Electronic Collaborative Marketing: Leveraging Technology to Grow a Solo Practice or Small Firm

By Edward Rholl

Some time ago I pulled up to a four-way stoplight in suburban San Diego. Two cars were next to me, another behind me, and two were facing me across the intersection. Every driver was talking on a cell phone. I had an epiphany that we’re all constantly in communication with someone these days. Whether the medium of communication is a cell phone, a laptop, a networked PC, a blog, a chat room, or any of the one-way channels such as television or radio, the fact is we are constantly communicating. Among the things that constant communication causes are short attention spans, selective blocking of communication, and a multiplicity of choices for receiving information.

In this new environment, businesses try to make their communications “sticky”—interesting, informative, memorable, and trusted. That’s a daunting task for any business and much more so for a small business with little time and scarce marketing resources. For law firms the task is also burdened by ethical considerations about whom they can contact, when, and under what circumstances. And in many cases the existing ethics rules are simply silent when it comes to the use of particular technology- driven marketing and business development tactics. Fortunately, groups of small law firms or solos can take on some of these tasks in concert and use the power of technology to leverage their efforts. This article will explore several ways lawyers can team up to get messages out to prospective clients and share the costs of developing a footprint in the world of constant communication.

Systems for Success

According to data published by the American Bar Association (www.abanet.org/tech/ltrc/survstat.html), small law firms still lag behind larger firms in the use of many key technology tools. One of those is automated law practice management software. The typical practice management suite provides automated calendar, conflicts check, time, billing, and accounting functionality driven by one or more databases. The benefits of automating such processes are obvious, yet many small firms either don’t use the products or purchase them but don’t fully leverage their capabilities.

One attribute of automated practice management systems that isn’t often discussed is their ability to help firms with marketing and business development. Perhaps your practice centers on tax law. You’ve just attended a conference highlighting new tax rules for small and family- owned businesses. You’ve done small-business tax work and planning for a hundred or more clients over the past five years, and the new rules could affect half of them. You get back to the office and—if you’re still doing things the old-fashioned way—you’ll write up a letter to send to each client, then have a secretary pull every client name from records you keep on the computer, perhaps in Outlook. You’ll review each client file to figure out which clients will be impacted by the new rules. You’ll report this to your secretary and have her print out labels, print out envelopes, copy the letter 50 times, sign, seal, and send them out. Then, you’ll put a copy of each letter in every physical file for each client and make a mental note to follow up.

Think of the same scenario but this time you’re using automated practice management software. Each client record is already fully listed in the database and tied to information relating to the latest work you’ve done. The database will allow you to query and get the 50 applicable clients in seconds. You’ll write the letter, and the software will automatically assign a copy of the letter to each of the relevant files. You’ll have the choice of either sending a printed letter to each client or automatically generating and sending the letter via e-mail. Either way the software will note that the document went to the specific client. Then, you can set reminders in your calendar to follow up, and the software will remind you until you follow through.

Now imagine the same scenario except you are sharing space with three other lawyers, each of whom has many clients who might be impacted by the new tax rules. If you’re sharing an automated practice management suite for time, billing, and accounting, you could do the same letter campaign for your own clients and for clients of the other lawyers. You could generate the e-mails from the specific lawyer whose client is to be contacted, note each file automatically, and set follow-up reminders. You could also flag each person who is not your own client so that, if they respond to the letter or follow-up, you are reminded to discuss a referral or fee-splitting arrangement with the client and the other attorney before you do any work.

I spoke with Judd Kessler, president of Abacus Data Systems (www.abacuslaw.com), about how a group of lawyers might save money and increase efficiency by purchasing law practice management software collaboratively. Kessler focused on the practical reality many solos and small firm lawyers face: lack of time to manage their practice affairs and little or no infrastructure to help. According to Kessler, many small firms and solos sharing office space also share a support staff person to manage all of their practices using software such as Abacus Gold. Instead of purchasing four licenses, the group can purchase one or two, to be used exclusively by the support staff. Because lawyers are busy enough handling client work, it is often the support staff that becomes proficient with the technology; support staff could learn not only routine billing and calendaring, but also how to use the software to meet the marketing objectives of the group, as in the example above.

Blogs

Word of mouth was a strong way to develop brand awareness and business relationships long before the Digital Age, but in the hyper-connected world we inhabit today, it is even more valuable. Its value is the element of trust. If I know you or know your reputation, I place a certain value on the reputation or relationship. When you recommend a product, service, or person to me, I am much more likely to listen than I am when I hear an advertisement. If I don’t know you or don’t come to you through someone I do know, trust, or respect, you’ll have a more difficult time gaining my attention, much less my patronage. That’s why the old marketing adage that you have to get your message in front of someone 12 times before they’ll notice holds true. Word of mouth is like a shortcut through the barriers we all have toward people and businesses we don’t know personally.

Blogs are a potent way to generate word of mouth. It happens in four ways. First, blogs tend to draw people together who have a particular interest or opinion about a particular idea, issue, or general topic. Blogs draw people as pollen draws bees. Second, blogs generate dialogue between people. To extend the metaphor, people reading and responding to blog posts are like bees swarming around a flower bed. Third, blogs tend to draw people back again and again, just as bees return to the flower bed as long as there are fresh flowers. Soon, the blogger seems like someone the reader has a real relationship with. Finally, people who read blogs tend to write blogs, share blogs, and draw other audiences with related interests. In our metaphor this is akin to a group of bees flying back to the hive to bring other bees to the flower bed.

The end result of all the activity of the bees in the flower bed is, of course, honey. For solos and small law firm lawyers, “honey” equates to brand identity and new business. Bees create honey by interacting with flowers. In the same way a group of lawyers can create new business by interacting with people in the blogosphere who share some type of interest or affinity to material the lawyers discuss on a blog. For small firms and groups of solos, the challenge of blogging isn’t really the cost of the software or even the modicum of time needed to navigate it. The challenge is the time necessary to post regularly, come up with fresh ideas, respond to others’ posts, and, most importantly for marketing purposes, post on other blogs that have affinity.

To use blogs as a marketing tool, you must actively develop connections with other blogs. If you simply rely on people to find your blog through a web search, you will miss the point—and the large potential numbers. Blogs are affinity networks and grow through connection to other blogs with audiences interested in similar topics. To maximize the value of your blog, get to know other blogs, contribute, ask to link, and link to them on your own blog. (To find some great legal blogs to get going, see www.blawg.com.)

The great opportunity is that, because most blogs are topically specific, a group of lawyers can share blog space and share the responsibility for creating a cohesive, informative, and freshly updated blog. In fact many blogs in various topical fields have several editors who post and comment. (Examples of some collaborative legal blogs are www.antitrustreview.com, outofthejungle.blogspot.com, and timkevan.blogspot.com.) This not only reduces the time burden on any one individual, but keeps the ideas fresh, the opinions varied, and the style interesting to readers. Another possibility is for a few lawyers to collaborate, with one person primarily responsible for writing new posts, another responsible for doing research and providing interesting statistics or data, and a third responsible for reading other blogs, commenting, and sharing the link back to their own blog.

A few rules of thumb will ensure that your blog doesn’t bring ethics issues into play. First, never cite the names or case names of actual clients, especially when legal matters are still in process. Don’t comment about judges, clients, or peers by name and “call them out.” If you really want to discuss a case that has been resolved, call the client and ask permission to use his or her name or the name of the business. Whatever topics you write about, be sure to avoid any type of libel or slander. Get your facts straight before you post. Also, set up your blog so that you must approve the comments others make before they are published—this is a very simple thing to do with blog software. Finally, don’t make your blog simply a running advertisement to do business with you or your firm. First of all, nobody wants to read a daily advertisement, so you’ll tend to turn readers away even if there is other valuable content on the blog. Second, you run the risk of solicitation rules violations if you are knowingly posting information about results you or your firm attained for someone, with the implication that you can achieve the same results for someone else. (For more, see the " Techno Ethics" column.)

Websites

Sadly, a high percentage of small firms and solos continue to miss the opportunity to market practices with a website. As the Internet becomes more collaborative and legal information becomes ever more sought online, small firms without websites are missing a huge opportunity to reach out to potential clients. What’s more, many firms that do have a web presence are failing to understand that what people want is information and solutions, not biographies and lists of practice areas.

Groups of lawyers or a small firm can collaborate in a few ways through a website that can build brand value, trust in the marketplace, and new revenue streams. According to the Pew Trust, as of late 2005 there were some 4 million people searching the Internet for legal information every month, and this number is expected to reach 8 million people by the end of 2007. A quick search will show that thousands of websites (e.g., www.tractis.com) that are not run by lawyers provide legal information, forms, documents, and other materials. The more advanced sites provide everything from automated document preparation to actual completed contracts with digital signatures. Some sites provide minimal counsel as well. Although we may debate the issues of unauthorized practice of law that arise from the presence of such sites, the practical thing to understand is that they’re making money. That means a lot of people are seeking a low-cost solution to legal services. This should be no surprise given the statistics showing a huge portion of the U.S. population is priced out of the standard legal services business model.

Rather than bemoan the competition, small firms and groups of lawyers can get in the game. Among the low-cost options for creating a functional website are WebSite Tonight (available from www.godaddy.com) and products from Yahoo! and Google. The beauty of these platforms is that they help you build your own site in a few hours. You do not need to know programming and you do not need to build the layout—it is all provided in template form. Basically, you just fill in the content. For a low cost you can add e-commerce and set up a store. A new player in the market is Ning ( www.ning.com). Ning sites combine elements of a website and a social network so you can engage with people and set permissions to limit site visitors to those you have invited.

Of course, the other option is to share the cost for professional web development and hosting. The benefits include having the site located on a managed server, providing enhanced look-and-feel components, options such as private extranets for clients, and managed e-commerce. Most web developers charge an hourly rate. However, it is often possible to negotiate a flat fee for website development, then agree to pay hourly for added functionality and new content updates. Many firms also will host your site for a small monthly fee. Several web developers with whom I’ve worked provide a set of templates so that you can choose from among many options regarding the basic look and feel and colors of the site. Many also can build blog functionality into the website.

Once you have created your website, what do you place on it? This is a subject that could cover a full-length seminar or a book. Here, let me just briefly mention a few things. You have two goals: 1) create trust and brand awareness, and 2) generate revenues and/or clients. To create trust and brand awareness you need to offer solid, helpful, accurate information related to your core practice areas. If you practice bankruptcy law, perhaps you could offer forms needed for pre-filing determinations of assets and liabilities. If you practice in real estate, perhaps you could offer lease and eviction forms. If your practice includes estate planning, perhaps you could offer an e-book on various tax incentives people can enjoy with proper planning. If your practice includes litigation, you could offer nuts-and-bolts information people need to determine whether they have a valid claim for breach of contract, violation of trademark, or personal injury. This could be provided in an e-book or even in a recorded audio or video clip posted to your site.

One of the decisions you’ll have to make is whether to provide everything free of charge to build trusted relationships online, or whether you also want to generate revenue from the legal information you provide at the website. Many lawyers are doing both successfully, and the keys seem to be: 1) always provide some quality information or resources free of charge; 2) when you provide material for a fee, be sure it is useful in and of itself; and 3) limit yourself to your areas of expertise, and don’t provide legal information that you haven’t created unless you can absolutely verify its accuracy and quality.

Education is also worth mentioning. Today, many companies provide user-friendly e-learning platforms (e.g., www.articulate.com and www.moodle.com). You can build programs and host them on your website, link them to other websites, and post them in your blog. A rule of thumb is that you should consider creating a general overview program for free, such as an overview of tax laws for small business. You can then e-mail people who have watched the program (you collect their e-mail address when they request access to the free program) and let them know that you can create a more detailed program to address specific needs they may have as a part of a client relationship. You might deliver this as a webcast (via technology available at such sites as www.webex.com and www.gotomeeting.com) or as a live presentation after forming a client relationship. On the other hand, you can create educational programs for sale to website visitors or even peers. If the program itself would provide guidance in a specific area of law, then charging for it is fine. An example might be an e-learning course series for employers with specific modules on sexual harassment, hiring and firing, and OSHA regulations. The course could be combined with an e-book. The material has value on its own without further consulting, and it would be general enough that it could not be construed as providing specific advice about a specific matter.

Obviously, you must be careful of the ethics rules pertaining to marketing, providing legal information outside of the client relationship, and creating an imputed relationship. Here are a few things to keep in mind—remembering, however, that every state has a different set of rules and interpretations about what lawyers can do online. First, when providing any kind of legal information such as forms, e-books, or even white papers, be sure to clearly and properly disclaim their use for any specific purpose. Second, on any page where you offer information, be sure to clearly state: 1) that using the information does not constitute formation of a client relationship between the lawyer and the user, and 2) how to become a client of the firm. This second statement helps further reduce any possibility of a client relationship being imputed by use of legal information offered on the website.

Legal Matching Services

Most legal matching services on the Internet assign spaces to lawyers and firms based on practice area and perhaps geographical location and provide space for a simple profile listing. As the web has become a better source of legal information, many matching sites provide a lot of public-oriented information to draw site traffic and provide the lawyer network as another aspect of the overall service. Some sites are topically specific, while others are broad channels with high-volume traffic.

Given that there are so many choices, I spoke to Gunter Enz, president of LawInfo.com ( www.lawinfo.com), about how to assess value among the choices. Gunter stressed the importance of trust-building, saying that sites that take strong measures to pre-screen lawyers and firms in their networks generate a higher level of trust among site visitors. A second factor to consider is whether the overall level and scope of content provided to site visitors are high quality and at least partially relevant to one’s core practice. A third factor is what level of information is provided in the lawyer profiles on the site—and in many cases that is really tied to what level of web-based material the lawyer has developed. Hence the necessity of having a functional website and a good blog in place prior to spending money on a legal matching site. A final factor is, of course, the overall traffic the site gets each month.

It is unclear whether a group of unaffiliated lawyers can save money on a legal matching site. The problem generally is that quality sites that do background checks on the firms and lawyers listed require a separate paid listing for each lawyer or firm. If a group of solos has organized under one firm name but operates as a group of individual practices, they could save money by having one listing on a site such as LawInfo.com. However, if the solos maintain separate businesses and firm names, they could not be listed under one entry.

How to Win the Search Game

So let’s say you create a website, a blog, and some products to sell online. How do you use Internet search engines to get the word out effectively? Today Google is the king of search. However, there are other companies and sites that track blogs (e.g., www.technorati.com), and you should keep them in mind.

Generally speaking, two issues are in play in the search game: ad words and search position. Ad words are also called paid search. Search positioning is related to “metatags” placed into the content of a website so that search engines find more references to things people search for on your site, and therefore your site appears higher in the list of results from the search. Groups of lawyers can collaborate to share costs for buying ad words and for hiring professional consultants to write web copy and place metatags in the copy that are most apt to be found and tagged by search engines.

Ad words. Ad words are primarily a Google concept, although other search engines have similar programs now. The idea is that one can buy certain words that people search for, and when a search is made, the purchaser’s web link and a short statement show up to the right of the search results. The primary value of ad words is to draw a searcher’s attention away from the long list of search results and to the shorter list of ad word purchasers. Purchasers pay based on the click-through numbers. Ad campaigns can be tailored to specific geographical regions, which could be beneficial to small law firms, solos, and groups of lawyers collaborating to purchase the words.

If a group of lawyers is already collaborating on a single website, then a tailored ad word campaign might make great sense. Ad words related to each lawyer’s practice area could be purchased, which could create a lot more activity on the combined website, thereby getting more eyeballs on the material about each lawyer’s practice. Ad words are parsed out based on volume and demand for particular words and phrases, and you can bid for words based on a desired daily budget. To try out a few options, go to www.adwords.google.com and follow the prompts.

Search position. The other way to get better results with search engines is by adding metatags to your website text. This is part art and part science because the search engine companies generally don’t reveal exactly how they rank sites. But metatag work tends to raise a website’s ranking over time. Perhaps the greatest value of using metatags well is in helping search engines properly display the best information about your site to searchers. Many professional web developers can assist you in creating good metatags, but you can also do this for yourself with a little time and attention. ( View a tutorial on using metatags to increase the amount and quality of traffic to your site.)

Recap

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this article. Here is a recap that I hope will help you plan a workable strategy.

First, get together with the other lawyers with whom you want to collaborate and discuss options. Be sure that you can get a basic agreement from everyone concerning what they can commit to do and what they can’t. Be realistic, but keep in mind that your collaboration won’t just save money, it will save time—you’ll each have to do a lot less than you would alone to achieve good results.

Second, seriously consider implementing a law office automation suite. As we discussed earlier, there are ways to save money if you are sharing office space and secretarial and paralegal personnel. Even if you never use the product for marketing, it will give you peace of mind, reduce errors, prevent conflicts, and minimize non-billable time.

Third, start a blog. Word of mouth is the great equalizer between you and larger law firms with big marketing budgets. People will notice you if you create a blog grounded in the principles discussed above. Remember to consider dividing up the tasks of posting, providing additional content and research, and posting to other blogs and linking back to yours. People will respond to your passion and your insight. Influencers will spread the word for you.

Fourth, discuss with your group how you can productize your practices on a website. All the raw materials you’ll need to offer online—forms, white papers, e-books, and educational programs—already exist in your head, your file cabinet, or your work product. Your job is just to repurpose some of that material into useful formats. At the same time think about either 1) building a website yourself or 2) hiring someone to build you a site. We discussed some of the benefits and drawbacks to each approach. The key is that you have got to have a web presence. A blog is a great start, but a site where you can provide free information, provide information for sale, and draw in potential clients is vital. The blog gets you word of mouth, the website helps you monetize it.

Fifth, consider one of the many legal matching networks. You’ll do better with your paid listing on these sites when you first have a website and a blog in place that can draw people in and get them to look around, perhaps bookmark your site, and just maybe find exactly what they were looking for. When you have these links and resources associated with your listing on a legal matching site, you’ll differentiate yourself from the crowd.

Sixth, band together to buy some Google ad words and consider hiring a professional consultant to review the text of your website to improve traffic through use of metatags.

Taking some or all of the steps suggested in this article will help you generate business in the constant communication world. And if you can collaborate with other lawyers with whom you work, you can share the time and costs. Today there is probably no single thing a firm can do to instantly increase brand awareness and business opportunities. The constant communication world demands a cohesive and integrated strategy to counter the public’s short attention span, the ability to selectively block communications, and the incredible amount of choice in the marketplace. By working together, small firms and groups of solos can leverage multiple technology solutions and compete favorably for attention.

Edward Rholl is executive director of Internet Bar, a global nonprofit membership association dedicated to bringing lawyers more fully into the global electronic marketplace, creating access to justice through use of technology, and supporting international development projects. Previously, he practiced law for seven years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He may be reached at .

Copyright 2007

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