For start-up law firms, doing pretty much everything on a shoestring budget is the reality.
So, here’s a not-so-hypothetical question for you: ‘What if you had to market your law firm without using any money?’ Literally: no money. Like, at all. Impossible, you say? Nothing is impossible. You can nonetheless develop a vibrant marketing plan without spending one red cent. The following discussion will outline more free, practical marketing tactics than you’ll be able to employ — not that that should stop you from trying.
Explanatory. In order for this exercise to work, let’s make two reasonable assumptions: (1) You own a computer and have access to the internet. (2) You have various modes of transportation available to you, of which you avail yourself, for personal and business purposes. Give me your iPad and your commuter pass (not literally), and I will deliver the rest unto you cost-free.
I make this explanation for the reason that, without it, readers would suppose that incidental costs were not accounted for. The point being: you’d have these sorts of arrangements going on anyway, even if you weren’t marketing a law practice, and even if you weren’t a lawyer.
Let’s start by addressing in-person networking, which has been a staple of lawyer advertising since the Stone Age. Here’s how you do it at no cost to you:
Without question, the costliest part of networking is joining all of the organizations that you’re supposed to belong to. Join three bar associations: city, county/ municipality, state/province, and you’re in for a small fortune. Even with discounts for new attorneys, you’re still not in for free. (Some bar associations do offer no-cost hardship memberships — though, these options, probably for obvious reasons, are almost never publicized.) Of course, modern bar associations struggle to acquire new members; and, one of the chief methods bar associations utilize to try to hook new members is the putting on of free events, including continuing legal education programs.
You didn’t hear this from me; but, if you make enough connections, and project self-confidence, you can get into paid events without having to pay. You know those movies where people slap on a name tag and a suit and stroll into exclusive events . . . well, there is some truth to that: sometimes it actually works. (One time I snuck into this dentists’ conference in Montreal; and, let me tell you, it’s true what they say about dentists . . .) If you have some moral compunctions related to the above suggestion, large conferences may provide an ‘in’ that does not involve compromising yourself. Most big conferences have free components (the vendors’ hall, e.g.), where you can mix and mingle, at no cost. And, if there’s a paid event you’d really like to get to, you can try to find out whether there are methods by which you could get comped: ask to be a speaker, try to finagle a guest invite from one of the speakers or a principal or see if there is an affiliation that can get you in (law school alumna, e.g.).
Just because an organization is charging for an event, it does not mean that you can’t find a way in (as a guest or otherwise) or access the free aspects of a larger program.
Most lawyers will think of mentors as guides for substantive practice. But, your mentors’ experience means that they will have deeper and broader networks than you do. Your mentors, then, need not only supply you with practical legal advice; they are also the entrée points into new networking realms. If there is a connection you want to make, it may be that your mentor already knows your target — so, get an introduction. Want to see the major players your mentor knows, and could connect you to? Check his LinkedIn connections, where introductions can be made directly through that interface. If another lawyer has accepted the responsibility to mentor you, they like you; and so, they’ll also likely be willing to make introductions, if you ask.
Pro bono work is good for the soul . . . and good for the pocketbook. Volunteering for legal aid agencies also provides you with a built-in network of new colleagues, all of whom have a similar, active interest in pro bono work (so, you’ll have something to talk about). If your pro bono work is performed for a group affiliated with a bar association or similar entity, you will have the opportunity to network with a not insignificant percentage of that group’s membership, potentially without having to pay a membership fee. Becoming a part of the pro bono community also means more free networking events, as well as potentially being able to piggyback off some of the freebies that legal aid organizations often engender (you can be a seat-filler for their table at a paid event, e.g.)
Volunteering, Part 2
There is no rule that says your volunteer work must be confined to pro bono. Lawyers are often sought out as members of boards of directors for charitable organizations — not that you couldn’t ask around for available opportunities, too. That role comes with a membership to the organization, and access to all of their events. Even if you don’t pay to join the local Rotary Club of Chamber of Commerce, there are still a multitude of non-membership roles that you can perform in your local community. Offer to give presentations on legal topics at community centers (the rate of return for client acquisition based on presentations is very good), coach your children’s soccer team, volunteer for a soup kitchen on the weekends or see if you can guest on a local radio show or write for a local newspaper. Just don’t forget to tell people that you’re a lawyer, and in what specific practice areas. It’s appropriate to make a ‘soft sale’ in these situations; but, you have to start somewhere.
Just hanging out in the right places, and letting conversations and relationships develop, is vitally important to your professional development, and also for extending and advancing your referral pipelines. If you’re a litigation attorney, use your time at the courthouse to further your marketing efforts. You can meet colleagues and access important resources at the local law library. Instead of a standard office lease, choose an office share, potentially in return for performing overflow work (in lieu of rent), and you’ll be able to meet even more colleagues, and perhaps other business professionals. If you keep in mind that you should always be marketing your law firm, it makes sense to push that agenda, even during the course of performance of your substantive work.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘But, I can’t possibly market my practice without business cards!’ Well, sure you can. (Don’t tell VistaPrint I said so, though.) I don’t carry business cards around anymore. I ask people for theirs. Then, I email them, with a call to action (‘wanna have lunch?’), and friend them across the various social channels in which they participate. This is jarring at first, I know. You’ll probably feel naked without business cards, at least initially. But, if you adopt the strategy of business card intake, you’ll save money, and force yourself to follow-up, to cement the connection. Now, if you meet someone else who’s read this paper: you’re probably out of luck. Well, that’s not entirely true: just get their name and Google them, maybe right when you meet them, on your smartphone, and save a draft email to complete later. Or swap contact information electronically.
Developing and promoting expertise is the oldest lawyer marketing trick in the book. The challenge lies in revamping it for the internet age.
Other People’s Websites
The real drag about not paying anything for your law firm marketing is that you won’t be able to maintain a website. Even if you do everything else on your own/for free, you’ll still need to make continuing payments to a web host. But, will that stop us on our journey to ‘free’dom? Heck, no. While it is helpful to have a law firm website — potential clients and referral sources still expect it, as proof of your legitimacy — it is possible to create an effective web profile that is not anchored in a personal website. If you think of your web address in a larger sense, it’s really just a collection of searchable assets linked back to your name/your online accounts.
Publication and Dissemination
Content is the essential engine that drives content marketing; but, if that content is not published, and supported, there is little that content alone can do for your law practice. You wouldn’t fill your car with gasoline, and not go anywhere. Before the internet really exploded, and before lawyers caught onto the fact (a looong time after), legal publishing was a filtered experience. The intrepid lawyer-author had to find someone to publish her formal article, or risk sitting on it forever. Now, lawyers can publish even informal positions across a variety of free media, and reach an audience that would stagger a 20th Century lawyer, and kill a 19th Century one.
If lawyers acquire clients and build referral pipelines by displaying publicly their expertise in niche fields, then blogging remains the indisputable best tactic for the lawyer who wishes to stand out from the crowding of his competitors. Consistent publication, utilizing a unique voice and reaching a target audience are musts; and, there are plenty of individuals out there offering advice on how and why to blog, especially Kevin O’Keefe. With respect to publishing to a blog, you have more options than you can shake a stick at, including a number of free tools. Unlike with personal websites, where you have to pay for hosting, most blogging platforms don’t come attached with that requirement. WordPress is the leader in the clubhouse; but, a non-exhaustive list of other popular, free options would include: Blogger, Medium and Postach.io. Write regularly on relevant topics important to your target audience, and you’ll rank well, meaning that the people who need you will find you. All for the low, low cost of (wait for it): nothing.
Bartering and Begging
Most jurisdictions allow lawyers to swap legal services for other business services, rather than charging a fee. If you really need a website designer, and maybe a year of hosting . . . If you really, really want a graphic designer . . . If you need a business coach . . . maybe you could orchestrate some trades, if you’re willing to forgo some income in return for services that you would otherwise have to pay for.
Certainly, you can also acquire the help of family and friends. If your kid sister can design your website for free, and do a better job than you can: yeah, definitely take her up on that.
Return on Investment
If you’re going to expend this much effort marketing your law firm, you’ll need to make some choices. You won’t be able to do everything well; there’s just not enough time. So, you’ll need to select some primary tactics and some secondary tactics. You’ll want to develop specific, time- sensitive goals, and to keep track of the status of each. Lawyers get bogged down trying to write business plans and marketing plans primarily due to the belief that those items have to be narrative documents. Lawyers like to write, but they love to overwrite (case in point). Creating a marketing plan that is a simple list of tactics and goals makes the process less daunting, which also makes it more likely that you will execute what you say you will. I have created a basic marketing plan template, which is downloadable here. And, remember, if you apply the marketing options relayed in this paper, at least you won’t have to worry about overhead.
Conclusion: Hustle and Flow
See, you can market your law firm for free. I’m practically breathless from marking down all the ways.
If you do go ‘all the way free’ in your law firm marketing, however, there is a cautionary tale to be told. In not so many words, it’s that: the money you save will be taken out of your hide. You’ll have to put in more time and effort, in the vast majority of cases, when you’re using free software and/or do not pay for services. The DIY world can be a wonderful place; just keep in mind that you better bring your sledgehammer.
Jared D. Correia, Esq. is the Assistant Director and Senior Law Practice Advisor at LOMAP. He is a regular contributor to local and national legal publications, including Attorney at Work, where his monthly column, ‘Managing’, appears.