Several of our customers have asked us how they can position their firms to not only survive, but thrive through economic downturn.
Let me start by stating the obvious. As a law firm owner, your practice is your business, and your responsibility. Nobody will ever care about your practice as much as you do. When you take responsibility for every aspect of your practice, including your marketing, there is no reason why your firm can’t survive, grow and thrive even in the worst recession or depression.
With the near certainty of further economic pain catalyzed by the current Coronavirus pandemic, I want to talk about how recession can become a pivotal moment for all attorneys. Sudden economic shifts, especially those started by black swan events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic, can affect all private practice lawyers, from solos to partners in the largest firms. Whether you’re a solo practitioner in a small town midwestern town, or an M&A partner on the upper floors of a NYC law firm, your practice is facing, or will likely soon face, a defining moment.
As an attorney and owner of a small law firm, I managed to thrive during economic recessions. My revenue accelerated during the bursting of the original dot-com bubble, post-9/11, and even more so during the 2008 financial crisis. The lessons that I learned during those economic downturns served me well and positioned me for greater success post-recession.
This is the second post in this new series, and I hope what I am going to share with you will help you do the same for your practice. The first post talked about prioritizing your legal marketing, and served as a general introduction to this series.
Legal marketing in a recession is about your state of mind, not your ad spend
In boom times it’s easy to ignore or delegate your firm’s marketing. When business is plentiful, it would seem to make sense for you to focus your energy and time of client matters. In good times it would seem easier to write big checks to marketing agencies, even if you don’t fully understand the ROI that your money produces.
This boom time mentality, unfortunately, sets lawyers up for instability or failure when recession hits. This is because when you depend on a marketing agency and things go bad, your marketing agency has but one possible piece of advice that is consistent with their business. They will advise you to spend more money on advertising.
If you’re dependent on a marketing agency, your fortunes will tend to correlate closer with the rise and fall of the economy. But when you break free of dependence on marketing agencies, and learn and do a few simple things, changing economic conditions can provide your law firm with a sustainable and very cost-efficient advantage.
If you are worried about your practice right now, that’s understandable. There is a lot of uncertainty in the world, and a lot of fear.
But if you are worried and have no control of your marketing, you’re not only worried. You’re helpless.
A lot of attorneys unintentionally practice a learned helplessness when it comes to their marketing. While the consequences of letting a marketing agency drive your practice growth are beyond the scope of this article, the problem usually originates with the attitude of the owner of the firm (or the partner in charge of marketing). This mentality is often one of abdication, and can easily be mistaken by lawyers to be evidence of their status as an “above the marketing fray” attorney. This is a form of cognitive dissonance that, if left unchecked, can compromise the lawyer’s ability to make money, which in turn compromises the lawyer’s ability to serve his or her clients.
I’m here to tell you that you can be a great lawyer and a great marketer at the same time. It’s not only possible, but I would argue that it’s the most honest and ethical way to run a law firm. I believe this because lawyers who are immersed in their marketing understand that marketing is really just an early aspect of the client communication process. And who better to communicate with your future clients about your practice and their legal issues than you, the attorney?
The legal marketing mentality needed to survive and thrive in a recession
Your headspace matters. The biggest reason some lawyers succeed at marketing while others fail is attitude.
Attitude is much more important than marketing experience and marketing skills (we can easily teach our attorney customers everything they need to know and do in short order). Attitude is also much more important than budget (we can show lawyers who are willing to invest some time how to significantly outperform their competitors who delegate to marketing agencies, regardless of how big their competitors’ budgets are).
Having worked with thousands of lawyers on their marketing over the past decade, I have concluded that the successful ones share five core beliefs (listed below). These core beliefs enable lawyers to capitalize on economic downturns while their colleagues are losing money, losing sleep, and sometimes even shutting down their practices. How many of the following core beliefs apply to you?
- I am in control of my law firm’s marketing and I am not dependent on the actions of a marketing agency to drive business to my practice.
- I understand the dynamics of my market, and how to position my firm.
- I have built (or am building) sustainable marketing that works reliably with a profitable and predictable return on investment.
- I have contingency plans built into my marketing and my practice, so, when averaged out over quarters and years (rather than months and weeks) I win regardless of what the economy does.
- I control my overhead and my time, and I invest it productively.
If you identify with all five points, you’re in great shape.
If you currently don’t identify with all five points, you are not only okay — you have a golden opportunity. You have the ability to use the current situation in your firm and the world around you to intentionally build a law practice that is rewarding, lucrative, meaningful and sustainable.
Let’s examine each of these components of the legal marketing mentality that will ensure that you survive and thrive through whatever external economic or practice variables come your way.
Legal marketing mentality 1: You want to be in control of your legal marketing
Legal marketing is a necessity for most lawyers who want to thrive in today’s world. And this makes some lawyers uncomfortable.
If you distance yourself from your firm’s marketing because of pride, because of moral issues with marketing (maybe a law professor or elderly lawyer once told you that good lawyers don’t need to market), because it seems hard, or because you simply find it boring, you are only hurting yourself (and your family and employees who depend on you to make sound decisions).
Your firm likely needs to market to generate revenue. And even if you can survive without marketing (because you get ample referrals), few lawyers are able to truly thrive and build enduring practices that extend beyond their personal referral networks unless they engage in marketing. And, most referred clients will still interact with your website before or during the relationship with you and your firm. The bottom line is that, if you want to grow and maintain your business, marketing is necessary.
And if you are not in control of your marketing, then you are not in control of your practice. There are tens of thousands of lawyers who think that they are the masters of their own futures, but in reality they are dependent on a marketing agency. If the agency fails them, there is a cascade of consequences that impact the firm owner, staff, and clients.
Being in control of your legal marketing means that you know what is being done, you know why, and you have the knowledge, power, and tools to make changes in real time. It does not mean that you have to be a legal marketing expert, or regularly participate, although for most solos and small firm owners, that participation (which LawLytics is designed to facilitate) is actually a beneficial extension of client communication that every attorney engages in as part of their daily practice.
Legal marketing mentality 2: You understand the dynamics of your market and how to position your law firm in expansions as well as in recessions
Many attorneys believe that they understand the dynamics of their market (which we define as the combination of their practice and geographical areas). But, when pressed, few attorneys actually know (or plan for) the levers that cause the availability of legal fees from their market to rise or fall.
For many markets, the economy is a significant lever. For many, but not all practice areas, when one lever shifts down another shifts up. Many attorneys know and understand one side of the equation, but don’t plan for the other side. Examples include:
- In recession, commercial real estate practices may see contracting markets, while commercial bankruptcy may see expanding markets.
- In recession, DUI arrests may go down because people are saving money and drinking at home, and as a result domestic violence cases may rise.
- In recession, M&A activity may go down, while commercial litigation goes up.
When you understand the strengths and vulnerabilities of your market, you can:
- Position your marketing to capitalize on the high notes.
- Build in hedges to ensure you aren’t holding the bag with the market goes through a down cycle.
- Allocate resources strategically to marketing, staffing, and overhead to provide maximum flexibility when (as it often is) the timing of a market shift is unknown.
For attorneys who live under the assumption that all they have to do is market to attract a certain number of clients for a certain type of matter each month, a deeper analysis is called for. While there’s a natural inclination to believe that good times will always continue, it’s those who know their markets who know that they will not.
What are your market vulnerabilities? Some common ones are:
- Economic cycles and disturbances.
- New competition from other law firms.
- Enhanced competition from existing law firms.
- Competition from non-traditional law firms, and from businesses focusing on the disruption of law.
- Reputation changes (losing a big case, bar discipline, bad reviews, negative press, etc.).
- Disruption by technology or innovation (for example driving crimes and accidents reduced by self-driving vehicles).
- Changes in the law or enforcement thereof (for example, pot is legalized, or California stops prosecuting certain crimes, or medical malpractice damages are capped prohibitively low).
The more you think about, research and ultimately understand the dynamics of your marketing, the better able you will be to position your practice and your legal marketing to benefit from upswings and hedge against downturns. I’ll dive deeper into this and give practice area and location specific examples in future posts.
Legal marketing mentality 3: You focus on building sustainable, profitable, recession-proof legal marketing
The best legal marketing is about communication with your market. It’s how you connect with your clients, potential clients and referral sources. It’s how they find you. And it’s increasingly how they get to know you, how they decide to contact you, and it’s a surprisingly significant factor in how they decide to hire you. Your marketing (specifically your website) is also a significant influencer during the post-retention client lifecycle, including critical aspects of client education and expectation management.
Contrary to what most legal marketing agencies need you to believe, buying pay-per-click ads, buying social media ads, and doing SEO gimmicks and tricks are not the best forms of legal marketing.
These things are expenses geared towards producing impressions now that will hopefully lead to short term revenue now. These things need to be constantly maintained and frequently adjusted. The expenses associated with these things never stop, and tend to rise over time. Legal marketing agencies benefit from putting you and your law firm on expense treadmills. And while you may benefit from strategically buying pay-per-click or social media ads from time to time, those things should never form the backbone of your legal marketing.
The bottom line is that you should never develop a dependency on these things because they are inefficient (you’ll get a bad ROI over time) and because your dependence leaves you vulnerable to market forces outside of your control.
Think of your law firm’s website as the sun that all other legal marketing, both online and offline, should revolve around. This is because your website is more than a marketing campaign. It is infrastructure. It’s your firm’s digital office. It’s the place all of your potential clients visit before they hire you, and it’s the place your current and former clients return to when they want answers or to get in touch with you.
It should reflect your firm just like your physical office (if you have one) should reflect your firm. It should sell you and your services by allowing your clients to get to know you, like you, and see that you’re an expert who cares about their concerns. And it should calm them by giving them useful information and answers to their questions. No other form of marketing does this better than your firm’s website if you give your website the importance and care that it deserves. And no other form of marketing has a greater potential for a negative or neutral impact when you neglect it, when you settle for something less than professional, or when you delegate it to a marketing agency that doesn’t truly understand you, your practice, your clientele and your market.
Above all else, sustainable legal marketing means investing your time (or money) into growing a law firm website replete with useful and compelling content that is in (or accurately reflects) your voice. It’s about answering the questions that your clients and potential clients have right there on your website. It’s about meeting your potential clients where they are at in their process, and creating the content to guide them from where they are at in their process to where you need them to be to contact you, hire you, and become a client that is rewarding for your firm to work with.
When you create this type of website, clients naturally find you through free search engine traffic. If you’ve been at this for a while already, the content that you created months or years ago still produces business today, without additional expense or work. And the content that you create today will ensure that you don’t have to bleed money on pay-per-click bids months and years from today. This investment in content is within the reach of every lawyer who wants it, and all it takes is making the commitment to yourself, your family and your firm to get it done.
Sustainable legal marketing is not built overnight, but every day that you neglect getting started on it, you are falling further behind, and are at risk to become further indentured to legal marketing agencies that will ensure that you never achieve sustainability.
The best time to build sustainable legal marketing, and secure a sustainable advantage, is when business is slow. The more you strategically utilize your downtime to work on your website, the less future slow times you’ll have, and the more you’ll be able to choose the types of cases and clients you want to engage because each opportunity in the future will cost you nothing.
Legal marketing mentality 4: You plan ahead to ensure you win in boom times as well as in recession
There are things that you can’t control. Some of these things are foreseeable. Others will blindside you. While it’s not possible to overcome each problem that comes your way, it is important to understand and believe the following:
You are not a victim. You are a lawyer and a business owner. Nobody will ever care about your practice and your business as much as you do.
Even when you make somebody else responsible for executing a particular objective, it’s still ultimately your decision and therefore your fault when it does not work out.
When you abdicate responsibility for your marketing, don’t be surprised when the person or marketing agency you delegate to does not think of, suggest or implement contingency plans for their future potential failure.
This is obvious from the outside. In fact, it’s something that every lawyer would likely recognize and advise against when it comes to their clients’ life or business decisions. But for a busy lawyer and law firm owner, with responsibilities ranging from arguing a motion with life-altering consequences for your clients, to making sure that the damn Quickbooks checks line up right in the damn printer, there’s a fantasy that’s easy to buy into. That fantasy is that somebody else will be thinking about what could go wrong in your practice and preemptively prepare for it.
As the owner of a small law firm, you are the CEO of your business. It’s your job to think about what could go wrong and prepare for it. You should always be thinking about what will go wrong next. In fact, it’s my belief that the best business leaders obsess over it. I certainly did so in my law practice, which enabled me to arrive first to every marketing opportunity for over a decade and build sustainable advantages and systems that I was able to sell when I transitioned from being the CEO of my small law firm to being the CEO of legal technology companies. I’m not alone in this thinking. Author Jim Collins, in his book Great by Choice, calls it “productive paranoia.” In a nutshell, the concept is:
You can only learn from mistakes that you survive. Business leaders who survive and thrive through turbulence presume that conditions can and will change rapidly, unexpectedly and sometimes violently. They ask themselves “What if…” questions. They prepare ahead, and they define and hedge against risk. They assume that neither good times nor bad times will last, and they prepare their businesses to pivot with agility and flexibility.
You have clients that depend on you. You may have staff that depends on you. As captain of your ship it’s your job to watch for icebergs, and it’s your job to chart your course around where icebergs have a high probability of being. When you do this, you’ll you’ll have a significant advantage over most small firm owners who simply go, full speed ahead, sometimes in the dark, and deal with the iceberg only post-collision.
Contingency plans can come in a variety of forms, around a variety of topics. Some common ones include:
- Managing your office overhead by keeping it low, or keeping it flexible.
- Managing your marketing overhead. You can easily do this by using a platform like LawLytics.
- Managing your time so that you are acting intentionally, rather than reactively. While this might not always be possible in the practice of law, it is always possible and always the right thing to do in the business of running a law firm.
- Managing your practice areas so that you have backups ready to go if an area you rely on becomes temporarily or permanently unavailable.
- Managing the geographic areas you serve. Too small an area can be limiting, while too big can be a drain and burden to maintain during down times.
- Managing the leverage you use (if any) to finance your operations.
- Managing the cases you accept. Not all clients are worth it, and some come with opportunity costs that far exceed the financial compensation they provide.
I plan to talk about each of these in more detail in upcoming posts. For now, I want to reiterate that, no matter how out of control you feel right now, you are the captain of your ship and you can start to turn that ship at any time. It’s your choice and your responsibility. Start thinking about building pivots into your practice, your business and your marketing.
Legal marketing mentality 5: You control your overhead and make wise marketing investments
You’ve likely heard horror stories from lawyers who have abdicated control of their marketing and committed to large marketing overhead. Yet, despite the fact that most lawyers are skeptical of the promises and prices sold by many legal marketing agencies, many law firm owners still blindly commit to monthly payments of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Why is this?
Some of it is blind hope. Some of it is following the crowd. Some of it is fear of missing out or greed. And all of it is draining and self defeating.
In addition to realizing that you are the captain of your own ship, it is important to understand that marketing is not magic. In fact, done right, it’s about 95% science, and the other 5% is both subjective and less consequential (I’m talking about bells and whistles and personal style preferences). And of the 95% science piece, there is no part of it that is inaccessible to attorneys. There’s no part that is rocket science or even mysterious.
There are two categories of labor when it comes to the online marketing of small law firms:
Technical and Design: There’s the technical and design aspects of building and maintaining a law firm website, which are always best delegated. It does not make sense for a law firm owner to spend time struggling to learn the technicalities of web hosting, design, DNS, security, backups, speed optimization and dozens of other things. So we built the LawLytics platform in a way that ensures you never have to worry about any of these things.
Content Marketing: There’s the communication aspect of legal marketing, of which 99% of all results come through the creation of high-quality content. All lawyers should not only learn how to do this, but should have the means to easily do it through easy to use technology. This does not mean that you always have to do it yourself, but when you are able to do it yourself effectively, you’ll be able to continue growing your practice and your marketing while keeping your expenses low during trying times.
I founded LawLytics as we were coming out of the Great Recession. The idea was (and still is) to give attorneys the ability to have a website that can support their practice goals no matter how big or modest, while keeping their marketing overhead low. Our all-inclusive pricing not only covers all of the technical and design aspects, it also gives attorneys access to all the training, strategy and support you need to create content that will keep your marketing overhead predictably low no matter how big you grow, and no matter how much your competitors spend on ads.
In the coming weeks I’ll diver deeper into how any lawyer can beat any competing law firm that is spending a hundred times what they are spending on their marketing. So if you’re up against a Goliath (or a firm that spends like one), and you’d like to have a great slingshot and expert instruction on how to use it, stay tuned… there’s more to come.