10 Ways to Differentiate Your Firm (If You’re Brave)

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Being different is hard. It’s challenging to come up with ideas. It’s difficult to do the extra work on top of the legal work. It’s emotionally stressful to stand out from the pack. Is it worth it to you?

When clients look for lawyers, what they often see is an ocean of homogeneity. In the eyes of the public, lawyers all look the same, one suit after another.

When everything looks the same it’s hard to differentiate based on any kind of objective criteria. That’s why the airlines and hotel chains have loyalty programs. The big airlines all look the same. So do the big hotels. Plop me down in a chain hotel room and I’d have no idea if I was in a Hilton, a Marriott, or a Hyatt.

Law firms all look the same too. The websites look the same. The law offices look the same. Even the lawyers themselves look the same.

Those who stand out get noticed.

Why?

Because they stand out from the others.

Being different is scary

Lawyers all market their practices in much the same way. Many of them get mediocre results. Why? Because they’re all doing it the same way.

How about doing it another way?

Difference can be difficult if you want to fit in with the group. Most of us value the acceptance of our peers.

Sure, if you do your marketing differently you’ll stand out in the marketplace. But you’ll also stand out to the other lawyers. You’ll risk peer rejection.

If your self-concept is rooted in gaining the respect of your peers, then conforming to the social norms of the peer group is important to you. Standing out makes you an outsider.

See the conflict? Standing out in the marketplace gets you more attention from prospective clients. But standing out among the lawyers gets you left out. Being different amounts to questioning the wisdom of the group. Even if no one says it out loud, you know that doing something different from the group, standing out, carries the risk of being left out of the group.

How do I differentiate myself?

Only you can decide if business success is worth the price you’ll pay in social success. If you push yourself too far from the pack you’ll be pushed out of the pack. Your call.

If you decide to stand out in the marketplace you’ll find lots of space to be different. There’s plenty of oxygen when you step away from the pack. The legal marketplace is so filled with conformity that your options for being different are abundant.

If you do anything different from the typical lawyer marketing, your marketing will jump out. Marketing in a way that’s different, that sets you apart from the crowd, is likely to get you better results.

Let’s talk through some options, starting with the low-hanging and easy fruit. Then we’ll move up to some more challenging options.

Do them all or just do one. Most of these options will set you apart; they’ll make you different enough that people will start talking about you, and that’s most of the battle. More talk about you nearly always results in more business.

Specific action steps you can take

Here’s a primer on standing out. Of course, you don’t need my input. You can find ways to stand out by looking around. See what they’re doing, and do the opposite. They go right and you go left. They go up and you go down. It’s simple.

Here are some ideas:

1. Tell your story

Being human is attractive to other humans. Why then are lawyers so unlike other humans? Why do we pretend to be professional, dispassionate, and objective?

I can’t begin to explain the typical lawyer personality.

But I can tell you that being open, real, vulnerable, flawed, passionate, afraid–human–gets you business, because it builds connection.

When you look at legal marketing you realize that being real works because there are so few real people practicing law.

Real people trust real people. Fake people are like the generic picture that comes with the frame. We don’t trust those people.

It’s weird, because when you get to know lawyers personally, you realize they’re mostly pretty nice–they’re real and they’re trustworthy. But those same lawyers want to promote themselves as generic, professional automatons with no personality.

Be different, be real, and you’ll be noticed, trusted, and hired.

What’s your story? Who are you? What do you love? What do you hate? What breaks your heart? What brings you joy? How did you become who you are?

Tell your story in your marketing and you’ll stand out, you’ll get more clients, and you’ll be trusted, because you’re human.

2. Build a website about the client

Most lawyers build vanity websites. They’re a tribute to the lawyer as hero. They feature boring extended biographies about the lawyers, wrapped in superlatives about the law firm. They’re mostly generic, unappealing, alienating tomes that remind the reader of paid listings in Who’s Who.

Most law firm websites get minimal traffic, have high bounce rates, and do far more for the website vendor than for the law firm.

What if you built a site about the prospective client–their life, their problem, and their anxieties? What if you disconnected from your need to make yourself feel better and connected with your client’s need to feel better?

Let me be blunt, just to be sure we’re on the same page:

If your website has (a) a big picture of you and/or the other lawyers in your firm, or (b) the name of the firm in big letters in the upper left-hand corner, or (c) your name in big letters, it’s not about the client–it’s about you.

A client-focused website is a full-throated telling of the client’s story. It’s a tale of what it’s like to live the life they’re living, experience the problem they’re experiencing. It provides helpful information, tools, and resources that help them fix their life. A client-focused website is not one with a few sentences on the home page asking if they’re hurting and then promising to help. It’s a website fully focused on them, to the exclusion of you.

Client-focused websites win because they’re different and they resonate with the emotional needs of clients. Client-focused websites turn prospects into clients.

3. Use a non-lawyer agency

Who builds client-focused websites? Not lawyer-focused marketing agencies, that’s for sure. These agencies nearly always build marketing projects that build the lawyer’s ego instead of the lawyer’s bank balance.

I’ve long been an advocate of driving your own marketing projects using freelancers to help with the technical aspects. The agencies serving lawyers are usually so awful that I think do-it-yourself marketing tends to get better results than much of what’s done by the companies focused on helping lawyers.

But most lawyers aren’t going to do it themselves, and they’re going to hire a business specializing in servicing the marketing needs of lawyers.

Most lawyers are pretty likely to buy marketing services from whomever is most persistent at sending free cookies and asking for an appointment. Eventually you’ll put that sweet chocolate chip in your mouth and agree to a meeting.

The cookies lead us down a path and we buy the website, advertising and whatever else they’re selling. Unfortunately, they also sell the same generic, ego-filled marketing to all of the other law firms.

What if you went to an agency selling to businesses unrelated to the law? They’d likely have some different ideas and approaches. Sure, they’d have to be brought up to speed on legal ethics issues and other specific concerns. But it might be worth it, if you could get something different.

If they’ve already got lawyer clients then they’re likely to sell you their generic ideas for lawyers. When you meet a marketing firm at a lawyer convention, stay away. When they show you a portfolio of websites for other lawyers, pass on their services. When they brag about being members of legal services marketing associations, kick them to the curb.

4. Communicate with your client

What if clients got annoyed because the law firm called them so often with status updates? Would that stand out in the marketplace?

Client #1: “I can’t get my lawyer to call me back.”

Client #2: “OMG, my lawyer won’t stop calling, emailing and texting me. She won’t leave me alone. It’s one update after another.”

Word of mouth is the most powerful marketing (it’s like social media, but in person–remember that?). People who trust you tell others they trust you, and boom! The referrals come calling.

Instead, in most law firms, clients call wondering what’s happening. “Can I get an update?” they ask. What if they didn’t have to ask that question because they already knew the answer? How would they feel about your and your service? How likely would they be to refer their friends and family?

What do clients mostly complain about? Lack of communication.

What would happen if you communicated with them weekly? What might happen if they heard from you or your team daily? How would they feel if they got a call to say “nothing happened today, but we know you’re worrying so we wanted to let you know we’re still on it”?

5. Change your fees

We still live in a world where charging differently gets you noticed. I’ve been hearing about alternative billing arrangements since my first day as a lawyer thirty years ago. Still most lawyers are billing hourly.

It’s no secret that everyone hates hourly billing–the lawyers and the clients.

But most of us still do it.

Stop. Alternative fees are a competitive advantage.

Can’t figure out how? Figure it out. Work your way around the rules, get the rules changed, find a way.

And if you can’t find a way, then change your law practice to a different model. Find a practice area which allows you to bill in a way that’s different from the others. Stand out even when it’s hard and even when it means changing the business right down to the core.

6. Build your network

Most lawyers have ridiculously shallow referral networks, built by accident and serendipity.

Most lawyers need to know to whom to refer matters. We’re constantly asked for suggestions.

You’re a lawyer. You get asked for referrals from other lawyers and community contacts. You’d like to know more lawyers so you’ve got someone to whom you can refer.

But most lawyers make minimal efforts to help other lawyers know to whom to refer.

How often do other lawyers invite you to lunch to get to know you so you can refer each other cases? Not often.

Getting out and meeting more lawyers will generate more business. Most of us assume that everyone is doing it. They’re not. If they were you’d be getting more lunch invites. You’re not.

You’ll stand out in the legal marketplace if you get out more. You’ll be the lawyer that all the other lawyers know when it comes time to make a referral.

7. End the negative client chatter

What if you built a law firm around respect for the clients? I promise you’ll stand out.

This is harder than it looks, because our clients are often a disaster. They have messed up their businesses and their lives so badly that it’s hard not to laugh about it. Some of what we witness is hysterical, if you have a dark, twisted, mean sense of humor like me.

What if you radically changed your culture?

She makes a joke about the client. Fire her. Send her packing. Let the team know you stand for the clients.

Law firms are filled with lawyers who talk shit about the clients. That’s true of firms big and small. You’ve probably done it; I certainly have.

Stop saying negative things about the people who enable your dreams.

Yep, some clients are annoying. That’s the nature of people with problems.

Let the other law firms say negative things about the clients. Be different.

And when I say “fire her” I’m not talking about firing a receptionist or administrative assistant. Fire a senior lawyer if they break the rules.

Your team watches you to figure out what you believe, and they follow your lead, based on your actions. Do you stand for your clients?

This may not sound like a marketing move, but it is.

8. Take action on experiments

Marketing only works if you do it. Do more and it’ll work more.

Hit the “send” button on the email campaign. Launch the website. Leave the voicemail.

Stop waiting to get it right. Just do it.

Your need for it to be good enough, perfect, right, or whatever story you’re telling yourself is keeping you from getting it done.

Yes, there’s risk in trying something. It’ll likely fail. But it might succeed beyond your expectations, and I can guarantee that won’t happen if you do nothing.

I’ve been selling Rosen Institute stuff full-time for a year now. Most of what I thought would work with lawyers like you–hasn’t. The revenues are, however, pouring in, from campaigns and experiments I didn’t think would work. If I had trusted my instincts, we’d be tiny in comparison to where we are now. That’s why we keep experimenting.

You are not your market–you don’t always know what’s going to resonate. Try things. Let the market tell you what works.

9. Put marketing first

What if you built the law firm around the marketing instead of treating it as a secondary task to be completed when time allows? Most law firms treat the legal work as the star of the show. The marketing is treated as a supporting actor in most firms.

Law firms, understandably, focus on getting the legal work done and squeeze in the marketing, management, technology, and finance issues when they have time. I get it.

But what if the marketing was the focus? I understand that this is a radically different way to think about the standard business philosophy of a law firm, but we’re talking about being different and standing out, so I’m being radical.

What if, instead of outsourcing the marketing, we outsourced the legal work?

What if you woke up every morning worrying about the marketing metrics instead of the client deadlines?

What if you spent hours talking to prospective clients about their stories so you could refine your marketing message instead of interviewing witnesses for client matters?

Yep, radical idea. But you’ll stand out in your marketplace.

10. Get rid of your partner

When I meet a lawyer who’s wiling to try something different, it usually lasts until the first conversation with his or her law partner. That’s the first line of resistance we encounter, and the idea usually dies right then.

Fire your partner–it’s not going to work. It’s hard enough for one of us to agree to break out of the mold. Getting two lawyers to agree to be different together is nearly impossible.

How much time to you spend managing your partners? Quit doing it. It’s counterproductive. Use that time to market legal services.

Half of my conversations with law firm partnerships involve resolving issues between the partners. Most partnerships don’t add value. They’re redundant, or worse, value destroyers.

If you do family law and have a partner doing criminal law you’re not a “full-service” law firm–you’re an ambiguous mess that the market can’t understand because you lack a clear mission.

Don’t work it out, don’t compromise, don’t work around the challenges–end it, walk away, move on. Being different is hard. Getting agreement among lawyer partners is even harder.

Here’s why you’ll do nothing instead

It’s easier, more comfortable, and less mentally challenging to do it the same way as the others. They’ll accept you, you get some business anyway, and you’ll still get to tell everybody you’re a lawyer.

By conforming, we get to be the treasurer of our bar association, we get certificates for volunteering on pro bono committees, we get selected to speak at a Law Day event.

Sure, we may not have the same level of financial security, a business we can sell when we’re ready, or the benefits that come from optimizing our work: health, happier relationships, better opportunities, and more fulfilling lives. But we’ll be comfortable in our lives of familiarity, convenience, and ease.

Being different requires effort. It’s a push. It’s challenging, stressful, and exhausting. Being the same results in a good, but not great, outcome. That’s fine for many. But is it fine for you?

Being different is hard. Only you can know if it’s worth it to you. Is it?

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