Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003
Rainmaking Tips from Solosez Caution: Don't try these at the office without an umbrella handy Gleaned and Cleaned
by Carolyn J. Stevens
At one time or another, most of us have been responsible for rainmaking, even if it was not an official part of our job. Naturally, if you start your career as a solo practitioner, you're also a solo rainmaker, responsible for seeding the clouds and maintaining the business. If you start out in a large law firm, other people or an entire department might research and implement the effective marketing techniques, which is great-but when you leave the firm, you leave their expertise behind.
What makes us memorable? We might advertise, volunteer, network at professional functions, and step by step build our reputations as good lawyers. But, inevitably, we often end up praying for rain. Where do you start? What works?
Rainmaking tips and comments for this article come from members of Solosez, the listserve sponsored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners. For more information about Solosez, go to www.abanet.org/solo.
Marketing, Branding, Advertising
Jay Foonberg (Santa Monica, CA) reminds us that the three P's of marketing are Persistence, Persistence, Persistence. In marketing you don't "make mistakes"; you "learn lessons." Carolyn Elefant (Washington, D.C.) learned lessons early on. Writing to large law firms for contract work wasn't successful, and neither was hosting an open house. Asking attorneys to lunch to learn about their practices resulted in "Come to my next seminar." But some "mistakes" lead to other things-such as the attorney who notified her when prime space opened in his office. Randy Birch (Heber City, UT) hosted a cocktail party and distributed 5-by-8-inch binders imprinted with his contact information. Alan C. Bail (Playa del Rey, CA) garnered large firm business through his legal and social contacts. He developed good professional relationships while working in a large firm and, after he went solo, the firm attorneys sent clients to him. He also had social relationships with decision makers in companies. At a volunteer organization's meeting, Bail talked casually about food, cooking, and Kauai with the chair's husband, who turned out to be president of a company. They met socially several more times and, after Bail visited the husband's headquarters, the company retained his services.
Austin, TX, lawyer Rob Robertson cannot imagine a law firm's URL becoming a household word like Yahoo; he considers his website's metatags, which garner hits during a search, more important than the URL. Chris Barber (Houston, TX) uses descriptive URLs and descriptive e-mail addresses. Not only are descriptive addresses easier for people to remember, they also allow Barber to filter both incoming and outgoing e-mail, according to whether the sender used Cbarber@TexasAttorney.net, Wills@TA.net, or Trusts@TA.net. Bruce Dorner (Londonderry, NH) starts with the premise that people are under a lot of stress when they look for an attorney and often miss details. Instead of having inquiries answered by a "disembodied" e-mail presence, Dorner sends a note saying the caller might have a valid legal point and inviting the person to set up an appointment so they can explore the problem in greater detail. This method also helps to weed out casual shoppers.
Writing and Speaking Engagements
Alan Clark (Freemans Bay, Auckland, NZ) wrote a short article for his local community monthly newsletter and at the same time purchased a small "professional card" ad that appeared on the facing page. Christian Vinaa (Gentofte, Denmark) advises that writing in a journalistic style, not a legal style, will attract many new clients.
Domenic A. Bellisario (Pittsburgh, PA) is a presenter at National Business Institute (NBI) seminars. NBI sends about 10,000 mailings to lawyers and businesses around Pittsburgh and provides extra brochures for him to send clients and other contacts. The brochures include his bio, which increases his exposure. Bruce Dorner is a well-known presenter at CLE programs, where he makes sure to have fun, meet interesting people, and learn something new to take back to his own practice. Presenting is also a great way to become known as an authority in a field. Jimmy L. Verner's (Dallas, TX) work as a presenter keeps him current, provides a lot of CLE credit, and affords him many contacts. It's also fun. He suggests you are more likely to get referrals by speaking to groups of lawyers who don't practice in your field; they feel comfortable referring to you because they've heard you speak and you're not competing with them.
Chicago-area attorney Shell J. Bleiweiss receives high evaluations when he speaks, but positive exposure doesn't often directly result in work. Nevertheless, he doesn't regret his efforts; speaking helps establish name recognition and a reputation as an expert in a field, which can lead to business. A supervisor chose Jay S. Goldenberg (Chicago, IL) to present the IRS training course because he thought Jay would learn more than anyone from doing it. "He was right! You clarify your thinking and knowledge by explaining and you'll research and write many points, and you'll know the stuff." The business Rebecca Weiss gets from being a CLE presenter comes from two groups. First, she handles specialized litigation within her main real estate practice, and she makes sure that real estate lawyers know this. Her CLE presentations spread the word and bring in specific referrals from other attorneys. Second, nonattorney professionals (real estate agents) who attend CLE refer their clients to Weiss when they need attorneys. Adam Shapiro (Philadelphia, PA) appeared on a television call-in show mainly to make the public aware of his practice area, not thinking the callers would become clients. After the show, the other panelist said he was getting away from landlord-tenant work and, because Shapiro demonstrated knowledge on the topic, would refer cases to him. Sharon Campbell (Dallas, TX) employs what she characterizes as an obvious marketing step-she asks for referrals at the end of her CLE presentations.
Becki Fahle (San Antonio, TX) recommends cold-calling referral sources and inviting them to lunch, morning coffee, or afternoon tea. Even doing this just once a week, she estimates, provides four or five new referral sources a month. E. Alexandra (Sasha) Golden's practice (Needham, MA) includes guardianship actions for nursing home residents. Nursing homes need attorneys, and families need information concerning Medicaid and related legal matters, so she cultivates relationships with nursing home social workers. During her first call from one facility's social worker, Golden mentioned she would have to visit the nursing home, read the record, talk with the social worker, and meet the resident before accepting the case. After the preliminary work, Golden invited the social worker for coffee, where she learned that the home's former attorney considered site visits a bother and did not do them. By "bothering" with a site visit and networking with the social worker, Golden learned that the employer owned ten nursing homes in the area. She gained a new friend and a lot of potential work.
Randy Birch found a unique way to hand out cards. An old high school buddy who bartended at Randy's favorite watering hole asked for a supply of Birch's cards, which he passed out to customers who complained about legal problems. This gambit brought a surprising amount of decent business, and Birch swears he hasn't been tarnished with the "Paul-Newman-in-The-Verdict" image of the barfly lawyer. (Although he hasn't yet cultivated all the local bartenders, he says there's still time.) An attorney once told Becki Fahle that she would have a profitable practice by the time she gave away 2,000 business cards. Her closing letters contain two business cards and a request that the client retain one for future reference and give the other to someone in need of legal services. She suggests going one step further by affixing a mailing label "coupon" good for a free office visit to discuss new matters.
Referral services work for some people. Joseph Hughes (Berrien Springs, MI) recommends the state bar referral service and prepaid legal services networks. Marion Chase Pacheco (Syracuse, NY) got started by signing up with the local lawyer referral service. After a few months, she had so many cases she had to withdraw her listing. Rob Robertson had a similar experience but cautions that effectiveness varies from program to program. Fortunately, his local lawyer referral service leads to profitable work even if most callers do not engage him. On the other hand, his experience with legal insurance plans is that the clients generally pay small premiums and participating attorneys discount their fees, but clients expect "white-shoe law firm" representation. Sterling DeRamus (Birmingham, AL) pays $100 a year to be on a referral service list and considers the five or six hits per month it generates definitely worthwhile.
Volunteer and pro bono work lead to business for Joseph Hughes. By connecting with Legal Services offices and volunteering his time, he also receives the bonus of free training. Pro bono legal work for the battered women's shelter, for example, helped him with his grasp of family and immigration law.
But client recommendations seem to be the best marketing tool. Joseph Hughes calls it "priceless"; John D. Kitch (Nashville, TN) agrees. When he completes a piece of work for a client, he reminds the client of additional practice areas and other services he provides-wills, PI matters, or reviewing contracts. Randy Birch keeps in touch with one repeat client, a sand and gravel company, by visiting its office once a month to have lunch, review files, and pick up new cases. "Sometimes I think it works too well," he reports.
Keeping Clients Happy
Marion Browning-Baker (Stuttgart, Germany) tries to help every caller, even if she simply finds another attorney who can help. "Do unto others," agrees Rod Klafehn (Laurens, NY); "give the kind of service you'd want from your own lawyer." In Nerino J. Petro's Loves Park, IL, area, preparing a client closing book is standard practice in commercial real estate deals, but it's not common in residential real estate. He prepares a closing book for all residential real estate clients and finds that the extra step does lead to referrals. New Zealand attorney Alan Clark delivers Rolls Royce service from the first call until the case is completed. In Jacksonville Beach, FL, Wendell Finner cuts to the core: "Diligently and efficiently do the work in front of you." And Shell Bleiweiss keeps it simple: "Answer the phone when it rings."
Keeping in Touch
When you say goodbye to happy clients, you want them to remember you when they need legal help in the future. Some attorneys use personal cards to keep in touch. Charles Abut (Fort Lee, NJ) always sends a personal thank you for a client's or colleague's referral, even if he doesn't take the case. Vicki Levy (Lake Mary, FL) writes notes for everything from thank you to condolences-and also brings along homemade cookies to the three main courthouses almost every time she's there.
Some attorneys use seasonal reminders. Becki Fahle's Thanksgiving cards are usually the first cards of the holiday season. Karen Robbins (Olney, MD) never deletes a name from her holiday card list (unless, of course, the person dies). People who haven't been clients for years still send other clients to her. "They all say they're tickled to know I still care about them even though they're no longer clients."
Each November Andrew Simpson (Christiansted, Virgin Islands), Patricia Joyce (East Greenwich, RI), and Rob Robertson send calendars. Simpson's features local artists' work printed on high-quality paper ("suitable for framing"). Simpson affixes a clear label with a greeting and his contact information and includes a note with information about the artwork. Client comments throughout the year confirm that they remember the calendars came from him. Joyce's mailing is a tri-fold calendar card with "Best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 200X" and her contact information. The tri-fold doesn't get lost in the shuffle of holiday cards, and clients keep them all year. Robertson's is a 12-month 10-by-4-inch calendar with holiday dates-and the following year printed on the reverse. In early fall, clients and courthouse personnel begin asking Rob about the upcoming calendar; court coordinators hang it next to their seats in court, and judges routinely thank him. The calendars remind some clients to pay him and occasionally, years later, someone comes across an old calendar and calls him for services. He gives remaining calendars to new clients at the first conference.
Some attorneys use newsletters to keep in touch. Alan Clark sends a newsletter every three months to former clients so they will continue to think of him as their lawyer. Nicholas H. Cobbs (Washington, D.C.) sends a two-page office newsletter to clients, prospective clients, and other potential sources of business. The articles feature general legal matters: how to execute a judgment or take a deposition, the theory of negligence, and such. However, family law practitioner Jimmy Verner keeps in mind that family law clients usually aren't repeat customers and that sending materials might even be offensive to remarried clients. Instead, Verner sends a newsletter alert of legal developments to attorneys who don't practice family law and to family law attorneys who might want some help with a big family case.
Successful rainmaking comes from persistence, creativity, and variety. If one technique doesn't make rain today, it might work tomorrow. If a technique produces only a mild shower, thinking about it in a different way might produce a better result. To continue to explore new rainmaking ideas, simply connect with your GPSolo colleagues for new ideas.
Carolyn J. Stevens is a solo family law practitioner in Lolo, Montana, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.