Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Florida Ruling on Attorney Advertising of Past Results: A Legal Marketer’s Perspective

The recent Florida court ruling striking the ban on attorneys being allowed to advertise past results has been perceived by many as a victory for those who claim such communications are a first amendment right.
I wouldn’t know about that.  I’m not an attorney.
But I am a legal marketer and from that perspective, Florida’s ruling makes great sense – first amendment rights aside.
Part of the reason that some might disagree is because there exists a perception that somehow advertising, by definition, is fake or misleading and that its audience will thus make decisions based upon false information. When we think of advertising for law firms, we picture attorneys screaming into a camera how they are going to make sure you get that to which you’re entitled. And doggone it, they’re not even going to get paid until you do! What could be better than that? 
However, the truth of the matter is that the goal of advertising is not to mislead, but to inform. For decades, attorneys were denied the opportunity to highlight why a prospective client should consider them for hire. Hence, that prospect had little to go on to make any kind of informed decision. In this light unfortunately, legal services can become commoditized. 
It’s a little strange that we don’t seem to have such concerns when it comes to content about attorneys that appear in articles, in magazines, on lists of “best” lawyers, etc. Yet, often times, these can be just as misleading. At least with advertising, the audience intrinsically knows that space or time has been purchased. Misleading information disguised as journalism is actually much more harmful, precisely when it is cloaked in a veil of “objectivity.”
That the claims made in ads should be regulated and monitored goes without saying.  Michael P. Downey, St. Louis, MO, chair of the rules and regulations subcommittee of the Section’s Ethics & Professionalism Committee has it right when he says, “Its good that lawyers can talk about past results so clients can make better decisions”  But he’s also right when he says “It (the ad) must be objectively verifiable.” And there is certainly nothing wrong with disclaimers stating that past results are not indicator of future success.
So congratulations, Florida. Great decision. Not just for first amendment reasons – but because it allows attorneys to distinguish their practice from others and thus is in the best public interests as well. Now, if only the last 5 or 6 states that don’t allow advertising on past results would jump on board the bandwagon…

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How to Minimize The Perceived Risk In Hiring Your Firm

One of the most important elements of the legal marketing function is reducing the perceived risk involved in the contracting of a law firm’s services. Personal injury law practices have intrinsically known this for years and is underscored by their assurances to be compensated, only when “you are.”  In the world of consumer goods, the provision of a “money back guarantee” provides much the same purpose. In such situations, the marketer and not the “buyer” assumes the risk.

In marketing legal services however, such promises are neither practical nor cost-beneficial. Yet reducing the perceived risk remains critical and, as noted below, there are a number of ways in which law firms can approach this task.

1. Branding
Unfortunately, although this is probably the most effective strategy, it is also the most expensive. People are comfortable with what they know and if they feel they know a company or a law firm (even if this perception is inaccurate), they are more likely to entrust their resources with it. “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM” is as true today as it was when some clever individual first coined the phrase. Businesses and law firms allocate large sums to positioning themselves in the marketplace and then reinforcing that positioning over and over again through hundreds of both large and small ways. 

2. Professionalism
“Professionalism” is a horrible term to use because it is difficult to define. It’s one of those things that we seem to know when we see it.  Or perhaps better said, we seem to notice a lack of it when we don’t. When representation of a law firm – be it through an individual, an email, or piece of promotional material is “sloppy,” incomplete, inaccurate, etc., we have raised the bar of perceived risk. After all, if one is less than attentive to how one’s own firm is represented, why should a potential client think that that attention will be any greater for him or her.

To illustrate this, think for a minute about the impact it would have if a vendor promoted its wares to your office and when prompted, could not produce a business card or a website address. The lack of such basic accoutrements of “being in business” would not necessarily mean the vendor was of a lower quality, but it sure would give that impression.

3. Transparency
It is important to give prospects an opportunity to “check you out.”  This is usually done through marketing materials, testimonials, client referrals, published articles, etc. The more forthright the firm is in how it promotes its wares, the more credibility it establishes. Even when the inevitable mistakes occur, an honest representation of these mistakes (along with an explanation as to how they will be addressed) can sometimes go a longer way towards a positive client experience than even one where no issues ever arise.

4. Getting Prospects to Know You Before They Make The Decision to Hire You
For any prospective client, the decision of which law firm to hire is a big one (as is even the decision to hire one in the first place). In fact, there are times when it can be downright intimidating.  Much of that is due to the uncertainty that goes with initiating some kind of legal action or procedure.  What’s rote for you is certainly not rote for them. Hence, the more you can do to make them as comfortable with you before the actual hire, the more likely you are to convert that prospect.

We have found seminars to be particularly helpful in this regard. There is a comfort that comes with being an anonymous person sitting in a room with other anonymous people.  No one knows (or cares) who you are and your problems are not for public consumption (unless you choose them to be). The seminar or workshop gives the prospect the opportunity to get to know whether or not they like you – before it really matters. By seeing you, hearing you speak, appreciating your grasp of the issues that are important to them, that prospect is getting to know you without he or she themselves being evaluated.

5. Implementing a Meaningful Marketing Mix
The philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said that the “medium is the message” and he was absolutely right. The avenues by which prospects are exposed to your message play a significant role in whether perceived risk is heightened or diminished. An article in the New York Times that highlights your expertise in a particular area of the law is infinitely better at building credibility (and thereby reducing risk) than is a billboard “down by the highway.”  A web site that refers to yours is likewise stronger than a pay-per-click ad. The aforementioned seminar can do wonders to reduce risk; less so for a booth at a trade show.

That is not to say that these other vehicles do not have a role in practice-building (that’s fodder for an article on another day). It’s just that some are specifically geared for reducing perceived risk.

I close by recalling how an attorney called us once for recommendations on how he might go about marketing his real estate practice. I suggested that he should start by creating a web site. (He didn’t have one at the time). The attorney balked at my recommendation, stating that in real estate law, he could not see obtaining clients in this manner. As much as I tried, I could not get him to understand that when it comes to marketing, converting a prospect into a client is but one element of many. And among those others is a pretty important one called… “Minimizing Risk.”