The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating the evolution of the legal marketing industry. For the past decade, online legal marketing has moved slowly from a passive expense to an activity that successful attorneys regularly participate in. The combination of physical distancing, business closures and consumers’ rapidly evolving relationship with technology is accelerating the evolution, and permanently changing the dynamics of how lawyers attract business online.
This is the first in a three-part blog series in which I’ll share my views as a lawyer and as the CEO of a legal marketing platform company about the present reality and future prospects of small law firm owners and solos when it comes to online marketing. Because context is necessary, I will contrast where the industry was at pre-crisis and how it got there against how it is evolving.
In this first post, we’ll look at legal marketing agencies and examine the conflicting economics and motivations of law firm owners vs. agencies. We’ll also look at the way that potential clients of law firms regard legal marketing, as understanding this is key to understanding the path forward for most small law firm owners. In the next post, we’ll look at online legal directories. And in the third post, we’ll look at social media marketing for lawyers.
The old way of delegating a law firm’s marketing to an agency vs. the new way that puts lawyers in control.
Immediately prior to the crisis, law firm owners were split between the old way and the new way, with the old way steadily losing ground to the new. Before we examine why the new way makes sense for most attorneys and why the old way now involves substantial risk and downside, let’s start with definitions:
The Old Way: The old way, which I refer to as the legal marketing agency model, involves paying a third-party to do the firm’s marketing. Lawyers pay a middleman to insert himself into the law firm’s business generation process. Examples of old way services include legal directories (which I’ll address specifically in my next post) where attorneys pay for leads, impressions or space, custom website design agencies, agencies that broker and manage paid online advertising, and so-called “SEO providers” that sell the idea of an outcome disguised as a service.
The New Way: The new way, which I refer to as the empowerment model, empowers attorneys to easily and cost-efficiently use technology to bypass the middleman and reach, communicate with, and directly influence potential clients at scale. The new way empowers lawyers to easily control their marketing expenses and the first impression that most potential clients form of their firms — while avoid costly SEO scams and the purchase of useless bells and whistles. Law firm owners control their own destinies because they are not dependent on third-parties to get them clients.
Attorneys were rapidly moving to the empowerment model before the COVID-19 crisis.
Like most solos and small firm owners, I started my own law firm so that I could control my destiny. Most small firm owners believe that they are in control — with one common exception. Lawyers who depend on marketing agencies feel out of control of their marketing and see business generation as their biggest business risk, and therefore a significant source of stress.
Ten years ago things were different. All but the most tech-savvy attorneys needed to delegate their marketing because the technology didn’t exist to do easily avoid doing so. In the past decade, legal marketing technology (led by LawLytics) has grown up to the point that today, any lawyer who wants it can have the power to understand their marketing and the choice to participate.
Over the past several years, lawyers who tend to wait until a new technology is the paradigm before purchasing began moving to the empowerment model. Immediately prior to the start of the COVID-19 crisis, based on the growth of LawLytics and the trends that we were seeing in the market (more on this in my next piece which covers legal directories), we estimated that within five years (by January 1, 2025) the empowerment model would be the dominant legal marketing paradigm for solos and small firms. We also predicted that, by that time the agency model would maintain its appeal only for law firm owners nearing retirement and not wanting to make a change despite their marketing vastly underperforming their empowered peers.
The COVID-19 crisis is hastening the migration by solos and small law firm owners to the legal marketing empowerment model.
It’s a bad feeling to be out of control of your law firm’s destiny. In boom times lawyers frequently ignore foreboding about their marketing. The crisis is giving lawyers an opportunity to confront business vulnerabilities they previously ignored or were unaware existed. With introspection law firm owners are seeing how disempowered they are by the agency model — that the money they spend on it is draining them and limiting their opportunities.
Lawyers are realizing that simply waiting out the current crisis and returning to the old way comes with no guarantees. They’re seeing that their firms must be tech-forward and self-reliant going forward. The crisis is accelerating the discovery and adoption of better online technologies.
Lawyers who choose to remain dependent on a marketing agencies will not be able to compete. In 2020 and beyond spending money on ads does not ensure marketing success — and the more money a firm spends on ads the lower its long-term marketing ROI. Put another way, the days of beating the competition by outspending them are gone.
Post-crisis, there will be plenty of legal work to do and fees to earn. Lawyers who pay attention now, prepare now, and take control now will benefit from the next boom, and those who continue with the old ways will miss out.
There’s never been an easier or better time to build durable cost-efficient legal marketing while eliminating the marketing middlemen between the public and your firm.
There’s a simple truth behind the shift — advertising sucks.
There’s a truth that has eroded the power, glamour and efficacy of marketing agencies — advertising sucks and people want to avoid it. And today they can. A decade ago consumers were a captive audience for advertisers. Today, exposure to advertisements is a tax on the poor and technologically illiterate — and is something that those with knowledge and means tend to avoid.
Unless your firm caters exclusively to the poor and illiterate, this means that your potential clients are in control. Your potential clients will find and engage with your firm on their own terms, or not at all. So you must provide them something of value in exchange for their attention. And advertising is valueless to legal consumers.
Today’s legal consumers value high-quality content that is not obviously advertising. That’s why media companies like Netflix that offer ad-free content by subscription are thriving, and why cable news and countless newspapers, magazines and information websites that rely on disruptive display advertising are in serious trouble.
Law firms that provide their potential clients with authentic and useful content rather than advertisements are winning the legal marketing game, and going forward it’s never going to be a close contest again. Firms that delegate to agencies that don’t (or can’t) produce original, authentic, ethical, timely, and legally nuanced and accurate content for the firm’s website, in the firm’s unique voice, are already losing — and it’s about to get a lot worse. Lawyers who understand that modern marketing is direct communication with potential clients through the internet will thrive. Those who see marketing as a commodity to be purchased, or as a magic trick to be played on prospects need to know that winter is coming and there’s (barely) still time to prepare.
This crisis is a wake-up call for law firms that are facing a slowdown in business to shed their financial dependence on marketing agencies and get to their long-term fighting weight in terms of marketing budget. Now is the time to create an authentic presence and voice for yourself and your firm by leveraging technology and your own involvement in your firm’s business generation through content creation.
Yes, we’re in the throes of a crisis right now. Yes, it’s historic. And yes, up till the moment the crisis started lawyers had enjoyed a historic boom run. But the boom was never built to last, and neither were the excesses of online marketing spending by small law firms that were a symptom.
The legal marketing industry has reached an inflection point sooner than it otherwise would have. But even absent the COVID-19 crisis, the decline of, and mass exodus from the legal marketing agency model was already in motion.
Marketing agency economics may be problematic for solo practitioners and small law firms.
If you’re a small firm owner or solo practitioner and you pay a marketing agency you may be paying $500 to $5,000+ per month. But if your agency is successful, it may have clients that are paying many multiples of your monthly spend.
Across most industries, including legal, advertisers are pulling out of agencies, putting their relationships on hold, or significantly slashing ad budgets. This is causing agency revenue to decline. Agencies are reacting by laying off staff.
If you didn’t get great service and great results from your agency pre-crisis, what happens when your marketing agency starts layoffs? If your were a small client pre-crisis, you likely had a junior person working on your account. Who will the agency lay off first? Which accounts will the agency prioritize for service by the remaining staff? If your account wasn’t a top priority before the crisis, things could get a lot worse, especially if you are locked into a contract.
If your agency is triaging for its own survival and you empower it to remain in control of your firm’s marketing, what opportunities are you missing, right now? How will your future compare to your competitors who are in control of their marketing and currently leveraging their spare time and technology to get ahead?
Legal marketing agencies didn’t innovate pre-crisis, and that lack of innovation is now exposed as risk for lawyers.
When it comes to the provision of law firm websites, legal marketing agencies have generally opted to maximize their profits by using general purpose website software (usually WordPress or other similar free open-source programs) and charging law firms for updating websites on an ongoing basis. Although innovation would make these charges unnecessary, the model made sense to the agencies because it optimized for agency profits. Agencies didn’t have to invest time, energy, thought and money into innovation and lawyers who weren’t paying attention didn’t know the difference. So agencies profited by charging lawyers ongoing manual work caused by the lack of innovation.
Yet, in downtimes and in times of uncertainty I believe that the lack of innovation will prove to be a major disadvantage to agencies because:
1. They painted themselves and their clients into a corner technologically: The need to make updates on a site-by-site basis will not stop — because the agencies and their clients who are stuck in contracts are painted into a corner technologically. Agencies will need to continue to employ staff or outsourced providers to do this repetitive and (given the right technology) unnecessary labor. But if they lay staff off, they’ll have fewer resources with which to do so, so they’ll have to prioritize the use of the resources they have.
2. Smaller law firm clients will suffer: This will likely result degraded client communication, especially for less important and captive clients, leaving lawyers who are stuck and dependent on their agency feeling frustrated, anxious and helpless.
3. Smaller law firm clients will fall further behind: Law firms on the short-end of the triage stick will fall further behind. Their dependence on a legal marketing agency will compromise their ability to prepare for and capture new opportunities, and they’ll be less likely to be able to maintain their practices and, ironically, to afford the agency’s fees going forward.
I’ve seen this coming for years. And my company, LawLytics, focuses on helping lawyers break free from dependence on agencies and successfully make the move to the empowerment model. We’re able to do this effectively because we built a cloud-based legal marketing platform exclusively for needs and work flows of solos and small firm owners. By eliminating the need to perform (and charge for) wasteful repetitive labor for individual law firms, we are able to continuously invest in further advancing our technology while keeping our prices fixed and low to give significant long-term savings and value to our customers. By leveraging technology we also eliminated the inevitable quality variability that occurs when agency employees with different levels of motivation, skill and meticulousness work on different clients’ websites. The result is an objective platform that gives every lawyer a level playing field and unlimited opportunity to grow their marketing.
The crisis is accelerating the move towards a level of authenticity that attorneys can easily create, but that legal marketing agencies will struggle to replicate.
Digital marketing is becoming more authentic. The crisis is quickly training consumers to value content over production value. For example, a decent laptop web cam with a person speaking from the heart makes us feel connected. That is because we’re all getting used to communicating with family, friends and colleagues via video chat. So law firm marketing videos created this way are more authentic, and more trustworthy, than professional videos with multiple cameras, B-roll footage, sound effects, professional lighting, and impeccable editing.
Today it’s about the authentic message, and the authenticity of the person delivering the message. Authentic communication (whether video or written) when posted on a law firm’s website will remain the most effective and efficient way to connect with potential clients and generate new business.
This is great news for lawyers, because any lawyer who wants to can easily create this type of communication. All you need is a decent laptop computer with a webcam, an easy to use legal marketing platform, some basic strategic direction and a willingness to spend a little time communicating with the world about your law firm.
Once your law firm’s websites is on an empowering platform you can create as much content as you want. Each piece of content costs you only the time you spent creating it. That investment of time will help your potential clients find you, like you, and trust you much more effectively than most agency-created content. And the value of the content you create extends beyond client acquisition as it also educates and helps manage your clients’ expectations.
During the COVID-19 crisis people are using their computers and devices as their primary method of interpersonal communication. And in interpersonal communication, authenticity reigns. And now that most people have an expectation of internet-based authenticity, it’s unrealistic to argue that online advertising will ever return to the pre-COVID status quo.
Conclusion – It’s time to take control of your legal marketing and with it your firm’s future success.
Consumers of legal services now expect to receive authentic, informative communication directly from attorneys, directly through their computers. And the published volume of authentic communication, in the form of content on law firm websites that will never go away, has reached a critical mass. Post-crisis, the attorneys who have developed healthy habits around content creation will continue to win. And potential clients will remain in control of their experiences.
Given the choice for legal consumers, legal marketing agencies will need to reinvent themselves and figure out how to provide their remaining high-paying law firm clients with authentic and legally significant content by proxy in order to give those law firms a chance of competing with the determined solos and small firms using the empowerment model.
I believe in the empowerment model because I have lived it in my own practice, and I see it working for LawLytics customer-firms across the United States every day. As I lawyer I’ve been on the short end of the agency model stick. As the CEO of LawLytics, I see our team rescuing dozens of law firms each month that are spinning their wheels in the old agency model. These firms are rapidly empowered to grow their practices and enjoy ROI and marketing security that makes them excited about their futures and allows them to sleep well at night.
In my next post in this series, I’ll take a look at the current state of legal directories and offer some thoughts about their current and future efficacy and outlook.
Until then, I hope that you’re using any downtime you have as a result of the COVID-19 crisis to take control of your marketing, create content and get ahead. If you’re already a LawLytics member, we’re here to help you succeed. And if you’re an attorney without a website, or with a website with an agency or on platform not built for lawyers that you’d like to take control over so you can start creating your own destiny, now is the perfect time to schedule a demo of LawLytics to see for yourself how it works and how it will help you.
You have a choice. Take control of your marketing and your future, or continue to spend money on the old way and hope for the best. There’s never been a better time to redefine your practice and set yourself up for success for years to come.