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How to Make Law Practice Lucrative

published February 11, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 115 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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One wag has stated that the best way for a lawyer to obtain new clients is to run well for an important public office and lose. Of course, if you can make it to the governorship of your state, or even become a state senator, the position may be of help to your practice. But, by and large, the business which comes into law firms through local political activity is negligible and often not profitable when one considers the substantial amount of time which a politically oriented firm must devote to non-paying matters, to say nothing of occasional cash contributions required.

If you like political activity, and you happen to be a lawyer, your community may benefit from your interest. But if you see politics as the road to a lucrative law practice, reconsider. There are better uses of your time toward the achievement of that goal.

Developing a Targeted Reputation

It is possible, especially in defined areas of law, to develop your reputation for capability. If you have some knowledge of the advertising field, for example, there are many trade publications which will publish articles of an informative legal nature. Rather than preparing a scholarly article for an obscure bar journal or review (which, however, may attract referral business), the lawyer who seeks to promote his client-getting ability will do better to write for the trade in which he seeks clients. Local newspapers may also accept articles on laws of current interest.

What can you discuss in trade journals and publications? Almost any topic can be discussed. Union newspapers may be interested in worker-related and consumer-oriented legal topics: garnishment, worker's compensation, and landlord-tenant matters. Neighborhood and small town papers may accept a submission on zoning, real estate transfers, or will-writing. Put your law school notes to work. Every paper has space to fill, and your professionally written information could be used to fill it.

It is also possible to belong to speakers' bureaus, including those of the Chamber of Commerce, which supply lecturers on various topics to business groups, professional associations of physicians and dentists, women's groups, and community service organizations. These are excellent sources of business for the lawyer.

Taking Advantage of Progress

The buggy wheel manufacturing company is not high on the list of growth stocks; neither is the law firm which practices the same kind of law it did 50 years ago.

A review of the seminars offered by continuing legal education groups across the country will provide a list of new areas of law, e.g., pollution and ecology, public employee union relations, cable television, and international trade.

Whole new areas of law have emerged; the few lawyers who have recognized them and have been able to take advantage of the trend are successful. The law firm which has not sought new business and has relied on the same old clients may be in trouble. Lawyers exist only because clients need them and today clients may not need lawyers for the same reasons they needed them 25 ago.

It is difficult for a busy law firm to find the time to train legal personnel to meet tomorrow's needs, but it is one of those essential investments. Planning sessions for firm growth should include an analysis of business changes and differing client needs. Individual lawyers should be assigned fields for increasing their knowledge in new areas. The lawyer chosen may be personally interested in the area or may have some special background in it already. It also may be that there is the potential for client development and someone must be ready to take it on. The law changes just like everything else, so that law firms must be ready to meet change or they cannot continue to succeed.

Here's a case in point. A small Midwestern patent law firm had been doing the same type of work with about the same number of lawyers for many years. The firm's lawyers all had technical backgrounds, some in mechanical engineering, and others in chemistry and in electronics. One day, they hit upon the idea that they were really lawyers with technological expertise, not just patent lawyers, and they began to let other law firms in the community know that they would offer legal assistance on cases involving technology. Soon thereafter, the patent lawyer with an electronics background became a consultant to a large local firm handling litigation involving computers, and the mechanical engineer lawyer began to help another firm in a case involving the construction of a dam. A whole new area of work had opened for the firm, one in which their special skills are worth a great deal.

Progress is a one-way street which leads upward. To remain on that road, to build an interesting and financially rewarding practice, requires that the lawyer seek constantly to improve his methods in every way. The many aspects of the use of paralegal employees, power typing and automation, systems and procedures, and good management are all designed to assist lawyers to improve and grow with the times.

Print Media, Brochures, and Newsletters

In an historic decision on June 27, the United States Supreme Court overturned an Arizona decision in Bates et al v. State Bar of Arizona. Although the ruling was essentially limited to print advertising, many individual lawyers throughout the United States have begun advertising on radio and television. Here the practical aspects of this subject, not the legal or ethical problems, will be discussed.

Decades back, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two decisions dealing with lawyer solicitation of business. The Court affirmed the Ohio Supreme Court's suspension of a lawyer who persuaded two 18-year-old auto accident victims to hire him and to pay him a one-third contingency fee.2 The Court, however, overturned the South Carolina Supreme Court, which had disciplined a lawyer who wrote a letter to a prospective client saying that the American Civil Liberties Union would represent her without charge.

The rules on advertising and marketing have been liberalized over the years since Bates. For example, in the Matter of Von Wiegen suit, the New York Court of Appeals permitted mail solicitation of families and victims of persons injured in the sky walk catastrophe at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri.

It should be noted that each state has its own rules on the legal ethics of marketing and that the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility has not been adopted by a majority of the states. Therefore, each state's rules must be consulted to determine the pertinent ethical rules for print and other media.

An advertisement in a local newspaper for a low-cost divorce will not bring the First National Bank into the firm as a client. Aside from ethical questions, the first consideration in the development of advertising is: What are you trying to sell and to whom?

Surveys tend to show that print advertising can produce case volume in certain types of practice, such as uncontested divorces, plaintiffs’ injury lawsuits, personal bankruptcies, wills and small estate planning. To date, there is no evidence to support a conclusion that print ads will engender business-type clients. Therefore, if services of the personal types listed above are a firm's goal, advertising is a proper consideration.

The effectiveness of advertising can be measured. This requires that each new client be questioned as to how he or she found the firm, and that careful records be maintained. Unless each dollar spent on advertising can generate about $10 or more in fees, advertising is not economically justified. One firm using TV ads for plaintiff's work reports a 300% return on each dollar invested. However, the effects of advertising are cumulative. That is, to be effective, an advertising message must be repeated many times. Therefore, measurement of advertising can take place only when coupled with a long-range program.

Newspaper advertisement has a very short selling life. A person who needs a service today may be attracted by an advertisement in today's newspaper. If the need for the service does not arise until a week later, the old advertisement is unlikely to be retained or remembered. It is possible, therefore, that law firms may find that they will need to undertake a sustained advertising program in order to derive a significant clientele from that source.

The cost of an advertising campaign can be substantial. While a regular advertising agency works on the commissions it receives from the media, it may make a charge to the client for design work. Even if no such charge is made, there will be a charge for the graphic production work involved. For an all-type advertisement designed for a newspaper, the cost might typically be about $200.00. The cost of running an ad will depend on the circulation of the publication and on the location of the ad within the publication.

The least expensive advertisement is a well-written and informative article in a periodical or newspaper. For example, a lawyer who specializes in immigration law regularly provides a column on the topic of immigration to the foreign language press. The column is translated into several languages and is printed over his name. It is a constant source of business to this enterprising attorney. His only cost is the time it takes to write the articles.

Once you have published an article, you can almost always obtain the permission of the publication to reprint it. In that way, you will have a very inexpensive piece of literature which you can provide to prospective clients. It is certainly within the ethical standards of the profession for an attorney to mail such material to his existing clients. Published articles do impress clients, and may bring less active clients into a more active role in a lawyer's practice.

Another excellent public relations device is to prepare a well-written and well-printed brochure about a firm's activities, which can be furnished to clients and to prospective clients.

Pamphlets explaining about lawyers and the legal process have long been available from bar associations. The pamphlets are generally distributed by lawyers to new clients, and explain such matters as the civil court system, the fees charged, and the legal process. There are some outstanding publications of this sort. Others are not as good in their purpose because they are written by lawyers as though they were meant to be read by lawyers.

Since Bates, lawyers have been free to develop and distribute their own literature. A good deal of thought has been put forth in this direction, and some of the products provide excellent means of communication. As we discuss various types of literature, however, the reader must bear in mind that written communications, although natural for lawyers, are not very effective with some people. Many prospective clients do not read often, and some have comprehension levels which are quite low. While law offices need literature to be available, it should be used only with those clients where it will do some good. Oral and pictorial communications are also needed in some situations.

A brochure about the law firm is the basic piece of literature. It must fit in with the business plan the firm has developed, and it must be directed at what a client wants to know about his lawyers, not at the ego satisfaction of the lawyers in the firm. A brochure is a sales and educational piece, not a replica of a Martindale-Hubbell listing. Here are the types of ideas
a brochure might seek to communicate:

This is a full-service law firm to which you can bring legal problems with confidence. (Or the reverse-it could emphasize only a few areas.)

The firm's lawyers are well-versed in various areas of legal problems. Once your needs are known, your work will be handled by a lawyer and staff that often deal with similar problems.

The firm has modern equipment. It will expedite your work, and hold down your cost.

A good brochure may contain pictures of various lawyers in action situations, but it will not be a "yearbook" unless you want to print a new brochure every year. In larger firms, individual specialty departments and their functions may be described. Many general brochures have a pocket inside the back cover so that other literature may be inserted, such as a personnel list, an explanation of fees, or reprints of articles written by people in the firm.

There should be several alternate, printed explanations of how fees are charged. For cases in which hourly rates are appropriate, a printed brochure might include the range of rates, but never the individual rates of lawyers. (For many practices, such specifics are best omitted.) A separate piece might describe charges in accident cases. Another may deal with probate. This literature on fees should be carefully reviewed for understandability by non-lawyers.

Specialized brochures on such subjects as real estate closings, immigration problems, taxation, tax shelters, personal injury claims, and the like, can be prepared by law firms at relatively little expense, and can be used as sales tools and methods of communication. When appropriate, they can be distributed when lawyers make speeches on related topics.
The graphic or visual design of a brochure is very important. Lawyers may be accustomed to dull covers and typed text, but that will not attract readers to their literature. Well-laid-out text, drawings and photos add greatly to the readability of pamphlets, and add little to the cost of each copy. Since lawyers generally have little training in such things, the help of a graphic artist should be obtained.

Printing brochures is only the beginning. A law firm must also decide how to use them. Some brochures are designed to acquaint the new client with the law firm. (This includes those that describe fees and costs.) Other brochures are designed as sales tools. There are many possible methods of distribution, some of them not appropriate for some law firms in some jurisdictions:
  • Through existing clients to their friends
  • Through co-professionals in trust departments, real estate offices, and insurance agencies
  • With speeches made by members of the firm
  • Through direct mail
  • As a response to an advertisement placed by the firm

Another public relations approach in use is the publication of a monthly or bi-monthly legal newsletter to clients. The accounting professional has used this technique for many years. The newsletter prepared by a law firm should be designed to do several things. It must contain accurate and valuable information that alerts clients to changes in the law. It should contain information on several areas of law so that the client, for example, who came initially to the firm for a personal injury matter will discover upon reading the newsletter that the firm also does estate planning. It should contain pictures of the authors of articles contained in it. It should be printed and designed well, and it should not, except indirectly, solicit clients to come to the firm or hold the firm out as better than any other firm. The newsletter approach is "soft sell." It should sell the expertise of the firm so that, if the client sees an area in which he desires assistance, he or she will solicit the firm's help.

Be sure any advertising copy is worded in such a way that prospective clients (not other lawyers) will know what you are trying to say. In the box below is an example of how the general public might read some of the words lawyers commonly use.

Lawyers often are invited to make speeches to various organizations. It is an important public relations device. Lawyers making speeches may distribute the materials described above, including their newsletters, brochures and reprints of materials they have published. It is clearly permissible to distribute a reprint of an article that is pertinent to the topic of the speech. Care should be taken that the lawyer's name and address are easily found on such a reprint.

In summary, it is not anticipated that the relaxation of advertising restrictions will profoundly impact those law firms whose clients are banks, insurance companies, corporations and labor unions, but there will be an effect on law firms which serve individuals. The end result is likely to enhance the ability of the well-financed and established firms to compete and will make it more expensive for new law firms to become established. The new law graduate should think carefully before he or she embarks on a big advertising campaign. The amount of money to be devoted to this approach should be reasonably budgeted, professional help secured to assist in the design of the advertisement and choice of media, and a way of monitoring results should be created before the advertising begins.

Directory Advertising

Lawyers have advertised to other lawyers in various directories for many decades. These directories serve a valuable function by showing degrees, schools, specialties, firm size and the other information by which lawyers judge each other. Advertising in lawyer-to-lawyer directories is valuable if other lawyers are a source of business for the firm. You can examine many of these directories in your law school library. There are trade or industry directories which can provide direct contact with targeted industries.

Radio and Television

Radio and television are mass media suitable for the lawyer who wants to reach many people, and to provide a service that the masses of people require. Radio is relatively inexpensive, and its audiences are quite distinct. There are radio stations that appeal to students, to the home-bound, to intellectuals (via classical music), and to factory workers. Some lawyers have participated in group discount rates offered by radio stations to local merchant associations, with good results on a dollar-gained-per-dollar-spent basis. One very successful plaintiff's lawyer built his practice by advertising on a country and western music station.

Television is quite a different story. Advertisements are expensive to produce and expensive to air, although the cost can be lowered by subscribing to pre-produced commercials. Work out your budgets very carefully before you commit to this medium. And be prepared to handle the many inquiries which result. Remember, you pay for all the audience you reach, and few small law firms can serve the large area covered by a television station. Exceptions, of course, are the multi-location chain firms. Advertising on some cable-only stations may provide more local coverage.

A broadcast in a major market may reach a million people. Most of these people don't need a lawyer at the moment, and won't remember the name of the advertiser at a later time unless the ad runs constantly. Because the costs are so high, and the audience so spread out and large, television is usually not the most cost-effective medium for most law firms, although for some it has produced phenomenal results.

A few law firms are currently sponsoring prestige programs on public television and radio. This gets their names announced as sponsors, and falls into the definition of institutional advertising.

Direct Mail

Courts in several states have held that the use of direct mail methods to promote legal services is a protected activity. (Some states, however, do not permit direct mail.) Generally, direct mail is printed material sent to a whole list, association or other identifiable group. It is generally not personalized, although with the computer technology of today, it is possible to personalize such mail.

The first use of this method of promotion that we know of was in real estate closings. Mail was directed to a neighborhood with high turnover in housing.

The use of direct mail has advantages over print advertising and media advertising. It is much more direct, and can be aimed far more precisely at a specific group of people. The cost per prospect reached is much lower, and the message can be much more precise and thorough. It is also possible to experiment with direct mail in order to establish the best message, format and list. It is common practice, for example, to split a list and to measure results of variations in the communications piece that way. Even the color of the paper can have an effect on the results obtained.

Direct mail can be especially useful for law firms with an industry specialization. There are mailing lists of hospital administrators, real estate agents, trust officers, bricklayers, chiefs of police, and of neighborhoods and credit card holders. Depending on need, there is a list available.

A word of caution about lists

The Yellow Pages of major city directories or advertising agencies will provide the names of list vendors. Some of the lists sold are not kept up-to-date. The law firm which desires to make a substantial investment in direct mail of any sort needs professional advice from a mail-oriented advertising agency which does not sell lists but knows how to select and test them.

Seminars for Clients and Teaching

A law firm in a small Ohio farm community has, for the past few years, sponsored several client seminars after the harvest seasons. Held in the late afternoon, the seminars offer refreshments and discussions of various aspects of farm law, estate planning, and related topics. Speakers are drawn from the specialists of the law firm, which has about six lawyers.
This program has several advantages. It provides an opportunity to contact clients with a friendly message-an invitation. For those who attend, it enables the firm to make them acquainted with its various lawyer-specialists. It promotes the firm as a team. And it provides new contact with clients who may need a lawyer soon, or even now. The program is perceived as a valuable service by those who attend.

Other firms have sponsored such events for trade groups, real estate or insurance agents, and others. Some charge a small registration fee.

An alternative is to become faculty for seminars sponsored by others. Most colleges and universities have continuing education programs which afford an opportunity to lecture on law-related and business topics for people in the work world. Part-time teaching of accredited courses may also be advantageous. When one local law school decided to teach a course in pharmaceutical law, it could not find a local authority. A young partner in a small law firm volunteered to develop and teach the course. He did a lot of research and study to teach the course for the first time, but he became the only local expert in the area of law. Now, his former students send him cases, and he is the leading pharmaceutical law specialist in his area.

Producing worthwhile client seminars involves a considerable amount of work. They should be held only if the speakers are adequately prepared. That generally means outlining the talks, and knowing in advance what each speaker will say. Depending on the audience invited, it may be useful to distribute the outlines (never the complete talk). Handout material must be well-printed, and must, of course, identify the sponsor and speakers clearly. The purpose of a client seminar is to sell more business to an audience which may already know the sponsor. That means that the event must be first-class, and must meet the real needs of the people who take time to attend.

Association Activities

Local and state bar associations, and their committees, sections and other subdivisions, are an arena in which lawyers meet each other in a non-adversarial role. They set the stage for cross-referrals when conflicts or other factors cause a lawyer to send a prospective client elsewhere. Like many volunteer and trade organizations, bar associations tend to have a lot of activity. Lawyers must be careful to participate enough to gain the benefit of being known to other local practitioners, without spending an undue amount of time on committees and commissions. Of course, activities in professional organizations may have reasons other than marketing.

National professional association activity may lead to better referrals than local ones. The few lawyers who are known in the upper circles of the national specialized or general bar associations are often in a position to, and do, help one another (and thereby their clients). Inter-city and inter-state referrals are made on the basis of personal acquaintance more often than on the basis of directory listings or school ties.

Participation by lawyers in trade associations of various industries can be very beneficial as a way of finding new clients. Lawyer specialists participate in various commercial and industry associations, and may chair committees or hold offices. This is useful in the establishment of an industry identity when this is part of the business plan. The better law cases are not garnered through advertisements and promotions, but through reputation and contacts.

Community Activities

When they are getting started, some young lawyers join every organization available. They spend every evening at meetings, and after a few months are bored and tired from lack of sleep. This is an ineffective approach to finding clients.
In general, people who are bright enough to become lawyers have some specific non-professional interests in which they desire to participate. For example, one may like sports, music, a political program, a "cause," or good government. If a bright young lawyer does a good job in any of these, he or she will meet new people who may at some time need a lawyer's services. A program which includes a limited amount of community activity done well generally has a better result in terms of generating business than a scattering-about of a lawyer's time.

Public Relations

Getting your name into the press or on the air isn't easy. Unless you are running for governor or some other very high office, have written a book, or are defending a very "big" case, it is not likely that newspapers will show a spontaneous interest in printing your name. It is more difficult to gain recognition in a major newspaper or in a network newscast or show than it is in a local weekly or on the local cable outlet. Depending on your marketing needs, however, the local exposure may be more useful.

Most small law firms will do their own public relations work. To hire an agency requires a considerable expenditure. Many of the very large firms are, however, making such an investment.

The "press release" is the premier vehicle for getting one's name into the news. If you have received an award or have been elected president of a local organization, a press release may be in order. Enclosing your picture with the release will improve the chances of publication. Publicity pictures should always be in glossy black and white and must have good contrast. The name of the person identified in the picture, and a proposed caption, should be typed on paper and taped to the back of the picture. Never write on the back of a picture, particularly with a ball-point pen.

Public relations are not limited to the mailing of information to publishers and broadcasters. You can meet the press on your own terms, and your own schedule. Make it a point to meet the editor and some reporters of local newspapers and magazines. They may want to discuss issues with legal content from time to time, and those persons who are helpful will be quoted occasionally. Show a reporter or two through your office, and tell them about the problems you encounter, the training of the staff, the machinery and library it takes to practice law. You may end up as part of a feature story, or, at least, you may be remembered at a later time.

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Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

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