Lessons from Crowdsourced Advice for a Struggling Solo

Ten days ago, in an effort to reply quickly to a struggling solo who’d contacted me for advice, I reached out to readers to crowdsource a response. The post touched off 40 comments, some offering sound advice to a solo in these circumstances, others not so much. The comments also spawned several sub-discussions on what’s ethical in marketing a law practice and the credibility- gap created by anonymous comments. This follow up post addresses all of these points.

First and most importantly, as you consider any of the crowdsourced advice, bear in mind that it is not well suited for an attorney looking for long-term sustainability. In the long run, stable law practices are grounded on exceptional work, an established reputation and high ethical standards – which is why most experienced solos don’t have a need to advertise at all, but instead generate their business largely from referrals, word of mouth and strength of reputation. However, in this case, the solo who contacted me hadn’t reached this point. Instead, the solo was struggling (and many are, despite the happy talk you see on all the blogs) and desperate for ways to jump-start a practice; to bring money in the door as quickly as possible to survive in the short-term. Though lawyers should consider the big picture as they build a practice, short-term concerns are important as well. In situations where cash-flow is tight, solos are most vulnerable to “borrowing” (well, stealing) money from client trust accounts, accepting cases from unsavory clients at low rates or pressure to sign up for exorbitantly-priced coaching, SEO or online-marketing services that will drive a solo further into debt.

For the short-term, nothing is better or faster than simply getting out to meet people as several commenters recommended. Though facetime with others is difficult when you feel desperate, you get the benefit of immediate gratification (the person will tell you whether there’s work or not). Plus, in some cases, you may be lucky enough to connect with someone who has a matter sitting on their desk.

In the short term, I personally like the wacky or stand out suggestions. OK, maybe not a National Punch Day if you think that’s cheesy (I’m not a fan of the “free divorces” that some family law attorneys offer on Valentine’s Day) – but you could sponsor a charitable or educational event like a free business seminar on incorporating a business for senior citizens or veterans or some other specific unique demographic. Or you could ask your local coffee shop if you could host an “ask the lawyer” hour where you buy coffee and entertain questions.

Given that this struggling solo had trouble closing the deal, she might take up one of the suggestions about learning how to talk about money so as to be able to quote a firm fee without waivering. Likewise, because this solo wanted to step up referrals, she might take the advice of another commenter and read up on how to improve networking skills, and also follow up rigorously with thank you. Identifying sources of steady revenue like court appointed or collections works  fine provided that you can have the proper training and can handle the number of cases that come your way (and if you can’t, you decline them). Also, low-paying, steady revenue, while acceptable for starting out and making it through a lean period, is not appropriate for the long term.

Of course, even in the short term, it’s impossible to implement these suggestions across the board to all four areas in which the struggling solo practices: real estate, divorce, litigation and bankruptcy. Here, I’d suggest focusing on the two strongest practice areas at least for the short term, and putting lower-performers on the back burner. The struggling solo could also refer out those cases where she’s not generating a lot of work, because she’s likely to find that those to whom she refers cases will return the favor. Focusing on a more limited number of practice areas allows a solo to really master those skills and be regarded as more of an expert – which will increase referrals as well.

As for the other advice that caused controversy – such as a suggestion of adding on a popular practice area (like foreclosure) by copying from forms, or accepting unfavorable plea offers in criminal matters or hiring coaches or professional SEO services – I don’t like these ideas. At all.  Taking cases that you’re not competent to handle isn’t ethical, and hurts clients.  Accepting those cases in high volumes will simply compound the problems even further.

As for paid-SEO, it’s a much more complex issue because it’s not unethical.  However, there are practical considerations.  There are lawyers, such Damon Chetson, whom I wrote about here  who have built a reasonable practice in part, by leveraging SEO (though Damon’s was mostly DIY).  I feel that the SEO option deserves mention because it has helped some solos, however, I hesitate to mention it because SEO IS NOT a panacea for lack of skills, a poor, content-less website or a volume-based business model mentality.

What’s the problem with SEO?  First, if you outsource SEO, it will come back to bite you.  Outsourcing marketing = outsourcing ethics, to quote Eric Turkewitz.  Repeat this mantra to yourself each day.  SEO “professionals” will comment on your behalf at other blogs or pay for links and potentially penalize you in Google’s site.  Second, you may also spend thousands of dollars on SEO without any results.  First, if you practice in a saturated market, you’re still competing with dozens of other sites.  Second, even if you bring traffic to your site, you may not convert any of the visitors into clients if you don’t have any content to offer.  Third, many prospective clients who turn to the Internet to look for clients have been turned down by other lawyers because they couldn’t pay or had unreasonable expectations.  SEO may attract more clients to your site, but it may also attract clients you don’t want – so you’ll spend additional resources screening out the duds or dispensing free advice.  Fourth, SEO, like online directories or advertising is passive.  You sit back and wait for the phone to ring and take whatever comes your way.  A successful law practice, however, requires that a lawyer be proactive.

Still, there are prospective clients with legitimate claims who search the internet for helpful information.  If you provide good substance through blogs or other online publications, that can help attract a more educated breed of clients.  But you need to provide this substance yourself, in your voice free of ghostwriters and copy editors.  Plus, if you post about topics like what makes a strong case, you may weed out those clients who don’t match the criteria.

Finally, regarding the anonymous comments, frankly, it’s an issue that I’ve never confronted because I don’t receive all that many comments, least of all anonymous ones. So while I agree that it’s cowardly to post anonymously (I’d never do it myself) I’ve never thought to ban anonymous comments from my site since I’ve always assumed that like me, readers will generally give less credence to anonymous posters. (See Mark Bennett‘s analysis of why anonymous comments carry less weight under Aristotle’s conception of persuasion). That the most controversial commenter failed to attach a name to his/her comments suggests that s/he was ashamed to admit using the techniques espoused — and to me, that alone is reason enough to reject them.