GPSOLO April/May 2009
Small Town, Small Budget, Big Dreams
Somewhere in the late 1980s I decided that I was meant for greater things than the tiny little town where I was raised and held captive by my school-teaching mother and lawyer father. I left for college in Florida, followed by semesters running wild in D.C., Europe, and wherever else I could go, and finally I graduated with a law degree despite my best efforts not to follow in my father’s footsteps. During those years I struggled with the image of the law upon which I was raised, one in which clients came to dinner and often bartered for services instead of actually paying; instead, I focused on the seductive image of big-city lawyers portrayed in the early 1990s through Law & Order, The Firm, and Philadelphia . Despite all the grandiose ideas I had about the type of lawyer I would be, something was missing. No matter how far I ran, I was still a small- town southern girl and I was homesick. With my bags packed and a newfound appreciation for my roots, I headed home and have been here ever since.
Last year, when I decided to make a break from government employment, I still found myself with those big dreams of what my small practice would look like. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the budget to match. While I was growing up, my mother would tell me that I had “Macy’s taste but a Kmart budget,” and once again her lessons were ringing in my ears. What I wanted was a large firm feel with hardwood floors, experienced staff, expensive furnishings, and an upscale atmosphere; what I could afford, however, was the back office of my semi- retired father’s dwindling small firm.
And so I began my quest for compromise. How could I create the firm of my dreams without offending my wallet or my small-town values? I knew from the start that navigating my way through my limited market, limited money, and limited space would push me to my limits. Below are some tips that have helped me survive small-town lawyering with big dreams. Perhaps there is an idea or two that could even help a big-city lawyer who wants to give clients that small-town feel.
After attending my first American Bar Association meeting and a similar conference in New York City, I quickly realized that marketing for “big city” lawyers and the type of marketing I needed were entirely different beasts. Of course, I could spend my Friday evenings blogging in hopes of reaching some client in e-land, but the reality is that my time was much better spent going to the high school football games where the bulk of the town (and my prospective clients) were actually sitting on the sidelines of what many consider the premier social event of the season. My current top four marketing strategies include:
Donate. I’ve always tried to donate my time to worthwhile causes, but my new goal became making it work for my business. After a local sheriff’s deputy was killed in an auto accident, I decided to work with the county human resources director to offer a free wills clinic to all area first responders (EMS, fire, police, etc.). The response was overwhelming, and more than 100 documents were executed after we were done. A few months later, after losing several firemen in a tragic accident, we held another clinic that included health care directives. In those two nights, I generated free media coverage and established a rapport with almost the entire law enforcement community. I officially became “the will lady,” a useful nickname considering my primary practice area is probate. I have since benefited from having their spouses, neighbors, and family members as paying clients. Of course, you have to work through the logistics of free legal clinics, but I can assure you that in small towns where word of mouth trumps even the largest Yellow Pages ad, the hurdles will be worth the rewards both in business exposure and personal gratification in knowing that you did something to help others. Some call this volunteering for profit. In South Carolina we still call it “you reap what you sow.”
Team up. Just about every legal publication I have received talks about marketing with other lawyers. Although I don’t want to diminish the value of that approach, I find that non-lawyers who deal with your prospective clients are equally, if not more, valuable in a small town. Sit back and think about the clients you want (which may be different than the clients you actually have) and who they deal with. How can you reach them? As someone whose niche is probate, I’ve befriended an interesting assortment of community members who serve as excellent resources. Some examples: I prepared free simple wills for several hospice nurses after sending them a personal letter that stated, “Every day, you help others prepare for their own death—allow me to help you prepare for yours.” I’ve also taken each and every funeral home owner to lunch and regularly volunteer to help them navigate simple legal issues such as updating their contracts for transportation companies or helping them interpret our ever-changing cremation regulations. In return, I’ve won over those who make a living dealing with the dead and who regularly hand out my card when a family starts asking questions about what to do next. For every specialty, there are groups of non-lawyers who can direct people to your front door if they trust your services. Find them.
Target. With a very limited marketing budget, I had to target my audience carefully. I certainly had plenty of requests to place an ad in the high school yearbook, but my services as an estate planner and litigator are rarely required by teenagers; I had to pass. And let’s face it, Christmas cards, calendars, and cups are cute, but they just don’t stand out anymore. Instead, I kept an eye out for truly clever marketing and then simply emulated it for my own specialty. Some of my favorite small-town marketing ideas included a local DUI defense attorney who donated small metal tins of breath mints embossed with his logo for a beer festival. I also liked the personal injury firm that handed out metal tins with band-aids bearing his name at the local health fair. There was also the defense firm that gave out dish rags at the kitchen tour and spit rags to the high school band. The rags read, “Let me clean up your mess.” Not only were these clever and memorable, but they’re working.
Potluck. Everything you need to know or learn in a small town can be found at a potluck dinner. My former law school roommate (a big-city lawyer) thinks it’s hilarious that I attend potlucks instead of chamber meetings as a marketing method. She was further amused to learn that I have perfected a few dishes that always get rave reviews and that I stack the recipe cards, cleverly placed on an oversized business card, beside the dish. In the South, clients are more apt to choose you because you can make a killer casserole than because you have an ad on TV. So work on that homemade sponge cake and gain a few pounds in the interest of improving your practice.
Small Budget, Big Feel
Just as my marketing plan had to be tailored to a small town, I’ve also had to figure out how to use a very small budget and stretch it during a recession to get the big- firm feel I was seeking. Let’s face it: These are hard times, and the wise solo is watching every penny. In the end, I learned that with a little bit of homework and a lot of Internet research, you can easily compete.
Teach. When a local technical college was short on attorneys to teach in its legal studies department, I did some investigating. I quickly learned that although the pay is generally dismal, the perks for a sole practitioner can certainly make it worth your while. For example, as an adjunct professor in the paralegal department, I have obvious perks such as law library privileges, updated textbooks on my area of practice, and great discounts on both computer software and hardware. Another benefit that has been worth its weight in gold is free access to one of the top legal research sites. Although these benefits were enough to lure me in for one semester, there were some less obvious benefits that have kept me coming back for more. For example, I learned that my colleagues are a wonderful resource for everything from the latest case law to what vendors not to use in our area. Full-time faculty and adjuncts are specialists in their areas of the law, and as we are all there to teach, everyone seems content with teaching each other, too. Another perk I truly didn’t expect is increased referrals from students. Amazingly enough, when you teach a group of students, they actually come to believe that you know what you are talking about and gladly send their family and friends to your office.
Extern. I learned about using externs through my teaching, but it’s an opportunity available to any attorney willing to mentor a paralegal or law student. Establish a good relationship with these young enthusiasts, and other students will get in line to work in your office in exchange for class credit. Best of all, it’s completely free. In the recent past I have hosted two law students and two paralegals and thoroughly enjoyed the experiment. They get firsthand knowledge and my clients get a real person when they call—everybody wins. Of course, what you must give in order to reap these benefits is your time, but I’ve found it was time well spent. Contact the nearest colleges and find out what extern/intern programs they have that may benefit your practice.
Experiment. Attorneys as a group aren’t prone to change, but for those willing to experiment some great savings can be found. For example, if you are willing to jettison your traditional phone line and try VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) with hosted PBX (private branch exchange) features, not only can you save hundreds of dollars a month, but you can also get a big-firm feel. Although in small towns we still expect to get a human being on the phone, if one truly isn’t available, it’s nice to have a professional system that can forward calls to my cell phone, send my voice mail in e-mail format to my phone, or allow for the use of extensions to direct callers in the secretaries’ absence. Although navigating the options and services of these providers can be mind-boggling, the payoff is worth the expense of time. I also find that using a time-and-billing program that works with my phone has been worth the change. It allows me to sit at that Friday night football game and catch up on my billing at the same time. Too often we get in a rut and find excuses not to try something new. Take a free trial of something new today and see if it can transform your practice.
Be your own I.T. From day one I have handled my own technology issues, primarily because I was too broke to pay someone else. However, in hindsight I think this has been a great use of my resources because I don’t live and die by the recommendations of the “I.T. guy.” Instead, I built my own network, created my own web page (it’s not as hard as some would have you believe), image my own documents, and learned Adobe Acrobat from the ground up. Once I have learned the ropes regarding a particular task, I train others to help out, but the bottom line is that I don’t rely on someone else to protect me from all the technology dangers surrounding the practice of law. Learning your own systems or building them yourself can not only save you money but can prevent you from being the victim of your own ignorance. Even in small-town U.S.A., computers are at the heart of any business that plans to stand the test of time.
In the end, I have learned a great deal from those early years of yearning to hail a taxi to a city office with a Park Avenue view. But the biggest difference in the life I planned and the life I ended up with is more a matter of how I get to work than how I actually practice law. Big-city lawyers give out theater tickets, and I give out bottles of local barbecue sauce. The end result is the same: a happy client. You see, those big-city lawyers that I met at my first conference and my classmates that never moved back home have shown me that we all struggle with demanding clients, balancing home and work, and unpaid invoices. We just do it with different views. I’ve realized that they aren’t all that different from those of us living out our dreams in suburbia. And the sooner I buried the idea of a big-city firm heavy with leather furnishings and embraced the idea of being a great small-town local lawyer, the pieces fell into place. Today, my practice is truly a reflection of me—a small- town southern girl with big dreams and a homemade pimiento cheese that will leave you begging for more. Making my firm reflect that has been my biggest joy.
Tiffany Provence is a partner in the law firm of Provence Messervy LLC in Summerville, South Carolina. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.