This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014.
I know…I know…I know! If another person tells you to volunteer aka working for free to “get your name out there,” you will just scream. And you will send that person a copy of your outrageous law school loan debt and its equally outrageous monthly payment schedule! But volunteering can work wonders if you do it strategically and with an end goal always in mind. Below are a sample of the goals that I set and the results that followed:
1. The Big Guys Must Know I Exist
When I decided to leave my full-time, non-legal position with benefits on July 31, 2013 to practice law full-time, I decided that the local bar association needed to know my name. I could not be a secret attorney. Rather, I had to burst upon the scene to grab my colleagues’ attention. So, I answered the call that many attorneys don’t. I embraced pro bono. I volunteered regularly at the weekly and monthly pro bono clinics and joined 3 committees with the local bar association. I made it a point to introduce myself to my colleagues and offered to refer them, which quickly turned into a business card exchange. I accepted at least 2 pro bono clients each month, and I specifically asked for clients that were hard to place because of specialized issues like veterans law. It may seem overwhelming, but the truth is…it really wasn’t. The clients needed my help, and I needed the experience. And I had the luxury of choosing legal issues based on the skills or legal knowledge that I wanted to acquire. Plus, I made sure that the time commitment was balanced. For example, an uncontested divorce case coupled with a forebearance letter for a federal loan was not hard to handle. For over six months, I was everywhere; and then I received 3 unexpected payoffs: 1) The director of the local bar association referred a potential client to me, which meant that she did know my name and my areas of specialty; 2) A staff member at the pro bono clinic admired my client interaction and referred me to her friend, which resulted in a legal fee of over $2,500; and 3) I was honored in October 2013 with the Celebrate Pro Bono Award! At the reception, I was recognized in front of my peers, and a local newspaper wrote a feature about me. (You can read the news article here ) And here’s a picture of the beautiful necklace I received as well.
And for those who are wondering….yes, I did receive calls from people who wanted me to take their case pro bono after reading the article. But I also received congratulations from my colleagues at the American Bar Association, the US Attorney’s Office, FedEx corporate legal office and many more. And on a practical note, other attorneys felt better about referring cases to me—a relatively unknown attorney until that article hit the newsstands and became my best business card ever! Goal #1: Reached!
2. Marketing Resources are Expensive. Get Them for Free.
It is hard to afford billboards, print and radio ads, office space, support staff and marketing goodies like pens or a retractable banner when you are standing at the door looking for clients. But it is even harder for me because my practice area includes immigration law. There is a language barrier and complex information that has to be simplified for better understanding. So, when I was offered a chance to be a member of a grants committee for an immigration bar association, I said yes with some reservations. I worried about the time commitment since I was very active in the local bar association already. But things worked out well. The meetings were short and the time commitment only lasted for a couple of months. But here’s what I was able to get from the experience: 1) My name recognition grew fast in the immigration legal circle. The committee chair was very generous with credit and shared my name and efforts to the masses via our listserv. Once again, I was able to establish credibility quickly even though I had only been practicing immigration law for 5 months at that time; and 2) I received Citizenship Day marketing materials from the federal government that had a value of over $3,000. Once those materials were distributed at the Citizenship Day event, I still had some to spare. I distributed the remaining materials at churches, schools and community events in rural areas where I was a guest speaker. The people in those areas were happy to receive free, English and Spanish versions of immigration resources (with my business card stapled inside). And the title of “nice” helped me to gain trust in the community. And that trust turned into clients. Goal #2: Completed!
3. Clients are Always Goal #1.
As a solo, you can only “eat what you kill” (a favorite mantra of my business mentor). I would be lying if I said that potential clients are not always a consideration in my decision making. Since I believe that a focused volunteering approach is best, my name is strategically included on pro bono listings for organizations across the nation that facilitate legal services in my practice areas of immigration, entertainment or family law. I have provided pro bono legal services for every organization where I am listed as a pro bono attorney. But I still have the opportunity to generate fees. If a potential client specifically states his/her legal need, then I am only bound to handle that specific issue when I accept the case. Anything beyond that issue is subject to my regular fee or I can simply return the case to the organization. And here’s a benefit of being an office of one. Since I answer my own phone, I call identify myself as the attorney (which surprises people because they are prepared for an assistant). Then, I say…”please slow down and tell me about your problem. I won’t charge you for talking to me for a few minutes.” Afterwards, I can tell the caller whether I have reached my limit for pro bono cases for the month. But I don’t say this until maybe 20 minutes into the conversation. Some attorneys think that I am wasting time, and I might agree. But I’ve learned that after talking to me for that long, the caller has bonded with me. And 6 times out of 10, I gain a client for low bono if not for my full fee. It just proves that clients can come from some of the most unexpected places. Goal #3: Hallelujah!
Volunteering is like anything else. You get what you put into it. My inquiry calls have tripled in the last two months alone from varied volunteering efforts. While I may not be able to accept as many pro bono clients as I did just a mere eleven months ago, I plan to always volunteer regularly. I don’t see any reason to stop using a system that works not only for generating clients but for reducing CLE costs as well. I’ll save that discussion for later; but, until then, let me know which volunteer efforts work for you.
Attorney Pamela Williams Kelly is the owner of The Law Offices of Pamela Williams Kelly in Memphis, Tennessee. She practices in the areas of family, immigration, veterans and entertainment/fashion law. In June 2014, Kelly received another pro bono surprise: a certification of appreciation from the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) for her work with military families who need immigration law assistance. Kelly can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @pwkellyattorney.