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October 01, 2017

The Evolution of Marketing for Solos and Small Firms: Where We Go from Here

Terrie S. Wheeler

For more than 30 years I have had the pleasure of working with small firms and solo practitioners to help them be more effective at marketing and driving new business to their practices. There have been countless changes in three decades. In fact, when I started out, there weren’t websites, and getting a new brochure written and printed was a huge and expensive undertaking—and the only way lawyers could promote their services.


Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with another law marketing pioneer, my colleague Jim Bliwas (PSM’s senior marketing and communications strategist), to talk about the changes I’ve seen and what may lie ahead for the vast majority of lawyers in the United States: The 75 percent who own their own law firms or practice with a smaller law firm. Jim, a former journalist who’s also worked in the field for more than 30 years, led the discussion.


Jim: As one of the first professionals in the field back in the late 1980s, how have you seen law marketing change since then?

Terrie: Marketing in the early days was very paper-based. The lack of technology limited our efforts to mundane things such as directory listings, printed newsletters, mailed announcements, “tombstone” ads, and seminars.

It was like pulling teeth to engage lawyers in marketing. Many thought that because their firm had a marketing person, they didn’t need to worry about it. Law firms were still ten years away from developing their first websites. Terms like blogs, SEO, and social media didn’t even exist. In fact, LinkedIn wasn’t launched until 2007. Now it’s more important than traditional directories when a client is considering hiring a lawyer.

Jim: In the early days, many partners objected to the whole idea of “marketing.” Is this still a factor when you work with a firm or with specific attorneys?

Terrie: Thankfully, lawyers today realize that marketing is about building strong, genuine relationships with clients and referral sources.

I think most lawyers wish that word of their talent would drive clients to their door. It doesn’t. There are so many resources in the marketplace today that lawyers need help figuring out what really works for their unique situation.

Jim: Done properly, marketing has been shown to generate serious growth in firms that really listen to and take to heart what their marketing consultant suggests. Why do you think it has been so difficult for lawyers to accept sound advice from marketing pros?

Terrie: I think it goes directly back to not learning about marketing and business skills in law school. Most lawyers graduate not knowing the first thing about running and growing a successful practice. Even at the very best law schools in the country, generally they learn nothing about the law business.

Because lawyers are very smart people, many think they can do everything themselves, including marketing, and don’t need professional help. Midsize and smaller firms struggle more with the DIY mentality.

Jim: More recently, how’d you describe the biggest single change in law marketing over the past, say, five years?

Terrie: The rise of search engine optimization. It’s bizarre, but many lawyers get sucked into long-term SEO and digital marketing contracts full of false promises regarding results. They’re told that if they just sign on, clients will seek them out in droves on Google and they won’t have to do anything else. Well, that’s appealing to most lawyers, but it’s just not true.

We work with a lot of lawyers and firms on the other side of these contracts, helping them build customized marketing strategies focused on relationship building. Why? Because this is what works. SEO, like other forms of online advertising, can be useful if used as a component of a much larger and highly targeted strategy. Using it by itself is a waste of money.

Jim: How has this affected the way lawyers build relationships with current or prospective clients to generate new work?

Terrie: Smart lawyers realize it’s all about building thought-leadership and showing clients that you actually have experience doing what they need. It is about having a strong niche, a unique brand, and building name recognition around that niche and brand. Showing prospective clients that you are a thought leader requires you to share what you know. Gone are the days when clients will retain you before they learn how you think. Today, it’s just the opposite. You need to show clients how you think if you want them to hire you!

Jim: A frequent criticism of firms and attorneys is that they do a lot of copycat marketing, doing what a competitor is doing. How can firms and their partners break free of “the curse of doing the expected”?

Terrie: By nature, when lawyers see another firm doing something different or creative, they jump on the bandwagon. It’s a lot easier to replicate what other firms are doing using the theory “if that firm felt it was a good marketing investment, it’ll be good for us, too.”

I say do anything except what your competitors are doing. Instead, adopt a client-focused approach. For example, one local firm offered to help new businesses create and file their corporate documents for less than $20. Imagine the goodwill and loyalty this firm is building by “investing” in these clients during their early stage of growth. So far, the strategy is paying off—these businesses are maintaining and growing their relationships with the firm and remain appreciative of the firm’s support of them when they started their business.

Jim: You and PSM work with a lot of midsize and smaller firms that seem to struggle with marketing more than do larger firms. What can a managing partner or a solo practitioner do to change this?

Terrie: Hire marketing professionals, of course! Don’t try to do it yourself. Consider hiring a firm like ours and outsource your marketing efforts. We start by developing a marketing strategy before diving into implementation activities.

The reality is that, to sustain profitability you must look at your practice as a business, acknowledging that your role in the business is to build relationships with prospective clients and referral sources. Then, deliver exceptional legal services. Let marketing experts manage everything else for you.

Jim: What is the single most important thing lawyers need to know about generating new clients?

Terrie: They need to grasp the difference between sales and marketing.

Marketing is about messages, sales is about asking great questions. You can’t do one without the other. Marketing without a sustained sales effort is too expensive, and trying to attract new business—sales—without any branding or name recognition is just too hard. Growth requires both marketing and sales.

Jim. Speaking generally, how would you characterize the biggest changes you’ve seen over the past quarter century?

Terrie: Wow, Jim. That really makes both of us sound old!

Jim: Not old, Terrie. Experienced. We have 25 years of experience doing what we do.

Terrie: Right, we’re experienced! (laughter)

I think digital marketing has had the greatest impact by improving the processes lawyers use to market their services. What do I mean by digital marketing? Everything from websites, to social media and blog posts, to targeted e-communications. Gone are the days when every marketing task was manual and extremely burdensome.

With technology, lawyers today can engage with prospective clients on social media, send a targeted communication to a specific group of contacts within a few minutes, post and promote a blog on a timely and relevant topic, and expand their network electronically using LinkedIn. The winners in marketing are those who embrace new technologies.

One recent example is a client of ours, a plaintiff’s employment lawyer in the Twin Cities, Lawrence Schaefer of Schaefer Halleen. He posted a blog on the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal the same day the story broke. As a direct result of his timely blog post, someone at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis read the blog and called him because they wanted to interview him live on the 6:00 P.M. news to discuss the impact sexual harassment has had mostly on women across the country.

Jim: That’s a great example. What are some of the biggest changes attorneys practicing in small firms or as solos have had to deal with?

Terrie: I think it’s the proliferation of lawyers that has created unprecedented competition for legal services. Some 35 years ago, there were slightly more than 450,000 lawyers in the United States. Today that number is approaching 1.25 million. Lawyers are competitive by nature. Competitiveness and wanting to win was likely one reason those reading this article chose law school over other advanced degrees. So how do you win in a competitive environment? You must show clients that you’re different and better at your trade than other attorneys offering similar services.

One way to do this is by focusing on what you do best and developing a niche for your practice. As much as lawyers don’t like to hear this, you just can’t be all things to all people. Today, it’s almost impossible to market generalist legal services. If you’re looking at business services, litigation, family law, or really any group of legal services, you need to be perceived as the best within your niche. Here’s the anatomy of just one niche:

Litigator → Personal Injury → Medical Malpractice → Medical Cases Involving Children → Vaccine Litigation

There is a very successful lawyer in Minneapolis whose entire practice involves representing the families of children injured of killed by adverse reactions to vaccinations.

Once you have your niche, throw everything into marketing your expertise: Write blogs, do webinars, send communications, speak, write for magazines. If you stay focused on reaching your target audience with relevant information about topics they care about, you will build a niche and clients will seek you out because of it.

Jim: Do you think it’s harder today, or easier, to practice on your own or in a small firm?

Terrie: It’s certainly scarier. Firms are hiring fewer new lawyers, providing the training most lawyers had before going out on their own. New lawyers who are committed to using the education they invested heavily in, and who can’t find jobs, are hanging shingles in record numbers. Great! Lawyers who are entrepreneurs—right?

I think it is a lot more difficult to start your own law firm right out of law school, but if you choose to do so, work with the ABA or your state or local bar association and find a mentor. A must-read book is The E-Myth Attorney: Why Most Legal Practices Don’t Work and What to Do About It. “E” stands for “entrepreneur,” and not all lawyers are born entrepreneurs. It is truly a must-read if you run your own practice.

Jim: When you practice on your own or with a couple of partners, marketing is necessary for survival. But do you think smaller firms are better at doing business development than their brethren in larger firms?

Terrie: I do think lawyers in smaller firms can be leaner and meaner! Particularly if they have left the chaos of Big Law to form a smaller partnership. They have complete control over how they plan and implement their marketing program.

Jim: An example of this is a law firm in Vancouver, Canada, with about 12 attorneys. When the head of the firm decided he needed a new website six or seven years ago, he did something different. Rather than doing what everyone else was doing—color pictures and graphics, head shots of lawyers in suits in a board room, and so on—he and his marketing consultants opted for all black-and-white with stark photos representing their practice areas. And he included personal info about the lawyers in bios, like the fact that one had been a pastry chef before law school or that another had posed as the superhero in an anime project as an undergrad.

Terrie: Good example, thanks. Yes, smaller firms and solos can be very creative when it comes to differentiating the firm. They have a very strong message: Why pay big firm rates when you can access big firm experience with less overhead, therefore lower hourly rates? The concept is “We are the biggest small firm in town!” Of course, with smaller firms, it’s also important to “be known” for a certain type of services—to have a niche.

Jim: Can you tick off the three or four things that every lawyer should be doing to be more effective at getting new clients and more work from clients that have retained them in the past?

Terrie: For small firms or solo practices, these are the foundation of your marketing plan. It’s difficult if not impossible to do successful, proactive marketing without these in place:

  • Website. You must have a fabulous, differentiating, creative, and visually appealing website that conveys the essence of your firm and your practice.
  • Content. You need to generate content that does two things: First, it showcases your thought-leadership. Second, it gives clients and prospects something new to think about. Once they start thinking, inevitably they’ll call you to help them implement whatever it was you wrote about.
  • SEO. No longer an option, every law firm website needs to be developed with sophisticated on-site SEO and supported with proactive SEO efforts on an ongoing basis.
  • Communications database. Firms must have a way in which to manage their golden contacts. Many of our clients use Constant Contact or MailChimp. What’s important is to have an active, accurate list of contacts, organized by client type and category. You can then quickly and efficiently communicate news your niche clients need to know about.
  • LinkedIn profile (both firm and individual). LinkedIn is the professional online networking tool. Make a commitment to build a fabulous LinkedIn profile and aspire to have more than 500 real connections—only people you know. Then you are ready to engage with your contacts and use advanced search features to identify new opportunities.

Jim: Finally, I can’t end our discussion without congratulating you on being honored by the Minnesota Supreme Court as the 2017 Volunteer of the Year for your service to the legal profession as vice chair of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board.

Terrie: Thank you! I was flattered and amazed when I learned I was receiving the award. Serving on the board has been incredibly rewarding, personally and professionally.


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Terrie S. Wheeler

Terrie S. Wheeler, MBC, is the founder and president of Professional Services Marketing, LLC. She works with lawyers and law firms to help create low-cost, high-impact marketing plans and to provide the motivation and support necessary to achieve results. She serves as vice chair of the Minnesota Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board and teaches marketing and client service at two local law schools. Terrie has spent the last 30 years working with lawyers as an in-house marketing director, a marketing consultant, and a marketing coach. You can reach her with questions of your own at at 320/358-1000 or [email protected].