Why Are You Still Yelling? Tribe Building for Lawyers

It seems to me that most lawyers are still yelling about how experienced they are, how hard they fight, and generally how great they are, and missing the tribe building and leading idea. At least that’s what the internet tells me.

I know, I know, there‚Äôs no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary. But does this approach still work in today’s evolving online socially networked world?

It’s been almost 4 years since Seth Godin told us to focus on leading tribes. And sure, tribe building and leading works for navigating technology (selling ipads) and discussing shoe preferences (zappos). But does tribe building work for lawyers? Do you know lawyers who are successfully building and leading tribes?

What’s this tribe thing all about?

In case this is the first time you’re hearing about this tribe-leading idea, I encourage you to read Seth’s book (and his other books), subscribe to his blog and watch this video:

Law firm factories, advertising and tribes

In his Ted talk, Seth discuss 3 cycles: factories, TV advertising and tribe leadership. We can think of law firms that fall into each of these.

Factory law firms work to churn out clients and fees. But, just as Seth describes with traditional factories, these firms need ever-cheaper labor and ever-cheaper ways to churn out fees. Which often results in poorer client service & unhappy clients.

TV advertising law firms, of which there is no shortage, interrupt, push and shout. They spend a lot of money hitting you with their message:

(TVB citing Kantar Media study)

If I can just get enough money to tell enough people about what we do, we’ll get a lot of clients and fees. But this just isn’t working as well as it used to (see dvr players).

Then there are those few lawyers who have bought into the tribe-leading idea. They are trying to be leaders. They are trying to build tribes. Unfortunately, many of them who think that they’ve adopted the tribe mantra, are really just doing more advertising. Of course, there are some who are really leading, but there are many others that are merely applying the old advertising model onto internet media.

And so, we get oodles of web spam.

Can lawyers really build tribes?

When confronted with the tribe leading concepts, most lawyers with whom I talk respond with the, “that doesn’t work for my practice”, objection. They see how it can work for the business examples that Seth provides, but they just don’t see how it applies to their practice.

And frankly, I don’t blame them. It’s hard to challenge the status quo. It’s hard to have a good idea. It’s hard to tell a story. It’s hard to publish stuff online that people actually care about. But it’s not impossible. But difficulty doesn’t make it any less relevant to your business, I mean practice.

It seems to me that too many lawyers focus on the how to reach their audiences and not enough on who these people are and what the message is these lawyers are trying to convey.

Ask yourself Seth’s 3 questions:

The first one is, who exactly are you upsetting? Because if you’re not upsetting anyone, you’re not changing the status quo. The second question is, who are you connecting? Because for a lot of people, that’s what they’re in it for: the connections that are being made, one to the other. And the third one is, who are you leading? Because focusing on that part of it — not the mechanics of what you’re building, but the who, and the leading part — is where change comes.

  • What’s your story?
  • Who is your audience (tribe)?
  • How can you connect with them?

Don’t get caught up in the logistics and mechanics. For one simplistic example, when it comes to using social networking tools, don’t spend so much time fretting about what time you’re sending your tweets, but who you’re engaging and what you’re adding to the conversation.

Admittedly, this post is short on practical tips. Perhaps it’s just a suggestion or reminder. Really, I’d like to get a sense of what you think about tribe building for law firms.

Do you know any legal tribe leaders? Who are they? What stories are they telling? How are they identifying and connecting with their audiences?


  1. Avatar David Sugerman says:

    Tribes? Really??? I do not think that word means what you think it means. Perhaps your marketing pitch would not be so ham-handed if you and similar adherents understood the concept. Success in the practice of law is both simple and hard. It is simple in that you only need to master the skill set and put clients ahead of you. It is hard in that it takes many years, and there are no short cuts. Lawyerist-you can do better than this. I would label it tripe, but that is an insult to soul-healing food like menudo.

  2. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with lawyers leading (or joining) tribes, but I’m pretty sure that telling lawyers to go out and start tribes will have zero effect. Tribes can’t be built out of people who want to listen to a lawyer’s marketing shtick.

  3. Avatar Dave S says:

    I think if there’s a message for me to take from this article is that to be more effective in marketing (isn’t that really the goal?), talk to your audience (prospective client base) not at them. I think that’s a great point and it’s true that too many lawyers’ marketing is ‘look at how great I am’. It is hard to flip that and talk to the audience. I’m not sure I understand the ‘tribe’ thing but good premise.

  4. Avatar Gabe Scott says:

    Great post! I’m a newbie so little idea really whether this works from the business end. But I do have long experience in non-profit environmental advocacy and these concepts certainly apply there. Organizations that are able to effect real change are good at building that core of “true believers,” and ideas then go viral. I’ve often amazed at how much influence I and my little group have been able to accomplish, simply by virtue of being the ones who will 1) stand up and tell it like it is (amazing how scared most people are to do that… so many excuses), and 2) offer a practical organizational tool that allows people to connect and take some action. End up with important allies in otherwise unreachable locations (like inside the evil corporation or gov’t agency)

    Transferred to the practice of law, my current working concept is to combine environmental advocacy (save the King salmon) with for-profit legal representation for fishermen (who want to transfer or buy a permit, get an arm ripped off, skipper skips town without paying the bill, Fish Board cronies change catch quotas arbitrarily… whatever). Alaska fishermen are a tribal people, everything is one-on-one word of mouth, and my evolving marketing plan sounds a lot like this tribe-building thing.

    In other legal contexts it makes sense too, especially for solo practioners. Kind of a magnification of the niche concept, no? One law school compatriot’s idea I thought sounded cool was specializing in conservation-oriented trusts & estates; another practicing friend combines civil rights criminal defense work for radical environmentalists with DUI defense (similar constitutional issues); another who has built a successful practice dealing with non-profit incorporation; another who is highly successful by providing comprehensive environmental consulting and legal representation.

    Where it doesn’t make much sense is if your goal is simply to make a paycheck and don’t care how. As the video says at the start this concept works for folks who want to change the world. Those content to quietly live out their lives (or practices) probably still do better in a factory.

    Anyway thank you for this post and a thousand other great ideas on this website. These are the things they don’t teach in law school and it’s gratifying to see not everyone’s path to success hinges on scrubbing themselves of all originality and keeping their head down.

  5. Avatar Peggy Gruenke says:

    Thanks for the great article and insight. I am a huge Godin fan and believe in the ” build a community concept” and I believe is can work in the legal field. You build tribes starting with giving your gifts or your art (as Seth would say). You start showing up more, sharing your art, and your tribe will be built. Another one of Seth’s book I recommend is Linchpin – How to Make Yourself Indispensable. It’s about marketing yourself but in a gentler manner that will lead to the building of your tribe.

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