The Biggest Mistake New Lawyers Make

Kudos to my old friend Nerino Petro and his co-author Jocelyn Frazer for the tour-de-force article “The GPSolo Guide to Opening a Law Office,” in the Jan-Feb GPSolo Magazine. As always, information-packed and extremely valuable.

Except for the missing piece. How does the new lawyer attract the business that will feed them?

The mistake looks like this: “I wanna practice criminal defense.” Or maybe “I wanna practice personal injury” or “I wanna practice estate planning.”

It’s lovely that they wanna practice whatever. But the more relevant question is – how can they create a successful practice? Too many new lawyers set up an “Iwanna” practice without a careful look at the market, and end up driving a cab.

The basic question is – who are you going to sell your services to, and what are you going to sell? The traditional approach is “whatever I can to whoever will buy.” that makes them a snowflake in a sandstorm.

In my workshops and in working with my individual clients, I assert that the secret of success in today’s chaotic marketplace is “niche and target market.” In other words, the most successful attorneys identify a target market – hopefully one that isn’t already owned by other attorneys – and identify the needs of that market. And they market themselves and their services in a manner designed to clearly create a distinction between themselves and others. In the (paraphrased) words of a groundbreaking book from way back in the 70’s titled “Positioning: the Battle for your Mind” the game is to identify a position – a distinction or uniqueness – in your prospect’s mind that is not already occupied – or in today’s world not crowded – then own that position (niche).

So, to get started in your practice in the most powerful way ,start out by identifying a group that you can get your arms around. A target market with clear boundaries and marketing avenues. For instance, I helped a client in Chicago whose ethnic background is Serbian to identify the (painfully obvious) target market for her, and then helped her own it. She is now the “go-to” lawyer for a community of over 35,000 people. A small town that is plenty big enough to keep her busy – and successful.

So what does this look like for the brand new attorney? It begins with some serious due diligence. First, a detailed study of the demographics of your area. What specific religious, ethnic, professional, business, social or other groups – that is, potential target markets – are present in your area? There is an unending list in most cities: Christian, Muslim, Brazilian, French, Sportsmen, preservationists, union members, farmers, truck drivers, square dancers, Kiwanis members, college and law school alumni associations, opera society members, and so on, ad infinitum. Second, identify a significant target market which which you have some connection or affinity. Are you Italian-American, classic car enthusiast, triathlete or birdwatcher? Third, get seriously involved and connected.

Why? Because of some basic human psychology. Who do we like? People who are like us. So, even if you’re a stranger, once you step into a group of people who share something, you are immediately a friend – and that means someone they trust more than they would trust a stranger.

And it’s also because of another factor. Consumers in general have no way of deciding whether you are a good attorney or not. Instead, they will tend to make their buying decision on instinct. “Really liked her.” “felt good about him.” Now, if they’re sophisticated buyers of legal services it’s different. But in general, your first step in getting business is connecting with people who have a reason to like and trust you.

Next, you want to make sure they know you’re a lawyer – not by “selling,” but by storytelling. Everyone gives you the opportunity to educate them – they say “haven’t seen you in a while – what’s new with you?” or the like. The perfect opportunity to relate a story about some interesting legal problem or opportunity you’re helping someone with. And in the process accomplish what I refer to as “under the radar” education. Often the result of one of these stories is the response of “gee, I didn’t know you did that!”

Then – and this is where my usual advice differs – you want to position yourself as the “trusted advisor” rather than the estate planner or criminal defense lawyer or whatever. This is the advice I usually give to my clients in small towns. You need to position yourself as the “go-to” person that people reach out to first when they have a problem, giving you the opportunity to either help them directly or advise them on where to get help. So, in small towns the lawyer can still specialize – but they have to be the first one people call for anything, so they can take what fits, and also maintain their “go-to” image by advising them on where to go for the help they need. And by the way, that puts them in a powerful position of referring business to others – and building a refer-back network.

So, even if you’re in Chicago, when you’re with your affinity group you’re essentially in a small town. And you need to develop the “go-to” reputation just as though you were in Beemer, Nebraska.(And I actually have a client there – one who will, with my support, within a few short years essentially own the Nebraska farm family “affinity group.”)

So, this new position you’re developing as the “go-to” lawyer in your affinity group allows you to, early on in your career, not only develop business more effectively, but also begin to focus your practice. As your profile grows and more people come to you for help, you can become choosier on what you take and what you refer out. And, as your practice takes flight, you can now expand into other target markets or focus on building a more public presence, attracting a wider audience.

And from another point of view, it’s a chance to connect with people you like – people who are like you – and develop your practice in a far more enjoyable way. Maybe this won’t be your forever market, but it will be a powerful way to get started.

So, don’t make the mistake too many young lawyers make: marketing by wandering around. Find your affinity group. Get involved, get high profile by taking a leadership role – and attract business from people you like.