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.

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.

You’re Losing Money Big Time.

The average law firm is incredibly inefficient and wasteful. Why? Because they make too much profit. If that sounds crazy, let me explain.

ABA and bar association statistics say that the average sole practitioner/small firm profit margin is between 45 and 55%.  Contrast that to the average grocery store margin of one or two percent. With such a razor-thin margin, grocery stores are constantly focusing on efficiency, profitability, increasing sales, increasing customer loyalty – everything to make sure that slender profit margin doesn’t turn to a loss.

Law firms, not surprisingly, generally operate on slop. A few unbilled hours here, a few uncollected dollars there, a little staff inefficiency, little extra expense for services, and, as former president Lyndon Johnson used to say, “a few billion here, a few billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

(Do you know how to calculate your TRUE profit margin? Ask me.)

Before we get to the details, let me share a few big principles.

First: if you want to grow your practice, first you have to be willing to grow your skills in managing it.

It hardly needs to be said. Attorneys hate to deal with the “business” side of the business. Most suffer from the “I just want to do my work” syndrome. Staffing, firm administration, expense management, accounting, all take a major back seat to “getting my work done.” As a result, attorneys tend to live in a highly disfunctional business environment.

Becoming a better manager starts with the attorney himself or herself. Personal efficiency, organization, productivity. The ability to focus and get things done. Next, they need to know how to create and manage an efficient team. Develop the right team and the right team structure, and build an effective system for delegating, supervising, and managing.

Second: doing legal work is not the primary purpose of your practice. Altruism and idealism aside, the first purpose of the practice is to allow you to have a decent life. If it doesn’t do that, your ability to take the best care of your clients is endangered. Delivering legal service is your product – how you accomplish that primary goal. If you find that offensive, try working the next year for free and see how that works for you.

Third: your most important role in the practice is not doing your legal work. It’s making sure there is legal work for you to do. Marketing. Sorry, all you idealists and ethicists. And by the way, personal marketing has always been ethical. Sales and solicitation are not.

Fourth: most attorneys have never been trained (or have wanted to be trained) in good business practices. Enough said.

Fifth: any change is uncomfortable. Many great changes have been avoided or discarded because the initial process of change proved uncomfortable. As Arnold Palmer once said, “in order to play golf well, first you have to be willing to play it badly.”

Over the next weeks, I’ll offer my thoughts and advice on the following areas:

How to build more powerful initial prospect conversations. The easiest place to start in getting new clients is in increasing the percentage of your prospects who become clients. We’ll talk about how to create the most powerful impressions and communications so that more prospects hire you. Conversely, will examine why and when to say “no.”

How to create stronger initial client relationships. Most clients leave your office without any clear picture of what will happen from then on. In other words, and some level of fear. What are the keys to ensuring a better ongoing client relationship?

How to reduce your accounts receivable through better client communications. More than 55% of all attorney grievances relate to poor communications. What must you do to make sure that the relationship stays afloat and doesn’t crash and burn?

Happy clients mean happy receivables. How do you get there consistently?.

How to increase the efficiency and work quality of your team. Do you have the right team? Are they all working as efficiently as possible? Are you managing them effectively?

How to expand your client base without significant cost. The most successful attorneys are masters at developing a strong base of referrals, and a powerful public reputation. You can be too.

Stay tuned.

Four Good Reasons to ALWAYS Do a Non-Engagement Letter

Made an offhand post to the ABA GP Solo LinkedIn group the other day. THought it was worth sharing here. 

When a prospect doesn’t hire you, should you send them a non-engagement letter? But of course. Here are my four reasons to do so.

The first reason is obvious – to have a track in your file that says you notified the person you were not representing them. That’s just good risk management, and most malpractice carriers love it when you do that.

The second is about professionalism. Someone considered putting their well-being in your hands. That’s an honor that deserves a “thank you.”

And the third is that thing called “marketing.” Part of the letter should detail how else you might be able to help them or someone they know in the future.

And the fourth follows the third. They should now be added to your marketing database for future contact (you DO keep in touch with past clients and prospects, don’t you??). By the rules of ethics, once someone has asked you for information, there are no barriers to future contact. It’s no longer considered “solicitation.” You can send them your firm newsletter (please don’t – they’re usually boring as H–) or better, devise some good and positive ways to communicate with them that they receive as positive, helpful and useful.

Those last are numbers two and four of the four fundamentals of personal marketing: build trust relationships, and stay in touch consistently over time. In other words, create “top of mind awareness” so that, next time they have a problem, they think of you first.

Oh, and it’s never a good idea to prejudge or assert anything about a case or the prospect in the letter. You could easily be sued for giving bad legal advice (after all, you didn’t get to the discovery, did you?) or defamation of character. So it’s best to simply say “I am not able to represent you at this time.”

Ten Tips for a Successful Practice

The profession is going through an upheaval and shakeout of unprecedented impact. Some futurists predict that as many as a third of the lawyers in practice today will have left the profession within the next five years. How will small firm & solo attorneys need to change their thinking to stay viable? Some of my thoughts —

1. Learn from change, don’t resent it. Ask yourself “what is the opportunity here?”

2. The past ain’t coming back. Move forward or be left behind.

3. Embrace technology. It’s not a choice. Every old dog can learn new tricks. As Yogi  Berra once said, “first ya gotta wanna.”

4. Hire or keep a strong right arm. Without it you don’t have a practice. You have a job.

5. Attracting work is just as important as doing it. Get over it.

6. Develop a clear identity. General practice is not an identity. It’s a plea.

7. Three (okay, four) key words to remember that will help you stay alive: focus, niche and target market. You can’t survive trying to sell everything to everyone.

8. Be highly visible and active in your own and your target market’s community. You won’t be found by prospects if you are hiding in your office.

9. Your worst enemy is inertia, not your competition.

10. Think beyond this month’s billings. Without a roadmap to tomorrow you are living in yesterday.

Tips From an Old Friend In the Field

Long-time friend and client Jason Studinski, one of Wisconsin’s leading trial lawyers, has not only survived but thrived after the Wisconsin “off the cliff” experience when Governor Scott Walker managed to pass tort reform within 90 days of his election. A few years ago, BW (before Walker) I advised Jason in very successfully re-inventing his PI practice. He took that experience into the battle, re-inventing himself once again after the personal injury “cliff.” I recently asked Jason to share his insights on how he did it.

Jason: “There have been seven points that I have identified in the last three years concerning my approach to marketing.”

1. Relationships are everything.  We have worked hard to find new referral sources and shore up existing sources. (Cole: Jason fully understands and wields the power of relationship marketing.)

2. Get free press instead of paying for it.  We are going to be doing more press releases. (Cole: Jason harnesses the daily thirst of the press for copy.)

3. Recycle my marketing materials.  If I do a talk on a subject, I try to find additional venues for that same talk.  I try to turn the talk into articles.  I try to find talk radio for the subject too.  I will be posting all of this on our website as well. (Cole: Jason regularly uses the “three cushion shot,” re-purposing his work to leverage  the power of his marketing.)

4. Make use of part-time folks for purposes of marketing. (Cole: leverage your marketing with systems and people – lots of talent available cheap – if you know how to harness and direct them.)

5. Take advantage of the new visibility opportunities of social media. (Cole: Yup.)

6. Hyper-niche.  General practice no longer exists – even if you say I generally practice personal injury.  Niche. (Cole: two new keys to building a successful practice: NICHE, which allows you to identify and reach a specific TARGET MARKET(key two) efficiently, rather than trying to reach everyone.)

7. Say no. Now more than ever it is critical to say no to bad work or work that simply doesn’t fit.  We have to leave behind a scarcity mentality and adopt more of an abundance mentality.  This means that instead of taking work on that we don’t want or can’t do efficiently, we should say no – and spend that time on marketing and building the business. (Cole: SELECTIVITY means you don’t get overwhelmed with lots of work on low-value matters, so you can spend more of your time in high-value areas. “Busy” doesn’t always equate to “successful.”)

Sometimes the Best Marketing Advice is the Simplest

Most attorneys know the best business comes from referrals. So – are you keeping in touch with your referral sources?

Do you have a comprehensive list of your best referral sources, and are you referring to it regularly to make sure you’re keeping those relationships warm & friendly?

Do you have a system to make sure you identify the source of every prospect, and to make sure that every referrer is acknowledged and thanked?

When you refer to others, do you have systems to make sure you let them know you’re trying to help them?

Do have a system to ask happy clients to let the referral source know they’re happy?

Basic marketing habits like these are the foundation of more expansive marketing plans. Without them in place, you could be losing big time, because of referrers who feel unappreciated, who don’t know you’re trying to help them, and who aren’t getting feedback from those they referred.

And by the way, note the word “systems” in each. “I do that some” isn’t a system, and means that you also DON’T do that a lot. Marketing, like the rest of your practice, should be systems-driven rather than attorney-driven. It’s the distinction between having a practice and having a great legal business.

If you could use some help in putting the systems in place, or learning what to say when you reach out to touch a referral source, give me a call at 407-830-9810.

Have You Watered Your Referral Sources Lately?

The rainy season is upon us here in Central Florida after a very dry winter. Suddenly everything in our yard that was dry and struggling is lush and green and blossoming.

Just like my landscape, healthy relationships require nurturing. If you’re intent on maintaining productive and blossoming relationships with those who help you feed your family, you have to honor my fourth and last rule for effective referral marketing: stay in contact consistently over time.

It’s not about “sales.” It’s about genuine relationship. Think about that personal friend who never seems to reach out to you, even though you regularly initiate contact. after a while you’re likely to give up, cross them off your list.

It’s the same with referral sources. Say “thank you” with a phone call, personal note or e-mail when that referrer sends you a prospect (even if they don’t hire you). Periodically reach out just to reconnect and find out what’s been happening in their lives, as a friend would. Keep the relationship warm.

After all, relationship marketing is, in the end, about building and maintaining an extensive group of friends who you enjoy connecting with, and who are happy to help you be successful. If you don’t, they are likely to forget you and refer to someone else, or even worse, proactively cross you off their referral list because they feel unappreciated or forgotten.

FYI, here are my four simple rules for relationship marketing, each of which, of course, has considerable detail behind it. But the basic concepts are simple:

1. Talk to the right people.
2. Build honest relationships
3. Make sure they know what you do and who you work with.
4. Stay in touch consistently over time.

It ain’t rocket science. But it does require focus, consistency and, most importantly, background systems and structure to achieve maximum efficiency and leverage.