Lawyers Journal

Building your business
Don't sell yourself short when you hang out your shingle

While confidence and good lawyering go hand in hand, even the best attorneys falter when it comes to marketing themselves.

Learning how to advertise can be a huge challenge for young attorneys and for veteran lawyers striking out on their own after working for a larger firm.

Though the thought of marketing may be daunting, there are several techniques lawyers can use to build a client base and get their names out into the community, according to several attorneys experienced with marketing.

"It's extremely challenging," said Jeffrey N. Catalano, an associate with Todd & Weld LLP of Boston, who also has co-chaired an MBA seminar on marketing. "I think people are intimidated by the whole networking and client-building process. It's all baby steps."

While larger firms may be able to afford full-time marketing employees, those just starting out may struggle to afford a small advertisement in the Yellow Pages. But Catalano and other experts encouraged attorneys to not worry. The best marketing strategies, they said, generally happen during day-to-day activities.

Getting clients to give rave reviews

Good old-fashioned customer service is chief among the best marketing techniques for lawyers. Even that tops paying a bundle for advertising, said Patrick Francomano, a North Attleboro attorney and chair of the MBA's Law Practice Management section.

"A majority of good clients you get will be derived from other good, satisfied clients or other business professionals you've had contact with," Francomano said. "The referral system in and of itself is truly your best potential resource for good clients … That's why it's very important to have an approach toward your clients that is geared toward making their experience positive.

"I consistently tell clients both verbally and in writing at the close of a case, the client who is referred to me by another client is the highest compliment I receive."

Amy C. Cashore Mariani, a contract attorney based in Cambridge who chairs the MBA's New Lawyers section, agreed.

"One thing I have found to be successful is just keeping lines of communications open with people I have made contact with, because that's really the way you get new jobs," she said.

This word-of-mouth system is not unlike referring friends to good restaurants, Francomano said.

"Who doesn't want to see their friends and family treated properly … We are talking (here) about someone being charged with a crime. Wouldn't you want them to be represented by someone you know to be of high quality?" he said

So how do lawyers get clients to refer them to family and friends?

That depends on how well an attorney treats a client, according to Catalano.

"You have to care about your clients, and their case has to matter to you," Catalano said. "If you do that, other things will follow. If you care about your clients, good things will be created and a referral base will be created."

"When conversations invariably arise that lawyers are evil people, the best thing that can happen is for someone to say, 'But you don't know my lawyer.' That not only services you and your firm, but the profession as well," Catalano said.

A client is more apt to pass along a recommendation if he or she feels like an attorney listened carefully, Catalano said.

That technique helps the client feel at ease and is useful for an attorney to target other issues a client may need help with in the future. If the attorney doesn't have an answer for a client, the astute lawyer will refer that issue or question to another attorney he or she has confidence in, according to Catalano.

"You yourself may not be able to serve them, but if you are able to refer them to a friend or someone else in your own firm, it may not service you directly, but indirectly it will," he said.

A colleague who gets a referral may return the favor down the road, he said.

Turning to others for help

Francomano encouraged attorneys to be honest with clients. If they are unfamiliar with a field of law, taking the case could become a marketing disaster. More people share stories about their bad experiences with attorneys than they do about great representation.

"Don't get in over your head," Francomano said. "If you don't know an area (of law), you need to cut those off early on. Recognize your limitations and try to live within them."

It also helps to know experts in other professions, such as accountants, to refer clients.

"You want your client to be well taken care of and you want to be sure they go to someone you have faith in," Francomano said.

Tell people what you do

A crucial marketing mistake lawyers often make is not telling clients exactly what types of cases they take.

"The most frustrating thing … sometimes you come across a client who says, 'Oh, my brother got into a very bad auto accident and he went to see attorney so-and-so,' (and you say) 'Why didn't you call me?' (and the response is) 'I didn't know you did that kind of work.' One of the most effective marketing tools is to make sure your clients know the range of services you provide," Francomano said.

Mariani recommends lawyers develop a list of significant professional accomplishments to give to potential clients. The list could include important cases and resolutions.

"When a potential client asks you, 'What have you done for others lately?' you are able to provide them with a succinct list to show them," Mariani said.

Catalano said he likes to tell people about important or interesting cases he is working on when meeting new people. It's a good way, he said, to inform people about his legal medical-malpractice specialty as well as his firm's name.

"Advertise yourself, but add to yourself in an interesting way. Have at hand a very interesting case you're working on," Catalano said.

Catalano also will talk about other areas of law that his firm handles so that people will think of his firm when they need assistance.

Catalano also stressed the importance of being patient.

It may take years for a person an attorney met at a cocktail party or other event to call for legal advice. The follow-up is the trick to making sure that person still remembers you when they need help.

"It's not like you have to meet this person and invite them over for dinner," Catalano said. "But make sure you send various announcements or holiday cards or simple things that show you are still there."

Join organizations

Mariani also recommends attorneys join organizations as a way to develop relationships that could turn into a stream of referrals.

"Become active in your community and in your bar association to develop a network of contacts that you need to survive and have a practice thrive," Mariani said.

Still, Mariani said it's important to limit organization involvement to those that interest you. That could be anything from coaching Little League to joining a local chamber of commerce.

"There are really no limits to where you can find business," she said. "It's just a question of developing sufficient contacts to be able to do so."

"(Attorneys) should do what interests them, but they need to get themselves out there," she said. "It makes no sense to join an organization you are not going to enjoy."

Francomano said local chambers of commerce are good to join because, in addition to networking, they have other resources available.

For instance, in Francomano's local chamber, members can meet with someone to help them set up a business plan.

Other organizations, including Business Network International, organize people in different professions to be in a networking team. He said the service worked well for a lawyer specializing in real estate closings. She met a mortgage broker, who helped her build clients.

But Francomano also stressed that lawyers should carefully consider whether they have the time to join organizations. Doing otherwise can lead to a bad marketing decision.

"There's no sense in me joining an organization if I cannot attend the meetings," he said. "I'm already a member of the over-committed club as it is. You really have to pick and choose. If you get into everything and show up to nothing, what is that going to say about you?"

Just a phone call away

The MBA's Lawyer Referral Service is another opportunity for attorneys to pick up new clients. Approximately 1,200 attorneys in Massachusetts use the service. Of the more than 50,000 people who called looking for legal advice last year, 25,000 were referred to attorneys, according to Elizabeth A. O'Neil, MBA public service director.

"It's a great way (for lawyers) to expand their client base, particularly if they are starting a new practice, going out on their own or moving to a new community," O'Neil said. "If they don't have networking ties, (the legal referral service) really gets them in the community, and they like that."

The service refers callers from across the state to attorneys specializing in a variety of areas, from bankruptcy to landlord/tenant issues.

"We're always looking for attorneys throughout the entire commonwealth," O'Neil said. "We are not just in Boston. Our callers come from Pittsfield to Provincetown, who would like to find attorneys in their own communities."

Five full-time MBA staff members answer calls Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The service is available to MBA members who also pay an additional $75 or $100 membership, depending on how long they have been admitted to the Massachusetts bar. The fee is higher for attorneys who have been in practice longer.

Attorneys using the service must complete an application, be in good standing with Board of Bar Overseers, have professional liability insurance of $250,000/$500,000 and choose areas of law in which they have experience, competency or training.

Attorneys receive referrals on a rotating basis depending on the topic of law and where the potential client lives. The service is listed in Yellow Pages throughout the state. When someone calls for a referral, an MBA employee talks to the person and then transfers the call right to the attorney's office.

More information on Lawyer Referral Service is available by calling (617) 338-0556 or via e-mail at [e-mail lrs].

Starting out

Francomano said it's important for any attorney, particularly those starting out on their own, to set up a business plan that includes marketing. That should include how much time and money an attorney wants to spend on advertising, joining community organizations and networking elsewhere.

They also can serve themselves well by learning from veterans, he said.

"The most valuable thing someone can do is try to work with seasoned attorneys who have successful practices," Francomano said. "Work with other attorneys who are in a similar situation, learn from each other's experiences."

But lawyers also should not be afraid to be creative.

"You don't want to imitate anyone's mistakes, but by the same token you need to think beyond what everyone else is doing and not be afraid to take chances," Francomano said.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association