The Fate of the Corner Store Is Coming to Small Firms – Soon

So what did happen to the corner store? The short answer is it became the 7-11, the Circle K – or it went out of business. Most did the latter.

The legal blogosphere is filled with speculation and news about the happenings of biglaw in the legal revolution – but about 63% of lawyers in private practice are in firms of 3 or less. So what’s the future for the little guy?

What if you could suddenly benefit from national advertising – a powerful website – group health and malpractice insurance, and a continuing feed of business that would alleviate your need for marketing?

Sound like joining a big firm? Well, yes – but no.

The legal revolution that has brought about “Alternative Business Structures” offering a range of services beyond legal, and “Non-Lawyer Ownership” of law firms in Australia and Britain are blossoming with creative examples of exactly this revolution. One is a British legal franchise called Quality Solicitors. There are currently over 200 British law firms – some top ones in smaller communities – under the brand.

In Britain, financing for such endeavors is coming from outside the profession. And while that’s not yet permitted in the U.S., it doesn’t have to be for the franchise model. A few wealthy attorneys could fund it. And my bet is that it’s already in the works.

But, you say, “no way – the franchise model has been tried, and hasn’t worked very well.” You’re right – but that’s the past. The world – and technology – has completely changed the game.

LegalZoom has created a no-lawyers model with thousands of fill-in-the-blanks-online forms. They didn’t even need lawyers – although they have since expanded, to capture the market at the next level, of those who really do want to talk to a lawyer. And of course, the web has become the first place a majority of consumers look when choosing a lawyer. So when they Google “lawyer” and see a website that talks candidly about cost, it has their attention. The Quality Solicitors website headline is “When it comes to bills, we don’t like surprises either.”

Then it uses “artificial intelligence” to help the client determine what type of services they need, then puts them in touch with the appropriate attorney in their area. And right there, for the world to see, are prices. Reasonable – and note at the right, with a “clear price” guarantee.

Politics isn’t the only place we’re seeing a consumer revolt. LegalZoom has proven that.

So what can you do to solidify your market position? What can you learn from Quality Solicitors?

First – like it or not, price rules for consumers and small business.
The savvy consumer knows the difference between a straightforward problem or issue and one with a host of “if’s, and’s and buts.” Larger corporations, not yet so much. But even that is changing. Savvy in-house legal counsel increasingly know how to take advantage of a highly competitive marketplace.

The fact is that hourly billing is a relatively new concept that began in earnest in the 1960’s. Before then, most everything was flat-rate priced. (if you want the full story of how that change came about, give me a call.)

So, you’re thinking I’m going to say “flat rate pricing,” but you’re wrong. The answer is actually a sophisticated version of that, called “unit pricing.” Your agreement – and heck, maybe even your advertising (a la Quality Solicitors) has specific “flat rate” prices for stages, or levels, of work, with an open end hourly rate if needed. For instance, in estate planning:

Simple will with components A, B, and C:              $750
Additional if D is needed:                                         $300
Additional if E, F & G are needed                            $900
If H is requested                                                      $1200

Likewise, in litigation, pricing might look like this:

Review of matter, development of strategy,
Filing of initial suit (includes up to five client meetings)                     $3,000 – $5,000
Additional meetings                                                                           $400
Deposition fee (travel billed separately), per deposition, per day     $1000
Trial preparation                                                                                $5,000 – $9,000
Trial, per attorney per day                                                                 $3,000 – $5,000

This is an admittedly simple model with numbers that may not fit for you. But the concept is important. Specific prices for specific, well defined (in writing) types or stages of work. The client should be able to see what they can expect to pay for each stage of the work, and so they can make better decisions based partly on the dollar consequences.

Yes, even when your work is carefully unit-priced, sometimes your time will be more than the fee involved. But you’ll prosper on the law of large numbers rather than on each matter. And after all, what better way to drive innovation and efficiency (which the legal profession has never, until recently, had to deal with) than having to analyze past work to identify better methods or better pricing?

The traditionalist objection to this “cost-based” decision tree for the client is “The client might stop me from doing something important because of cost! They’ll be telling me how to practice law!” Yep, and yep. My answer to that is to yell “IT’S ALWAYS THE CLIENT’S CASE, NOT YOURS!” and to remind the attorney of their first and foremost duty in the client relationship: advice and counsel. If the client decides not to take the advice (which should, needless to say, be documented in a letter or email), then it’s ultimately the client’s decision. How’s that really different than today’s real life?

Second: Make sure your website does its job for you.
What does that mean? First, it means acknowledging that it’s a web world. Even if most of your business is referrals, know that most of those prospects, after they were given your name, went to your website to check you out. So, no website? Really? Then you’re missing out on lots of clients who searched for you, couldn’t find you, and didn’t call. Crappy, creaky 1999 website? Ditto.

So. Give in to the reality that you should pay a design expert to create an impactful, compelling website that attracts viewers to become clients. Because it’s no longer your business card. It’s your front door. Need a referral? Call me.

And if all of your business is referrals, and most people find you on the web by typing in your name (your website statistics can tell you this), maybe that’s all you need.

If most of your business comes from strangers – walk-ins, in traditional terms (remember where your front door is), then make sure your website has all the bells and whistles that make Google light up and want to rank you highly in the listings. This is the first part of what the geeks call “website optimization,” and it’s a job for experts – which doesn’t mean your brother-in law the computer programmer, unless he has at least three recommendations from law firms. There’s a science to picking a web designer who can do both great design and great “organic” optimization. Happy to provide the details. Call me.

Next step – decide where you want to appear on the list when the consumer does a search for “family lawyer” or such. Several options here. You can pay Google to list you at the top of the page, in as many jurisdictions as you can afford.  You can pay a web magician to get you listed at the top of the next group of “unpaid” listings (an arcane and less than perfect art – again, do your due diligence). You can buy a “pay-per-click” ad in the far right column that you only pay for when someone clicks on it to go to your website.

All of this means that, finally, you have to have a marketing budget of reasonable size – 10-15% of your budgeted gross revenues at least. Some for your web works, and some for your other marketing. Many personal injury firms spend far more than this.

Third – do your own marketing.
That means advertising where necessary, and most importantly, personal marketing – building and maintaining relationships with your referral sources – in other words, paying attention to the Parieto Principle – the old 80-20 rule that says 80% of your business will come from 20% or your (you name it – efforts, contacts, expenditures).

The still-true fact is that the best business comes from referrals – other professionals (especially your fellow attorneys), former clients, and personal, social and business contacts. And that’s at all levels, right up to the top of the profession. CEO’s don’t Google “corporate lawyer.” They ask their fellow CEO’s or their CFO or accounting firm for a referral.

And referrals are, by far, the cheapest source of business. So, like it or not, you have to be extremely active with relationship-building. And particularly if you are in a smaller community, you have to be ubiquitous – a “leading citizen,” known and respected by all. Be seen, involved and active in as many places as possible. That in itself won’t make you rich, but turning all of that into a systematic, efficient and results-oriented personal marketing program will. If you need some pointers here, give me a call.

The final truth. . .
Consumer law is going away from the traditional practitioner to the LegalZooms, the RocketLawyers, the franchises, the do-it-yourself forms on the web. The lawyer’s hold on the lower levels of the legal system is slipping fast, as the web offers more and more choices and opportunities. Yes, those choices may not always be the best, but sometimes, the consumer only needs a Kia, not the Bentley we want to sell them. And remember that it’s always the consumer’s choice, not ours.

. . . And the larger solution
Move up the ladder, away from the simple to the more complex work, whether that be corporate or high net worth individuals or successful entrepreneurs, where needs are more complex and nuanced, where matters and their solutions are unique, and where long-term relationships – those “trusted advisor” relationships exist between client and attorney.

Or get ready to buy a franchise.