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Ben Franklin once said that the Constitution only guarantees you the right to the pursuit of happiness, you have to catch it yourself. In other words, don't wait for opportunities to happen, make them happen. Whatever type of law you practice, networking should be a part of your business development plan. I'm not talking about Facebook or Twitter social networking here. I am talking about old school Rat Pack schmoozing in the smooth "shaken not stirred" Sean Connery style. The kind of networking that actually makes you leave your computer screen in order to speak to a real honest to goodness living person.
In the olden days of rotary phones, wizards and dragons, business was not as hard to come by. There simply weren't that many attorneys pounding the pavement. You hung a shingle and business came primarily through word of mouth. Since advertising was prohibited, your business depended pretty much on your reputation and your ability to network. I've spoken to lawyers and judges who recall those days when attorneys would address each other with deference in the court room. Today you hear stories of attorneys calling each other jackass in open court. Last week, I watched in horror as a divorce attorney told an extremely patient judge that "even a first year law student" could understand his argument. You could hear a pin drop. At least until the judge laid into the schmuck. (Nutmeg tip: Refrain from insulting the judge. Especially when you're wrong. I guess common sense isn't always that common. )
Perhaps the greatest change in our profession has been in the realm of advertising. In an increasingly competitive market, lawyers splash over the top ads on billboards and busses. The dignity of the profession is put into question as our bar bretheren turn into snake oil salesmen hawking their wares on late night tv. Some of it has really gone to the point of absurdity. In my search of the web, I found a Divorce Deli Lawyer who offers free biscotti with every divorce, a NY law firm with a retrofitted mobile school bus office, a lawyer who performs magic tricks in court, and an attorney who advertises on billboards in her lingerie. (If you haven't seen it yet, check out an earlier Nutmeg post regarding bad lawyer marketing). So how do you compete if your advertising budget is regulated to a few sad fliers taped on the window of a local Stop & Shop alongside some babysitting job announcements? Or maybe you just don't want to tarnish your firm's reputation with a late night tv spot followed by the steel drums of a Girls Gone Wild infomercial.
It's difficult for me to imagine a world without lawyer advertising. In 1977, the average cost of a gallon of gas was 65 cents and you could buy a house for about $49,000. In that year, France performed their last execution by guillotine, Carter was president and Bates v. State Bar of Arizona set the stage for a new era of lawyer advertising. Nostradamus predicted that in the year of double 7s we shall seeyeth a king die an ignoble death on his throne, the nation would be plagued by a virus and court jesters would begin to give counsel. His predictions came true. Elvis, the King of Rock 'n Roll was dead, the nation succumbed to Saturday Night Fever and we were introduced to the phrase "Have you ever been injured in an auto accident?"
Before the rule change prohibiting advertising, lawyers had to work hard to build up a good client base. They shared crisp linen business cards and joined civic associations. They gave seminars and held business lunches. Some could generate a year's worth of operating expenses on the back nine. Today, the art of the schmooze retains it's importance. Unfortunately, it has become a dying art. Lawyers would rather hire William Shatner or the Man from U.N.C.L.E. to do a tv commercial for them during Judge Judy. Others would rather put up a billboard directly across the street from a favorite watering hole or hospital emergency room.
Lawyers see their competitors have success with advertising and they want to jump on the bandwagon. I give myself as an example. Our firm put an advertisement in a small Polish language newspaper. The blood was in the water. Other firms started noticing that we were gaining a lion's share of the Polish community's business and assumed it was the next untapped market. The local paper soon had advertisements from approximately 20 different law firms. Many hired Polish speaking "secretaries" or "marketing directors" in order to get in on the action. (I actually called one of the firms "Polish lines" which connected me to a Polish woman's cell phone as she was doing the dishes. I could hear the dog and the Maury Povich show in the background).
These bandwagon firms did not realize that the secret to our success was not advertising. With four law firm ads stacked on top of each other on one page, the ads became less effective. It was white noise. No one stood out from the pack. I learned that advertising in this manner was a short term fix. I was looking for long term success. I didn't want to be Menudo. I wanted to be the Rolling Stones. So how did we stand out from the crowd. The secret to our success was.....
- Editors note: if you happen to practice in the city of New Britain, I would ask that you please divert your eyes from the following sentences. Instead, we encourage you to read our post on treadmill desks)
.....old fashioned networking. Our firm became a member of the community. We put on free legal seminars for area residents. We joined civic associations and chambers of commerce. I met with business owners and ate at local restaurants. We built up relationships with area attorneys in other fields of practice. I wrote a legal issues column and supported local community groups. We also built up a reputation of doing a good job. That was our marketing. Attorney Jim Calloway, the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association's Management Assistance Progam summed it up brilliantly. Marketing is not advertising. In an article entitled, "Marketing Magic for Lawyers", Attorney Calloway asked if given the choice would you rather have a dynamic website or a talkative beautician in a busy hair salon. I chose the latter. I can't tell you how many bad haircuts I got in order to drum up a little business. Jim made an excellent point in his piece that is often overlooked by attorneys. As Jim puts it:
- "Anecdotal evidence suggests to many of us that many of our problem clients were developed through advertising. They have no connection to you. They often treat you as a part of a legal system that they feel treats them unfairly. They often have no idea of the price of legal services, except for some ridiculously low price advertising for routine matters."
In other words, someone who likes you will not refer a nutjob to you.We also decided not to engage in an ad war with our competitors. In the past, we would place an ad. The following week, a local firm would pay extra to be on the front page of the same paper. It was ridiculous. We decided to instead put the money back into our office. We improved our infastructure with better office management software, computers and phones. We invested in the appearance of our office with hardwood floors, elegant furniture, paintings and sculptures. (Dude, our office looks freakin classy. You should see the velvet Elvis in our waiting room). It also didn't hurt that I spoke Polish fluently. Clients didn't need to bring an interpreter to meet with me. Other firms came off as "carpet baggers." We invested in the neighborhood and were familiar faces. We advertise less. We network more.
Basically, if you want to be successful in the art of the schmooze, take a tip from the Rat Pack. Network with the local bigwigs. Tip the doormen and waitresses. And put on a great show. They'll keep coming back for the encore. More importantly, they'll tell their friends.
Please be sure to visit www.hardinglaw.com, the website for the law firm of Harding & Associates, for more information on California family law.