Plumbing The Depths of Legal Marketing: What Does the ABA Think You Should Do To Get Clients?
Say what you want about the American Bar Association, but it has a certain amount of credibility. The ABA may not be a locus of excellence, but it has a bajillion attorney members, it participates (for better or worse) in vetting judicial nominees, it accredits law schools, it gives fairly popular if overpriced continuing education presentations, and it publishes like a demon. If the ABA recommends a practice, that practice will be seen as normal in the legal profession, or at least not as an outlier.
Should that make us happy? No. No, it should not.
This month the ABA shares with us a collection of legal marketing strategies. I could say that I am shocked, or just disappointed, at the result, but both of those sentiments suggest an element of surprise, which I am lacking.
What is necessary for good business development, say successful lawyers and consultants who shared their strategies with the ABA Journal, is a marketing plan focused on activities you do well, targeted at the right audience and carried out consistently Give it some time, they say, and business will come.
Being genuine—and helpful, even if your actions may not offer immediate business—doesn’t hurt either.
Well! That sounds pretty positive so far. I like the "genuine" part and I am fully confident it will be sustained throughout the advice! What could go wrong?
1.) Some lawyers believe that if you do good work, people will automatically come to you. They are wrong. People need reminders.
And here we are in trouble right out of the gate. It's true, superficially, that doing good work will not always automatically, without further effort, drive enough business to sustain you. But good work should be a lawyer's first and most important focus, and will over time sustain the most reliable and highest quality referrals. Focusing on marketeering to the exclusion of good work drives low-quality unreliable referrals who can't be counted on to stay with you (or, for that matter, to pay you).
For the ABA to dismiss the value of good work so cavalierly, and so quickly, is disturbing. The ABA's power means that it sets norms not just for how lawyers act, but for how clients choose lawyers. Clients should choose lawyers primarily because reliable sources indicate they do good work, not because they are good at marketing.
4.) If you have a practice-related blog, write posts with information that’s truly useful to business targets. More often than not, that doesn’t include descriptions of how competent you or your firm are.
Here the ABA pushes the notion of blogging as marketing. Blogging can play a role in marketing. It can play that role when you write substantive blog posts that convey, to an informed audience, your dedication to and command of an area of law. Unfortunately, as you will see below, that's generally not the type of blog posts that marketeers recommend.
Many, if not most, consumers of legal services can't evaluate whether a blog post about a legal subject is accurate or full of shit. Certain informed consumers can make that evaluation — sophisticated repeat clients, general counsel, other lawyers looking for someplace to refer a case, and the like. To impress them, you need to know what you are talking about, and write about it in a substantive way, not in a vapid marketeering way. Check out #27 and #33, below, to see how the ABA's advice defeats this.
13.) Providing they label it attorney advertising, personal injury lawyers may send ad letters to accident victims. And arrest reports can offer good leads for criminal defense lawyers. Family law attorneys may send advertising letters to pro se defendants in divorce cases, determining who to contact based on parties’ ZIP codes.
And I may, legally, market by standing on a street corner whispering racial invective at passers-by. That doesn't mean I should. I would rather make money by stomping pet kittens absconded from orphanages1 than make money by soliciting accident victims or the recently arrested for work. I'm horrified to see the ABA endorsing it. It not only demeans the profession: by suggesting it is acceptable, the ABA suggests that citizens might reasonably choose a lawyer who has solicited them this way. If you are arrested, and you're inclined to hire one of the criminal defense lawyers who sends you automatic junk mail as a consequence, I recommend that you go pro se and save your money for your prison commissary account to buy tuna, deodorant, and cigarettes to trade with white supremacist gangs for fleeting moments of safety.
16.) Criminal defense lawyers: If an attorney in a different practice area has been a great referral source and their kid gets into trouble, think about handling the case for free.
I have no problem with this advice. I have a problem with it being classified as marketing advice.
23.) The best elevator speech? “Hi, I’m a lawyer. What do you do?”
"I mace strangers who approach me on elevators. Nice to meet you."
27.) If you have a website (and you should), have a blog, too. Add new content daily, because Google algorithms give more prominence to sites with fresh, original content. The content doesn’t have to be in the form of a long, researched post. A paragraph or two, with a recent link to something interesting and relevant to your practice, will get you the same amount of traffic—if not more—than longer posts.
No doubt. But what kind of traffic? Here's what the marketeers don't tell you: most lawyers with an internet presence find that the vast majority of potential client inquiries they get from Google search hits are people who (1) need a different lawyer, or a different price point, or (2) are utterly unsuited as clients. Search-engine traffic is primarily useful to lawyers who have a practice based on high-volume, lower-cost, relatively generic work. Lawyers with more specialized, expensive, or individualized practices will mostly draw unsuitable clients. By unsuitable, I mean — with all respect to the clients — people who want things you can't give them, people who don't want to pay your rates, and people who want CIA microchips taken out of their brains.
Now, your internet presence is good for something. It's good when someone who has been referred to you by a reliable method, not by Google, is checking you out. When that person referred to you by a friend or former client or former opposing attorney is looking at your blog, do you want them to see a steady hum of short, low-substance pap?
30.) A reputation as a stand-up person is the best marketing tool. It takes a whole lifetime to build up that reputation and only one negative incident to destroy it.
This is true. But how is it consistent with, for instance, telling lawyers it is acceptable to market by soliciting accident victims and criminal defendants?
33.) Never criticize a company by name in a blog post. You never know when that company might be in a position to hire you.
This is fantastic advice. After all, when someone is charged with a crime, or sued, the first thing they say is "I need to look for a really inoffensive lawyer to help me."
You can definitely go around thinking you shouldn't say anything bad about Bank of America or Halliburton because they might hire you any day now. You can definitely write a blog taking pains never to say anything that can offend anyone. Or you can write passionately about things you care about. I'll take the people who chose me because they know that I have the capacity to be outraged, that I hate bullies, that injustice bothers me. The ABA can take the clients that are easily offended.
35.) Have an office that’s convenient to reach. Being near the courthouse may not be the best place because there’s rarely free parking.
The parking in my building is outrageously expensive. But I can walk to court in five minutes. The cost of parking in my building is substantially less expensive than the cost of my time to drive to a more distant courthouse and park. If I cared less about being effective for clients, and more about getting a high volume of potential clients in the door, I could move elsewhere.
50.) Don’t brag about yourself because people won’t take you seriously. No one hires lawyers they don’t take seriously.
Also true. But also inconsistent with the rest of the advice. People don't like, or take seriously, or trust, people who market aggressively or who are visibly straining to market with an expression like a baby taking a dump. Nobody trusts an eager gladhander.
We write about legal marketing here a fair amount, and one of the concerns we express is that there is a legal subculture that celebrates search engine optimization over substance, to the detriment of the profession and its clients. The ABA is hardly pushing back against that trend.
- I was going to say "I would rather fellate hobi in the park for pocket change," but as I've read the work of people who advocate for the rights and interests and human dignity of sex workers, I've grown steadily less comfortable with "whore" metaphors. Plus, even if I held the most judgmental and disdainful view of prostitutes, it would still be unfair to compare them to the lawyers who solicit accident victims or arrestees. ▲
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