Plumbing The Depths of Legal Marketing: What Does the ABA Think You Should Do To Get Clients?

Law Practice

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.

  1. 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.  

Last 5 posts by Ken White

46 Comments

43 Comments

  1. perlhaqr  •  Jun 28, 2013 @9:37 am

    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.

    <3

  2. Orville  •  Jun 28, 2013 @9:44 am

    … 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.

    So true.

  3. Adria  •  Jun 28, 2013 @10:05 am

    The advice about blogging frequently because Google favors fresh content isn't even true.

    So, not only is the ABA providing creepy, embarrassing advice, but some of it is also completely wrong and a waste of time.

    BTW, whenever you publish your link spam emails, I send them around to my team (we do SEO). We love ponies.

  4. jdgalt  •  Jun 28, 2013 @10:06 am

    From the consumer's point of view, the problem with attorneys is the same as the problem with doctors, banks, accountants, and insurance companies: they're "confusopolies" (Scott Adams' term). That is, it's impossible to comparison-shop, both because nearly all of their work is custom-tailored to a client's needs, and because nearly all of it carries enough potential embarassment to the client that no one wants to talk about his experience, good or bad, with one of these service providers, nor can most of them provide testimonials. (And conversely, the difficulty of each client's case varies so widely that a provider's "batting average," even if you knew it for all of them, wouldn't be very useful.)

    I don't know a good answer for this problem, except to try to simplify the system so that people need all these services less often.

  5. JTG  •  Jun 28, 2013 @10:35 am

    Is it possible that this is the result of one of the ABA's servers getting hacked? Or just that their calendars are off and they think it's April 1?

  6. W Buddha  •  Jun 28, 2013 @11:48 am

    "I would rather make money by stomping pet kittens absconded from orphanages"

    Dude! You just got added to PETA's 'Do-Not-Hire' list

  7. mojo  •  Jun 28, 2013 @12:25 pm

    "Name?"
    "Shropshire Slasher."
    "Occupation?"
    "Shropshire Slasher."

  8. Turk  •  Jun 28, 2013 @12:28 pm

    The scariest part is that #13 may be an ethical violation, depending on where/when it is sent.

  9. BCP  •  Jun 28, 2013 @12:42 pm

    Bad marketing advice aside, page 11 has a half page photo of a creepy Cookie Monster assaulting a woman on the streets of New York, so….A+ issue.

  10. Laura  •  Jun 28, 2013 @12:54 pm

    What kind of idiot Googles "lawyers" to get a CIA microchip taken out of their brain? Everyone knows you Google "brain surgeons" for that.

  11. Jack B.  •  Jun 28, 2013 @12:55 pm

    Poor Ken.

    One day the Pony Lobby is going to need a lawyer, and thanks to Google's algorithms, Charles Carreon and Joseph Rakofsky are going to get the job. Or something like that.

  12. nlp  •  Jun 28, 2013 @1:23 pm

    I can see an interesting response to #23 (the elevator speech). "Why are you telling me that you're a lawyer? Do you think I need a lawyer? Why do you think I need a lawyer? Are you trying to tell me that just by looking at me you can tell that I need a lawyer? You know something? I'm going to sue you for pretending that you know I need a lawyer. Give me your card. You'll be hearing from my lawyer."

    A slight touch of the CIA microchip, topped with some overeagerness to take offense.

  13. machintelligence  •  Jun 28, 2013 @1:25 pm

    Marketing is what you do when what you are selling is pretty much the same as what everyone else is selling. The greater the similarity, the more you have to spend on marketing. See American beers, for example.

  14. AlphaCentauri  •  Jun 28, 2013 @1:32 pm

    @Laura,

    Just try getting an appointment with a neurosurgeon for a cerebral microchip removal. It's always, "We'll have to have the doctor talk to you before making your appointment," then they never call you back. And don't get me started about trying to get the procedure prior-authorized by your insurance. There's clearly a conspiracy among the CIA, the AMA and Big Insurance to cover up all microchip recalls.

    But it's probably pretty likely you can find a lawyer willing to at least hear you out, if not by calling the lawyer who advertises on the bus shelter, then perhaps by chatting up the one who makes your latte at Starbucks.

  15. TheOtherLisa  •  Jun 28, 2013 @1:55 pm

    I'm just curious Ken – is there any case you would consider "too trivial" to take for a client?

  16. JDDrew  •  Jun 28, 2013 @2:23 pm

    "I mace strangers who approach me on elevators. Nice to meet you."

    I am SO using that.

  17. Gbear711  •  Jun 28, 2013 @2:43 pm

    Plaid stamps, plates, and key chains.

  18. Turk  •  Jun 28, 2013 @2:44 pm

    See American beers, for example.

    Not to hijack the thread, but American beer today is vastly different than it was 20 years ago. There are a gazillion micro breweries out there making quality stuff.

  19. ChrisTS  •  Jun 28, 2013 @2:46 pm

    “Hi, I’m a lawyer. What do you do?”

    Really? Really? The ABA thinks lawyers should try to pick up clients in elevators? I would hit the alarm button fast and frequently.

  20. Jack B.  •  Jun 28, 2013 @2:58 pm

    The lawyerin' business needs the legal equivalent of Jack Chick; someone who makes cheesy tracts for lawyers to leave at bus stops, restrooms, and I guess, elevators.

  21. Ken White  •  Jun 28, 2013 @3:14 pm

    @TheOtherLisa:

    I'm just curious Ken – is there any case you would consider "too trivial" to take for a client?

    Not exactly.

    There are matters that aren't economically feasible for me to take, unless I am doing it for free as a favor.

    There are cases where I would tell the client that it's far too expensive or inconvenient and he or she would be a fool to litigate.

    There could be client requests for litigation that I consider to be unacceptably ridiculously litigious, and would decline to take.

    But I wouldn't turn down a case just because it is small per se.

  22. Ken White  •  Jun 28, 2013 @3:15 pm

    Really? Really? The ABA thinks lawyers should try to pick up clients in elevators? I would hit the alarm button fast and frequently.

    I would say "guys, don't do that," but apparently that gets you disturbed stalkers and upsets MRA types.

  23. AlphaCentauri  •  Jun 28, 2013 @3:29 pm

    Hey, you just met me
    And this is crazy
    But I'm a lawyer
    So call me, maybe?

  24. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Jun 28, 2013 @3:48 pm

    Turk;

    "There are a gazillion micro breweries out there making quality stuff."

    True. And the good ones, like good lawyers, aren't accosting people in elevators or on the internet.

  25. ChrisTS  •  Jun 28, 2013 @4:07 pm

    @Ken and Alpha Centauri:

    :-)

  26. amber  •  Jun 28, 2013 @4:23 pm

    Rule of thumb: The more advertising/marketing I see for an attorney, the more they convince me that they are too incompetent for anything more sophisticated than asking for the location of the nearest public law library.

  27. XMNR  •  Jun 28, 2013 @4:23 pm

    Hobi? I thought the plural of hobbit was hobbitses.

  28. AlphaCentauri  •  Jun 28, 2013 @4:49 pm

    Wow, just read the original. Ken only scratched the surface:

    20.) Volunteer with various legal and community groups. Do the volunteer work to the best of your ability, even if you don’t like it.

    What kind of a sociopath can't find ANY volunteer opportunity that they would enjoy doing, or that they would prefer to do a half-assed job at?

    And of course, had this one been #1 instead of #50, the list would have been a lot shorter:

    50.) Don’t brag about yourself because people won’t take you seriously. No one hires lawyers they don’t take seriously.

  29. Laura  •  Jun 28, 2013 @5:05 pm

    @AlphaCentauri Actually, I did meet a nice lawyer in an elevator the other day, but he said he couldn't take my case because it would be a conflict of interest. He's representing the CIA in their lawsuit against the microchip manufacturer; apparently the fact that I'm capable of enough independent thought to want to get rid of the chip is proof that the chip itself is defective.

  30. Deathpony  •  Jun 28, 2013 @7:58 pm

    "Hi, I'm a lawyer, what do you do?"

    "I eat the liver of any lawyer I find with some fava beans and a nice chianti. Are you…plump and free of ringworm by the way?"

  31. machintelligence  •  Jun 28, 2013 @9:34 pm

    I would say "guys, don't do that," but apparently that gets you disturbed stalkers and upsets MRA types.

    I was going to mention that when the elevator issue came up, but I was concerned the reference was a bit obscure. I needn't have worried.

  32. Anony Mouse  •  Jun 29, 2013 @2:28 am

    Lawyers? Neurosurgeons? Pfft.

    Trepanation.

    That's how the cave men got microchips from time-travelling CIA agents out of their heads, after all.

  33. TheOtherLisa  •  Jun 29, 2013 @3:03 am

    Thanks for the response Ken. I should have mentioned it was specifically from a defense position. We're probably gonna lose and it's just a DP but I feel like the truth is still the important thing.

  34. Timothy Watson  •  Jun 29, 2013 @7:02 am

    “Hi, I’m a lawyer. What do you do?”
    "Hi, my name's Guybrush Threepwood and I want to be a pirate!"

  35. JWH  •  Jun 29, 2013 @7:32 am

    RE: Solicitation over mail for criminal cases.

    I'm not sure this is entirely bad. About 15 years or so ago, I got a fairly serious speeding ticket. Not serious enough for jail time, but serious enough that it could have jacked up my insurance rates. The venue was also a good six-hour drive away from my home.

    I did receive solicitations from attorneys, and I chose one of them to represent me. They took my case, pleaded down the charge, and got me a lower fine and something that didn't jack up my insurance rates quite so much.

    Paying the lawyer coast me far less than it would have taken for me to take a day off work, drive to the venue, get a hotel room, and drive back. All in all, I considered it a pretty good bargain.

  36. MarkH  •  Jun 29, 2013 @8:12 am

    I didn't even KNOW that lawyers were an option to remove the chips. But, I don't want it removed, I just want to root it and change to an open source operating system without voiding the warranty. But would that be legal territory, or should I just ask my gardener?

    The ABA is clearly just trying to be helpful, but I think they are assuming that lawyers will just find them to read their wisdom. They could use their own marketing strategies though, such as manning a tent at traveling carnivals throughout the summer. They could hand out pamphlets to the weak, the meek, the poor, and even non-lawyers if they have leftovers. Perhaps a chainsaw juggling contest could attract new clients for their attorneys, the longer you go without losing a limb the more contacts are provided for free!

    It would be a win for everyone.

  37. AlphaCentauri  •  Jun 29, 2013 @8:38 am

    @Anony Mouse — Trephination worked in prehistoric times because the CIA had only primitive understanding of the brain. Putting the microchip in via sharp stick to the temple only gave you the ability to jerk one arm up and down — helpful when defending yourself in a fight, but not up to modern standards of mind control. A microchip delivered by micro-drone that flies up the nose and injects its payload via the cribriform plate gets it in much closer approximation to the limbic system. That plus 24 hour news channels is a pretty effective method of mass population control. However, removing it is pretty dangerous to the host. It's much better to wipe the circuits as MarkH suggests. That means you need access to the original password protection — which is where your legal team and FOIA come in.

  38. Writerguy  •  Jun 29, 2013 @10:34 am

    Number 27 is unfortunate. Full disclosure: Freelance writing is my second career after I gave up active law practice. I often write for lawyers. While 27 could lead to more demand for my services, it saddens me. The Internet needs more short, poorly-written, legal blog posts about as much as the US needs more law schools. Attorneys might think they are paying a marketer to get something useful. What normally happens is that marketer hires someone to do the writing. It is often whomever will do it the cheapest so the marketer gets a larger cut. If you are lucky, that person will do the writing. However, there is a better than 50% chance that person is an agency that will outsource the actual writing to someone who claims to be a legal expert because she watches Judge Judy daily or worse to someone in a third-world country. Again, a large cut of the price is taken. The end result will be drivel rewritten from Wikipedia or some other attorney's blog. The marketer will of course sell you on the idea that it is exactly what you need. It isn't.

    The good news is that no one of importance is likely to read the marketing blog, including the attorney, and discover that it makes the attorney sound like an idiot.

  39. Sami  •  Jun 30, 2013 @4:55 pm

    I have only had a lawyer once in my life. It was, in fact, a personal-injury case.

    He was actually great. Super-nice (to me – my vague impression of what he was like in the conference with opposing counsel, which I didn't have to attend, is that he was a viciously murderous shark, but you want that from your *own* lawyer), and got me a better result than I'd imagined possible. (Although I think he might have been privately smug about it, because he got a better result than he'd told me was the probable best-case scenario, too.)

    I chose him by the oh-so-marketeering-assisted method of: One of my mother's co-workers had previously retained his services, and said he was really good.

    I had never previously heard of him, and I kinda thought that was a good thing.

    I'm not a lawyer. Until a friend married a lawyer a few years ago, I didn't even have lawyers in my social circles. And I can still tell that some of that ABA advice is terrible, because as a general rule, a lot of us non-lawyer types assume that those aggressive marketers can be assumed to be total shysters.

    And yes – I have since recommended him to other people. Because after I talked to him and he took on my case *everything got better*.

    Marketeering doesn't make that happen.

  40. James Pollock  •  Jun 30, 2013 @11:50 pm

    "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."

    This is actually good advice, and not just for lawyers, but for anyone who runs a business. Being good is not enough. Even being the best is not enough. People who need your services need to know that you're good. It takes time to build enough word-of-mouth to sustain a business, whether it be a legal firm or a dry-cleaners, and the more commoditized your business is, the more important being aware of marketing techniqes is important. This is the sort of thing that was once part of taking on a new lawyer… you know when they start that they aren't as valuable as a good paralegal or secretary, but they have the potential to become useful, productive members of the legal community. They come in knowing close to nothing about the business of being a lawyer, and have to be taught everything about it. In return, the partners make as much or more off the new associate's billings as does the associate (and the deal is worth it for both sides.) Given the glut of new graduates over the last five years, though, why hire a mostly-useless new graduate when you can get a lateral with a couple of years' experience already? Which means that more new grads are going right into solo practice, with no apprenticeship and limited or no mentorship. Yikes.

  41. Nice rebuttal to the ABA's claptrap. These guys are basically out of touch and your comments are right on point. Talk about superficial thinking. I am very surprised at their lack of insight. I am new to your blog but it is very well done. Will be coming back.

  42. kmc  •  Jul 1, 2013 @12:23 pm

    I'm sure the ABA doesn't actually feel this way. It's probably just a guest post offered by someone who thought the organization fit perfectly with the sender's reputation and monetizing strategies.

  43. naught_for_naught  •  Jul 18, 2013 @4:14 pm

    Ken, did you mistakenly get sent to marketing camp as a child, expecting to go to space camp? Clearly, there's something more behind your invectives than reason or love for the legal profession.

    Yes the ABA piece just threw out bunch of tactics — like most click-bait marketing pieces do. Some are good, some not so good. But the piece never assets, as you say, that it's OK to "dismiss the value of good work." It's clear from the context that they are saying, in addition to doing great work, you have to promote your practice in some fashion.

    I get that the carnival barker approach is unseemly and undignified. But the implication that marketing is a black art, turning noble officers of the court into Saul Goodmans, one and all, is just wrong. A private legal practice is a business. It operates in a free market like any other business. As such it must compete with other firms for business. That requires marketing of some kind — it always has, and it always will. Anyone who says that they built their practice without marketing doesn't know what marketing is.

    As someone who has studied marketing, provides a marketing service to lawyers and now writes about it, I say that marketing is an honorable and necessary part of building a legal practice. Like the law, however, not all of its practitioners are rock stars.

3 Trackbacks