Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003
A Blueprint for Marketing with Staff
By Robert A. Kraft
Marketing a law practice still is a tricky concept for many lawyers, full of questions that have no easy black-or-white answers: How much is too much? How slick is too slick? What about all those brochures sitting in the storeroom from our last foray into self-promotion?
My practice, a small personal injury and Social Security disability firm in Texas, eliminated a lot of the nettlesome questions that arise when setting up new ventures by deciding to put our marketing efforts into something we already had: ourselves and our staff. We do not have a separate marketing department, and I routinely remind our employees that we're all in marketing. In a small firm, everyone must contribute to the effort.
Texas has strict rules prohibiting solicitation of injury claims, so we face constraints not encountered by law firms pitching their services to corporations. Our in-house marketing efforts focus more on keeping existing clients satisfied and receiving word-of-mouth referrals than on bringing in new cases from outside sources.
We advertise on television, in the Yellow Pages, by e-mail newsletter-we even have a billboard. But no matter how much advertising we do, the bulk of our business always comes from former clients and their referrals. If you do a good job for people, they will return, and they will refer their friends to you. Naturally, you want to give them a reason to do so, and we've found our staff can be an invaluable tool in encouraging that.
Hire the Right People
Marketing with staff begins with having the right employees. For a consumer-oriented law firm, this means outgoing people with a professional attitude. Clients obviously want their lawyer and staff to be competent, but they equally want their legal team to be caring, understanding, and friendly.
A simple guideline is to hire good people, train them properly, pay them well, and keep them happy. Note that good pay doesn't necessarily guarantee happy employees. We try to show our appreciation to employees in many ways, including little perks. All employees have a business card with name and job title, and we encourage them to be liberal in handing them out. In addition to the individual cards, we keep at the front desk a stack of generic cards that have a list of practice areas printed on the back to remind visitors of the types of cases we handle.
Staff in general must be competent in their jobs, or no amount of marketing will overcome the negative impression your clients will have of your firm. Employees should be intelligent enough to make decisions on their own and motivated enough to return phone calls and e-mails promptly. If you give your employees authority to make at least some decisions, your clients will be happier because they won't have to wait as long to get answers or action. Obviously, prohibitions regarding employees' giving legal advice must be heeded, but space for autonomy does exist.
Staff continuity also is an important part of marketing. We have 20 full-time employees, and half of them have worked here more than 12 years. Clients develop a great sense of confidence when they deal with the same employees throughout the course of a case, and this consideration is even more important for firms that handle long-term matters for clients rather than typically brief personal injury claims.
Opening a Case
The new client procedure in our firm begins with the receptionist. Ours is very good at fielding many calls yet still making the callers feel unhurried. She routinely keeps our client database open on her computer, which allows her to quickly look up names and direct calls to the proper employee.
For new case calls, the receptionist determines the type of case, gets a phone number in the event of an accidental disconnect, then forwards the call to an employee in the appropriate department. Every employee is authorized to take information from a new case call, so we never have to tell a caller that no one is available to talk. We try to let the callers talk for a short while before jumping in with "just the facts" questions. This lets callers know we're interested in their problems, not just in taking down the information.
If the caller's problem is obviously something we don't handle, the receptionist gives the call to a specific employee whose main job is to field such matters. This employee gets the pertinent information-we have interview sheets for various types of new case inquiries so we don't forget to ask an important question-and explains why we can't represent the caller. We average more than 40 new case calls per day. Unfortunately, about 90 percent of these are for cases we can't accept, but we still want to make a good impression on callers in the event they someday have a case we can handle.
If we don't accept a case, we make a real effort to refer the caller to a lawyer or government agency that can help. We keep a frequently updated referral list on our intranet that includes lawyers who handle cases outside our practice areas, governmental agencies, and charitable organizations. We have brochures on different legal subjects that we offer to mail; some of them are written by us and some are obtained from other sources. By spending a few minutes on the phone, providing a bit of free information, and pointing potential clients in the right direction, we let them know we do care about their problems, even if we won't be making a fee from them. This extra work takes quite a bit of staff time and may not always appear to directly benefit the firm. Some of the effort is made simply because we feel it is the right thing to do, but some clearly cultivates a potential client base.
We send a "sorry" letter to every caller we can't represent, stating we are not accepting the case and explaining any applicable statute of limitations. (See sidebar at left for a sample "sorry" letter.) Again, we have form letters already drafted for various types of cases. The letter also encourages potential clients to refer friends and family to us for any legal questions and directs them to our website for helpful legal articles. We add all such callers to our mailing list, and we send birthday cards, calendars, and newsletters. Many clients come back to us years later, explaining that although we couldn't help them with the original matter, they now want to hire us on a different matter. It pays to show potential clients you care about them, and it pays to keep in touch with occasional mailings.
If a new case call does sound promising, we set up an appointment at which the client meets first with a new case clerk, who enters basic information into our case management program, and then with a legal assistant, who fleshes out the details of the claim and answers most of the client's questions. The client then meets with a lawyer, who can answer any remaining questions. (All these meetings take place in a single room, with the various staff members meeting the prospective client one after another; we offer the client soft drinks and refreshments, as the visit can be lengthy.)
Immediately after opening a case, we send clients an initial letter thanking them for hiring us and reminding them of important information discussed in person. The letter also mentions that we would be happy to talk with the client's friends or family members who have unrelated legal questions, whatever they may be. I pen a short note at the bottom of each letter to personally thank the client for choosing our firm.
A few days later, we call again, thank them for hiring us, verify address and telephone information, and ask whether they forgot to tell us anything in the initial interview or have additional questions. Thirty days after signing up the case, we send another thank-you letter and a questionnaire regarding medical treatment, witnesses, and other items. We also ask whether they're satisfied with our services to date. The point of all this is to let the clients know that we really do appreciate their business and to assure them we're actively working on their cases.
As is obvious throughout this process, our philosophy has always been to "move work downhill" when possible. If a lawyer doesn't have to do it, let a legal assistant handle it; if the legal assistant is better used elsewhere, move the task to a legal secretary, and so on. We are scrupulous about having all work supervised by a lawyer and very careful not to let employees give legal advice or make legal decisions.
We occasionally receive client letters addressed to "Attorney Smith" although Ms. Smith is not a lawyer. We immediately send the client a letter explaining Ms. Smith's job title and stressing that she is not a lawyer. We do everything possible to avoid the trap of allowing a client to believe a staff member is a lawyer (which is one reason staff have business cards but, if not lawyers, are not listed on firm letterhead).
We take a team approach to handling files, and we encourage new clients to meet all various members of the team. This helps build rapport with the clients and eliminates the "just a voice on the line" feeling when they call us. We include photos and biographical sketches of all employees on our website (www.kraftlaw.com), and we use employees in some of our television and print advertising. The goal is to personalize the firm in the client's mind. We're proud of each of our employees, and we want our clients to know that.
Clients want lawyers and staff who communicate with them and care about their cases. In a way, our client management software allows us to show clients we care. The program we use, LawBase by Synaptec, allows us to make unlimited "activity notes" each time we take any action on a file. Whenever a client calls, the person talking with the client can see at a glance what was done on the file recently and by whom, which gives the impression that the client's file is always uppermost in our minds. (I print out all the day's activity notes and read them each evening, which lets me monitor file activity without having to pull files for a physical review.)
A vital part of showing clients you care is listening to them when they complain. But a surprising number of people don't complain when they're unhappy-they just suffer in silence and then never return or make referrals. We try to make it very easy for clients to tell us when they're not happy with our work. We keep a stack of comment cards in our waiting room, and the receptionist also hands one to each client who visits the office. The card asks simply whether the client has any comments. It may be signed or unsigned, given directly to the receptionist, or anonymously left in a box in the waiting room.
When we receive signed comment cards, we send letters thanking the client for a compliment or for pointing out a problem with our services. We call if it sounds serious. We send three questionnaires to clients during their case, and each has space for comments regarding our services. We know we can answer any complaints clients may have-the trick more often is getting them actually to complain!
We try to take every opportunity to encourage existing clients to refer friends and family to us. Surprisingly, even clients who are pleased with your services may not realize they should refer their friends. Some think you're too busy to accept new clients or a small matter. Others may not realize you also handle other practice areas. Train your staff to give short cross-selling pitches to existing clients about all types of work your firm handles. (This may be especially important in a firm like ours, where some employees do nothing but Social Security work and others do nothing but personal injury work.) Make sure each employee has at least basic knowledge of the full range of services you offer.
We maintain a short list of former clients who were especially pleasant to work with or who expressed a particular interest in referring their friends. We occasionally send them postcards asking them to give us a call just so we can find out how they're doing. I created an interview form for those calls so the staff remembers to verify contact information, give news about our firm, and ask whether they have suggestions for improving our services.
The impression your staff makes is important. We can't all be young and beautiful, but we can all be clean and neatly dressed. Our firm requires a coat and tie for men and the equivalent for women, except on casual Fridays. We like the impression of professionalism this gives clients, but we do have one exception: Our dress code incorporates a marketing tool-shirts with our firm logo on them-that can be worn with casual pants any day. Aside from keeping the firm name in front of office visitors, we also get free advertising when employees go out to lunch or run errands.
Most of the "marketing" our staff does is really just being friendly, whether to potential clients, current clients, or employees at insurance companies and government agencies. We don't use high-pressure techniques, and we try to keep clients from noticing that we're marketing at all. Be competent, act nice, and make sure your clients know you want more business: That's marketing in a nutshell.
We get many comments about our firm's telephone numbers: 214/999-9999 and 817/999-9999. (The first three digits are area codes for Dallas and Fort Worth, respectively.)
We got the 214 telephone number about 12 years ago when a local personal injury lawyer was closing his practice and leaving Texas. We made a deal to purchase his telephone number and his advertising space on the back cover of the Dallas Yellow Pages. (We also had to agree to take over the files he couldn't get anyone else to accept.) The 999 prefix is not in our office's geographic location, so we have to pay mileage charges each month for use of that number.
Obtaining the 817 number was a little more difficult. It was a mobile number used by the telephone company so repairpersons could check phone lines. It took quite a bit of convincing to get them to transfer the number to us. We still pay mobile phone charges for calls to that number.
We feature the phone numbers prominently in our advertising and have had many clients tell us they called because our number was easy to remember. When employees have to give their work number to a store clerk, they always get an odd look, which gives them a chance to mention our firm name.
The only real drawback to the numbers came before ten-digit dialing was required in Dallas and Fort Worth. Every day we would get dozens of calls from little kids who were just punching phone buttons. Now that everyone has to dial an area code even for local calls, that problem has disappeared.
Our Texas toll-free number is 800/989-9999. I would love to have 800/999-9999, but it's used by Covenant House, an international service agency for runaway youth. I sent a nice letter to them a few years ago and asked if they would consider selling us their telephone number. I received a rather curt reply saying my request would be passed along to Sister Mary Rose but it was doubtful she'd be interested. Apparently she wasn't, because I've heard nothing further.
Robert A. Kraft is a director emeritus of the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association and a fellow of the College of the State Bar of Texas. He practices law in Dallas, Texas, and can be reached at email@example.com.