  3. He joined a networking group. I remember they required him to do business with two members a month. We used the dry cleaner from the group so that satisfied one requirement. We were always hunting for someone else from the group. Thankfully, the owner of a great Italian grocery store was a member. They had cannoli for take-away. Score!
  4. He spent a term as a municipal night court judge. That role was passed around to local lawyers and viewed as a public service. But it was also a chance to meet many more lawyers and community members. I went along a number of times to watch as my dad ruled on minor criminal matters.
  5. He ran for County Court Judge once. He didn’t win, but he spent six months visiting picnics, parties, and campaign events, meeting more people. He had billboards and brochures and his name became ever more known.
  6. He volunteered with the local chapter of the ACLU and got involved in high profile cases. He eventually took on the city of Hialeah (Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah), tried his case, and watched as it went on to the US Supreme Court. That got him more media attention than he had time to manage.
  7. He made friends. He got invited to things: we spent days on boats with his friends who had boats, we went to sporting events with his friends who had tickets, we went to dinner with his friends who had food. He had friends everywhere we went. Wandering around town never went quickly because we had to stop to chat so often.
  8. He wrote the occasional article. One of his best friends was the editor of the local twice-weekly newspaper–The North Dade Journal. My dad penned an occasional piece. From time to time he wrote a letter to the Miami Herald editor. He had articles placed in the local bar association newsletter as well. Writing wasn’t something he set out to do, but it happened when issues arose.
  9. He did more–much more, getting involved in lots of local causes, cases, and organizations. He took seats on boards, attended events, met more people, made more friends, and kept a steady stream of clients calling.

Time passed. I was watching my dad market his practice more than forty-six years ago. One would think that lots has changed with respect to lawyer marketing over that period of time. But one would be wrong.

Nearly nothing has changed over the years. Everything is pretty much the same. One thing has changed–that’s it.

Something changed in 1977

Well, one thing did change, in 1977. That’s the year of the US Supreme Court decision in Bates v. Arizona. That case upheld the right of lawyers to advertise their services. That’s the case that opened the floodgates for daytime TV ads for personal injury lawyers. That’s the year that The Price is Right got overrun by lawyers hawking their services.

My dad wasn’t a big advertiser. He placed an ad when he relocated his office. It was a boxy, boring print ad that didn’t garner much attention. He was keeping busy with his networking and a little writing. Advertising wasn’t his game.

So, yes, there was a big change in 1977. Something changed, and it was a big change. But it wasn’t exactly yesterday.

We’ve been seeing lawyer ads for more than forty years. There are very few lawyers practicing today who have been around since before lawyer ads. Our universe has been filled with lawyer advertising for most of our careers. I didn’t get my law license for a full decade after Bates.

The more things change the more they…

Lawyer marketing was, and still is, about trust. Our marketing works best when lawyers connect with other people and a relationship begins. That happens when we (1) reveal our true selves in an authentic manner–usually by being willing to share our story–and (2) demonstrate empathy by being able to retell the story of our clients.

People who believe us, believe in us. They’re willing to turn their sensitive matters over to us. They want the help we offer and they become comfortable letting us get involved.

Forty plus years after Bates, there are still just three ways to grow a practice. They are:

1. Networking

Networkers get the biggest cases involving the most complex problems and accompanied by the highest fees. Why? Because big problems require big trust. Folks encountering a huge obstacle seek out referrals and recommendations from those they already trust.

There are so many ways to build your network. You can use my targeted approach–it’s efficient and effective. You can join a networking group. You can get involved in the bar association. You can start your own breakfast club, have parties, join a civic group, volunteer in a political campaign or cause, and on and on. The opportunities for meeting people are endless.

Networking today is the same as it was in the 70s except that now you can text instead of call. You can friend someone on Facebook instead of having to pop over to their home. You can use Evite for your party instead of mailing an invitation with a stamp.

Networking is just one person talking to another person. We give a little of ourselves and they reciprocate. We peel back our layers and they peel back theirs. We reciprocate in openness as the relationship grows. The next thing you know, there’s trust. Then there are referrals.

Networking hasn’t changed. It happens–one person interacting with one other person–one step at a time.

2. Writing

Trust is built via pathways other than networking as well. Trust grows when we experience the expertise of another person addressing a topic of concern to us. When they explain our problem in a manner which resonates for us we perk up and listen. When they offer solutions, we’re inclined to believe them because they seem to fully understand our problem.

Not everyone has someone they trust inside their network. That’s especially true when we’re new to an area, or have an embarrassing problem, or are simply addressing an unusual situation for the first time. When these circumstances arise we turn elsewhere to find help.

That’s why writing is important to growing a law practice. Our writing used to appear only as text on a page. Back in the day, we’d write an article and see it printed in a publication. Now we’ve got many more opportunities for distribution of our content.

Our writing morphs into YouTube videos, civic group speeches, webinars, seminars, social media posts, blog posts, and more. Writing used to be a little dull and one-dimensional. Nowadays, the text you write this morning can be transformed into a dynamic presentation with fascinating imagery, and published on a platform with an audience of millions, by early afternoon.

But writing is still writing. We still have to sit down and crank it out. It’s one word followed by another word, and another, and another.

3. Advertising

Even after the Bates decision there wasn’t all that much lawyer advertising. It took a while for it to take off in a major way. Of course today, you can’t avoid lawyer advertising. It pops up on TV, radio, and everywhere you turn on the internet. It’s omnipresent.

Years ago a law firm was daring and edgy if it posted ads on bus benches. Today, we’re daring if we put that same ad on Instagram. Sure, it looks a little different, but it’s very much the same concept.

Advertising gave us a way to shout our message out loud (along with our competitors), but it didn’t require us to make our message relevant, like it had to be when we were limited to in-person interactions.

Most lawyer ads are variations on the same message–pick us–which has been around since the outset. The ads are usually an attempt to make the audience aware of the existence of the law firm. They mostly fail to build much trust, so they mostly attract the less complex, less lucrative cases. But many lawyers undeniably make a living as a result of advertising.

Legal services advertising is at its most powerful when it tells two stories. First, it has to tell the story of the prospective client so they get the feeling that the lawyer really understands the struggle. Then, it has to tell the honest, open, authentic story of the lawyer so the prospective client feels a connection, and trust starts to form.

Early on it was boring newspaper ads, bus benches, letters. Today it might involve Facebook retargeting with sophisticated pixels and cookies, or a clever chatbot that uses artificial intelligence to segment prospects. Regardless, it’s all advertising, and it works when it tells the right story to the right people.

But what about…?

I spend endless hours talking to lawyers about marketing tactics, and it’s all some variation on networking, writing, and advertising. Sometimes it’s challenging to classify a tactic into one group or the other, but does that matter?

Websites for some firms are more like advertising. For other firms, they’re more like writing. Facebook is, for some firms, more like networking. For other firms, it’s more like advertising. Speaking to groups is more like networking for some lawyers and more like writing for others. So what?

Marketing your law firm hasn’t changed much. There’s no need for overwhelm. There’s not much need to “keep up.” While the marketing might look a little different on Snapchat than it did on a bus bench, the ideas and principles are all the same.

A healthy law firm finds a balance of the three approaches to growing the business. Each firm–each lawyer–will find the mix works best for them if they emphasize one approach and use the others where necessary and appropriate. Go with your strengths. Be great at one–networking, writing, or advertising–and use the other tactics when appropriate. Do the work.

We love the promise of a magic bullet

I can totally relate to the “I can’t keep up” feeling. I feel it too sometimes.

We’re barraged with the newest new thing. It sometimes feels like we’re standing next to a highway as the fast cars zoom by, leaving us behind.

The headlines are relentless. The advertising never stops, and the salespeople call constantly. The breathless lawyers we meet at various events are excited about whatever new thing they’re trying now. We’re constantly hearing about developments, but are they really new marketing approaches, or are they just simple variations on the underlying approach?

I like Honey Nut Cheerios as much as the next guy, but aren’t they really just Cheerios with some sugar added?

How much of the latest marketing approach is really just the old marketing approach with some sugar added?

In 1977 a prospective client had to dial your number. In 1997 they could send a message from the contact form on your website. In 2017 they could talk to the person staffing your chat feature, which popped up on their screen to get their attention. Sugar, more sugar, and even more sugar.

The vendors add more sugar because it works. We buy what they’re selling. We’re competitive, sometimes desperate, and not always willing to apply our critical thinking skills to these problems. We buy what they sell. We love a little sugar on top.

It all works if you do it

Pick something and do it. Don’t get distracted by the newest new thing. Don’t worry about keeping up. Worry about doing what you promised yourself you’d do.

Wake up in the morning and connect with someone about getting to know one another better. Call, email, message, or send smoke signals; it doesn’t matter how you get the relationship started–make the connection happen.

Wake up in the morning and write something. Post it on your blog or website, record it as a podcast, turn it into a video on YouTube, send it as a stream of tweets, give it as a speech. It doesn’t matter how you publish your content–make the publishing happen.

Wake up in the morning and run some ads. Put them on Google AdWords or Facebook, or the radio, TV, a theatre playbill, or the back of your kid’s soccer jersey. Tell the prospective client’s story and tell your story as well. Build trust. It doesn’t matter where you publish your ads–just make the advertising happen.

You can pick one approach or you can use all three. What matters is getting it done. Get “keeping up” off your agenda. Put the networking, writing, and/or advertising on the agenda.

All marketing works if you do it, but no marketing works if you’re stuck in place trying to “keep up.” At some point you have to sit down and do the work. You do the thinking and come up with an idea. Then you do the research, then you take action.

Today, it mostly starts in front of a keyboard. Back in the day it often started in front of a phone and a legal pad. Yep, it’s different (in trivial ways), but it’s nearly all the same.

Keep doing what works–it hasn’t changed

Now is the time to change the story you’re telling yourself. Action is the answer. Making something happen is the solution to the panic you’re feeling when the revenues aren’t flowing.

The winning lawyers are doing one, two, or all three of the above. There’s no magic, nothing new: it’s the same old, same old. The winning lawyers are winning in the same way whether they graduated from law school in 1977, 1987, 1997, 2007, or 2017. They’re networking, writing, and advertising just like they always have.

The losing lawyers are losing for the same reason they’ve always lost. They’re not doing it. They’re paralyzed by indecision, they’re not taking action, they’re telling themselves the same old stories: they’re struggling to “keep up.”

Take some action. Today’s tools make it easier than ever. My dad would have dictated his article on tape, handed the tape to his secretary to have it typed, then he would have edited it on paper. With the gadgets we have now, he could have done the same work in a fraction of the time.

My dad would have had to phone another lawyer to arrange lunch. They would have passed messages back and forth through the receptionist. It might have taken a week to get a lunch date set. Today you can message directly and have the meeting arranged in seconds.

My dad would have had to hire an ad agency to get ads made. Then he would have had to negotiate with the newspaper or radio stations to get them placed. Today you can design and place an ad campaign online in an hour.

Things have changed but they truly are the same.

If my dad (who died many years ago) came back for a visit, and went back to the practice of law, he’d have some catching up to do. Things have evolved since he passed away.

He’d have to figure out computers, mobile phones, practice management systems, and he’d have to make do without his rolodex, law books, and dictaphone.

But my dad would do just fine with his 1970s approach to marketing. He’d have a thriving practice. He’d do well enough to own a nice home and a vacation home, send his two boys to college, support his family, and garner the respect of his peers and community. He’d be able to keep up.

You can keep up too. The fundamentals remain unchanged. They’re not likely to change anytime soon. Do something. Pick your approach and go. That’s the key to keeping up. Just get going.

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