GPSOLO December 2007
Technology and Marketing: Old Wine in Digital Bottles
Matthew 9:17 informs us, “Neither do men put new wine into old bottles.” That makes sense (unless you’re a wine counterfeiter), but what about doing the reverse—putting old wine in new bottles? Is there anything wrong with that? The Bible apparently doesn’t prohibit it, and the path is wide open for us to discuss pouring old marketing wine into new digital bottles.
Why bother with old wine? As time passes, technology changes, the law changes, and we change, but human nature doesn’t change. That’s why the old wine of tried-and-true marketing principles can be so effective in new bottles. The same human needs that Clarence Darrow addressed to attract his first client in Andover, Ohio, in 1878 are still present in 2007.
Old wine. Clients want to feel confident that the attorney they retain is knowledgeable about the law. They are, after all, hiring expertise at a high price (or so the lawyer hopes), and it’s human nature for them to want their money’s worth.
Clients who are not lawyers are uncertain how to assess the professional capability of an attorney, so they look for characteristics that they believe are indicators of quality. Old-bottle indicators include a large, well-appointed office with attentive staff or a wall of important-looking diplomas and certificates.
A significant quality indicator for clients is the respect that other attorneys have for the prospective lawyer. Bar activities and important-sounding bar positions can constitute a seal of approval for an uncertain client. The title “chairman of the state bar committee” helps calm client nervousness, regardless of exactly what committee is involved.
Client confidence is also important as the relationship continues. On an ongoing basis, clients want to be reassured that their counsel is still at the top of his or her game. In adversarial fields, clients want to feel that their advocate remains the biggest tiger in the jungle. When an attorney must deliver bad news, some of the sting is removed if the client believes that, despite the best representation, their matter was just not going to work out the way they hoped.
Digital bottles. Although old-bottle marketing tactics still pack a punch, contemporary digital technology opens a wide range of new methods for building client confidence.
A virtual office, or more precisely, a virtual waiting room, is an important new tool for building client confidence. The most obvious component is a website.
This is not the article in which to air complaints about law firm website design. I’m certain that stock photo fortunes have been made from pictures of gavels and buildings with columns on the front. Instead, let’s talk about the basics of website navigation.
Make it very easy for visitors to find what they want on your website. How about a big link on your home page entitled, “Information for Prospective Clients”?
James H. Maynard, a criminal defense attorney in Morristown, New Jersey, has such a link on his website (www.888notguilty.com/welcome.htm). The link takes a visitor to a page with answers to questions such as, “What kind of cases do you handle?” and “How much will my case cost?” The home page also has a big link entitled, “Information for Referring Attorneys.”
What are the most common questions that new clients ask you during your first meeting? Why not put answers to those questions on a web page that’s easy to find? I’m not talking about answers that you should be charging for, but answers to questions such as, “How long will it take to have my will completed?” or “Will I have to pay child support?” or “What’s the difference between a patent and a copyright?”
How do you use your website to demonstrate your competence to a prospective client?
Back when I practiced law (how well I remember Clarence Darrow in court!), I had a printed brochure entitled, “About Your Attorney.” In a conversational tone, the brochure talked about where I went to school, what types of cases I had handled in the past, my speaking engagements, publications I edited, articles I had written, my bar activities, and awards I had received. The brochure also included information about my community and church activities as well as what I enjoyed doing for relaxation and how many wives and children I had. These brochures were available in my waiting room, and I included one with every new client letter. It was very common for clients to comment on some piece of information that was in that brochure.
If I were practicing retail law today, I would include the same type of information on my website. I would link to other web locations that would validate the information—ABA TECHSHOW, Missouri Bar Family Law CLE Program, Northwestern University, etc. My website also would say that my office regularly publishes a newsletter on the latest developments in my field, would include a way to get on the electronic subscription list, and would link to past newsletters. Incidentally, “regularly publishes” would be shorthand for whenever I get around to writing one. One of the wonderful benefits of the web is that it makes it very easy to borrow the thoughts of much wiser attorneys for your newsletter.
Incidentally, your clients won’t be favorably impressed if you’re sanctioned for unethical advertising, so all my suggestions come with the caveat to make certain that you understand what is and is not permitted in your state.
Old wine. One of the leading reasons for client dissatisfaction with an attorney is the attorney’s failure to communicate. This failure can take the form of not returning calls, not keeping the client informed about the status of a case, and not being available for meetings.
With the exception of serial divorcées and divorcés, most individual and small business clients are not certain what to expect in a legal matter, particularly a litigation matter. They’re spending a lot of money (or, again, so the lawyer hopes) and are worried about spending more.
Clients’ secret or not-so-secret fear is that all their money is going down a rat hole. When their lawyer doesn’t tell them what’s going on, he or she looks like the prime tenant in the rat hole.
Digital bottles. The Internet is first and foremost a communication medium. So communicate. Send an e-mail, use VOIP for cheap long-distance calls, text-message—just say something to your client!
It will take time to compose an e-mail, so do it once and reuse it hundreds of times. You know that you say the same things to every client. Put together a library of stock paragraphs, then cut and paste them into an e-mail. For example:
Dear XXX: I appeared in court today to argue motions on your behalf. Over the strenuous objections of your estranged husband’s attorney, I was able to persuade the judge to awake from his afternoon nap and rule in your favor. After reviewing your file in depth, I will contact you to discuss our next steps.
Don’t forget to substitute the client’s name for XXX or you’ll lose some of the personal touch. You can build your e-mail paragraph library over time by noticing when you have prepared a particularly articulate e-mail, then copying it into your stock paragraphs file.
You can get fancier and faster by using a small program such as AutoHotkey (free at www.autohotkey.com) or Texter (free at lifehacker.com/software/texter/lifehacker-code-texter-windows-238306.php) to insert as much text as you like with a couple of keystrokes. If you get really, really good at writing macros, you might be able to hit one key in the morning, then take the rest of the day off.
What about a client inadvertently forwarding your privileged communication to all his MySpace friends? First and foremost, use common sense and phone when you should. There are, however, free online services that let you send an e-mail message that self-destructs 30 seconds after it’s opened, something that will impress a certain class of client (see www.willselfdestruct.com, for an example).
The particular tools that you use are not as important as the underlying marketing principle—clients like attorneys who communicate more than they like attorneys who do not. This leads to a related marketing principle: Although satisfied clients will not talk about you as often as you would like, dissatisfied clients will tell everyone they know what a lousy attorney you are.
Blanc d’Blog. Lawyers love the idea of blogs. Strolling around the net leads me to believe that for every 100 lawyers, there are at least 99 blogs. The only group that is more intensely represented on a per capita basis in the blogosphere is law school professors. For every 100 professors, there are at least 250 blogs.
So what can you do with a blog? Because you can get one at no cost, it could be a poor lawyer’s website. If you have a website, you can link to your blog from your website and direct traffic there.
With your blog, you can comment on all things legal, linking to other blogs that actually know what they’re talking about. The Unofficial Blog Style Guide says that a short post is fine. One of the most popular lawyer blogs, www.instapundit.com (okay, it’s written by a professor), sometimes includes one-word blog entries that link to interesting information elsewhere on the web.
A blog is dead-simple to create and use, so at least 10 percent of all attorneys should be able to handle one. One of the largest hosting sites, Blogger (www.blogger.com) sets up your blog in three steps and five minutes. And it’s free. Blogger can generate an RSS feed, so clients who want to monitor your thoughts on a regular basis will be automatically updated. Blogger will even let you use a URL that looks more professional than, say, www.samlawyer.blogspot.com—they’ll host your blog with the URL www.bestdamnlawyerintuscaloosa.com if you’d like.
So how can you go wrong with a blog? Well, by failing to update it regularly. Prospective clients will not be impressed if they arrive at your blog to find that the most recent entry was made in 2004. That doesn’t say “cutting edge.”
Plan on updating at least once a week. Surely something interesting happens in your legal life once a week: Seventh Consecutive Speeding Ticket Overturned! Client Signs Will, Then Dies! Local Judge Bursts into Flames During Closing Argument! Jane Jackson Finally Pays Her Bill! (I know that the last one never happens, but you can always hope.)
Be informal, be friendly, be knowledgeable. If that’s too tough on Friday afternoon, write a one-sentence comment and link to more information on a legal news site; news.findlaw.com, www.law.com, or www.lexisone.com/news will work fine. You can even build your reputation by linking to all the law schools that denied you admission.
First Corinthians 3:13 says, “Every man’s work shall be made manifest.” So start manifesting your legal work and talents with the full range of electronic tools at your disposal. If your 13-year-old daughter can communicate with her best friend by texting “ur spshl,” you can reach out to your prospective clients at least as effectively.
David P. Vandagriff practiced law for 16 years in Monett, Missouri, before being run out of town. During that time, he wrote a technology column for the ABA Journal and spoke on technology topics at ABA TECHSHOW and other venues. He is currently Vice President, Intellectual Property, for Helius, Inc., in Lindon, Utah. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.