As many of my readers know, I have strong opinions about the regulation of lawyer advertising and it goes back to the unfounded assumptions about consumers that the advertising rules were originally built upon, and the fact that they have not been updated much since then to account for online methods of advertising and the way the public actually finds lawyers online.
I’m preparing for a panel presentation at the Univ. of San Francisco where we will be discussing lawyer advertising and regulation. The event is entitled Legal Ethics in the 21st Century: Technology, Speech, and Money. I‘m going back through some of my materials on this topic. Below is a sidebar from my book about lawyer online advertising. With the Florida Bar going crazy with restrictions on lawyer blogs, it’s time to start pushing this matter forward starting with education about the marketplace for legal services. In the meantime, people looking for access to lawyers who are the right match for their legal needs are still out there looking for help and they don’t really care about First Amendment or lawyer protectionist arguments. (#A2J)
A 2010 BIA/Kelsey report found that 97 percent of all consumers use online methods of researching and selecting services in their local area. Even those law firms that claim their practice is “only local-based” or that they meet with all their clients in-person, in the office and at the courthouse, have no excuse to continue to ignore the Internet as a marketing tool. Online marketing methods are impacting all law firms. Below are some suggestions for redefining the legal profession’s marketing vocabulary.
- The term “market” should not be used as a verb, but as a noun. Marketing is not something a lawyer does “to” or “at” prospective clients. A market is a place where individuals come together to discuss common interests and to create relationships based on supply and demand. The focus in lawyer marketing should be on engagement and conversation.
- Separate the concepts of the lawyer’s “duty” to the public in advertising from “etiquette” or not being “tacky” in advertising online. Lacking good taste is subjective. Being misleading or false is another matter. Lawyer regulations should not attempt to dictate taste.
- The Internet is not a tool; it is a place. We don’t do things through it or on it; we do them “in” it. Welcome to the party.
- Commercialism and professionalism: these two concepts do not have to be at odds with each other. Does maintaining an attitude of sitting up on a high-horse of education and presumed privilege hinder the ability to interact with the average client? Of course it does. Intimidation may be useful in the courtroom or during negotiations, but it should not completely define the professional image of lawyers. The legal profession should refocus on the respect, trust, and expertise that falls under professionally rendered services, but present it in a way that is not condescending or intimidating to the average American citizen. Movies and television shows with negative or hostile images of lawyers will be difficult to supplant, but if lawyers start engaging more in open, online dialogue with the public, this can change.
- Customer service is a concept most law firms do not think about, but it is a basic best practice for business owners in every industry. There are online methods of providing consumer service. For example, sending a simple “thank you for being a client” email or providing free, basic legal education and content on a firm website or in an online marketing tool. These provide a platform for delivery of educational legal material. Content controls the Internet. Sharing is both good online consumer service and a method of starting conversations with prospective clients and other lawyers.
- Lawyers should not rely too strongly on the term “consumer” when thinking about marketing strategies for client development. Consumption implies a swallowing up of something in return for monetary value. We do not want our clients consuming legal services because in many cases the relationship between the attorney and client is what is so valuable to them and what makes our work meaningful beyond the financial rewards. Let’s remember they are our clients, but balance this with the knowledge that they are also our customers which implies another level of care beyond the attorney/client privilege; one that includes their satisfaction with our work and their overall experience with the delivery of legal services and the legal profession.