Nearly four years ago, I took the plunge, opening my own office after eight years with a small law firm. Although success as a solo requires much trial and error, some steps that I took to market my business from the beginning really paid off.
When making marketing decisions, the first question you must ask is "How will this help me get word-of-mouth referrals?" A referral to you from someone who knows your potential client is like gold. The potential client has already received an endorsement of you from someone whose opinion they trust, thus the resources (time & money) needed to get and close "the sale" are but a fraction of those needed from "cold" sources like advertising. That is not to say that advertising cannot be a useful tool in certain circumstances, as described below.
Here are some of things I did to help keep my old clients while building up a larger client base:
Before Opening The Office:
- If your office is located near a state line, become a member of the neighboring state's bar. My main office is in Maryland, less than ten miles from the borders for Washington, DC and Virginia. Out of law school I first passed the Maryland Bar and attained a high enough score to waive into DC. After practicing for five years, and seeing how much business my office referred out to Virginia lawyers, I decided to study for the Virginia Bar, which I passed. Virginia requires Maryland lawyers practicing in Maryland to take their full exam, a process most Maryland attorneys already in full-time practice simply do not want to deal with. Just the referrals I receive from other attorneys to handle matters "on the other side of river" have made taking that exam worthwhile. It has also allowed me to get involved with the Virginia Bar, which has led to referrals of Maryland and DC business from those attorneys.
- Develop expertise in a "niche" area of practice. My practice is general in nature, or what a friend once described as "Suburban Law." I do civil and criminal litigation, along with personal bankruptcy, construction law and commercial collections. The last three areas of my practice, while not unique, are somewhat specialized. This creates another source of pre-screened referrals form other lawyers.
- After purchasing a good quality computer, I set up a domain name with my internet service provider (ISP). My domain name is "babergerlaw.com," and all my e-mail goes to firstname.lastname@example.org. The overall cost for this is a few hundred dollars, but here's what it allows me to do:
- I never have to worry about changing my e-mail address if I change my ISP. The name goes with me. Further, if I do not have to change my e-mail address, I also do not have to change my business cards and stationery if I switch ISPs.
- When I am ready, I can develop my own full website using the domain name. Currently, I have a presence on the web, through a legal-oriented web site. The advantage of this type of arrangement is that links are provided, as part of the cost, from the site to my on-line presence.
Opening The Office:
- Send out high-quality announcements to every person you even remotely know. If you have a niche practice, send it out to the mailing list for your local bar association. Send individual letters to friends and relatives. Further, since I do a significant amount of personal injury work, I sent letters to the high-volume personal injury practices in my area (Need names? Look on the back cover of your local yellow pages). From this, I developed a relationship with one practice that has sent me dozens of files to litigate on their behalf. (Follow state ethics rules.)
- Order high-quality letterhead and business cards. DO NOT print out your own letterhead and envelopes. Using quality products conveys to the recipient that your business is successful, and, fairly or not, the recipient will take you more seriously. I also paid a few dollars extra to print my practice areas on the back of my business cards. When I give my card to someone, this information reinforces what type of practice I have, and what is a good referral for me.
- Join a business-networking group. This has proven to be the most cost-effective way to build my client base with pre-screened referrals. My particular group is a chapter of Business Networking International (BNI). The group meets weekly, either for breakfast or lunch. It allows one person per profession in each chapter and, unlike Chamber of Commerce events, is totally focused on getting other members of the group to give you good referrals. Our group has 25 members, so each week, I have an opportunity to educate 24 other people about what I am looking for in a client. I have also gotten to know 24 other businesses who I trust with my referrals, since those businesses are held accountable every week for the quality of their work.
After Getting Your Feet Wet
- Yellow pages - Depending on your audience, a very effective way of getting new business in highly transient areas like Greater Washington, DC. Generally, you get back in business what you pay in advertising, and that business can help to build your client base. As a rule, however, I find that most of the calls I get from my yellow page ads are people who fall into the following categories: looking for free advice; looking for the lowest price; looking for a new lawyer because their other lawyer fired them; looking for someone who will agree with their opinion, no matter how wrong it is; and people who are mentally challenged. As long as you have an effective screening process for these people, go for it!
- Search engines and related sites - Get yourself out there! This sounds expensive, but I've found that my membership in various lawyer associations has given me access to numerous on-line listings, who, like the yellow pages, will give you a free listing but will charge for any exclusive display advertising.
- Web sites - Like your stationery, requires some reasonable level of quality to be effective. Your best bet is to have it done by someone who understands how law firms operate. Web sites can effectively get referrals from people out of state and out of the country who either got in trouble while traveling through your state or who are chasing after people or businesses in your state.
- E-mail listservs - Join bar association e-mail listservs. You can gather litigation tips, case and statute cites, and referrals from a pool of hundreds of colleagues in a matter of minutes.
- Speak at Seminars - Once you have developed your expertise, share some of it with your colleagues or other groups. You will find that the more information you give, the more the recipient will realize that only someone with your level of knowledge should be handling his or her case. Hence, more direct referrals.
Last, but NOT LEASTâ¦ - Quality work for clients - It is the only way to build and maintain a long-term client and referral base. We are a service profession, and there is no better way to market your business than through a satisfied client. The only person who talks more than a satisfied client about their lawyer is a dissatisfied client. The three keys to avoiding dissatisfied clients are:
1. Do not take on a matter you are not competent to handle, no matter how much of a fee it could generate.
2. Return phone calls and e-mails promptly. Clients want to believe that they are your only one.
3. Be honest with your client no matter how much you may have screwed-up, and you WILL screw up sometimes. Most people find candor to be very disarming.
Enjoy the ride. There's nothing better than being your own boss.
Burman A. Berger of Burman A. Berger, P.C. is based in Rockville, Maryland. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or phone at (301) 251-1105.