The 4 Hour Reputation, and How I Built My Zoning Law Practice

[Editor's Note: I wrote a piece about my zoning practice a little awhile back and then decided not to publish it. However, a few days ago I read this article by Rachel Rodgers in Forbes magazine. Her advice to other lawyers? Ditch the physical office and use social media to manufacture a reputation online, just like Tim Ferriss suggests in the book 4 Hour Work Week. The 4 Hour Expert method involves self creating publicity, and then using that publicity to perpetuate your self proclaimed "expertise." The idea behind the 4 Hour Expert isn't to acquire any actual expertise - just trick people into thinking you have them.

So who is Rachel Rodgers, and why is she in Forbes magazine?

To her credit, Rachel has implemented the 4 Hour Work Week model successfully. She started her own virtual law practice (called a "VLO" by cool fancy people), and declared it to be a success, thereby becoming a self-proclaimed authority on starting a VLO. How did she "become so successful?" According to this video (scroll to 19:45), Rachel initially used HARO (Help A Reporter Out) to get mentioned by a few "entrepreneur magazines", including Forbes and MSNBC, which she then used as "proof" that she is an authority. It was a great story for the press - young lawyer starts a fresh new law firm on the internet and becomes successful. However, it all sort of fell apart when put under some scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Rachel became a "4 hour expert" in starting virtual law offices by generating publicity for herself, and then using that publicity to manufacture expertise in starting VLOs. Now she sells the same "4 Hour" model to other people, which you can do with just about any area of law. But is the 4 Hour method really worth anything to a law practice in the long run...?]

Hank looked in his beer, dejected as usual…

“What’s wrong?” I asked him, although I knew the answer. Hank always complained about how much he hates law. Hank started his own practice a few years ago after being laid off from a large law firm. The decision to go out on his own was more of a necessity than anything, but his foray into solo practice had never taken off.
“Everything sucks. I hate the practice of law. I don’t have any clients, and the ones I have all suck.”
I’m not sure what type of law Hank practices. Every time I ask him he just says ‘Anything that pays.’
“Sorry to hear that.”
“I gotta do something. I’m tired of going into landlord tenant court trying to explain to the judge that it was reasonable for my client not to pay rent because the landlord didn’t fix the toilet seat for a few days. But I need to keep the lights on. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“So what’s your plan? What type of law do you want to practice?” I asked him.
“I hear employment law is good. I think I’ll try that.”
“Do you actually know anything about employment law?”
“Well no… but who cares about that? As long as I get clients in I’ll figure it out.”
“So… how do you plan on becoming an employment law attorney?”

Hank is always looking for a quick fix. He never wants to put in the time to learn how to do something new, because work takes away from his other hobbies.

“Well, from what I’ve read, I need to increase my social media presence. I’m going to blog and Tweet about employment law like crazy. This will make people think I’m an expert in employment law. Lexis said they can do a thing called “SEO” so when people search for an employment lawyer in Philadelphia, I’ll come up.”
“So you want to trick people into thinking you’re a bona fide employment lawyer using social media, eh?”
“Errr… it sounds so sleazy when you say it like that.”
“Social media is stupid for generating business anyway. You won’t get any good calls from people who find you on the internet. Trust me.”
“Dude, I see you on Twitter all the time, and people have mentioned your blog at bar networking events! You’re such a hypocrite. And you guys definitely have a ‘brand’.”
“Look, let me be honest with you. Those things are mostly for fun. Social media what I do to distract myself from real work. They’re a total waste when it comes to generating clients. As for our ‘brand’? I hired local artists to do that stuff more for fun than anything. It hasn’t gotten us any business, but it’s pretty cool. Same reason my office is decorated in local art.”

Hank began to look dejected again. “Well let me ask you this… your zoning practice seems to be doing well. I just read about something you did in the newspaper. Zoning seems like a good area of law, but I could never get into that. How did you get into that?”

Interesting question. I hadn’t thought about it until he asked me.

“Well, it’s kind of a long story. When I moved to Fishtown in 2006 I was living alone. I was bored, so I needed something to do. I started going to Fishtown Neighborhood Association meetings. After I got to know people a few years into it, I decided to get active in and volunteer on committees. The Zoning Committee made a lot of sense to me because it involved law.”
“Did you know anything about zoning law?”
“Nope. Not a damn thing. At first, I just went to the zoning committee meetings and listened. I know it sounds weird, but I began to enjoy zoning – it’s a mix of politics, community organizing, and law. So I took a few CLEs on zoning and signed up for free courses offered to residents by the city. As time went on, I became immersed the zoning process – from both a black letter law perspective and a practical standpoint. I also volunteered to attend hearings at the Zoning Board of Adjustment on behalf of the civic association. This let me get my feet wet participating in hearings while getting to know other zoning lawyers and developers. To do the hearings, I had to learn the Zoning Code inside and out. After awhile, I realized I knew a lot about zoning law – how the entire process works from start to finish, based in my involvement on zoning committee. But keep in mind that I’ve volunteered unpaid countless hours into being active in the zoning process. I still spend every single Tuesday night at Zoning Committee meetings that last for hours. My wife loves it…”

“Okay… so you learned all about zoning by being involved in local civic associations. Great. But how did you get clients?”
“They just sort of came. I began to meet all the developers through various committee meetings, hearings, and just generally being involved. I wrote to City Council a few times with suggestions about the revisions to the Zoning Code, and some of my stuff ended up in the newspaper. People just started to call me with their zoning issues because I’m involved in it.”
“You didn’t advertise?”
“Nope. Never. I may write a blog post about the proposed revisions to the new Zoning Code, but that’s just because I’m interested in the subject matter. I doubt potential zoning clients will even read the post. I meet most of my potential clients out and about in town, at civic meetings, and at activities that involve developers or architects. When you’re active with stuff that involves zoning, your phone will ring with potential zoning clients. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Hank sighed. “That sounds like it took a really long time to do. How am I supposed to do that?”

“I dunno. But that’s the way it works. You can either put the time in, learn the material, and get good at what you do… or you can pretend like you’re good on the internet.”
“Yeah, but I just need clients and money. I’ll learn it as I go along.”
“Hank, trust me on this. If you’re just pretending on the internet, the second you make a presentation before a tribunal everyone will know you’re a fraud. When I’m at a community hearing, or a hearing before the ZBA, I can tell you instantly if I’m dealing with a bona fide zoning lawyer or a fraud. And if you’re a fraud, all the SEO and Google juice in the world won’t save you when you don’t know where to sit, or the tribunal asks you a question you’re not competent to answer. And then your former clients will never hire you again or recommend you to anyone. You might get a few phone calls with a manufactured reputation right out of the gate, but that’s no way to build a thriving practice. You gotta put the time in and learn the material inside and out. There is no substitute. Otherwise what are your clients hiring you for?”
“Ugh, I just can’t win…”
“You know, we’re looking for volunteers on Zoning Committee. I could sure use a hand, and it would be great if someone else could cover some of the hearings…”
“I’d love to, but I play poker on Tuesday nights… sorry dude.”

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3 Responses to The 4 Hour Reputation, and How I Built My Zoning Law Practice

  1. Keith Lee says:

    You and Leo – always with your “hard work,” getting to know people, being involved with your community, etc. It’s like you don’t expect the world to hand you everything on a silver platter. I mean, that’s why we all went to law school, right?

  2. But the 4-hour method seems so much easier. I can just put up a website with a picture of myself looking smug, tweet ALOT, and the clients will just come rolling in. Right? I don’t even have to live in a state where I am licensed b/c I have a VLO. That way when I screw something up it will be harder for clients to do much about it. Heck, they don’t even know where I am. This is awesome!

    And, if it doesn’t work out then I can just put up a website and teach these neat tricks to new law grads who don’t know any better. Actually, that might be easier. I think I’ll do that.

  3. [...] more information about these plans, see the Philly Law Blog, image (screen capture) placed here for archive and informational purposes [...]

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