Solos and Small Firms

Speak Up

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David Carlson
Photo by Callie Lipkin

It may seem obvious, but in an increasingly virtual world dominated by the likes of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, it’s easy to discount the importance of face-to-face interaction. But for solo and small-firm lawyers who live or die by the quality of their networking, public speaking remains a surefire way to gain street cred in their communities.

All too often lawyers overlook opportunities to speak in front of general, nonlegal audiences such as civic and business groups, exposure that can help to solidify their reputation as experts in their practice areas, says Jay Jessup, a publicist and co-author of Fame 101, who frequently works with attorneys.

Jessup suggests that lawyers interested in procuring regular speaking engagements consider hiring a professional speaking coach to perfect their delivery and learn how to tell a story onstage. He also advises that they create a short demo video that can be posted on their own websites, or offered to event planners and others who recruit speakers for public events.

“There are speaking opportunities everywhere,” says Jessup, noting thousands of trade and professional groups throughout the U.S. “Speaking should be in every lawyer’s bag of tricks.”

The practice area should determine the constituency sought, says criminal defense lawyer David Carlson of Joliet, Ill. Carlson, a former prosecutor, periodically speaks to local high school students about the legal ramifications of drunk driving, the use of fake IDs and other teen crime. His visits have become a steady source of referrals as students frequently pass his contact information along to their parents.

“Lo and behold, someone always calls—maybe not a week after, maybe three weeks or a month later,” says Carlson, who prefers to speak to small, informal groups of students.

If speaking before large audiences seems daunting to the novice speaker, it’s best to start small, says Martha Patterson of Woodland Hills, Calif. Patter son, a solo with an elder law practice, began her public speaking career covering estate planning for seniors and related topics in front of local civic groups such as Rotary and Lions clubs.

“The smaller service clubs are a good way to get started,” says Patterson, who often tries to include anecdotes about her own family in her speeches.

“It doesn’t cost you anything. If nothing else, people are getting to know you in your community.”


These days, Patterson has parlayed speaking into a regular source of income by hosting 90-minute public seminars on estate planning at local hotels. To spread the word, Patter son advertises in newspapers and through direct mailings. She has enlisted a marketing firm to help with the promotions.

“In estate planning, you have to constantly get new business coming in,” she says.

And of course, many attorneys count on presentations to fellow lawyers to help boost their professional cachet. Brian Cole, a franchise attorney in Manhattan Beach, Calif., has regularly presented at the ABA’s Franchise Forum and before the International Franchise Association’s Annual Legal Symposium. Now he is using public speaking to build name recognition in Hawaii, where he will soon open a second office.

“My hope is to try to establish my position in Hawaii as the guy to go to on franchise issues,” says Cole, who last year spoke on the topic at the Hawaii State Bar Association’s yearly convention. “The speech over there is the first step along in the process.”

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