How’s Business?

Oh cool. Lawyers who advertise on the free section of Craigslist. They must all be very good lawyers.

Last night I organized a happy hour quizzo at Luke’s Bar, the bar closest to my house. My friend Big Mike does one of Philadelphia’s best quizzos ever. I was out with a lawyer friend of mine who has been on his own for about four or five years. Inevitably, two lawyers hanging out a a bar will begin to talk shop. Naturally, at one point he turned to me and said:

“So how’s business?”
“Pretty good. Hoping it keeps up.” Me and Leo started our law firm at the beginning of this year. Although I’m still driving a 2004 Honda Civic, and several of my dress shirts came from the thrift store (they’re Brooks Brothers, so shut up), the firm has exceeded my expectations so far. That said, I don’t expect much from my practice, either. I’m happy as long as the bills are paid. If we make lots of money that’s good, but if we don’t that’s fine, too. Me and Leo have never approached starting our firm from the perspective of “How can we make a million dollars?” In fact, I knew leaving a traditional law firm and starting my own practice would cause my income to drop, and I’m okay with that.

My buddy looked in his beer, kind of deflated, and said, “Business sucks for me. I dropped a lot of money on a YellowPages ad and didn’t get much from it. I’m thinking about hiring a marketing coach or something. Maybe I’ll get Yodle.”
“That’s stupid.” Don’t get me started on lawyer advertising after I’ve had a few beers…
“Okay, then how am I supposed to get more clients?”My buddy doesn’t get out of the house very much. He goes to work, does whatever, and then goes home and plays video games most days.
“I don’t know. Network?” God I hate talking shop at the bar. “But spamming the internet with crap seems like a waste, even if it makes the phone ring. Plus it makes you look scuzzy. I’d also imagine some of your good clients will be turned off by that.”
“Where are you getting most of your clients right now?” I asked.
“I put free ads on Craigslist. I also get them through the bar association referral service. That’s about it.” he said.
“So you’re spamming the internet on Craigslist, and it’s not doing much for you. And you want to pay Yodle to do that more? What’s the definition of ‘crazy’ again?”
“Well, you seem to be busy. Where do you guys get all your clients, anyway?”
“Dunno. I haven’t thought about it much…”

Today it’s Saturday. I’m at my office doing work, which is good because we have enough work that it necessitates me working on a Saturday. As a distraction, I read Greenfield’s article, “When Splinters Hurt“. According to Greenfield:

People don’t go to these marketing conferences because they want to learn how to be dignified. They go because they want to get clients, and they want to get clients because they want money. And if they want clients and money enough to go to conferences, they want it pretty badly. And they will do whatever they have to do to get it. When the sweet rhetoric of dignity doesn’t make them rich, they push a little farther, until one day they find themselves walking the boulevard in hot pants.

I wonder if my buddy is going to hire the marketing consultant and throw dignity to the side. It probably would help his phone start to ring…

But we don’t do that stuff. So where does our business come from? Today I decided to do a quick running tally. Here is where our business hasn’t come from:

Twitter: Though Twitter has provided me a lot of lulz. It’s a good distraction from my real work. Not much else.
Philly Law Blog: Though some of my current clients and lawyer friends have said, “I read your blog and I love it!” This makes me feel happy. That said, I’m sure it’s also turned off potential clients, but I don’t really care. I probably should. In any case, I’ve never had someone call me and say “I read your blog. I’d like to hire you.”
Facebook: Leo made a “The Fishtown Lawyers” Facebook page. It’s stupid. It’s resulted in 0 clients. I don’t know why we have it, but we do. The only thing it’s been useful for is getting to say “Ha! Ha! I like my own law firm!” Which seems kind of stupid, but my friends laughed at it.
Craigslist: Do you really think we would put up a free Craigslist ad? That’s for losers, and it will never ever happen. Period. Why? Because it’s undignified, that’s why. And yes, you are a total loser if you’re putting up free classified ads for legal services on Craigslist. I don’t care if it resulted in a client or two. It’s where people go to find hookers and meet people with weird fetishes. Do you really want to advertise professional services there? [Update] When I first started practicing law, I was told by an older attorney to troll Craigslist. I will admit, I got two great clients from it. In both cases, I decided to respond to an “I need help desperately ad.” That disclosure out of the way, we’re not a firm that finds clients on Craigslist.
Advertising: Total budget: $100. Total clients: 0. $60 was for an ad in the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division 51 St. Patrick’s Day Parade ad book. I’m a member of Division 51. The ad book helps keep our St. Patrick’s Day parade going and affordable. Next year I will gladly pay $200 for a big green ad, knowing it won’t have any return, to keep our parade awesome. We are also spending about $40 to raffle stuff off at the Fishtown “Meet the Neighbors” event; I’m on the organizing committee. We are always willing to place ads if the proceeds will help local businesses or organizations. They usually don’t result in any business.
Search Engine Optimization (“SEO”): Sounds stupid. We don’t have that. Everyone keeps trying to sell it to us, though.
Website: Leo made our website himself. Beth Blinebury Design made our logo. It didn’t cost us anything. One day we’ll update the website, but that is at the back of our priority list. I’ve never had someone call and say “I found your website. Will you be my lawyer?”
Fancy Swag: Leo made some coasters last year and distributed them to the bars. Since then, I got new coasters from Kleibography, a cool local Fishtown photographer Meredith Kleiber. Coasters with Meredith’s photographs of Philadelphia now adorn my desk. I like them and they make me happy.
Billboards / SEPTA bus ads: I would actually consider getting one of these, but just to be funny. My friends would get a kick out of it.

So yeah, you’ve read that right. We have a free website, no SEO optimization, no Twitter presence, no billboards, I don’t know how to use LinkedIn, and we’ve paid about $100 this year for advertising. I refuse to spam the internet with crap like “Do you need a lawyer?” And business is decent.

I’m sure folks like Adrian Dayton (before becoming a lawyer “marketing guru”, did that guy ever sign up any of his own clients?) Rachel Rodgers, and Susan Cartier Liebel are shocked. How does that happen? Shouldn’t we be drowning? Shouldn’t I be saying I’m a super important, experienced, widely recognized badass bulldog attorney (after about 4 whole years of practice, but who has to know that, right?) on every social media outlet I can find? Don’t I want to make a billion dollars this year?

Meh.

Our “model” is referral based. Referrals are based on a concept called “trust.” Meaning other lawyers, friends, neighbors, and family members have said “Give these guys a call. They’re pretty good at what they do. They will take good care of you.” About 99% of our clients have come in through the door through a referral. And we’re going to keep it that way.

While we haven’t spent much money on advertising, SEO, and branding, we have spend tremendous amount of time at happy hours, neighborhood events, charity events, speaking engagements, and supporting civic organizations. You know, building real relationships with real people. We are usually out and about three or four days a week doing something that involves engaging other people, in person, face to face. In terms of where we have spent money, it’s gone into buying people lunches, maintaining a physical office (with phones, filing cabinets, etc.), buying legal books, taking good CLEs, and taking on pro bono cases through PhillyVIP. (Alright, admittedly, Leo also spent money and bought an iPad but he’s a loser and no one loves him.).

As for our “branding”, it comes down to one thing: how can we serve our clients better? Are we returning each telephone call and email before the day is over? Are we keeping our clients informed of how their matter is progressing? Are there any client matters we should be doing a better job with? Are our clients happy with our services? Are we dedicating a significant enough of our time and resources into becoming better lawyers? Are we staffed appropriately for our needs? “How can we serve our clients better?” is one question we are constantly evaluating. Because our “brand” is our reputation.

So yes, it’s possible to get clients and have a law practice, even as a young lawyer, without having to stoop to hot pants and the boulevard. Really. It is. I promise. But it takes a lot of work. And it means tightening the belt for awhile. You also have to be willing to turn paying clients away because you don’t think you’ll do a good job, or you know that a different lawyer would be more appropriate. That is called “integrity.”

That said, I will be perfectly honest – we could be making more money right now by doing that marketing stuff. I recognize that. The phone would ring more, and I’m sure some of those callers would turn into firm clients. So why are we willing to “leave money on the table?”

Because it’s undignified, that’s why. People refer us work because they trust us. They know we don’t see their friends and family members as dollars signs. And because of that, we have great clients who trust our judgment, pay their bills, and don’t threaten an ethics complaint for not responding to their email within 20 minutes. It’s also important for me, as a human being, to remain someone who people trust. And if we began spamming the internet with “HIRE US!” ads, I can only imagine that our good clients would be less hesitant to trust us.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t go to law school to be “that guy” on the side of a billboard. I’d rather develop respect among the community, and a reputation for being a good lawyer. So marketing isn’t what we do here. And we never will. Because like Greenfield said:

The belief that lawyers can somehow control their worst impulses, engage in marketing yet conduct themselves with dignity, is a fantasy. There is no conceptual ledge that stops lawyers from sliding down the slippery slope into the gutter at the bottom. If one lawyer puts up a “dignified” ad, the lawyer next door will find a way to undercut him. And so the downward spiral goes, as they race to the bottom.

While our approach hasn’t made us rich by any stretch of the imagination, I’m proud of the work I do, the clients we serve, and the results we achieve.

And I’m also happy to tell you that we’re not starving, either…

12 Responses to How’s Business?

  1. RTK says:

    You have to enjoy being a lawyer for your method of marketing to work. If you enjoy it, then other lawyers or people will be able to tell and will refer you work. It is, without a doubt, the best way to build a successful practice. I’d be willing to bet that the attorneys who are the big time players in SEO marketing, and analogous strategies, don’t much like the actual practice of law. But, they’re stuck in it, so they might as well slut it up to bring in some clients. You can’t fake passion, and some lawyers will never have it and,as a result, they’re wasting their time if they think referrals are going to be their marketing method.

  2. […] Rushie, one of the Fishtown Lawyers who writes the Philly Law Blog, put up a post yesterday about bringing in clients. These were his thoughts about craigslist: Do you really think […]

  3. Rob Switzer says:

    I’m a new solo attorney, about a year out (couldn’t find a job), and I advertise on Craigslist. I don’t see what’s wrong with it. I don’t troll it; I occasionally post a tasteful ad, maybe once or twice a week. And occasionally, I get a decent client out of it. Probably a couple of my best clients found me that way.

    I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to, as I’m not that big a fan of advertising myself. But why is it so different than other advertising? As a newby start-up, where are you supposed to find a steady client base? It’s very difficult. Free ads are an obvious starting point.

    • True story…

      I picked up a good client on Craigslist a few years ago. I did a bang up job on his case, even against biglaw. He was like “You are the best lawyer ever, I am going to refer everyone to you.” The client kept his word and sent me a lot of work over the years.

      I had a meeting with someone he sent to me. After the meeting, it went down like this:

      “So how did you and Joe Client meet?”
      “It’s a funny story. I reached out to an ad he put on Craigslist.”
      “…so you’re a Craigslist lawyer?”
      “Errr, no. I just felt like reaching out to the ad.”
      “But you met on Craigslist…”
      “Yeah.”
      “…thanks.”

      Never called.

      In my opinion, you are better off going to bar association events, happy hours, or even posting on legal blogs than you are posting ads on Craigslist. Although the Craigslist ad will keep the lights on, now, you don’t want to develop a reputation as a “Craigslist lawyer.”

      Same reason I don’t handle traffic tickets (except for already existing clients) or market at all. Your reputation is the most important thing you have in this business. You don’t want to be selling your services in the same place where people go to get hookers. People will look down on you.

      You want to be a reputable attorney who people take important matters to. That means a little sacrifice, and not taking every single thing that walks through the door.

      That’s my two cents.

      • Rob Switzer says:

        I really appreciate the prompt and thorough reply. I saw the post you put on Matt Brown’s blog. Are you full of these cheap-marketing-biting-you-in-the-ass stories?

        I believe in what you’re saying and I’m trying to be that respectable type of lawyer. I don’t like advertising and hate having to deal with marketing, and am sick of marketing salesmen calling me. I recently got called by Yodle, and when I told them I’m on a shoestring budget and couldn’t afford their services even if I wanted them, the saleswoman asked, “Well what are you doing for advertising?” I told her most of my business is referrals, from friends, family, or other attorneys. She sounded puzzled, like I was speaking in a foreign language.

        But when you go by a few weeks without a single new client, it can be hard. At a certain point you’re staring complete insolvency in the face. I think Matt Brown got it right with his gambling metaphor. Posting ads on Craigslist might hurt in the future as you describe, but it might not. But I feel like I was already gambling by hanging a shingle (and unbeknownst to me at the time, it turns out I was gambling by even going to law school). And sometimes I feel like I need to gamble a little more to keep the lights on. Hopefully I’ll get over the hump soon and not look back.

        Also, you said that great Craisglist client sent you a lot of work over the years. Was getting him and handling his case really a net negative in the end?

  4. That is why, in my opinion, it’s a really bad idea to start a law firm right out of law school with no money in the bank. You end up having to take desperate measures in order to keep the lights on.

    When I started my firm, I had been out of school for about four years. I had a network of friends, referral sources, family members, and there are several organizations I’m involved in.

    The problem is, if you take on lots of traffic ticket cases, or Craigslist clients, you’re going to be viewed as a low end attorney struggling to get $500 from anyone who can pay you. Making matters worse, you aren’t going to meet other “high speed” lawyers in traffic court, either. Your entire network is going to be bottom feeders – bottom feeding clients and other bottom feeding lawyers. You’ll keep the lights on for the month, sure, but it’s not helping you build a good reputation.

    When people have important matters, do you think they’re going to hire you to handle them? When attorneys refer out important matters, who do you think they will refer them to? The guy who puts up all the Craigslist ads? No, they’re going to ask around for the most reputable guys in town.

    If you want to gamble, I’d try something else. Organize an event in your neighborhood. For example, I organized the Quizzo described in this post. Cost is nominal, exposure is great. I don’t mind being “the guy who organizes the Friday happy hour quizzo”. It’s better than “the guy who puts all those ads up on Craigslist.” Join your area business owner’s association and run for a position. Join several civic groups in your area. Write personal letters to all the local businesses letting them know you’re in town. (“Dear Joe’s Pizza: I love the pizza at your establishment! You guys have the best wings in town. Just wanted to drop you a letter saying ‘hello!’, and if you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to reach out.”) Or better yet, just meet the owner of the place, chat with them, and then let it come out naturally and you’re a young lawyer with your own practice. You’ll meet people and six months down the road they have a great case for you.

    You can’t expect instant gratification when it comes to good clients. It doesn’t work like that. And that’s the problem with being undercapitalized – you’re desperate. Which is why I recommend not starting a law firm if you don’t have money to do it right.

    While I’m a huge risk taker, Craigslist ads are gambling with your reputation.

    • Rob Switzer says:

      I agree, and I’ve fought that desperation pretty hard. I’ve actually turned down a number of cases because I didn’t feel comfortable with the case or with the client.

      But to quote Greenfield in a post a while back about solo’ing out of law school, “the game has changed.” There are no jobs. I actually had a job lined up before I graduated, which was rare in my 4th Tier class. It was a legal aid job, which was basically a dream job for me, even if it wasn’t well paying. I got a call six weeks before my start date telling me that the board realized they had to cut a bunch of positions, including my own. They sent me a $2,000 “termination assistance” check and an apology.

      What are people in my position supposed to do? I’m starting to think maybe I should have just held out for a job. But I felt like then I’d be risking never getting a chance to use my law degree, like so many of my cohorts who are now two years out and have never practiced law, and probably never will. (One of my best friends from law school is stuck working at a coffee shop.) I thought I could just start practicing and keep looking for a job, and my boldness and experience would make me attractive. But now I’m wondering if I just look like a reckless failed solo seeking a bailout: I’ve kept my eyes open for positions that seem to suit me, but I usually don’t even get an interview.

      Before I took the dive into solo practice, I drove a cab for about six months, and kept looking for a job. Nothing. So I put up the shingle after occasionally reading stories about people successfully doing it on a shoestring. I like to think of myself as exceptionally capable and diligent, so I figured I could do it. I didn’t expect it to be quite so hard. Aaaand so I post on Craigslist.

      I appreciate your taking the time to converse with me. Love your blog. Your post on solo practice was epic.

      • I hate to get all Scott Greenfield on you, but the practice of law doesn’t exist to serve you. It doesn’t.

        “What are people in my position supposed to do?”

        Honestly, I don’t know. And it sucks. Because I understand you went to law school to be a lawyer, there are no jobs. and starting a solo practice on a shoestring budget without experience, capital, and a big social network is very difficult.

        Personally, I would have held out for a job. If you’re absolutely adamant about solo practice, and I mean adamant, start advertising to other attorneys and offer to do “per diem” stuff. Cover discovery hearings, status conferences, rule returnable hearings, that sort of thing.

        Although my partner Leo started his practice on a shoestring budget right out of law school, I let him sublet my office (fully furnished, including printers, scanners, etc.) from 2010 – 2012 free of charge. I also infused the firm with a bit of capital and pre-existing clients when we partnered up.

        “I thought I could just start practicing and keep looking for a job, and my boldness and experience would make me attractive. But now I’m wondering if I just look like a reckless failed solo seeking a bailout: I’ve kept my eyes open for positions that seem to suit me, but I usually don’t even get an interview.”

        Problems with that…

        You have to totally 100% commit to a solo practice. I have dumped every penny I have ever made into this. We’re talking savings, wedding money, law firm bonuses, etc. I pay myself just enough to live off of each month, because any additional profit goes right back into the firm. If you’re just kind of doing the solo thing half hearted, it’s never going to work.

        It’s imperative that you show up to your office every morning in a suit and tie and treat it like you have a full time job. Then at night, you need to be out meeting people – bar association events, happy hours, civic associations, anything that puts you in touch with people. If you go home and play video games every night, you’re not going to meet any potential clients.

  5. Rob Switzer says:

    Thanks again for sharing so much advice with me. I do a fair amount of contract or “per diem” work, and that helps a lot. I try to be really active as a lawyer: in a bunch of organizations and on several listservs/forums, and so on, and I’ve gotten a ton of contract work and even a few referrals through that.

    Regarding your last point: I’ve heard that several times. I do need to take it to heart, I suppose. Generally, I do dedicate myself to this full-throttle. But with the slow periods comes a lot of free time and worry, and that’s when the job scans tend to happen.

  6. The above comments have been an education themselves. I will say that one of the best-regarded DC criminal defense lawyers advertises on Craigslist. I haven’t, but just because I don’t have time.

  7. […] to figure out how to delete it. A craigslist experience similar to my Avvo experience can be found here (actually, there’s a better one out there somewhere that analogizes finding a good client on […]

  8. D. Nguyen says:

    I am in desperate need of pro bono lawyer and/or assistance in this matter here, http://www.gofundme.com/k22w4g

    Can anyone of you help and/or know of someone you can refer me for assistance?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: