Legal Marketing: a Sucker’s Bet

Keith’s book, The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice, from which this post is adapted, goes on sale this week. If you are transitioning from law school to law practice, you should click that link and buy it right now. — Ed.

A market research firm estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today.

— New York Times, “Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad

To live in the modern world is to be inundated with marketing. Every single surface of a city is littered with advertising. TV is omnipresent in almost every location, belching out commercials. Websites are plastered with banners, AdSense, and auto-playing videos. Visit a website on your smartphone and after five seconds your entire screen will be taken over, encouraging you to subscribe now.

Marketing is the process of communicating the value of a product or service to customers, for the purpose of selling that product or service.


Even on a personal level, everyone has become a marketer to some extent through social media. People post photos from vacation or check in at a hip new restaurant. No one posts pictures from a funeral. (Well, most people don’t. Some do.) No one checks in at an abortion clinic. That’s not appealing. It doesn’t properly convey the look or value that someone wants to project to their friends. So instead people curate idealized notions of themselves to share online.

facebook you v real you

via Comical Concept

Which, I suppose, works on some superficial level. But when everyone is a marketer, they become sensitive to marketing bullshit. Moving through life when everyone is selling you something all the time is exhausting. Childlike curiosity at the world around you is slowly replaced with indifference. As you become even more attuned to the marketing machine that is forcing itself on you all the time, indifference gives way to outright animosity. People have become so accustomed to being spammed with marketing messages all the time that they actively fight back against them. Skipping over commercials on a Tivo, muting an ad on Pandora, installing AdBlock in their browsers.

At the most basic level, you have to be willing to give without expecting anything in return.

Ultimately, people are just tired of being deceived. Tired of being fed marketing crap that touts the values and benefits of hollow products and lousy services. Any marketing attempts directed towards people are viewed with disdain and trepidation. If somehow you think things are different for lawyers, you’re sadly mistaken — it’s worse.

Lawyers, and some practice areas in particular (personal injury, DUI, criminal-defense), have been engaged in a race to the bottom in the marketing of their services for decades. Over-the-top, sleazy advertising has become synonymous with lawyers in the eyes of many people. The majority of lawyer marketing that appears on TV or online is so banal, hackneyed, and pandering it’s ridiculous. It’s an appeal to the lowest common denominator of society. It’s no wonder that people’s perception of lawyers have dropped so low. Marketing for lawyers is a sucker’s bet at best.

Well then, how do I get clients?

At the most basic level, you have to be willing to give without expecting anything in return. This is often difficult for many people. People, not just lawyers, expect quid pro quo for the things they do. But it is often especially true for lawyers, as their trade is knowledge. Lawyers have received specialized, narrow training in a field and they tend to want to closely guard this knowledge, because it enables them to charge clients hundreds of dollars an hour in return for access and use of that knowledge. It can be anathema to attorneys to share information freely, because it might somehow devalue their knowledge assets. So lawyers start to look at interactions as transactions. (Speak on the phone with client, bill .2 hours.)

You have to avoid this.

The best way to get more clients is to do good work for your existing clients. They will become your biggest cheerleaders. Nothing is more effective than recommendations from family and friends. So your number one priority should be to be the best lawyer you can possibly be. But if you’re just starting out, this is a difficult proposition. Your clients — if you have any — are likely Aunt Margret and your best friend since 2nd grade. You have to find a way to convey your abilities and skills as a lawyer to people you don’t already know. And marketing is no good unless you are trying to appeal to the uninformed and undiscerning. People do not enjoy being pandered to. What people do enjoy and appreciate is useful information and being treated with respect. It such a basic, simple premise that it seems almost ridiculous to have to need to point it out. But so, so many people fail at it.

Lawyers need to develop tangible skills in their practice areas, and then put those skills, and work ethic, on display in a manner that informs and respects others. If you are only going to be able to display those skills to your existing clients and relationships, it will likely do you no good. The people you already know are likely familiar with your skill set and work ethic. A lawyer needs to grow their number of relationships and expand the amount of people they know. The worst way to go about doing this is through the nebulous idea of “networking.” Most networking-focused events consist of professional service providers trying to pitch their services to each other. A waste of time if there was ever one. What you need to do is build genuine relationships with people, and be relevant in their lives.

Relationships are the currency of business

The best clients come from your “network” — the people with whom you have relationships. Someone who already knows you, who knows your practice and trusts you, is likely to going to refer someone to you who fits you practice. Essentially, these potential clients will have been “pre-screened” by your network and much more likely to have a viable case or problem (instead of, say, wanting to sue the government because their brain is being scanned by weather balloons).

If your response is “But I don’t like mingling with new people/I’m not good in new situations” — shut up, get off this blog, and come back in a few years when you’re ready to be an adult.

The wider and deeper your network, the more likely it is that you are going to be referred potential clients. It naturally follows that one of the most pressing questions new lawyers ask is this: how do I grow my network?

  1. First and foremost, you have to be present. You have to be in front of people. You have to go to events. Rotary club, art classes, wine tastings, Bar events, CLEs, luncheons, softball leagues, etc. Anything and everything you can think of, but get out from behind your computer. Making connections with people on social media doesn’t count.
  2. Being present is the first step, but it’s not enough. You have to be involved. Offer to help. Volunteer to be on a committee, write a newsletter, speak at events, coach your kid’s soccer team. Expect nothing in return. Make sure whatever you do, you treat it with the same respect and dedication that you do with your work. Volunteering to help is essentially displaying your work ethic to everyone involved.
  3. The good thing about being present and involved is that it will force you to interact with people you don’t know. In case it isn’t clear at this point, growing your network will involve talking to lots of strangers. If your response is “But I don’t like mingling with new people/I’m not good in new situations” — shut up, get off this blog, and come back in a few years when you’re ready to be an adult.
  4. Be persistent. Many people join a club, or some other sort of activity, attend a couple times, fumble around without any results, and write off ever trying to network. This is akin to trying to ride a bicycle one time, not being able to do it, and then swearing off bike riding forever. If you’re not the outgoing type, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be establishing lasting bonds with people the first time you attend a wine tasting class. You have to be steadfast in your commitment to growing your network.
  5. The number one thing that people fail to in networking, which leads them to think that networking is useless, is that they never extend the relationship. You would think it’s a plainly simple thing to do, but the majority of people fail at it. As relationships are established, you will have to extend them outside of where the relationship originally began. You’re never going to grow a relationship with a person at some cocktail hour with 100 other people there. Large social gatherings are there for introductions — a chance to make the initial contact, trade business cards. Once you’ve made the contact, the onus is then on you to make reach out to the other person.
  6. In building a successful network, the follow-up is the most important part. It’s like the follow-through of a baseball pitcher. Their movement doesn’t cease just because the ball has left their hand. Once you’ve had lunch or coffee or a meeting, you have to follow-up with a handwritten note. Not an email, not a phone call. Go out and buy nice stationery — not with your firm logo on it. Hand-write the address on the envelope. Don’t use a label. Use an actual stamp, not an office meter. Thank the other person for their time. Let them know you’re available if they ever need anything.

Personally, I have had great success with the above plan. As an example, recently I attended a panel unrelated to law. I went because I knew one of the panel’s organizers, and I like to support my friends. I sat in the front row because I’m that type of guy. Near the end, the panelists shifted to Q&A from the audience. During this time, legal topics came up, and the panelists were unsure of how to answer. My friend, the organizer, went to the microphone and said “that guy right there is a lawyer; I think he has experience on those issues.” So I stood up and addressed the question. I answered two to three more questions as the Q&A went on. After the session ended, about a dozen people from the audience came up to me asking questions, wanting my card. Not anticipating the need for cards, I ran out after the first few people. A couple of those people followed up with me an became clients. An example of natural networking at its best. I attended to be supportive of someone else, and it in turn benefited me. Another takeaway: go to places where other lawyers don’t. Yes, you should go to bar functions and hang out with lawyers, which will likely lead to mutually beneficial relationships and referrals. But you are not going to find potential clients at lawyer functions.

I’ve spoken with many other successful people — lawyers, doctors, MBAs — and they all follow the same plan to some degree. Quite frankly, it’s nothing new. It’s the same recipe for successful networking that people have been using for decades. But I guarantee you that someone is going to read this post, try the above plan, and get nowhere. Then I’ll get angry emails saying that I’m a liar or don’t know what I’m talking about.

The trick with the above plan is that your intentions must be genuine. The angry person is going to forget an essential part of step number 2, even though I’m writing it twice:

Expect nothing in return. Make sure whatever you do, you treat it with the same respect and dedication that you do with your work.

You can network all day long, but if your mind is not in the right place, it’s unlikely that it’s going to get you anywhere.



  1. Avatar Bill Bean says:

    Good advice, Keith. I like your style.

    Do you not integrate your social media efforts with this approach or do you know someone who is?

    • Avatar Keith Lee says:

      I’ll hang out on social media, chat with people, but that’s about it. I don’t have any sort of concerted social media plan or whatever. If I’m at some sort of event and social media comes up, sure I’ll tell them to follow me or whatever. But people at events who are constantly telling people to: linkin/follow/friend/buddy/pal/bump uglies, come across as tryhards.

      I think people would be far better off just being themselves and not stressing out over projecting some sort of farcical manufactured image of themselves. IE – see above.

  2. Avatar Roger Cain says:

    While I don’t disagree with your networking suggestions, to ignore marketing is a big fat mistake. In my State there is one lawyer for every 223 citizens. Yes, citizens including children. There are far too many lawyers. Most lawyers know very little about marketing or running a business for that matter. They remain ignorant at their peril. Maybe the “tryhards” are trying hard. It might surprise you to know that most people appreciate and are attracted to the hustle.

  3. Avatar Brendan Chard says:

    I like your approach, it reminds me a lot of a book I read recently, “To Sell Is Human” by Daniel Pink, which is definitely a good read for anyone that is in business. People don’t like being sold in the sleazy sense, they like having someone that helps them create a solution to their problem.

    To many lawyers say things like “trust me” and “I’m experienced” in their marketing, you can’t say those things, those are things that potential clients feel when attorneys do as you suggest, and share some of their knowledge for free.

    Really like the networking suggestions, maybe it’s just my line of work, but I talk to a lot of people who think that they can just sit back and let advertising, websites and optimization build a thriving practice without making a concerted effort to network and be involved in the community.

    • Avatar Keith Lee says:

      It’s akin to writing fiction, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” as Anton Chekhov said. Just telling clients that you are the bee’s knees is no good. You have to show them.

  4. Great article.

    Re “Lawyers have received specialized, narrow training in a field and they
    tend to want to closely guard this knowledge, because it enables them to
    charge clients hundreds of dollars an hour in return for access and use
    of that knowledge.”

    There’s that saying about “knowledge is power.” But I’ve always felt that knowledge alone is just trivia unless you know what to do with it–that is what we really get training on, imo.

    Love your style too.

  5. Avatar Bill Speizman says:

    Thirty years ago, I heard a luncheon speaker say, “The key to professional services marketing is to provide value before you bill for service”. Plus ca change…

  6. I have to side with you in terms of marketing in traditional ways (i.e. TV marketing, billboards, radio ads, etc.)–it’s simply ridiculous, self-glorifying banter intended for those who have no idea how to do a bit of digging to find the best lawyer for their unique situation.
    I will say, however, that there are some marketing campaigns with which I have personally had success, that shouldn’t be included in the blanket summary statement of “lawyers shouldn’t be marketing.”
    I have had success in blogging myself and doing a bit of online portfolio building to extend my reach by showing off victories and displaying reviews that former clients have left me. I think that, at least, these marketing options should be glorified because they are organic–they don’t try to force something down your throat, but they allow you to capture a larger audience and to prove that you are worth talking to in the first place or if they should just go somewhere else that has a free consultation.

    Food for thought. But I am sticking to my experience and I would recommend my marketing company to others that would like to increase their traffic and conversions online–even if you have a website, blog, facebook, twitter…whatever, just ask yourself, “am I absolutely thrilled with how business is going or do I feel like I could be helping MORE people out?”

    Great post! :)

  7. Avatar Marian Paul says:

    Sound advice. Agree with it………..

  8. Avatar Ace says:

    This is the same tired, low-return advice I got when I started my practice many years ago. New lawyers need actionable advice on how to get clients and this isn’t it. And the part about “shut up” and “be an adult” doesn’t help either.

  9. Avatar Jennifer says:

    That’s great advice, but you still can’t ignore online marketing – especially tied to a social presence online. We started blogging, tweeting (eh), Google+’ing (more for networking) and Facebooking and we’ve seen a marked growth in our internet search only driven clients. I’ll add this caveat, of my two senior attorneys, one is very active locally (coaching, volunteering, clubs, church etc) and he gets so many referrals it’s ridiculous. Everyone knows him. My other one is a nationally known attorney who has handled plane crashes and multi-million dollar injury suits but no one in our town knows who he is. They’ve both lived here all their lives. He just can’t understand why his business comes from everywhere BUT his hometown area, but nobody knows who he is. They are really impressed once they read about him or meet him, but not alot of word of mouth LOCAL business for him. That’s got to change. Plus, what are we calling “low hanging fruit” now? I know that’s on the “don’t ever say that again” list, but I’ve got to have that talk with him again . . .

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