Practice Strategies:
Stepping Out on Your Own

Part Two: Marketing and Client Development

By Gretchen Otto

 

In marketing, as in reducing overhead expense, creativity is key. Joseph Borman recommends sending a flyer to everyone you know that you are starting your practice. Relatives, friends, and acquaintances are frequently your best referrals. Joan M. Schulkers adds that she tells everyone she knows that she is a lawyer, and that everyone you know can be a potential client. It is her experience that many people who need a lawyer don't know of any. By telling people your profession, you are providing a valuable public service, even if you must refer them to another lawyer. Borman found that his quality of clientele was significantly better when using these more personal referral systems than when he ran an ad in the yellow pages. Schulkers relates that some lawyers report more collections problems with clients who found their legal services through the yellow pages.

Borman also advocates finding a "niche" to differentiate yourself from other legal providers. He, being close to a bordering state, chose to take the bar exam and be admitted in the two states immediately. This proved to be a great business strategy for him, and also allowed him to access the resources of the bar associations in both states. Speaking a foreign language may also be a helpful selling point. If you have a particular background that clients would find helpful to them in legal matters (e.g., accounting, medical, or mechanical), you can use that particular knowledge to make your practice unique.

To the extent it can be accomplished, if you add a partner to your practice (or start with one), Schulkers suggests not duplicating efforts by becoming active in different groups, associations, and organizations. She suggests, for example, that one partner promote the firm with active bar involvement, and perhaps one in the chamber of commerce. She and Borman divide their marketing activities with respect to their individual areas of interest. Also, it is helpful if the partners qualify for different groups or if they happen to belong to a different demographic. Schulkers is involved in small businesswomen owners' networking organizations. She finds it helpful that her clients can choose between a male or female lawyer (which can be particularly important in family law cases). You might consider this when selecting a partner.

Other advice from Schulkers is to choose a partner you know well enough to trust with your practice funds, and someone with whom you can share your scheduling system so that someone is available to take court appearances for you in case of illness, injury, or other emergency. If you don’t have a partner, she recommends a trusted group of solo practitioners to share this "contingency" function. She and Borman make sure to have at least some basic familiarity with each other’s files just for this purpose. Then each can step in when the other has a conflicting court appearance or some other scheduling problem.

Participation in volunteer legal clinics and affiliation with legal services providers can often result in revenue-generating clients. For example, a legal service corporation may not be able to accept a fee-generating case and may need to refer it to another lawyer. The corporation is likely to think of people that work closely with them as volunteers or on their "conflicts" panels. Borman also volunteered at the Father's Resource Center, which specialized in family and fathers'rights in family law cases. He also participated in a number of volunteer clinics. You may want to consult your local blue pages or government or human resources pages for listings of private and public charitable organizations that sponsor hotlines or other programs for people in need. The Virginia Bar Association, for example, runs a hotline for people accessing mental health services who also have a legal need. Volunteering on their panel could ultimately result in future referrals for fee cases. Even bar programs that require you to accept work at reduced rates to be on their panel could give you the great start that you are looking for.

There are other potential sources for clients. Your church bulletin, the Rotary club and other civic organizations, your Toastmasters group and other educational organizations, and your school alumni magazines (they will sometimes run unpaid announcements) are great resources. Bring business cards to all occasions where you interact on a social, charitable, business, or networking level. Be sure also to leave some business cards with court staff who maintain "conflicts" lists.

Borman also suggests investigating prepaid legal plans to determine if they need more panel lawyers in your area. Unions, companies, corporations, and civic/fraternal organizations may have such plans. Borman himself has worked as a provider for Hyatt Legal Services in his area..

Part Three will deal with networking and mentoring and the importance of having a good professional development plan. It will be featured in our next issue.


Gretchen Otto is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Northern Virginia. She can be reached at fgtop@comcast.net.
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