This is the seventh post in my blog series about how to start and build a solo law practice. This will be roughly a year-long series that will cover everything a lawyer needs to know about creating and growing a thriving law practice. In these early posts I’m taking the time to tell my story, which I hope will frame the advice and opinions that I give in future posts. So far I’ve talked about why I went to law school, how I used law school to prepare to open my own practice, taking and passing two bar exams, hanging my first shingle and the how I survived until I got my first clients including some early legal marketing experiments.
In this post I’m going to talk about my early experiments in online legal marketing and how I was able to use the internet to go from brand new practice to thriving in less than a year.
The Internet: Discovering the key to growing my law practice.
I was a newly licensed attorney with a newly opened solo law practice in Seattle in mid-1999. I had an office. I was cash flow positive thanks to my thriving business of doing court appearances for criminal defense lawyers who had scheduling conflicts. I had experimented with advertising (through the purchase of ads in the Seattle Weekly), and in marketing (through letter writing campaigns to other attorneys asking for contract work and referrals). And I continued to ask myself the questions that would quickly lead to discovering the internet as a viable means of not just attracting sufficient business to grow my practice, but attracting the people that I wanted to have as clients.
To save money I juggled free trial months of dial-up internet services. I found that by rotating between AOL, Earthlink and a couple of others that have long since faded into obscurity, I could keep myself and my law firm online without having to pay the monthly fee. Google was not the major player at the time. This was before the days of salespeople calling lawyers from legal marketing agencies trying to sell them so-called search engine optimization (SEO) services.
Playing around with the available search engines (Alta Vista, Yahoo!, Lycos, AOL, Ask Jeeves and others) I realized that in the area of DUI and criminal defense, there was really only one law firm in the greater Seattle area that seemed to have a website that was findable when searching for questions about cases.
Having done many court appearances for criminal defense attorneys, and in the process having spent dozens of hours talking with their clients as we waited for cases to be called, I had an idea. As I listened to the questions that defendants were asking me in court, I quickly got a sense of what was on their minds. I started asking them whether they would find a resource where they could learn about their case online valuable. As it turns out, every single defendant that I spoke with who was online at the time said that they would find such a resource very valuable. I asked the more tech savvy ones whether they had searched online before hiring an attorney. Some of them said they had.
I realized that the internet was a viable yet mostly untapped source of business for law firms. I was sure that I needed to be on the internet. I was sure that the internet presented an opportunity to get out ahead of my competition as they were busy practicing law and I was not. I had the right pain in my practice, at the right time, and I sensed that I could use that moment to define my practice and solidify my future. The next step was figuring out what that meant, and how to do it.
Building and launching my law firm’s first website
In 1999 there were no online website builders that were capable of producing a law firm website. LawLytics wasn’t yet a twinkle in my eye, and WordPress, Wix and Squarespace had not yet been invented. Web browsers and search engines were primitive, and websites were typically simple collections of files and images hosted on a static server.
I bought a copy of Microsoft FrontPage, a website builder that was first released in 1996. Version 3, also known as FrontPage 98. With it, I was able to produced a decent website for the time.
I spent about a week learning how to use FrontPage. Once I got it connected with Yahoo! Hosting, and learned how to make updated and additions to the site. After learning how to connect to FTP and jumping through other technical hoops, my website now online for the world to see. While by today’s standards the website looked like a child made it, it was cutting edge for its time.
Getting my first clients from my law firm’s website
With my website online, next I needed it indexed by the search engines. I submitted the website to the open directory project, which was a human curated list of websites, and submitted it to various search engines (today, in 2020, that is no longer necessary and hasn’t been for over a decade).
Then I sought out opportunities to have other websites refer clients or traffic to my website. I found one primitive directory that ranked well for searches that I imagined my potential clients might conduct. I negotiated a listing with them that I could afford.
Within a week after submitting to the directories and search engines, I started getting emails and phone calls from viable potential clients. My theory had been correct. There were lots of young employees of tech companies getting in trouble and searching for legal help on the internet. At that time, living in the city of Seattle was considered cool, whereas living on the Eastside of Lake Washington was not. This posed a problem for young employees of Microsoft especially. Located primarily in Redmond (on the Eastside), young Seattle based employees were driving back and forth across the 520 bridge, which frequently resembled a parking lot. Working long hours, it turns out that it was fairly common for them to have drinks on the Eastside before driving home to Seattle.
After they were arrested, they tended to search the internet for information on their predicament. When they did, they would find my website and the website of one of my much more seasoned competitors, Jon Fox, who as a national leader in the impaired driving defense community, the co-author of the book that I learned how to practice DUI defense in Washington State, and probably the foremost expert in the country on defending against and suppressing the evidentiary breath test device in use in Washington State at the time, the Datamaster. He also happened to charge several times the amount that I was charging at the time (more on how to set fees for a new solo practice in coming posts), and from what I could tell was worth every penny. Even in late 1999, tech-savvy clients would regularly tell me that it came down to a choice between me and Jon, because we both had good websites that gave them what that they were looking for. I would often win the deal because of price, even from clients that likely could afford his higher rates.
I believed that the dynamic was deeper than just the potential client rewarding me because he or she was in tech and I seemed tech savvy because of my website. I carefully asked them as many questions as I could throughout the course of representing them about their decision to hire me. What I learned would shape not only the growth of my practice, but how LawLytics itself was built and how we advise our member law firms as they use the LawLytics platform to start or grow their websites.
What I learned was that my potential clients were attracted to me because:
1. They had a problem or question for which they searched for an answer using a search engine.
2. They found my website which contained an answer to their question or outlined a solution to their problem.
3. While reading my website they felt like they got to know me and felt comfortable that I knew what I was doing, that I cared about them and that I had helped people like them before.
Relatively speaking all of these things were true. Compared to Jon, I knew very little and has very little experience. But I was not comparing myself to him. In fact, I would recommend him to any potential client who questioned my youth or inexperience. Thanks to the internet and the power of positioning (which we’ll cover in detail in future posts), I suddenly owned a segment of the market which can be described as “tech-savvy defendants who wanted an attorney that had an informative website but to whom price was an issue.”
Within months of building my first law firm website, I had as much business as I could handle. I was a young attorney suddenly making more money, and carrying the responsibility for more cases than many of my colleagues who had been in business for a decade or longer.
In the next post I’m going to talk about how I dealt with the very steep and rapid learning curve I had to overcome to competently handle the deluge of new clients while setting my budding practice up for future success.