General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
Prepackage Diversity Through Legal Service Plans
By J. Anthony Clark
When I opened up my solo shop, per the dictates of guru-author Jay Foonberg, I told all of my friends to send me clients for my family law practice. Life being what it is in these United States, one ethnic group predominates among my friends, and those who referred me their friends sent me primarily members of the same substratum. After six months, I found that 75 percent of my clients had my accent. Not that there's anything wrong with such a situation, but, as Foonberg might say, I was missing marketing opportunities.
Six months later my client base resembled a bomber crew from those World War II movies-every constituency had a representative. I had, after a year, augmented my marketing by associating with several prepaid legal services plans. The ancillary benefit of prepaid plan cooperation is diversification of a firm's client base, a factor I should have recognized because I had been pontificating about prepaid legal services for more than a decade before I opened my own law firm. My work moved sequentially from administrator to trade group consultant to licensing consultant to marketer to service provider-both as a staff attorney and an outside consultant. Even now I serve on the board of directors of the ABA's American Prepaid Legal Services Institute. Although I knew prepaid legal services are a great way to expand a client base, I found that they also diversify that base.
The arms-length referral by prepaid plans is the key. Plans themselves, with several variations, fall into two main areas: true groups, such as employment-related plans, or volunteer plans where consumers enroll in response to advertisements to credit card holders or through insurance agents. Both methods of self-selection cross all ethnic lines. Referral within the plans to cooperating independent law firms then can be either according to a plan member's residential zip code or strictly on a random basis within a particular county.
The bottom line for me was that I reached individuals I'm sure would never have otherwise contacted my office. This is particularly true because of the national basis of the largest plans. I was contacted by those whose spouses moved to my jurisdiction, a West Coast woman who had an automobile accident while at her son's local college graduation, heirs whose relatives have local estates, and foreign nationals at local universities. It would be difficult for such out-of-towners to identify and seek referrals with local bars based on ethnicity since the Chicago Bar Association is (roughly) the majority bar, the Cook County Bar Association is comprised of black lawyers, the Decalogue Society is Jewish lawyers, the Advocates Society is Polish lawyers, and the Justinian Society is mostly Italian lawyers. Confusing? You bet!
There is a down side to the multi-cultural referrals. I know exactly why one plan member was reassigned to my firm after she claimed she couldn't understand the accent of a lawyer I know. The prospective client also never contacted me again after an initial telephone conversation in which she had the benefit of listening to my unaccented English. Consumers will continue to make ethnic-based decisions. My limited foreign language skills require patience and forbearance by clients-accommodations that are not always forthcoming. Also, all plans require legal representation of their members to be performed on a discounted fee basis.
The upside is the fact that I can belong to an ethnic bar association, but still get referrals from all nationalities. Through referrals, my client list now resembles the seating chart at the UN General Assembly. That may be a slight exaggeration, but when my clients are pleased with the results of my representation, I do get invited to a variety of ethnic restaurants.
J. Anthony Clark is a Chicago solo-practitioner with a family law practice. He can be reached at Clarklaw@interaccess.com.