What if Shakers Blogged?

Maybe it’s zeitgeist, or maybe I’m just noticing more because it’s on my mind, but I’m finding a lot of fodder lately for my mission to motivate legal marketers to simplify their social media and networking activities to make them both useful and beautiful. How would Shakers design a social media strategy?

The first item was a post on the reliably interesting and and useful Social Media Today blog about focusing your social marketing efforts on one or two platforms/activities that you are most familiar/comfortable with and building organically from there. The post itself was a model of less is more. A few simple ideas, well-framed and concisely delivered.

The next item is brutally simple but a great forcing function for productivity: How to consistently write a blog post in 20 minutes or less.

Consistent with that last point, my time is up.

If Divorce is Becoming a Luxury, How Should Legal Marketers Respond?

UPDATE: This post originally ran Aug. 2, 2010. Last week I had the good fortune to meet David Wells, who practices collaborative law in Austin and recently posted a two-part discussion of the divorce process.

Yesterday I read a New York Times article on married couples who separate but choose not divorce, and it got me thinking about the potential impact of a protracted recession on the practice and business of family law.

“Separations are usually de facto, rarely pounded out in a contract, and family law is different state to state. But even long-estranged couples are irrefutably bound by contractual links on issues like taxes, pensions, Social Security and health care….

Divorce lawyers and marriage therapists say that for most couples, the motivation to remain married is financial. According to federal law, an ex qualifies for a share of a spouse’s Social Security payment if the marriage lasts a decade. In the case of more amicable divorces, financial advisers and lawyers may urge a couple who have been married eight years to wait until the dependent spouse qualifies.

For others, a separation agreement may be negotiated so that a spouse keeps the other’s insurance until he or she is old enough for Medicare. If one person has an existing condition, obtaining affordable health care coverage is often difficulty or impossible. The recession, with its real estate lows and health care expense highs, adds incentives to separate indefinitely.”

One anecdote jumped out:

“One woman, a 39-year-old mother of two from Brooklyn…has stayed separated for nearly two years at the suggestion of five lawyers. [emphasis added]

‘There’s no advantage to getting divorced,’ she said. Both she and her husband are in new relationships. Most people assume they’ve officially split. But given the health insurance issue and the prospect of legal fees, she said, ‘I feel like we could just drift on like this for years.'”

That case got me thinking about two areas where innovative family law practices might differentiate or carve out niches for themselves:

  • Building expertise, capabilities and marketing around long-term separations as a divorce alternative
  • Building expertise, capabilities and marketing around cost containment in divorce proceedings and lower-cost alternatives to traditional family law firms.

I’m still looking for examples of the former, but I found two instances of the latter today.

A recent post on the Pennsylvania Family Law blog entitled “Practical Tips for Dividing Personal Property” forthrightly begins:

“Given the current economic climate, divorcing parties are more vigilant than ever about the value and disposition of their marital assets.”

An excellent primer, it outlines issues like depreciation, appraisals, valuation methodology and awareness of one’s motivations — also invaluable advice for couples open to long-term separation.

The second example popped up on Twitter today when family, wills and estates, and general business attorney Jordan E. Watson (@differentlaw) started following me. I was intrigued by her profile:

“A different kind of lawyer, who has created a practice solely using flat-rate billing practices. Despite people telling her she’s crazy.”

I clicked through to her website (www.notyourparentslawyer.com) and found this clarion call of a business pitch:

“I am not your parents’ lawyer. You know, the one who watches the clock tick by, who charges for every phone call, every minute spent in thought about your case, even when you didn’t ask them to. That’s not how I do things. My law office exists for one purpose: To bring quality, affordable legal counsel and care to clients who might otherwise never get the help they need.

With an emphasis on value pricing, I want to bring change to the legal profession. No legal issue is the same, so I likewise bring a unique approach to the practice of law. Competent and approachable, yet determined to get the best possible outcome for you, I will diligently work on your behalf. I welcome your questions and inquiries and the first consultation is always free, whether or not I take your case.

The billable hour is finished. The clock has stopped. This is a law office dedicated to you and to the upstanding practice of law.”

Practitioners attuned to the zeitgeist, plugged in to social networks and willing to take bold chances with their business models and marketing could end up winners in a down market — and fundamentally change legal marketing in the process.

Is Law Firm Branding Possible?

 [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdFg6seiRdg&w=640&h=390]

Although they tend to be used interchangeably in legal marketing, the terms “brand” and “reputation” are not the same thing. Firms live and die by their reputation, but it’s debatable whether law firm branding is even possible.

Rees Morrison gets to the heart of the matter in a post recapping a recent conference organized by Georgetown University’s Center for the Study of the Legal Profession:

“I don’t recall any general counsel I have consulted to who think of law firms they use as ‘brands.’ They don’t say, ‘X firm is a global leader,’ or that ‘Y firm puts clients first,’ let alone that ‘Z knows Canada.’ My sense is that inside counsel amalgamate impressions of the style and ability of individual partners they have dealt with from the firm mixed in with fragments of articles read or conferences spoken at by the lawyers of the firm all combined with some ads they have fleetingly glanced at as well as remarks made by peers and colleagues. The pastiche doesn’t rise to any level of ‘brand’ clarity [emphasis added]. Other than size or ‘AmLaw 100 I think’ they don’t store impressions as overall brands.

 “When pushed, a general counsel can always dredge up broad impressions of a firm: ‘A has uneven quality,’ ‘B litigates aggressively,’ or ‘C mostly does patents,’ but those are scattered attributes, not an overall, let alone distinctive, brand, and they are secondary.”

Morrison quotes conference panelist Ken Grady, general counsel of Wolverine Worldwide, observing, “Law firms talk about a single brand with hundreds of channels (the partners); I see hundreds of brands funneled through a single channel” [emphasis added].

 In other words, the currency of legal marketing is personal reputation, not firm brand.

 The problem with the general practice of legal “branding” is that it tends to fetishize standardized visual identity and slogans — taglines, logos, websites, collateral, Powerpoint templates, business cards — as the embodiment of the firm. Writing last year about the “‘rigorous branding analysis’ that led to an office-by-office and practice-by-practice review” at Baker & McKenzie Jayne Navarre identifies a tail-wagging-the-dog aspect of the process:

 “…It wasn’t the visual results that made the re-branding most valuable to the firm and its clients, it was the process—the rigorous branding analysis—and the outcome of that exercise that enabled them to re-connect with clients and ultimately drive their revenues.”

Attorney Bios as Street Fashion

Legal marketers would be wise to heed fashion writer Teri Agins’ advice in today’s Wall Street Journal: “Pay close attention to the daily fashion parade.”

The legal marketing street buzz that currently intrigues me is personalized attorney bios, because 1) it’s a blessed respite from blogging-as-cutting-edge-marketing paeans, 2) it hints at the humanization of the profession and innovation in legal marketing, and 3) it has valences to SEO, WOMCRM and content marketing.

The transformative power of personalized content and engaging visual style is coming to legal marketing.

One of the catalysts has been a string of recent posts on attorney bios by Dion Algeri on The Great Jakes Blog, particularly the post “The future of attorney bios. How personal is too personal?” In it, Algeri critiques the website attorney bios of Axiom and Edelson McGuire, in both cases netting out that they might be too long on style and short on substance. A post today by Algeri explores the visual — and brand — impact of attorney headshots.

Lawyer-turned-therapist Will Meyerhofer, whose blog The People’s Therapist is carried on Above the Law, makes a case for innovation in attorney bios with his own attention-grabbing, John Waters-themed post “A sick and boring life”:

“There’s no sense of an actual person in those pages – only a scary apparition from the world of the serious and very grown-up.

I still recoil, looking at those bland, comically formal law firm directory pages – just as I wince looking at my old photo in the Sullivan & Cromwell facebook.”

I’ll conclude this post the way I started it, with a fashion axiom from Teri Agins that also is finding resonance in legal marketing: “The most original dressers have one thing in common: They tend to experiment with bold, unexpected colors.”

Now don’t go crazy — this is still legal marketing — but experimenting with bold design and personalized narratives could get you attention and help tell your story in a more compelling, impactful, memorable and influential way.

UPDATE: Speaking of going crazy, check out this off-the-hook website for French attorney Justin Conseil.

Blog Hygiene

A friend I’ve known since college has a very strict bedtime preparation routine that he’s followed for many years to help him manage his chronic insomnia. He calls these rituals “sleep hygiene” — hygiene in the sense of consistent practices conducive to health.

“Blog hygiene” is never going to catch on as a social media meme — though heaven knows I’ve tried — but the metaphor is still useful. A few simple blog maintenance measures practiced consistently can make the difference between hosting a vibrant hub of ideas, or a dark and lonely terminus.

The basic components are simple:

  1. A regular rhythm of posts. Daily, twice daily (a.m./p.m), weekdays only — more is not better if it impacts the quality of the content or interferes with higher priorities.
  2. An editorial calendar. Unless you are a professional blogger or community manager whose job it is to ride the “trending topic” wave, focusing on real-time, same-day turnaround posts is too onerous and disruptive. That’s what Twitter is good for. Planning a week’s or a month’s worth of blog post topics, plotting them into an editorial calendar and maintaining that lead time keeps you focused and ensures you have solid, thought-through anchors. You can always add impromptu topics interstitially.
  3. An inventory of completed posts. Time is a tyrant if you’re continually writing for a deadline, or missing one because you don’t have anything in the hopper. Make sure you have three or four “anchor” posts from your editorial calendar queued up at all times. That way if you’re traveling, ill or just too busy to write, you don’t get in the weeds.
  4. Keyword performance monitoring. SEO hygiene warrants its own full discussion, but for the purposes of this post suffice it to say that regular checkups on your keyword performance, then adding, deleting and modifying accordingly, helps keep your SEO humming in the background while you focus on content development.
  5. Brevity. Confining your posts to a few key ideas makes them easier to write and easier to read. If you have a complex topic, or a lot to say on the subject, break it into a series.

Healthy blogs are happy blogs.

Back to Basics 2.0: Online Networking Brings Law Firm Marketing Back to Its Roots

Lawyers were the original kings (and queens) of networking and referrals — what we today call word-of-mouth marketing. It’s in your professional DNA — cultivating connections through clubs, civic organizations, alumni groups, local/state/national bar associations. Those membership organizations knew that their fortunes relied on their talent for enabling professionals to connect and network. That’s why so much of the innovation in law firm social media is being driven by entrepreneurs who are re-creating that model online.

Lawyers are still not entirely sold on the cost/benefits of blogging, Facebook is problematic on several fronts, and Twitter — well, that’s still a bridge too far for most. But LinkedIn? That’s a no-brainer. It’s a one-stop search shop, identifying potential connections based on schools, jobs and organizations listed in you online profile. Once connected, you can cultivate those connections through automated updates and group conversations.

Avvo and Justia help individuals connect with lawyers and legal information — the love child of classified ads and self-help books, on steroids.

Membership directories are traditional, familiar and intuitive — and even easier to use and more valuable now because of advanced search functionality. That’s why we can expect to see law schools, alumni associations and bar associations coming on strong with networking, educational and referral tools.

Columbus Explores Online Social Marketing for Lawyers

Update: The State Bar of Texas recently rolled out its new site design and user experience. The site’s architecture cleanly and evenhandedly reflects the duality that all bar associations face: providing optimal value and utility to both members and the public.

(Originally posted 4/23/2010) In yesterday’s post about online social networking and word-of-mouth marketing for lawyers, I commented that bar associations were likely to leverage their credibility and experience to create innovative services for members and the general public.

John Sirman at the State Bar of Texas kindly directed me to the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association’s ColumbusLawyerFinder.com site, which was created to provide a reliable online source of local lawyers and Ohio legal information.

I spent some time on the site last night and this morning, and found it to be a very good user experience. If cultivated and publicized properly, it could develop into a formidable marketing platform. It has a lot going for it.

Easy to use: There are just two large tabs across the top of the home page: “Find an Attorney,” which sorts and searches by various criteria, and “Legal Tool Kit,” which offers printer-friendly lists, questions, links, and information about legal issues. Each tab has the same 15 practice categories in the dropdown menu (e.g. “D.U.I./Criminal and Traffic Defense,” “Small Business Law and Litigation,” “Family Law, Divorce, Support and Custody”), so one click gets you to directly to the page you need.

The attorney profiles are standard “tombstone” fare, but they include a nice personalizing touch through the Q&A format “Get to know me” tab. Lawyers can add color and context to their profiles by including answers to questions like:

  • Why did you decide to become an attorney?
  • What experiences (work and personal) help you to be a better attorney?
  • What makes your law firm unique?
  • Describe your ideal client.
  • What made you choose your primary area of law?
  • Describe your personal interests and hobbies.

“Business casual” look/feel: It’s clearly a professional site, but the Twitteresque appearance — the bird image, the “mod” rounded sans-serif type in loose blocks against a white background — helps makes the serious content feel accessible and not intimidating.

Local: No one wants to have to drill down through a national — or even state — search menu to find a local attorney.

Trustworthy: Come on, it’s the bar association. Even the most brazen hucksters and charlatans likely would not try to screw around with the bar. A link on the home page takes you directly to the criteria used to screen participating attorneys

To be listed on Columbus Lawyer Finder, attorneys must meet high standards:

  • They must be in good standing with the Ohio Supreme Court and be free of any pending disciplinary investigations or proceedings.
  • They must alert the Columbus Bar Association if they are notified that they become the subject of a professional investigation at any time in the future.
  • They must be approved by the Columbus Bar Board of Governors.
  • They must be a Columbus Bar Member.
  • They must carry at least $100,000 in professional liability insurance for all areas but Injury and Accidents which must carry at least $500,000.
  • They must agree to use and provide a written fee agreement to every client.
  • They must agree to participate in fee arbitration with a client if necessary.
  • They must show a personal commitment to professionalism and sign the nine “Commitments to Clients.”

Those commitments are:

  1. To treat clients with respect and courtesy.
  2. To handle their legal matters competently and diligently, in accordance with the highest standards of the profession.
  3. To charge a reasonable fee and to explain in advance how that fee will be computed and billed.
  4. To return phone calls promptly.
  5. To keep clients informed and provide them with copies of important papers.
  6. To respect my clients’ decisions on the objectives to be pursued in their case, as permitted by law and the rules of professional conduct, including whether or not to settle their case.
  7. To work with other participants in the legal system to make our legal system more accessible and responsive.
  8. To preserve the clients’ confidences learned during our lawyer-client relationship.
  9. To exhibit the highest degree of ethical conduct in accordance with the Code of Professional Responsibility.

The biggest drawback, of course, is the lack of user-generated content like ratings and reviews. Some moderated conversations for the general topic would be interesting, too.

I wish them good luck, and I look forward to seeing how the platform evolves in Columbus — and is emulated elsewhere.

Don’t Panic

Over the weekend I came across an excellent BusinessWeek article by Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland Advertising, on the maddening complexity of the current marketing mix — particularly the disruptive role of social media. I use disruptive in both a positive and a negative sense. Positive in that the social media juggernaut has fundamentally changed the theory, practice and infrastructure (human and technological) of marketing for the better, and negative insofar as it has also spawned distraction, panic and confusion, causing marketers to lose their strategic bearings.

“Most marketers don’t know that an epic struggle is going on just beneath the surface of the marketing communications industry. Digital agencies are starting to offer more traditional services. Traditional agencies are adding digital capabilities. Ad agencies are offering PR. PR firms are selling graphic design. Design firms are calling themselves ad agencies. And every one is staking a claim to the new ground of social media. It’s a mess out there, with each company kicking the others under the table like too many siblings vying for too few pieces of pie. Somebody has to manage the chaos, and unfortunately, that’s you.”

Dion Algeri at The Great Jakes Blog picked up on a similar theme recently, warning “Brace yourself for the backlash against social media marketing.” However, I wouldn’t describe it as a backlash as much as a necessary correction. It’s not as if marketers are wholesale abandoning and disparaging social media and networking. Rather, the tulip frenzy and accompanying fear of missing an opportunity have subsided and marketers are being more strategic and rational about how social media fits into a an integrated marketing mix.

McKee’s simple prescription is also the best:

“There has never been a better time for small marketers to act big. The tools, tactics, and best-of-breed vendors are increasingly available to help you take on larger competitors. But if your approach isn’t integrated, you risk having your plan jerked here and there by the latest tricks and tactics, with no formal analysis of whether (or when) they make the most sense for your brand.

“It’s good to change your tires every so often, but if you neglect to align them, the ride may be rough—and you’ll waste a lot of gas, even if you’re headed in the right direction. Invest the time and effort to develop a properly integrated plan, and you’ll be on your way to where you want to go with a lot fewer bumps.”

Lindsay Lohan Has a Long Tail

I originally was going to call this post “Six Degrees of Lindsay Lohan: Blawg Edition,” but I could not resist a once-in-a-lifetime headline that combines pop culture, jarring wordplay and a substantive lesson about social marketing for law firms.

So here’s the story…

Back in May, Austin criminal defense firm Sumpter & Gonzalez’ website was deluged by Lohan-iacs, all because of an FAQ that had previously languished in obscurity.

Here’s how blogmaster Dan described it in a June 17 post:

“…[W]e had an entire FAQ devoted strictly to explaining the SCRAM device…[In the process of exporting content from their old website to a new one], we noticed that the SCRAM page had been visited about 4 times in 18 months, and decided it was not worth migrating over.

Then, late last month, Lindsay Lohan gets ordered to wear one. Suddenly, the world is trying to figure out what on earth a SCRAM device is, and typing the words into Google. Since apparently the Internet is not full of great information on SCRAM devices, we end up getting massive traffic spikes – thousands and thousands of Lindsay Lohan fans, eager to better understand the tribulation their hero will now be facing, landing on our site.”

A textbook “Long Tail” phenomenon.

If you’re not familiar with the term, Long Tail describes the statistical property behind search engine optimization, the upshot of which is that combining common search terms with obscure or “niche” keywords can rocket your website or blog to the top of search listings.

Clearly Sumpter & Gonzalez’ felicitous result was serendipity, but it underscores how a well-crafted keyword SEO/SEM strategy based on specialization and unique content can pay off for legal marketers.

Party Ideas for Social Media Geeks

Forget game night. Forget LAN parties. And certainly forget paintball and laser tag.

As the content marketing tsunami builds in size and force, there’s not enough time in the work day to stay on top of what you need to — never mind the silly c**p that keeps you sane.

If you want to put a new spin on training, team building — or even event marketing — try organizing a “Webinar Night” for friends, colleagues and Tweeps. Of course, you’ll want to name it something more fun and inviting than that — maybe something with “Lounge” in it — but the premise is simple. Curate a playlist of webinars and videos you’ve seen/liked or have been “meaning to” watch (e.g. TechShow Ignite and  TED Conference presentations on YouTube) then have them play while you socialize, converse or create your own version of internet meme karaoke.

Note to lawyers: If you play your cards right, you might even be able to work a CLE angle into the evening.