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?
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…