Archives for August 2011

LegalZoom: What Does Not Destroy Me, Makes Me Stronger

The news broke today that a widely watched Missouri class action suit against online legal forms company LegalZoom alleging the unauthorized practice of law has been settled. Did the plaintiffs’ team unmask LegalZoom’s misdeeds and bring this hideous threat to the legal profession to its knees? Nah.

Final terms still have to be worked out and approved by the court, but the major bullet points reportedly include:

  • TBD compensation for Missouri customers
  • TBD changes in the way LegalZoom operates in Missouri
  • No admission or finding of wrongdoing by LegalZoom
  • LegalZoom continues to operate in Missouri

In other words, LegalZoom saves some litigation expense and now has a roadmap for beating back similar cases in other jurisdictions, and in the process will become a stronger, savvier competitor nationwide.

The Law School Debt Crisis: Forget Reforming Law Schools, Start from Scratch

Spiraling, uncontrolled costs. Crippling personal debt. Long-term joblessness and underemployment. Downward pressure on wages. Hand-wringing. Finger-pointing. Ineffectual half measures to address the crisis.

Sound familiar? But unlike the U.S. sovereign debt, there still are no urgent or comprehensive efforts under way to slow — let alone reverse — the job-killing effects of law school costs. Lots of talk, though.

This week saw another round of disingenuous harumphing when a post by an anonymous “whistleblower” law professor rehashed what’s been manifestly obvious for years: Law schools are revenue-generating machines with no checks or balances from the marketplace or government, and with plenty of self-interested reasons to push their costs ever higher. [Apparently this is an “astonishing” indictment because an anonymous law professor said it.]

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMvARy0lBLE&w=420&h=345]

Fortunately, this week also saw a refreshing antidote to that impotent hand wringing — a well-reasoned and eminently achievable way to cut the Gordian knot: Build from scratch a no-frills, ABA-accredited, university-based private law school covering all its costs at the $20,000-per-year tuition level.

On The Faculty Lounge blog, Roger Dennis, Dean of the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University, posted a precis for The Class of 1957 College of Law. The thought exercise begins simply:

“The Class of 1957 College of Law will have 500 students.  It will not offer any financial aid; one price [$20,000] for all will create $10 million in revenue.”

It then goes on to explain how the school will be structured, staffed and operated within that budget.

Key elements include:

  • A full-time faculty of 20, earning $100,000/year, plus benefits.
  • No research requirements for faculty, allowing them to teach three courses each per academic term.
  • No sabbaticals.
  • Professional development focused on teaching only.
  • The curriculum will be meat and potatoes (e.g. evidence, commercial law, federal income tax, business organizations, trust and estates, family law and legal drafting).
  • Beyond trial advocacy and legal drafting programs, the experiential education program will be based on other simulation courses and well-monitored externships.

No call to arms to actually build and test a model school, though. No discussion of approaching the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help underwrite a pilot.

Alas, while interesting, Dennis’ post is just another abstract academic parlor game (and it has the comment thread to prove it). But it was a refreshing counterpoint to the usual jeremiads — a welcome rhetorical sorbet.

What’s Wrong With This Blog Post?

Over on the Avvo blog Monday, personal injury lawyer Steven Gursten wrote an unfortunate post about niche marketing for lawyers. I say unfortunate because the good information was far outweighed by the bad and the ugly.

  • A name is not a niche – The main point of Gursten’s post was that changing his firm’s name from Gursten, Koltonow, Gursten, Christensen and Raitt to Michigan Auto Law had a transformational impact on its branding and marketing effectiveness, and I have no reason to doubt that it has. However, that’s a keyword and SEO case study, not niche marketing. Niche practices are distinguished by scarcity, which among other things entails obscure  or arcane knowledge and high levels of complexity. There’s a superabundance of personal injury lawyers that focus on car and truck injury accidents, so the firm’s accomplishment — and it certainly is an accomplishment — has been to stand out in a crowd, not to define a singular, ownable and defensible niche.
  • Trade names for law firms are not allowed in every state – In Texas, for example, paragraph (a) of Rule 7.01 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers in private practice from practicing under a trade name, and paragraph (e) states that “A lawyer shall not advertise in the public media or seek professional employment by written communication under a trade or fictitious name.”
  • Be careful when claiming to “specialize” in a practice area – Again, according to Texas bar rules:

“The advertising lawyer or law firm must be competent in the  advertised  field of law and cannot say they are specialized or certified unless they or  their entire firm have been certified by the  Texas Board of Legal  Specialization.” [To complicate matters even more, client ratings and reviews for Texas lawyers cannot use a form of the word “specialize,” and the reviewed lawyer is expected to contact the reviewer to have that language changed or otherwise redacted.]

Other than that, interesting post.

It’s Not About Returning Calls: Satisfying Clients Through Online Information Access

In his Ignite Law 2011 presentation “A Failure to Communicate,” Jim Calloway addressed the issue of how to manage client expectations for returning phone calls [around the 3:25 mark on the YouTube version].

  • Discuss with each new client the challenges of returning calls — “Tell them it’s hard.”
  • Set an office policy
  • Empower staff to help you follow it
  • Discuss the client’s preferred methods of communication (e.g. e-mail, paper systems)
  • Provide regular status reports
  • “Make sure they understand how this is going to work.”

The problem with that approach is that it can’t work, and it won’t work as long as lawyers stand between clients and information. Chronic client frustration with the prompt return of phone calls isn’t really about courtesy or responsiveness; it’s about the clients’ sense that they lack personal agency and control.

A better solution to alleviate the need for and urgency around calls (and emails, for that matter) is to give clients direct access to some of their case information through online collaboration tools.

By necessity, lawyers are strict information gatekeepers, and until recently there were no practical or secure options for providing clients direct access to their own case information. But offering clients online content sharing and project management platforms like Dropbox and Basecamp has the psychological and practical benefit of offering clients an alternative to calls and e-mails.

Some clients will want to take advantage of these platforms; others will not. Either way, both you and your clients win. Instead of asking clients for forbearance, you’re offering them peace of mind.

An upcoming post will detail how a solo practitioner in Arizona is using a mobile online collaboration application to satisfy and empower his clients, and to differentiate his practice.

Law Practice Management: Legal Work vs. Work Lawyers Do

Last Friday Rachel Zahorsky at the ABA Journal filed a story from the ABA Annual Meeting headlined “As Nonlawyer Vendors, Would-Be Clients Take on More Legal Tasks, How Can Practitioners Get Ahead?”

Wait a minute…since the unauthorized practice of law is illegal, how can these brazen scofflaws get away with it? Because the work that is shifting is not intrinsically legal work, but rather non-legal work historically performed by lawyers. Granted, lawyers might be better at those tasks than non-lawyers, but economic, sociopolitical and technological factors are successfully breaking up those unofficial franchises nonetheless.

“It’s getting to be so hard to define what the practice of law is,” said Thomas C. Grella, chair of the management committee at the Asheville, N.C., firm McGuire, Wood & Bissette. “So it’s going to be even harder for state bars to regulate in the future.”

Grella was a participant on a panel entitled “The Once and Future Firm: Fact v. Fiction,” sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. According to Zahorsky’s post, the panel concluded that:

“For firms to succeed and flourish in the future, there needs to be strong leadership among law firm management, a willingness to innovate with regard to technology and billing methods, and concise plans of succession that address the compensation squabbles that plague many firms when it comes time for senior partners near retirement to transition high-revenue generating clients to junior lawyers.”

Mind-blowing, provocative stuff, right?

It might not have made it into the panel wrap-up, but at least one panelist clearly gets it:

“Lawyers need to ask: ‘Why are [clients] hiring me?’ said Mark Robertson of Robertson & Williams in Oklahoma City. ‘Can they hire someone else and not have a law firm do it? What is involved in putting together the paperwork of an M&A transaction that requires a lawyer, other than an opinion?'”

Ask not what the guild can do for you, but what you can do for your client.

Bar Associations: Most Trusted Brands for Lawyer Searches?

I’m a HUGE fan of Lifehacker, probably the most followed blog on tips and downloads for getting things done. A post this week on “How to Find a Reputable Lawyer” got my attention both for what it said and what it didn’t say.

Consulting with ABA and state/local bar associations and using their lawyer referral services was clearly the main recommendation:

“Both the American Bar Association and various state and local Bar Associations offer search and referral tools to help you find legal representation based on the type of lawyer you’re looking for. Bar Associations aren’t able to help you directly, but they can give you wholesale listings of practicing and certified lawyers who specialize in your subject area. They won’t help you make the subjective decision of whether or not a lawyer has a track record of successful litigation or charges fairly, but they’re a great place to start narrowing down your search if you don’t have anywhere else to start.

“Additionally, look for lawyer’s groups and legal aid groups that specialize in the type of issue you’re facing. Some of this involves web searching, but you can find a lot of this information by calling your state Bar Association. Even if they can’t make specific recommendations, they can direct you to professional groups of lawyers who specialize in different areas, like health care law, employment law, and more….

“Don’t hesitate to check your local bar for more information on the specific lawyers you plan to speak with, and don’t hesitate to ask for and then check on those lawyers’ references before making a decision.”

The only other online resources suggested had a distinct access to justice/legal aid bent– LawHelp.org, ProBono.net and Nolo.

Conspicuously absent from this how-to guide were references to lawyer search stalwarts like Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo, Super Lawyers and Lawyers.com. They’re free, too, and certainly would be likelier than LawHelp.org to show up in a Google search when researching such an article. So it looks like an intentional omission.

Why?

My sense is that the cost of legal representation — real and perceived — has transformed access to justice into a mainstream consumer issue, and bloggers/journalists writing for a mass audience sense that. In that dynamic, the traditional role of bar associations as impartial brokers comes into higher relief — and creates a great marketing opportunity to promote member services and increase participation in bar programs.

Glass Houses: Applying “The 11th Commandment” to Professional Services

Though he did not invent the phrase, Ronald Reagan was the most famous proponent and practitioner of what’s commonly referred to as “The 11th Commandment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

While initially coined to address political campaigns, the precept is directly applicable to branding and perception management in business as well. The underlying premise is that public attacks and denigration originating within a group ultimately undermine the group itself by giving credibility to similar attacks from outsiders.

Apparently Shawn McNalis at Atticus, a practice management education and training organization for attorneys, is not a believer. In a blog post this week on Attorney at Work, McNalis advocates for taking advantage of out-of-work and underemployed legal marketers to do admin work:

“You might be able to hire a college student part-time or as an intern, or try delegating marketing tasks to a paralegal or receptionist on your staff. But keep in mind that right now the job market is filled with skilled legal marketing professionals who are out of work because of the recession. Be sure to look at the more experienced marketers—you might be surprised at the quality of help that’s available.

Isn’t that analogous to the very thing law firms hire practice management coaches to help them with? Dissuading bargain-hunters and countering misperceptions about the value of attorneys’ expertise and professionalism?

Just for fun, let’s replace “marketers” with “lawyers” and “practice management consultants” in McNalis’ recommendation and see how it plays:

  1. “You might be able to hire a law student part-time or as an intern, or try using LegalZoom. Right now the market is filled with skilled lawyers who are out of work because of the recession. You might be surprised at the quality of lawyers willing to bill at steeply discounted rates.”
  2. “Keep in mind that the internet is filled with excellent  free practice management and lawyer coaching advice. Be sure to do a Google search and read and watch as much practice management content as you can before considering paying a consultant for training.  You might be surprised at the quality of lawyer coaching that’s available for free.”

Just sayin’…

Legal Marketing Videos: Don’t Make the Perfect the Enemy of the Good — Or the Good Enough

At my first American Marketing Association conference many years ago I picked up a piece of advice on marketing productivity and return on investment that has served me well to this day: Go ugly early.

Albeit provocatively, the speakers were simply suggesting an effective and pragmatic antidote to the Pareto principle (aka the 80/20 rule), which postulates that it usually takes 20 percent of resources to complete 80 percent of a task, while the last 20 percent consumes 80 percent of the effort. The presentation went on to demonstrate that marketing media (ads, collateral, direct response) with high production values (read: expensive) rarely outperform more modest versions in terms of ROI.

So where am I going with this? Straight to video.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several months discussing video-based content marketing with principals at solo, small and medium-sized firms. I’ve found that while blogging is discussed in terms of content quality and quantity, the primary considerations in creating marketing videos is the cost of sufficiently high production values — video titles, sound quality, animation, background music, editing. For many lawyers the net result is that, because they don’t believe they have the time or budget to “do video right,” they don’t do it at all.

To their detriment, as it turns out. As Larry Bodine discussed in a recent post, video content is one of the best ways to be found in Google search.

Google+ for Lawyers: Settle Down, People

I’m sorry, but the messianic fervor accompanying the launch of Google+ is quite out of hand, and it could cause a lot of folks afraid of being left behind in this social media rapture to waste focus, time, opportunity and money.

It’s absolutely too early for anyone but professional marketers and social media junkies to be seriously noodling with Google +, and it’s borderline reckless to advocate early adoption by lawyers in general. Until the platform is officially launched (remember, it’s currently in private beta) and a clear, real world experience-based Google + use case emerges, most lawyers will be far better served by optimizing their current social media and content marketing programs before betting the farm on a promising but still fluid platform.

Let’s consider a couple of inconvenient truths:

  • It’s not “winning” — Just a month after Google mobilized every social media power user they could muster for the Google + launch, traffic is falling off.
  • Buzz is picking up, but not the good kind — Commentary from the technorati is bordering on brutal. Any other social startup would be DOA after being on the receiving end of that type and level of shade.
  • Even the most prominent social media practitioners are advising observation and limited experimentation. Gini Dietrich put it best:

“Pay attention to Google+. Get in there and try out some things (I’ll send you an invite, if you don’t have one). But it’s waaaaaay too early to say what it’s going to do. And it’s certainly too early to be paying experts to tell you how to use it.

Save your money. The time will come (or not) when you need to learn how to use it for business. If you spend a little time in it now, say an hour or two a week, you won’t have to pay anyone to teach you how to use it.

It’s a tool. Just like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blogging, and 8Tracks. Wait until it’s been around long enough to understand how it fits a business strategy.”

My addendum to that for lawyers and legal marketers would be to follow insightful and measured user stories from early adopters like Nancy Myrland and Samantha Collier as barometers of if/when it’s the right time to join. And it’s worthwhile noting that being a “fast follower” has a long and illustrious pedigree.