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May 16, 2016

Lawyer Marketing & the Ambulance Chaser Rule

The graduating lawyers of 2013 were studied by the American Bar Association nine months after their graduation. 11.2% of those graduates were unemployed, and 31.8% were employed in a job that was either part-time, short-term, or did not require passage of the Bar. This means that only 57% of graduating lawyers found a position that was long-term, full-time, and where they would be working as a Bar-appointed lawyer.

These statistics haven’t changed a whole lot in the past few years, except possibly to get worse. What do you call someone with a law degree? If you’re looking at statistics, you call them unemployed. So what’s an unemployed lawyer to do? After all, most attorneys graduate from law school with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. You have to do something! So how can you make ends meet?

The Legal Industry is Hard

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to be a lawyer these days. With the nation still trying to recover from the Great Recession, there are a lot of lawyers who are struggling to survive. Law firms can’t hire lawyers if they don’t have the caseload to justify paying them, and solo practitioners can’t keep the lights on if they can’t keep their caseloads high enough to pay the bills. To make things more difficult, ethical considerations often prevent attorneys from attracting new clients in the same way as insurance agents or realtors.

I’m referring, of course, to Rule 7.3 in the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, and to its offshoots and variants found in every state in the country. I like to call this rule the “Ambulance Chaser” rule, because that’s essentially the conduct it’s intended to prevent. The rule says that a lawyer cannot solicit employment unless the person they’re contacting is a lawyer or someone they have a close relationship with (friends, family members, prior clients, etc.).

The rule is designed to prevent attorneys from hanging out in emergency rooms to solicit accident victims, but it’s often interpreted as a blanket prohibition on personal solicitation of legal services. So how can you drum up new clients without violating Rule 7.3?

Exceptions to Rule 7.3

Rule 7.3 lists two exceptions to the anti-solicitation rule. The first exception is if the person you’re contacting is a lawyer. If you’re looking for a job in a law firm, solicit away!

The second exception is if the person you’re contacting is someone you have a family relationship, a close personal relationship, or a prior professional relationship with. If your Aunt Edna needs an attorney to help her with her upcoming divorce, go ahead and solicit to her. If your best friend needs someone to help him with a will, you can solicit to him. And it’s okay to solicit to prior clients, as long as they haven’t told you to knock it off.

Some attorneys will push these exceptions to the limit. After all, there’s no clear definition of what a “close personal” relationship is. Does that include your next-door neighbor? What about the guy in your Sunday School class? How about someone you meet at a business networking event?

But the fact remains that even if you push these exceptions as far as you can push them, that seriously limits your ability to prospect or solicit for new clients. I’m a writer, and therefore am not bound by Rule 7.3, so I can reach out to people on LinkedIn or make cold calls to drum up new business. You lawyers aren’t quite so lucky, so if you want to be prosperous, you’re going to have to get creative.

Outbound Marketing vs. Inbound Marketing

Outbound marketing is when you prospect or solicit new business. This may take the form of sending a message to your LinkedIn connections, making cold calls, dropping in on businesses that might need your services, and even sending out emails (as long as they’re not prohibited by the CAN-SPAM Act). Outbound marketing has very low success rates, so you have to do a LOT of it to get any traction. But it allows you to control your client acquisition. If I know that 0.1% of my LinkedIn messages will get me a client, then it’s a simple matter of saying that I need two new clients a week and should therefore send out 2,000 messages every week. The averages indicate that as long as I do the activity, I will see the results.

But for attorneys, Rule 7.3 makes outbound marketing very limited. You simply cannot get the volume you need to be effective with outbound marketing due to the restrictions on this type of solicitation.

Inbound marketing is when you create something that attracts new clients to you. For example, a billboard or radio ad would be a form of inbound marketing. You’re not directly soliciting business from an individual; you’re placing an ad up and waiting on people to call you from that ad. In the information age, another example would be your website and your online presence.

Some marketing techniques combine inbound and outbound marketing. For example, it’s common in the Internet age for people to offer a free giveaway on their website (often an e-book or a course of some sort) as an incentive for people to give them an email address. While this would be inbound marketing, they then use the email address for outbound marketing. This wouldn’t work for attorneys, however; even if the outbound marketing wasn’t prohibited, it is prohibited to give something of value to a prospective client to entice them to work with you.

The Importance of Inbound Marketing

For an attorney, at least half of the marketing techniques used in other industries are completely prohibited, or are restricted so severely that they’re ineffective. So it’s critically important that lawyers use the tools they do have to the greatest advantage possible.

Online

The easiest place to begin is with your Internet presence. These can often be changed or updated with minimal cost, and they’re very important because the Internet is a primary place where people go to research almost anything these days (including lawyers).

Every attorney should have a well-designed, informative, persuasive, and compliant website. If you haven’t had your website redesigned in the past 3-5 years, you need to update it. Trends change on the Internet, and it’s very clear to a prospective client when a website is dated. It makes you look unprofessional and it turns off prospective clients when your website looks like something out of 1985. A simple re-design can be had for $3,000-$5,000 or more, depending on the complexity and size of your website and whether its existing “bones” can be kept.

In addition to having an attractive, modern website, attorneys must consider the written material on their website. Your written material must comply with ethical rules, must not be construed as giving legal advice, and must be written in a way that is persuasive. When attorneys write, they tend to do a very good job on the first two, but they don’t usually do a great job on writing persuasive content and copy. Here’s a dose of tough love: Most attorneys write like attorneys, and legal writing is not persuasive writing. Don’t foist the writing off on your paralegal or your recent law school grad; they won’t do a good job. And don’t try to do the writing yourself; you have more important things to do, and you’re probably not a trained persuasive writer, either. A legal copywriter can be hired on a freelance basis, and while prices vary tremendously, $100-300 per page of copy is a good ballpark estimate for a qualified and skillful legal copywriter.

If you do any business-to-business legal services, a LinkedIn profile is a necessity. It’s not usually necessary to upgrade to the premium account, but it is necessary to have a complete and useful LinkedIn profile. Like your website, business customers will look for your LinkedIn page. The biggest problem I see with attorneys and their LinkedIn profile is that they fail to elaborate on their resume and experience section. For example, they’ll say, “Corporate Litigator for Smith & Jones Law Firm,” but they won’t include any highlights or any explanation of what that entailed or what they did. This is an area that you could do yourself, just by looking at LinkedIn profiles of your friends and colleagues to see how they address it. Alternatively, you can select a professional resume writer, as many resume specialists offer LinkedIn profile work.

Finally, you need to pay attention to your online reputation. There are firms that provide online reputation management and can help monitor these things for you. If you choose to do it yourself, you’ll want to pay particular attention to the following sites:

  • Google Reviews
  • Yelp
  • Avvo

When someone searches for you on Google and they use your name, Google will often display the Google Reviews at the very top. Yelp and Avvo are frequently found on the first page of search results. You can have the greatest website in the world, but if you have a lot of negative reviews on that first page, your clients will see the reviews and won’t even bother to look at your website.

Branching Out

There are many ways to expand your online presence to make sure that you reach more people. You can use search engine optimization (SEO) to help your website reach more people who are searching for lawyers like you. For example, if you’re a family practice attorney in St. Louis, Missouri, you want to make sure that your website uses terms people search for (like “divorce lawyer”). SEO is a broad field that encompasses copywriting, link exchange, and several other techniques. If you choose to use an SEO firm to help you with it, you’ll need to select one that specializes in local SEO. It’s also a good idea to choose an SEO firm that is based in your own country, as some of the overseas SEO firms might be less reputable, and it’s harder to enforce a contract with a foreign company. Finally, you’ll need to make sure that your SEO firm understands the rules required for marketing of attorneys. Your website designer or legal copywriter may be able to provide SEO services or to refer you to a reputable SEO firm.

Another way to branch out is through the use of press releases. Press releases can be syndicated (for a fee) using a service like PRWeb, and these press releases can be picked up and republished by local, regional, or national news publications. A legal copywriter might be able to advise you here, or you may need to consult with a public relations firm.

Another way to branch out is through online advertising. Like traditional advertising, this involves creating ads and paying for them to be displayed. Unlike traditional advertising, you usually have outstanding analytical tools so you can see what works and what doesn’t. Google’s AdWords is one of the most popular and useful tools for online advertising, and you may see it referred to as PPC (pay-per-click) advertising because that’s how it’s billed. So if Google shows your ad to 10,000 people who search for a divorce lawyer in St. Louis, you pay only for the people who click on your ad. If you bid $0.25 per click and you get 2,000 clicks, you’d pay only $500, even though 10,000 people may have seen your ad. Facebook and LinkedIn also offer PPC advertising, although Facebook’s advertising is usually more effective. Your legal copywriter, web designer, or SEO firm may be able to give you a referral or to provide PPC services in addition to their primary business.

Offline

Offline advertising is pretty well established and well used by attorneys. This might include newspaper ads, radio spots, television commercials, and billboards. A traditional advertising agency can handle these tasks, as they can combine copywriting, graphic design, and ad buying through a single point of contact. If you choose to forego an advertising agency, you’ll need:

  • Legal copywriter
  • Graphic designer (for magazines or billboards)
  • Voice talent (for radio; sometimes you can ask the radio station for referrals or use their on-air talent)
  • An account manager for the publication, station, or billboard company you’re working with

In many cases, an account manager can help you find some of your other creative professionals.

Offline advertising can also take the form of printed material like brochures, pamphlets, or fliers. For these products, you’ll need a legal copywriter, a graphic and/or publication designer, and a print shop. Depending on the complexity of your material, your print shop may be able to work with you on publication design and formatting.

Finally, consider having a business card created by a custom designer. For lawyers, your business card will be a major way of encouraging repeat and referral business, so a beautiful and unique business card can help you stand out and be remembered.

A Note About Pictures

Just an observation: I’ve noticed that a lot of attorneys keep terribly outdated professional photos on their LinkedIn profiles, their websites, and their printed material. If you’ve been practicing since 1975 but your profile photo shows a 25-year-old man, it’s safe to say that it’s time to get a new professional photo. If you need referrals for a good professional photographer, you can ask your website designer or a graphic designer, as they’ll often have some good referrals to give you.

Final Thoughts

You became a lawyer because you wanted to make a difference. Nobody goes through all the years of study and lack of sleep unless they truly want to do something amazing. But you can’t make a difference if you can’t keep the lights on, and you can’t keep the lights on if you can’t keep clients walking in the door.

Just because you can’t use outbound marketing doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore your marketing; it just means that you have to get creative about finding an effective way to get clients without “chasing ambulances”.

 

Update:

It was brought to my attention that California does not follow the ABA Model Rules. In California, the Rules of Professional Conduct carries a similar provision to Rule 7.3 with Rule 1-400(C), which states, “A solicitation shall not be made by or on behalf of a member or law firm to a prospective client with whom the member or law firm has no family or prior professional relationship, unless the solicitation is protected from abridgment by the Constitution of the United States or by the Constitution of the State of California. A solicitation to a former or present client in the discharge of a member’s or law firm’s professional duties is not prohibited.”

 

 

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Holly Antle is the owner of Antle & Associates, a copywriting firm that specializes in writing compelling and persuasive copy and content for heavily regulated industries (legal services, financial, insurance, healthcare). You can connect with her on LinkedIn or via email.

Holly also has contacts and connections in a wide range of creative or marketing disciplines, so if you need a referral for any of the following professionals, Holly would love to help you find the right fit:

  • Legal copywriting
  • Web design
  • Graphic design
  • Public relations
  • SEO
  • Online reputation management
  • Publication design

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