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When it comes to legal marketing, there are many things that can work, like blogging, teaching CLEs, or using Twitter, but there is only one thing I can think of that definitely works: word of mouth. In other words, building a referral network of people who know who you are and respect the work you do.

My best and strongest source of business has always been word of mouth. I am not a marketing guru, so my approach to earning referrals is simple and straightforward: do good work, share knowledge, and be social.

Doing good work

Everybody wants a good lawyer, and everybody wants to refer to good lawyers. Nobody wants a bad lawyer, and nobody wants to refer to bad lawyers.

So be a good lawyer.

This starts with the kinds of matters you take. It pays to focus on one or two areas of law. Clients like knowing you have experience with similar matters, and it is fairly impossible to be competent in more than a few practice areas, anyway. Turn down or refer everything else. If you are straight with a potential client or referral source — even if that means turning them down — you will usually create a referral source for the cases you do handle. Pretty much everyone appreciates honesty.

When you do agree to represent a client, do a really good job. Put in the time necessary, whether you are being paid your full rate, working at a discount, or handling a matter pro bono. Clients like lawyers who do a really good job, even if you lose, and happy clients often make enthusiastic (and talkative) referral sources.

New lawyers, or lawyers working on a new practice area, may need to find a mentor willing to help out. Otherwise, the best you can do is get lucky and waste a lot of time — if you don’t miss anything.

While you are doing a really good job on the legal work, do a really good job keeping in touch with the client. Set yourself a reminder to check in with the client at least every month, even if nothing is happening at the moment. Clients really like lawyers who don’t leave them in the dark, and bad communication seems to be a frequent source of ethics complaints.

In other words, be competent, do a good job, and communicate.

Sharing knowledge

If you are a good lawyer, you are going to gain a lot of really valuable knowledge through experience. Give it away.

This is not intuitive for many people, but giving away your hard-earned knowledge is really important — and good marketing. I’m not talking about the teaser white papers lots of people try to give away as if they were worth something. I am talking about giving away your hard-earned knowledge. For free. Without any explicit quid pro quo.

For example, while I was practicing consumer rights law, I did a fair amount of CLE seminars for other lawyers, some non-lawyers, and even one for a large group of district court judges. I didn’t hold anything back, either. I taught strategies for defending consumers sued by debt collectors, and for suing debt collectors — the same work I did to pay the bills. Some of the lawyers who attended those seminars concluded that learning handle those cases competently themselves was too much work, and just referred potential clients to me. Others went ahead and handled those cases, and when they called with questions, I did my best to answer. Some of these eventually became colleagues I relied on for strategy discussions.

Mentor younger lawyers. Be a resource for colleagues. Publish articles in bar journals and law reviews. Write a blog and fill it with free information. In other words: earn respect for the knowledge you have acquired through your hard work.

Whatever you do, don’t ask for anything in return. That means you have been paid, and the person you helped won’t owe you anything else, including referrals. (It’s okay to accept lunch or coffee or beer, though, if offered.)

Being social

It doesn’t do much good to be a great lawyer if nobody knows who you are. (Then again, if nobody knows who you are, you probably won’t get any clients, which means you won’t get to be a great lawyer.)

So be social. Call it networking, if you like, (only don’t mistake it for Networking). Whatever you call it, find people you like, then get out and do things with them.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should approach networking like a transaction, where the only reason to meet people is to find out whether they can do something for you. That is false, and worse, it is boring.

Instead, I just try to get out and meet interesting people. Or just likable people. Which I would do anyway, but it’s nice to be able to justify using the firm credit card. Besides, if you need to rationalize it, interesting and likable people are highly likely to know other people who also find them interesting and likable, which makes them likely to be a source of referrals. Although that sort of thinking just cheapens the whole thing. Stick to the basics: find people you like, then get out and do things with them.

What kind of things? It is hard to go wrong with food and drink. Most of my fondest memories involve food and drink. If you need more motivation to get out and socialize, cultivate a minor obsession with coffee or croissants or tequila and use it as an excuse to invite people along and introduce them to your interest.

If you are a wallflower — as many people are — suck it up and get out. There is nothing about being an introvert that means you can’t also be social. Socially awkward? I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that the best cure for social awkwardness is practice.

No social media necessary

If you noticed, I barely mentioned social media. That is because you don’t need it. There are plenty of businesses, including many law firms, that generate business solely by word of mouth.

When you subtract the hype about social media, you will find that while social media can be an effective way to market your law practice, there is no guarantee it will work. Besides, even if you focus on social media, you will need to do good work, share your knowledge, and be superficially social. If you can do it offline, you will have a better chance of doing it online.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/felpa_boy/2098655554/)

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  • I totally agree with you about the social media part, particularly when an attorney doesn’t already have the drive to start conversations on their Facebook page. I think social media is better suited for maintaining a relationship, rather than creating one from scratch. On the other hand, I noticed you didn’t mention LinkedIn. I don’t think it will generate too many B2C opportunities, but I often use it to foster new partnerships and referral contacts by using InMail.

    • Despite everything I wrote above, if something works for you, go with it. Including LinkedIn. For myself, I just find LinkedIn boring as hell. I keep hearing other people saying nice things about it, but I can’t make myself use it.

  • Gyi

    I’m picking up what you’re putting down, but I’m feeling argumentative so:

    You can be a good lawyer without a cell phone, email, laptop, practice management software and scanner.

    But, if you know how to use them, they sure can be helpful.

    The same might be said about twitter, blogging, yada, yada, yada social media/networking…

    • Agreed. I’m definitely not saying not to use social media. They can work. I’m definitely saying that ignoring word of mouth is a mistake, though. It’s elementary.

      • Gyi

        I figured as much.

        And in fact, not only should WOM not be ignored, it should be primary. Web, blog, social are just tools to help nurture WOM.

  • When it comes to LinkedIn, steer clear of the message boards. They are a waste of time and often filled with a lot of spam. (I do make an exception to that when it comes to alumni groups…I’ve made a lot of connections using groups based on school affiliations.)

    Instead, I use it to search key names, job titles, and company info (for example, other attorneys, businesses, etc) and then contact them. Compared to other networking sites, I use LinkedIn much more frequently to contact people and arrange to meet in person, whereas most of my relationships that begin on Facebook or Twitter tend to stay online. I’ve also gotten a lot of direct contacts via LinkedIn just by making sure my profile is up-to-date. The recommendations have also come in handy since I can take those recommendations and use them on other materials, like my resume and personal marketing materials.

    But as with any marketing effort, it’s often best to use the tools that come naturally. If someone hates Facebook, their marketing efforts on their Facebook page are probably going to be a little weak. Same goes for Twitter, Avvo, LinkedIn, etc.

  • I was saddled with the title “social media marketing expert” a few years back, and I have worked hard to shed it. Unfortunately it has become synonymous with snake oil. I am VERY bullish on “offline” networking, and far less enthusiastic about “online” social media, with a couple exceptions.

    Social media for attorneys is just another point of contact, a place to list a phone, email or website. In most cases it does NOT build a lot of credibility.

    Social media is good to get your website searched by Google.

    Social media is fun to talk about.

    I support this with research I did on LinkedIn last year. In several different surveys of attorneys and accountants, more than 80% said that while they have a social media presence, the vast majority of their new business (and billable dollars) came from face-to-face networking and referral-based networking.

    I recently wrote a piece called Business Development for Young Professionals. The main thrust: team up with senior partners (mentors), become an expert, and get out of the office and meet with people face to face.

  • Lisa Espada

    Sam, I respect you completely. But: I am not seeing much in this post that helps the new lawyer or the solo lawyer who is moving into a new practice area. On the one hand I agree that there are no shortcuts in life — one has to do all of the things you are suggesting to market a solo or small firm practice. I have all but given up on blogs except for Lawyerist and MyShingle which are the two that have the most practical advice… I would like to read your ideas about getting a new practice off the ground while you are just a greenhorn, and not an expert in your field. Thanks much.

    • In other words, how does a new lawyer get those first cases?

      Just reverse the order. Start by being social with friends, family, and other networking contacts. Share what knowledge you do have (which is more than non-law school graduates). That’s often enough to result in the first few clients to get the ball rolling. Do good work for them, and keep going with all of the above.

  • KevanBoyles

    My experience is that it’s a waste of time using your knowledge of the law to market. It’s just another nail in the coffin for the commoditization of your and our business. Clients assume you know the law, after all you’re a lawyer. The key is to find out what makes you unique and market that. There is only one you. What makes you stand out and deliver the unique value that no one else in the world can? That’s gold. But you have to mine for it.

  • Your title is an oxymoron as there is never a sure thing when it come to anything let alone people, personalities and skill sets. All of the comments before mine point to knowing what you are good at doing and marketing that and finding what works via trial and error. For me its a combination of all of the above and of course giving great service and results for your clients.
    One important point that was not discussed was building and maintaining and enhancing your website. This has done wonders for my practice and internet presence and appeal.
    Great discussion here!

  • Social media and reviews can be a tough nut to crack for a criminal lawyer. More often than not people are glad to have the legal matter behind them and would rather not ‘recommend’ you to their family and friends. As lawyers we’ll have to become more and more creative to create social signals that Google is wanting.

    • Jeffrey Ankrom

      This is true for bankruptcy lawyers as well. I search more for peer reviews. Look for other real estate, divorce, PI attorneys that will post online that they referred a client who was pleased with your services.

  • Jay

    Good article. To jump on the social networking discussion – the best part, in my opinion, of Linkedin is that when I meet a new contact I will connect with them on Linkedin. This gives them a reminder of who I am and what I look like. Also, when I go to meet this contact for coffee, perhaps 6-12 months later and I forget what they do and what they look like, Linkedin saves me. It’s a great tool to maintain your contacts list and to remind yourself (and your contacts) who everyone is.

  • Mila

    Sam,

    I find that attorneys are, in fact, often greedy with their knowledge. The same applies to being a mentor – during my many internship, such a relationship has never developed.

    But on a different note, as I am finishing my BA degree and preparing for law school, what do you think about the current employment situation for law school graduates? I am an international student from Germany but also speak Russian and would like to somehow utilize my languages. Any ideas how I can make myself more attractive for potential employers after graduation – especially because I am an international student and the hiring process will be far more tedious than that for an American graduate?

  • We use many social media outlets for our business, I think making that one on one connection with people helps build trust and security. Social media has brought that old school customer service back in a sense.