This weekend I gave a presentation for Avvo’s Lawyernomics Conference in Las Vegas. I was talking about the subject of my new book and giving examples of the online marketing tools that branded networks provide for lawyers in their network to use to connect and work with clients online. There were several great questions from the audience throughout, but one question in particular struck me: Couldn’t we use the same techniques the branded networks are using on our own law firm sites?
Yes. Lawyers can use very similar techniques on their websites to draw prospective clients. Lawyers can create web calculators, provide free legal forms and resource libraries, use real-time chat and video to hold initial free consultations, and provide a way for prospective clients to register to request legal assistance directly on their website. These are all things that many virtual law offices include in their website design. These lawyers add various “calls to action”, create landing pages, and connect the resources provided on their site with the sharing components of their different social media account activities. They share and put their valuable content out there for the public. It builds and expands their firm’s online brand and reputation. Lawyers may use different tools to run analytics on their site and their different marketing campaigns and refine them as needed. However, it is still difficult to use all of these same techniques as branded networks and compete effectively. It’s just not enough was the message I had for them.
Why is it not enough? Because the companies marketing direct to consumer are not restricted by any lawyer rules of professional conduct, whether it’s advertising rules or the lovely Rule 5.4 that restricts fee sharing and protects the “independence of the lawyer.” Branded networks are not small business owners, but companies who typically have sizable marketing budgets devoted solely to the purpose of D2C marketing. They can pour a lot of that money into building their brand and spreading it to particular target markets for online, personal legal services. In terms of competing with these companies for purchasing Google AdWords or keywords in any search engine, it is going to be very difficult for any solo, small or medium sized firm to do for a long enough period of time for it to have an impact on client development.
I was honest with this audience. I told them that seven years ago it had been easier to be a solo virtual lawyer, such as myself, to market my online unbundled services using online marketing and social media engagement. However, as the years went by and the options for online offerings increased, especially in personal legal services such as estate planning and family law, it became increasingly difficult to compete in the search engine rankings without investing a significant amount of marketing dollars on online campaigns. What could have been done before 2007 on almost zero cost other than my time and energy and consistency, now takes a significant monetary investment.
That was the reality I shared with these attendees and asked them to look at the future development of this trend in the online delivery of personal legal services as an opportunity for collaboration rather than as a threat to their law firm model. Clearly, virtual law offices that are completely web-based without a traditional law office are going to be the most threatened. But it’s also even more important that these practices learn how to ethically use online marketing tools provided by branded networks and engage in their lawyer networks in a way that helps them build and expand their brand and push traffic and prospective clients back to their firm’s site rather than just exert all their energy providing free content and value to the branded network.
Developing best practices and a law firm policy for using the online marketing platforms provided by branded networks is going to be a key component in the future of lawyer advertising – whether you have a virtual law practice or a traditional one.