With effective marketing and a good business plan, going solo straight out of law school can be profitable.
Before he became a lawyer, Joe Lewis started and ran a geographic information services business for 15 years. At its peak, his business, which provided geographically-pinpointed demographic and marketing data to his customers, had six employees and was billing over $2 million a year. Google Maps and boredom prompted a career change.
Law seemed like a good idea. Immediately after graduating, Lewis launched a solo family law practice.
Ironically, in light of what helped push Lewis out of his previous line of work, the marketing tool that he says deserves the most credit for the success of his practice has been pay-per-click advertising on Google, in conjunction with online reviews from satisfied customers and a staff receptionist to take calls and connect with prospective clients from the outset. His practice has, indeed, been a success, despite the fact that he launched it in the teeth of a raging recession. In his third year, he took on a partner with a juvenile law specialty. He plans to add an associate with an interest in criminal law this fall.
While his first career as a GIS entrepreneur and his current career as a family lawyer would seem to have nothing in common, Lewis said many of the lessons he learned in launching and growing his business in Brooklyn have been invaluable. To begin with, he realized from the outset that he needed to treat his law practice as a business, with a business plan, a catchy brand and a marketing budget
Run Your Law Office Like a Business
“Data-driven decision-making has always been something that is important to me,” says Lewis, explaining why he would never have launched his law business without a plan. “That is one of the great benefits of having run my own show for 15 years prior. I have always known how much money needed to come in every month to meet my obligations. And I would not have started the business without at least six months worth of ‘I can live on this’ money sitting somewhere.”
He also knew he needed a catchy name for his practice. Inspired in part by the popular television series Boston Legal, and in part by how several trendy establishments in town had latched on to one of Portland’s nicknames, he settled on Port City Legal. “You can say it and people get it, and it’s easier than trying to spell your name,” he says. “The fact that the domain name was available was sort of the universe’s validation of the choice.”
His first client was a law school friend who needed a will. Other clients in his first few months came by way of referrals from a family law clinic where he had worked during law school. “They didn’t meet the financial threshold for getting services from the clinic but they didn’t want a lawyer who was going to cost them a million bucks. I was willing to take those cases for less than a million dollars. That formed probably the bulk of my client base in the first several months,” Lewis says. “My practice was clearly not sustainable just on those clients, but from there, it just kind of happened.”
Other business began to flow his way because he knew full well, based on his prior business experience, that he would need to spend money to get the word out. “Making the decision to spend money on marketing is hard for some people, but I have always known the value of marketing, so making the decision was easy for me. It was just a matter of deciding exactly how to apply those marketing resources,” Lewis says.
Spending Money on Marketing
Despite his past business experience, advertising a law practice was quite a new thing for Lewis. “I had never relied on anything other than cold calls or leads from my software vendor,” he says. “I had never had to do consumer level marketing, and I wasn’t sure what was going to work. So I did not have a specific marketing plan, but I had a budget in mind. My budget was $10,000 the first year. I went over budget, but that was okay.” He wasn’t concerned because the spending immediately paid off.
“The thing I did instantly was invest in pay-per-click advertising on Google. There is no magic to it. If you give them money, they will drive clicks to your door. There is no question that it was cost-effective. It wasn’t even close,” he says. These days his advertising budget is “probably in the $20,000 to $25,000 range.”
How to Use Pay-Per-Click Advertising
Pay per click advertising is especially important and effective in a field like family law, says Lewis, because people invariably turn to the Internet for information about getting a divorce, and that is when they are also beginning to think about retaining a lawyer. With that in mind, he has refined the way he has deployed his Google advertising dollars in order to reach potential clients earlier by tying his ad to search phrases other than the obvious “divorce lawyer Portland Maine.”
Lewis explains, “I really have tried to imagine what a person is thinking when they are about to make that massively difficult choice.” Thus, for example, he has set up his account so that an ad for his firm will appear alongside the results for the search phrase, “How do I change child support?” He uses a geographic filter to limit the availability of his ad to searchers within his geographic area, so the search query does not need to include “attorney” or even “Portland Maine” to trigger the ad for his firm.
He tracks the results of his ad strategy by studying his web logs and the detailed data provided by Google Analytics. “I used my gut instinct initially, but was able to follow that up over time with hard data.” His approach has worked, he says. “What we are looking for are people who don’t already know a family lawyer and who are looking for answers about family law. You get to them by intercepting them at the search.”
The Most Effective Directory for Lewis
Lewis has also expended some of his marketing budget, to very good effect, on directory listings. “I was probably on a half a dozen directories right from the get-go,” he says. The three directory listings that he maintains are Avvo.com, the lawyer listing maintained by Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, and Lawyers.com. The latter of the three has been the most productive, he says.
“I get the bill every month and I think, I don’t want to write this check. But they have a nice dashboard for analyzing activity, and when I look through it, I see the names, and they are all clients,” he says. “Lawyers.com has been very, very productive.”
Print Advertising Has Not Worked
Lewis is a big fan of print media. His first job after college was in magazines. So it pains him to say it, but print advertising for his law practice has been a complete bust. “I did a six- or eight-week run in one of those weekly shopper giveaway papers, which actually is a pretty good little local news journal, in the wealthiest towns in this area. I’ve also done a couple of regional suburban newspapers. The results have been nothing,” he says.
So, he has given up on print advertising, with one exception. Each year, he buys a display ad in the annual program for a fundraising auction run by a local organization called Kids First. “It is a nonprofit that basically teaches divorcing parents how to not screw their kids up along the way. I am an underwriter for them just because it feels good, and it speaks to my tribe, if you will, of other professionals in my market space. It feels good to show them my feathers,” Lewis says.
Making a Personal Connection
Lewis says one of the mistakes he made in his prior career was over-hiring. It’s a mistake he has not repeated in his law practice. But one employee he refuses to go without is a receptionist. “Somebody needs to be in the office and someone needs to be answering the phone because a potential client’s first contact experience is incredibly important,” he says. “People are at a really vulnerable point when they call and they don’t want to have to try three times to make a connection.” An answering machine or answering service would be cheaper, but going without a receptionist in a family law practice would be “ludicrous,” in Lewis’s opinion. “At the end of the day, no one can do it as well as the woman I have sitting at the desk and doing it right now. She understands what is going on when people call, and she can get the information we need. She is well compensated. We are her only client. She is part of the team and that is just huge to me,” he says.
Soliciting Online Reviews
One other marketing technique that is “incredibly, incredibly important” is getting satisfied clients to post reviews online, Lewis says. “That is intricately linked with the notion of intercepting people when they are doing their search,” he explains. “The idea is that when somebody is looking for help with a family law matter on Google and they use the right search terms, they will see the Port City Legal ad. But it’s not just an ad. It is an ad with five little green stars, and if you hover your mouse over it, it says there are nine reviews. People click on that. They don’t perceive it as an ad. It is an ad, but the reviews are legitimate. Real people who were clients actually write real stuff.”
How does he get reviews? “We ask for them,” Lewis says. “I don’t think a lot of people do, but if I was counseling a lawyer about to launch a firm, I would say, get used to asking for them. If you think you did a good job and you think your client is happy, when you are done, say, you know what, if you would tell a friend, would you consider telling the Internet? Here is where you do that.” In fact, he has a handout for departing clients listing three places where they can post reviews: Google, Avvo and Lawyers.com. “We have positive reviews at all three of those sites, and that has been great. It obviously is a double-edged sword, but you know what, if people are going to write a bad review, they will do that, whether I am soliciting reviews or not,” he says.
There is one other crucial step to effective law firm marketing, Lewis adds. “You have to do really good work. If you don’t deliver, it doesn’t matter how good you are at marketing and sales, you will die.”