Making Rain on the Net
David Wochner’s day starts with a quick read of news reports on the liquefied natural gas industry. Then he writes news summaries and analyses of industry events. With the help of another colleague and an intern who is a recent journalism school graduate, he publishes a Web log, the LNG Law Blog.
But Wochner does not work for a business or trade magazine, or any other kind of traditional publishing venture. He is a fourth-year associate with Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in Washington, D.C., working on liquefied natural gas accounts. Along with Rebecca Day, an associate in the same practice area, Wochner has developed a blog that has become one of the few resources covering national news on the industry.
To most attorneys, a publishing venture might seem like a waste of billable hours, but Wochner believes it is a valuable marketing vehicle for the firm. “We’ve become well-known enough,” he says, “that when we go into a business pitch, before we even have to say anything, people will say, ‘Wow, you do the blog.’ ”
For much of the history of law in America, legal marketing depended on who you knew (and, sometimes, how well you golfed). It was only 29 years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for lawyers to advertise at all, in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977). Since that ruling, attorneys have learned to market themselves like any other business, though most attorneys probably still rely heavily on connections to get new business.
“Law firms are acting more like businesses. When I started in law firm marketing in 1992, it was more like individual efforts within the firm, not like teamwork,” says Kathleen Flynn, the director of client relations and marketing at the Sedgwick, Detert, Moran & Arnold law firm in San Francisco.
Now, with the rise of the Internet and digital marketing tools, lawyers have to relearn the marketing game. According to a June 2005 Harris Interactive poll, more Americans use search engines to find a lawyer than any other source. Online marketing is beginning to allow any firm to stay in closer contact with clients, offer more services, offer targeted marketing efforts and win new clients for less financial investment.
PAGING THE WEB
It wasn’t too long ago that a Web site was a rare extravagance for most law firms. But according to the 2004-2005 ABA Legal Technology Survey, all firms with 50 or more lawyers now have Web sites, and 68 percent of all firms have a site.
The result? Simply having a Web site means very little anymore.
“We were ahead of the curve when we first launched, but now a lot of firms have the same kind of site,” says Randy Kessler, a partner with the family law firm Kessler Schwarz & Solomiany in Atlanta. “Some of them even stole things from our site; I’ve found verbatim copies of forms we use online on another firm’s site. It was clearly time to relaunch.”
Some firms believe a distinctive Web site is worth a serious investment. Kessler is working to add multimedia to his site, including short video clips from the firm’s attorneys. He is also thinking about adding mock client interviews to show prospective clients what sort of care they can expect. Kessler purposely designed his site to make it clear his firm offers high-end services that cost more than other services.
“You have to remember that your Web site reflects what you want the firm to be. I think you should probably spend more on your Web site than you do on your [office] lobby,” Kessler says. “If you spend $5,000 to $10,000 on ceramics and wood paneling, how can you not do the same for a Web site?”
These days, the first impression many potential clients get of any lawyer is from a profile on the firm’s Web site. Lawyers need to think about what potential clients want to see, which is not necessarily what lawyers care about. “Lawyers think of their work in terms of practice area, but that’s not how general counsels think,” says Larry Bodine, a Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based legal marketing consultant. “If they work in the food industry, they want to see who you represent in the food industry.”
A well-crafted site can attract new clients all by itself. For example, most law firms include biographies of their staff, though many put little effort into them. But many attorneys find that a well-crafted bio is cheap advertising. Steve Schortgen, an intellectual property attorney with Baker Botts in Dallas, was surprised by the amount of attention he got from potential clients who found his bio on the Web.
“We got a big Florida case, even though we’re in Texas, because the client found us just by searching online,” he says. He believes he got noticed because the clients were trolling the Web looking for his qualifications—an intellectual property lawyer who had experience with computer programming code.
“Of course, you still have to do due diligence and close the deal,” Schortgen says, “but I know they wouldn’t have found us otherwise, because they had never had any other communication with the firm.”
But a Web site is useless unless potential clients can find it. The search engine is the digital Yellow Pages, and attorneys must try to find a way to ensure their site is the first thing people see when looking for a lawyer online. In print advertisements, lawyers could pay for the biggest ad or be first alphabetically, but size and the alphabet play no role online. Exactly how search engines work is a closely guarded secret, but there are a few tricks Web-marketing lawyers can use to get top billing.
Buying a Web ad on a search site is one method, and the most direct approach is “pay per click,” which means you pay every time your ad gets served up by a search engine in response to someone’s search query. Most search engines place those ads right at the top of the page above search results. Lawyers who don’t want to pay too much if the ads prove too popular can set limits, telling the search engine only to serve up ads a set number of times each month.
A less expensive approach is to build a search-engine-friendly landing page. Firms can have more than one landing page, which is a front or main page to a Web site. The landing page is designed to let search engines know what the site is all about. Law firms interested in attracting clients through the Web need to know how to play by search engine rules. For example, search engines are known to rank a site higher the longer it has been around, if the content is updated often, if more Web sites link to it than similar sites, or if it gets more traffic than other sites. Increasingly, firms are building micro sites or landing pages designed to attract clients for specific practice areas or distinct functions within a firm. For example, Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton built a separate site with a different look that it hopes will appeal to law students considering employment with the firm. “You have to consider different demographics and create different looks for them,” says Vickie Spang, chief marketing officer with Sheppard Mullin in Los Angeles.
Some basic tips for a landing page are (again) to update the content regularly, which search engines notice, and to avoid showy flash animations, which many Web sites use for aesthetic purposes. Besides being distracting and annoying, such animation is invisible to search engines, making it less likely a Web searcher will find a firm’s site.
And by embedding meta tags—computer code that’s invisible to a Web surfer but not a search engine—in its site, a law firm can increase its chances of hooking some search engines. However, lawyers should avoid using names, slogans or search terms owned or associated too closely with a competitor, which courts have found to be trademark infringement.
There’s no one strategy for gaming the search engines. Jimmy Verner, with Verner & Brumley in Dallas, tried paid placements but didn’t get any business. However, he has found that with a few simple tweaks to his site, it will come up first on most searches for collaborative family law in his geographic area. In fact, he is thinking about giving up his listing on Martindale-Hubbell because it’s expensive and he can’t tell how much business it generates. “The bulk of our referrals used to [come from] other lawyers, but now we get more directly through the Web site,” he says.
Verner says the next stage in development of his site will be to add more interactivity. He’s hoping that will drive traffic to the site and increase his visibility. He’s considering allowing clients to text-message him and is dabbling with podcasts, or audio recordings, of his legal presentations that people can download for free.
However, he is well aware that there are drawbacks to adding too much technology. The firm used to offer intake forms online, which he thought would be a time-saving, useful tool. No one used them.
“One thing I’m concerned about is information overload,” he says. “We’ve got enough communication to keep up with as it is; too much more might not be productive.”
IN THE BLOG
One way to get noticed by both clients and search engines is through blogging. A few years ago, lawyers like Howard Bashman, author of the How Appealing blog, became minor media stars as legal experts who published online. Many law firms have noted the success these individuals have had in promoting themselves through Internet publishing, and they’ve tried to copy that success.
A new wave of legal bloggers is now emerging, consisting of law firms—from solos to the nation’s largest—using Web publishing as marketing. Not only are blogs a good way to demonstrate a firm’s expertise and to give people a sense of a lawyer’s personality, but search engines like Google are designed in such a way that search results from blogs come up before others. For example, Martin Schwimmer has a blog called the Trademark Blog, and if anyone “googles” trademark lawyer, Schwimmer will be listed among the first results, above some of the nation’s largest firms.
Carolyn Elefant, an energy regulatory attorney in Washington, D.C., had a Web site for about 10 years. Once she started blogging, though, she found she was suddenly a much more recognized name in the law. “I never really did any active marketing through the Web site,” she says. “But with the blog, I suddenly found myself known around the country. I’ve only gotten one or two prospective clients through it, but it just raised my profile both within my practice area and in the legal community in general.”
But firms should not assume they can just throw up a blog and expect it to be a hit. Flynn is working on the risk assessment behind blogging. “You can’t control what people write. If they have to send it to me for editing, … you lose timeliness,” she says. “Then you have the risk that a loose cannon might say things not in keeping with the message we want. And you need someone who can commit to writing regularly, because if a trial or something comes up, you can’t lose somebody for eight months.”
Spang at Sheppard Mullin has launched a handful of blogs on her firm’s site. The firm had been sending out e-mail newsletters, but the information technology people began to worry that they would be targeted as spammers. (There are organizations that create blacklists of spammers and block all traffic to and from suspect addresses.) By switching to publishing blogs, Spang says, she not only avoids the spammer problem, but has increased the reach of her efforts. For example, the firm’s antitrust newsletter had 3,000 subscribers; the antitrust blog, one of seven for the firm, has around 3,000 visitors a day.
Web logs can also humanize a law firm. “When people go to a lawyer, they are usually scared and upset. I teach clients to let people see you as a person, someone they can trust,” says Mark Merenda, who is the president of
Smart Marketing, a legal consulting firm based in Naples, Fla. “It’s not a bad thing to put your face and your writing out there where people can get a feeling of what you’re about.”
But a Web site needs to do more than look good and attract Web searchers. Large law firms are finding the real difference in sites is in invisible, back-end functions.
Flynn says Sedgwick Detert is effectively in the Web publishing business now that it has recently relaunched its site. She wanted the site to have fresh content and the most current information available. That meant creating a database that can do things like automatically populate information without someone having to manually update it.
For example, if an attorney publishes an article, it can automatically be published in the articles section, the lawyer’s biography section and the appropriate practice group area.
Customer relationship management software, or CRM, is designed to keep track of marketing efforts to better pitch new business. Such systems will read and evaluate content—from financial software, contact lists, calendaring information, and even proposals kept in document management systems—and make them searchable so lawyers can learn more about how employees and clients have been interacting. CRM information can also be sliced by a database into hundreds of thousands of different views, allowing a firm to analyze which employees are doing what work and with which clients.
Unfortunately, many software packages are geared for large business environments and are often too unwieldy for the legal world. Still, “we’re in the relationship business,” Flynn says. “We’ve rolled out [CRM], but we’re doing it very slowly because it’s important we get everybody and all our systems working together.”
A robust back-end system can also impress clients while freeing up attorneys’ time. Web sites, for example, may be used as informational portals for clients, letting them access some of the firm’s documents. That allows the firm to seem more responsive while cutting the time needed to answer client questions on the phone or in person. However, portal and extranet software like this demands high levels of security so as to not compromise client data.
Kim Perret, president of the Glenview, Ill.-based Legal Marketing Association, says intelligent use of digital information can help offline marketing, too. One example, which she describes as “silly, but speaks volumes,” is holiday cards.
“It’s not uncommon for clients with some firms to receive 10 cards from lawyers in the firm. If you ask them about it, clients will say, ‘Why are you signing all these engraved Crane cards?’ ” she says. “It’s a huge waste of money and annoys clients a lot less if you just have all the attorneys in different practice areas who work with a client sign one card.”
Using the Web to market legal services is nothing new, especially for mass e-mailers. Twelve years ago, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, two immigration lawyers from Arizona, sent mass e-mails to Internet newsgroups promoting their firm’s advisory services. Those e-mailings are widely considered the first Web spam. Law firms are not often involved in such practices anymore, but the Internet does create risks for marketers.
Some legal marketing experts downplay the ethical obligation lawyers face in advertising. “I always joke with lawyers that it’s just been in the last 15 years that they’ve joined the 20th century. But guess what—we’re already in the 21st,” Merenda says. “I blame it on the law schools. They don’t offer business courses, but that diploma is no guarantee you’ll earn a living. That may be true for doctors, but lawyers have to learn how to earn it.”
When the Internet first exploded nearly two decades ago, lawyers looked for ethics opinions to spell out their obligations in online marketing. “The response they got was essentially that you are allowed under the code of ethics to advertise on the Net as long as you follow the code of ethics,” says Will Hornsby, staff counsel for the American Bar Association. “That sounds circular, but it means simply that the same rules apply on the Net as offline.”
However, almost every state has a different code of ethics, which means lawyers should make it clear in their online materials what their jurisdictional limits are. For example, in Hawaii any solicitation by e-mail is problematic; state bar rules mandate that all solicitations be sent by first-class mail.
Hornsby says that, as with any advertising, lawyers should be aware that anything they publish is considered advertising if it “beckons business or proposes commercial transactions.” And lawyers should be careful to avoid subjective adjectives like expert or top-flight when talking about their services. This is difficult, he adds, because banning unjustified expectations “flies in the face of what advertising is.”
The ABA and the legal marketing association are both encouraging all states to adopt the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct to resolve confusion between jurisdictions. Adoption of Rule 7.2 in particular would help avoid confusion regarding Internet advertising that may exist in some states.
The amended rule eliminates any lists of the specific types of media in which lawyers may advertise. Such lists had effectively prohibited types of electronic advertising when they were not included. The amendment also eliminates any record-retention provision, which had required lawyers to keep copies of all ads for two years, along with a record of when and where such ads ran. That could be difficult or impossible with Web ads.
Hornsby says that, when revamping a Web site or online marketing strategy, lawyers cannot allow consultants to railroad them into approaches that cross ethical lines.
“No Web designer has or ever will be disciplined for a Web site; only lawyers will get in trouble,” Hornsby says.
“When dealing with Web site developers or media consultants, the lawyer should always remember who’s at risk if something goes wrong.”
When launching an e-mail campaign, law firms should allow readers to sign up rather than sending unsolicited messages that could be construed as spam. And law firms have to have the proper disclaimers making it clear what is and what is not legal advice. Visitors to a Web site should not leave believing they have received free legal advice.
As the Internet is joining or even replacing other traditional advertising channels for law firms, lawyers need to keep the same ethical obligations in mind, and they should not give up on offline strategies. “In my opinion, the Net is part of a larger effort. It’s important, but not the only important thing,” Perret says.
Many clients still prefer old-fashioned referrals from trusted sources, and most will only hire a law firm after in-person interviews or formal requests for proposals. “The Internet is a great tool, but you can’t hide behind it,” Elefant says.
“When lawyers ask me for marketing tips for solos, I tell them the best is still the cold call,” she says. “Nobody wants to hear that because they think it’s a horrible way to work. But it’s the quickest way to new business. Things like a Web log can work, but [the Internet] takes time and attention.”
Jason Krause is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.
Jason Krause is a legal affairs writer for the ABA Journal.