Starting Your Own Law Firm

Happy Attorney at Law Firm

Welcome to the first article on starting your own law firm.

I created YourOwnLawFirm.com after discovering how I could use the Internet to bring a big pipeline of clients to my firm. I wrote the e-book How to Create a Big, Fat Pipeline of New Clients for Your Law Firm in Just 10 Days(hereinafter, “Pipeline“) to lay the foundation of the mechanics of Internet marketing, and Your Own Law Firm was a site where I could dig deeper into the process of content marketing, as well as other law firm marketing techniques. I was gratified to see Pipeline go straight to number one on Amazon among law firm marketing books, and the feedback on Your Own Law Firm has been great. My most gratifying email to date was from an attorney in Zimbabwe who wrote to say that my book and website had saved her practice. Who knew that these techniques would work even in Zimbabwe?

But in many emails, I am asked about the mechanics of starting a law firm. I hear from attorneys working at firms and law students who are about to graduate who have already persuaded themselves as to the wisdom of having their own firms, but they want a guide for all that entails before making the leap. All the information I am providing on law firm marketing is great and all, but first they need to know what to do about getting office space and setting up the phones.

That is the reason for this series. I have had my own practice for more than 20 years, and have experienced just about every permutation of a small firm practice. There is no one best way to run your solo or small firm, but I will show you what has and has not worked for me in order to save you from some dead-ends.

Attorneys these days have it way too easy.

Attorneys wanting to start their own firms today have it so easy. I’m actually very envious. In fact I’m surprised I’m so willingly provide this information, because part of me wants to slap you all. It’s just not right or fair that you have it so much easier than I did. I see articles about how bad the market is for newly-minted attorneys, but that is only true in the case of an attorney wanting to work for others, which is a fool’s errand in any event. The current market is fantastic for attorneys wanting to control their own destinies by starting their own firms.

baby with laptopLet me vent for a few minutes so you can fully appreciate just how good you have it while illustrating why you don’t have to worry about succeeding at your own firm.

When I started my legal career at The Big Firm, we didn’t have computers! Oh, computers existed, I’m not that old, but we attorneys were not allowed access to them. The secretaries were all networked to a Wang computer system. (Who names their computer company “Wang” anyway?! It’s no wonder no one uses Wang computers anymore. The loss of productivity due to the constant double entendres was probably staggering.)

Here is the system we worked under, if you can believe it. The attorneys were not given Wangs and were not allowed to use their secretaries’ Wangs (see?). The secretaries could use their own Wangs for word processing, but they were not supposed to create or edit a document that was more than three pages in length. If you dictated a document (that’s right, we DICTATED our documents onto cassette tapes) that was going to be more than three pages long, you or your secretary took the tape down to word processing, filled out a form, and were told that they would call when it was done (during the day a runner would bring it to your office, but most of my big documents were created after hours when I wasn’t having to take summer associates to lunch to persuade them how wonderful life was at The Big Firm).

When you got the call from word processing, you picked up the document, marked it up, and returned it to word processing to be revised. This process could repeat itself a dozen times or more until you got the document in final version. If you found a single typo on a five page document, it was back to word processing to get it revised.

The cynical me thinks this was planned inefficiency. What am I going to do at 10:30 at night while I’m waiting an hour for word processing to call to tell me version eight of the document is ready for pick up? Well I’m going to bill more time on that or another case, of course, making more money for the firm.

I refused to participate in this institutionalized inefficiency, so my secretary gave me her password to use. I still didn’t have my own Wang, but at least I could use my secretary’s Wang after hours to edit documents and avoid the entire word processing department. I was thus breaking two rules. I was an attorney using a computer, and I was daring to edit documents that were more than three pages in length. It caused a furor in the word processing department, and I received visits from more than one partner who told me that I was sabotaging any chance of making partner, “because real attorneys don’t type.” It was explained to me in the most caring terms that an attorney who is seen typing is thereafter always viewed as a secretary. Those were very different times. I had “Born to Type” tattooed on my arm and soldiered on.

Understand, though, that my rebellion just gave me the ability to create and edit documents. Just picture all the things you do on a computer, and you’ll begin to understand my anger. No legal research, no email – no Internet (not even Facebook!).

Now a new attorney can actually be seen!

But enough venting about how much better you have it technologically, let’s get to the matter of why you have it so much better from the standpoint of starting your own firm.

invisible attorneySo you’re an attorney back in the day and you want to start your own firm, either right out of law school or after working at a firm. For clients to hire you, they have to know you exist. How would clients hear about you?

There were two paths you could follow to be known to potential clients. Let’s say you went to work for a large firm and fell into the very niche practice area of antenna zoning law. At first, the partner would keep you very hidden in the background and clients would believe that their cases were being handled by that partner. Over the years, however, you would sometimes be seen in the light and slowly you would gain a reputation as a real expert in antenna zoning law. At some point you would have sufficient recognition so that you could go out and start your own firm specializing in antenna zoning law, and your clients would follow you or others would come to you because of your reputation.

Quick sidebar: While at The Big Firm, I worked a lot with a senior associate who had been there about five years. A good guy and a really brilliant attorney. We’ll call him Jeff, because that’s his name. Two years after I went off to start my own firm, I was in court and there was Jeff, who at this point was at seven years with the firm and was probably up for partner. The attorneys from The Big Firm were there to argue against a motion for summary judgment. When their matter was called, a partner I knew from the firm walked up and gave his appearance, while Jeff remained seated in the gallery, just behind the little swinging gates that separate the gallery from the counsel tables.

The oral argument began, and when it came his turn, the partner did a competent job of arguing against the motion. But then the judge asked a question about something the partner had said during his argument. The partner took about four steps backwards, during which time Jeff stood and met him at the swinging gates. Jeff said something to him, and the partner responded to the judge. The judge then asked something else, and the same process was repeated. This happened a total of three times, and it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that Jeff was the one handling the case. It really brought home the wisdom of my decision to start my own firm. Seven years into his practice, Jeff was still not being allowed to argue motions for summary judgment, at least not for that particular client.

I had not thought about Jeff for many years until just now when I was telling this story. I just looked him up, and I’m happy to see that he did make partner that year. According to the bio on his website, he lasted seven years as a partner at The Big Firm before he finally came to his senses and left to start his own solo practice. (“Came to his senses” is my editorial comment. He didn’t actually say that in his bio.)

If you were not willing to wait that long to start your own firm (or really could not see devoting your legal life to antenna zoning law) then chances are you would select a practice area with much greater mass appeal. More likely than not, you would view yourself as a “general practitioner”, handling a mix of practice areas with mass appeal such as bankruptcy, divorce, breach of contract, criminal law and personal injury. You would do your best to network with other attorneys so that they could refer you these types of cases (usually the ones they did not want to handle for some reason), and you would find ways to advertise so that clients could find you.

The avenues to promote your law firm were limited and usually very costly. When I started my own firm, the yellow pages were the core marketing strategy for many firms. But a firm’s placement in the yellow pages was dependent on the size of the ad and the length of time the firm had been advertising. Established firms would take up the first 20 pages of the yellow page listings for attorneys, with their $6,000 to $12,000 per month double or even triple-truck ads. Even if a new attorney had the financial ability to invest in a full page add, he would be late to the party and thus relegated to a position behind his competitors. It was all designed to get you to buy bigger ads. Since order was based on seniority and ad size, the only way a new attorney could move up in the rankings was to buy a bigger ad than his or her competitors. But in reality, in most cases, a new attorney might be able to buy a dollar-sized ad (still expensive), and be content with the clients who somehow made it past all those huge ads.

In my case, I had managed to gain some litigation experience during my time at The Big Firm, but I certainly had not reached that critical mass where my reputation would cause clients to follow me, nor was it likely that the sort of client that would hire The Big Firm in the first place would be willing to retain a solo. When I started my own firm, I initially relied on small yellow page ads and referral services. I also wrote a legal column for the local business newspaper, and that would bring in some work.

The good, bad, dead and dying — some ways to market your firm.

Let me take you through the techniques I have tried over the years and share my experiences, so you can decide if you want to try them as well. Spoiler alert: I’m going to conclude that content marketing is the best way to market your firm, but some of these other techniques may have a place in your marketing mix.

1. Yellow page advertising.

I touched on how the yellow page companies made you pay through the nose back in the day, but revenge is sweet and now the yellow pages are just about dead. I actually still have some yellow page ads, but only because they are “free”. I put free in quotes because the companies provide free yellow page ads if you purchase some other service. I pay about $200 per month to have numerous listings in the on-line yellow pages, and that came with a really well made video. A video of this quality would have cost more than $2,400 if I had a video company do it, so to get the video along with the on-line listings PLUS a website page was a real bargain.

Yellow PagesAs an additional advantage, the company provides telephone numbers for tracking, and every month I get a report about how many calls came in through the yellow pages ads and on-line listings. The return on investment is good only because of the add-ons, not because of the yellow page ads.

Take a look at your local yellow pages, and you’ll see how far this marketing technique has fallen. From the days of 20 pages of full-page listings, I just looked at my local addition and there aren’t even 20 display ads for attorneys in the entire section. The yellow pages directory used to be three inches thick, and now it’s as thin as a magazine. (It just occurred to me that as a show of strength, guys used to rip the yellow pages in half. I could totally do that now!)

Ironically, this actually presents an opportunity (the size thing, not the ripping thing). Believe it or not there is still a demographic of people who go to the yellow pages, and now you have virtually no competition there. I was recently retained by a client on a real estate litigation matter who found me through one of my remaining, “free” yellow page ads. That case will likely bring in enough revenue to cover five years of what I am paying for that advertising.

Still, despite getting this impressive case, I would not recommend for a second that you pay for yellow page advertising. The people who come to me from my yellow page ads have a much lower conversion rate into clients. The person who would go to the yellow pages instead of doing an Internet search is often an older person on a fixed income, or someone who can’t afford a computer. But, as my recent real estate case illustrates, that is not always the case. If you can get some ads for free along with some other services you find worthwhile, then go for it.

2. Networking Organizations.

Organizations such as the Leads Club are set up so that one person from each profession or type of business is represented, and you meet once a week for breakfast and are “required” to bring one or more leads for other members in the group. It’s a great concept, since theoretically it creates a little sales force that is out there shaking the bushes for business for you just as you are doing the same for them, but I don’t recall ever getting a usable lead. I’d show up every week and the members would have leads for the low hanging fruit, as it were, such as the florist, dry cleaner and print shop.

I met some very nice people and made some friends at the networking group – I even had the entire group over to my house for a Christmas party – but from a business standpoint, the very occasional referral I would receive was not worth the investment of time.

3. Chambers of Commerce.

I joined the local Chamber of Commerce for my city and some of the surrounding cities, and attended their weekly breakfasts. At each meeting they would go around the room and each person would have 30 seconds to explain what they do. I was very proactive and did everything “right” based on what I had read. I’d get there early and act as a greeter, introducing myself to everyone who came in and handing them a personalized pen or other gift so that they would have something tangible to remember me. I had a really good “elevator speech” ready for my 30 second presentation. But one meeting was a real eye-opener, and showed me why these meetings are not effective.

Chamber of commerceAt each meeting, a business card was drawn, and the winner would get to put on a five minute presentation at the next meeting. I was selected, and decided that I was really going to blow the walls off the place at my presentation as compared to all the dry presentations I had witnessed.

At some other function, I had won a high-end iPod Touch in a raffle, and I decided to use that as a prize at my presentation as a means to guarantee that people would remember my website address. At the commencement of my presentation, I announced that I would be drawing a business card at random, and the person who was selected would win the iPod if they could just remember my website address, which was (and is) TopLawFirm.com. It was a significant prize, and it was clear that people wanted to win. To make certain they would be able to remember the address, I did a whole routine on how they could remember it, explaining that when they want to find a law firm on the Internet, they could just type LawFirm.com, but that they should go straight to the top, and go to TopLawFirm.com.

So I did my presentation, and it was a huge success. I had brought a buzzer, and I went through the crowd selecting people at random, and presented them with examples of cases that I had handled that could arise in their business. I would then ask what they should do so as not to find themselves in that same position, and if they got the answer wrong, I’d hit the buzzer. I was in the zone, and if a presentation’s success can be measured by the level of laughter, this was the most successful presentation ever given at this Chamber.

Then came time for the prize. I selected a business card, called out the name on the card, and asked that person to give me the address for my website. He couldn’t remember. I hit the buzzer and moved on. Another card, and another member who could not remember. That process was repeated over and over until the sixth person selected was finally able to say “top law firm dot com.” She laughed and held up a piece of paper, saying, “I knew I’d never remember so I wrote it down when you said it.” I then said I’d give her a bonus prize (a pen) if she could tell me what type of cases I handle. Even though I had just spent five minutes going through the facts of actual cases that I had handled, she could not answer the question.

The fact is that people at these meetings are thinking about whether they should have another cup of coffee, annoyed that the server has not brought more cream, thinking about what they are going to say when they give their 30-second presentation, and worrying that the meeting is going to run long and conflict with that meeting they have scheduled back at the office. They are so distracted, that they cannot remember “top law firm dot com” in order to win a valuable prize. What are the odds that one of these people, should they ever need an attorney or hear of someone who needs one, will sufficiently remember you to send you the work?

Some members had been in the group for years, and the other members who had been there for years had come to know the various professions. There was a divorce attorney in the group and a lot of people seemed to know who he was, so perhaps being a Chamber member was working for him. So time can improve the odds, as can keeping in constant contact with all the other members, by calls and emails, but that’s a lot of work for a relatively small universe of prospective clients.

4. Referral Services.

This marketing method worked very well for me, but only because of an alignment of the planets. There is a guy named Bill Handel who has for many years hosted a radio talk show in Los Angeles. He has a weekend show called “Handel on the Law” where he gives “marginal legal advice” as he puts it. He was then given the morning drive-time show all week. He decided to start an attorney referral service, and to be a registered referral service, you have to achieve a certain critical mass of attorneys subscribing to the service (to keep attorneys from starting a “referral service” that only refers to them).

Handel therefore let attorneys in my county sign up for free in order to reach the required number of attorneys, right at the time I was starting my firm. With him on the radio pushing the service, I received a lot of calls and cases from that referral service.

On the other hand, my experience with other referral services has not been the same. I was on the local bar association’s referral service for a number of years, and most of the calls I received did not translate to cases. I might be able to live with that – my own marketing efforts generate a lot of calls that never turn into cases – but with a referral service you then have to take the time to prepare a report confirming that you spoke with the client and that it did not turn into a case. Making matters worse, they would tell callers that they were entitled to a “free 30-minute consultation.” I would receive a call, tell the caller everything they needed to know within ten minutes, and they would get upset that I was trying to terminate the call before they had received the full 30 minutes.

I don’t use any referral services. If you want to give one a try, my advice is not to use any service that charges anything beyond a nominal fee, but instead takes a small percentage of the fees from any services you perform related to a case they provided (assuming that is permitted in your jurisdiction). This assures you that if the clients they are sending you are not generating work, then it is not costing you anything.

5. Legal Directories.

Nowadays, the term “legal directory” would be taken to mean on-line legal directories, but they have always existed in printed form. I still get calls from organizations wanting to list me in the “Union Directory” or the “Christian Directory”.

I have tried some of these directories over the years, and don’t recall ever getting a client as a result. I am always amused that when they call to try to get me to join, they will typically use the argument that “some of our attorneys have been in the directory for 15 years, so it must be working.” No, that just means, like me, the attorneys stink at tracking the source of their incoming calls, and so long as the directory does not cost too much, they don’t cancel because it may be generating clients.

As to on-line legal directories, using the Internet marketing techniques explained in Pipeline and on Your Own Law Firm, I get so much organic traffic that it would be pointless to spend the money they charge. If my own website is coming up number one, two and seven on a Google search for my practice area, why pay for a listing in a directory that comes up below me and where the potential client will be presented with a list of other attorneys who also practice in that area of the law?

Lawyers dot com logoI recently made one exception, and signed up for Lawyers.com. The only reason I made that exception is because Lawyers.com was the one directory that would place above my own websites if the search did not contain a geographic limitation. In other words, search for “breach of contract attorney orange county” and there I am in the first two positions with Lawyers.com nowhere to be seen, but search just for “breach of contract attorney” and I get bumped down to number two and Lawyers.com is number one. With my more niche practice areas, I beat Lawyers.com across the board, but for the broader search terms Lawyers.com does a good job of optimizing its site for those terms, and I want to remain in the number one position for those terms, even if it is through a directory.

Lawyers.com also uses tracking phone numbers and provides reports, and when you answer the phone, you hear “incoming call from your Lawyers.com service.” It’s actually kind of annoying because it is apparently set up to wait until it hears a voice answer the phone before delivering that message, so it always interrupts you, as in, “This is Morris & Stone, how can we . . . incoming call from your Lawyers.com service . . . help you?” The caller is not actually put through until the message is delivered, so they don’t hear any of that, but we have to wait for a heartbeat, and then say again, “This is Morris & Stone, how can we help you?” We live with the annoyance because it is fantastic to immediately know which calls are coming in through that service.

We get a good number of calls from Lawyers.com, but that is due in part to our narrow practice areas. For example, appellate work is one of our practice areas on Lawyers.com, and I don’t recall ever receiving a call regarding an appeal through that service. Most of the calls relate to defamation, where there is far less competition than appeals or breach of contract. Also, the conversion rate for the calls coming in through Lawyers.com is lower than the calls that come in from one of our websites. The reason is that our websites are designed to act in part as a call screener by providing the caller with detailed information. A caller from Lawyers.com might call to say he wants to sue Yelp for a false review, whereas anyone coming in from one of our websites almost assuredly would already know that is not possible.

I also really appreciate that (at least at the time I am writing this) Lawyers.com does not offer various levels of display. By that I mean that most legal directories will sell you a package for $250 per month that gets you in the directory, but for $500 per month you can be guaranteed to be in one of the top five positions, and for $1000 per month they will list you as the “featured attorney” and always put you in the number one position. Lawyers.com will try to up-sell you with additional territories, but your subscription puts you on equal footing with every other listing, and you are randomly rotated to various positions when someone searches for your practice area and geographic location.

It all comes down to return on investment (ROI). My organic search results are so good that I don’t need Lawyers.com, but because I have a niche practice area that works well on that service, it more than pays for itself. Lawyers.com is about $300 per month, so you’ll need to determine if the work you get justifies the expense in your practice.

6. Newsletters.

This is very old-school, but it has a modern-day analog.

When I first started my firm, I bought a mailing list of local businesses, and I sent out a mailer of about 3,000 postcards, advertising a free subscription to my Business Law Alert newsletter. It was a pretty ingenious mailing of my own design (at least I hadn’t seen it before), consisting of two postcards joined together at a perforation. If the recipient wanted the free subscription, they needed only to tear off the return postcard, which had prepaid postage and their information already printed on the card, and drop it in the mail.

A response of 2% is typical for a mailing like this, and 5% is off the charts. I received a 20% response, and just like that had 600 local businesses subscribed to my newsletter. I repeated the process a couple of more times until I had about 1,500 subscribers. The newsletter was just a single piece of 11″ x 17″ paper that was folded in half to create the newsletter, which I mailed out once a month. I received a lot of business from that newsletter, and that is what lead to my newspaper column in the Orange County Business Journal, which generated even more work.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was engaging in content marketing. The newsletter and subsequent column established me as an expert, and it is that reputation that brought in the clients, not direct advertising. Content-marketing, both on and off the internet, is the most successful form of marketing I have used to date.

Printed newsletters can still be very effective. Bringing people to your website is a challenge, but sending them a printed newsletter assures it ends up in front of them. You know about Costco and AAA, and if you need their goods or services you know where to find them. Yet, they still send out magazines to make sure they remain in front of you.

7. Google Adwords.

With one exception, I no longer use Google Adwords because my websites rank so well organically. I view Adwords as a means to get your website listed on page one of Google until it gets there organically. Once there, then the cost of Adwords can be a wasted expense, but again it all comes down to ROI. With the techniques set forth in Pipeline, if you have niched down enough, your website should appear on page one of a Google search after about ten days. Even so, you may elect to keep an Adwords campaign running for the same practice area just to occupy two positions in the search results, or to make sure you have a slightly different keyword combination covered.

Rush to adwordsI have had good success with Google Adwords in the past. AdWords is another great example of how the Internet has leveled the playing field for new attorneys. If you know what you are doing, and are willing an able to pay the per click fees, you can put your firm on page one of the Google search results overnight. But while I have used AdWords successfully, I don’t purport to be an expert. I can provide only these tips.

First, take the time to really target your audience. You will pay every time someone clicks on your ad, so you want to make sure every click is a qualified client. I just did a search for “attorney orange county” and two firms came up in Adwords that offer no indication as to what type of law they practice. They are paying for completely unqualified clicks from clients who, upon arriving at the site, will find that the firm cannot help them.

In this regard, this is yet another situation where niches make riches. If you buy the keywords “personal injury attorney” you are going to pay something obscene like $50 per click. But for the search term “anti-slapp”, one of my primary practice areas, Google’s suggested bid price is just $2.51, because it is so narrow. This is the one term I still use on AdWords. Typically I will come up organically in the first two positions of a search, but buying the term on AdWords assures that I end up at the top of any Google search, regardless of the search term used, so long as it contains “anti-SLAPP”.

Filter, filter and then filter some more. Adwords allows you to set very narrow geographic areas, days the ads will run and even the times they will appear. If someone clicks on your ad after hours, you might get a voice mail or email out of it, but you have far better odds of converting that prospect if the call occurs during business hours. Similarly, if you have found that you don’t get a lot of clients who live more than, say, 30 miles from your office, then filter down to only the cities in your immediate area.

And of course, set your budget to something entirely affordable. For my practice area keywords “anti-slapp attorney” I can set the daily budget to just $10, which could generate five or more calls per day (you can pay less then the bid price). If I find that those calls are converting, then I can start to bump up the budget to possibly generate even more calls.

Be sure to display your telephone number. If you display your phone number in your Google ad, some people will call directly without clicking through, and you thereby avoid that click cost. Google won’t permit you to include your telephone number in the ad, and that’s a good thing. Instead, there is a spot when you are setting up your ad where you provide your telephone number, and then indicate you want it to display. Google then adds it beneath your ad, without utilizing any of the few precious characters you are allotted for your ad. If the user finds your ad on their computer, the telephone number is displayed. But if they find it on their mobile device, your phone number is replaced with a big “CALL” button. If they use the call button, then that is treated as a click-through. From my own experience, although I don’t generally click on Google Ads when I’m at my computer, I will hit the call button when using my iPhone, because of the convenience factor.

Here is a great infographic loaded with tips on Google Adwords. If you are going to give Adwords a try, don’t just blunder through the process like I did my first time around. Invest a few dollars in a guide, and it will more than pay for itself with the first few unproductive clicks you saved yourself from by gaining a little knowledge about the process. I am a big fan of the “Dummies” books on just about any topic, and Google AdWords For Dummies is what I (eventually) used, but it hasn’t been updated since 2011, and that’s a little stale. I haven’t read Ultimate Guide to Google AdWords, but I checked the reviews and it appears to be the favorite book on Amazon on the topic, and it is more recent than the Dummies version.

There are all kinds of ways to waste your money.

I’d like to say those are all the various marketing techniques I have tried, but I’m embarrassed to say there have been other epic failures. Have you ever gone to your kid’s little league game and seen the banners they hang on the outfield fence? True, I did it in part to support the little league, but I was one of those. No doubt you have seen the ads on the back of the receipts you get from the grocery store. I was one of those.

But it is because of those failures that I am so excited about content marketing and niche websites. To have tried so many marketing techniques that brought limited results, and then to finally find a method that blew the doors off, is the reason that I am such a zealot as to content marketing.

Although we still maintain a mix of marketing techniques, about 90% of our clients come to us through the Internet. I have another entire series of articles devoted to content marketing on the Internet. Click here if you want to go there now, or click the big blue NEXT button to continue with this series on starting your own law firm.

Next-ButtonThe number one question I get from attorneys who are contemplating starting their own office is: “What do I do about office space?” Before answering that question, I first need to set the scene. Let’s begin by answering the question, “Should I really go solo?”, because that impacts some of the decisions you will be making about office space.

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