Online, things are seldom what they seem…

This past Saturday, I drove a brand-new Mercedes to the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA) Hanging a Shingle Day. Though I may have looked plenty fancy, the car cost me just twenty bucks a day to rent (our family van is out of commission right now and I didn’t want to leave my husband car-less). I’d requested an economy car, but since the rental store was out of stock, they upgraded me to the Mercedes for the same bargain rate.

Of course, most people who passed me on the street that day didn’t know the backstory. Instead, seeing me driving that fancy car, they may have assumed that my practice is doing really well or that I have money to burn. And while my practice is chugging along just fine, thank you, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t take home the mid-six figure income plus that many AmLaw 100 partners do. These days, to the extent that there’s extra cash left over after paying monthly bills goes straight into the college fund.

I witness these same types of inaccurate assumptions all over the blogosphere – and what’s most upsetting, is that those who are envied for their perceived wealth are rarely candid about it. For example, many struggling solos envy many of the lawyers-turned-marketers who sell their services or programs for thousands of dollars because they think that those marketers are raking it in. What they don’t realize is that these folks may sell only one or two of these packages every few months. Or that many haven’t paid off their student loans after thirty years, or can’t even afford health insurance. Or that they’re able to afford advertising on other websites only because of affiliate relationships. Or that they use a virtual assistant from overseas who charges ten dollars an hour. The bottom line is that many so-called marketing gurus earn far less from these ventures than does a solo with a solid, going-concern law firm.

How do I know this? Because as a lawyer running a site like MyShingle, and speaking and writing on behalf of solos and small firms I’ve got one foot in the door of law practice and the marketing world. Over the years, I’ve been asked to participate in conference calls and webinars by groups with a big name and nice looking website who can barely scrape together five people for the call. I’ve been contacted by companies who can’t afford to pay for an ad on my site, and either ask me to run a post about their product or for some kind of affiliate share instead. I’ve been offered the “opportunity” to write blog posts for free on websites that have a fraction of the modest traffic that MyShingle generates. I’ve seen their ads at sites like 99Designs, sponsoring a contest for $200 so that they can get logos on the cheap (sorry, working on spec is one of my peeves).

Look, there’s nothing wrong with being frugal. There’s no reason to pay $5000 or even $3000 for a blog or a website, especially starting out, when you can use a template-based site, or hire someone to implement a template-based site for a few hundred dollars. There’s no reason to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on office space if you work just as well from home and prefer the convenience – or if you’d rather spend the savings on a CLE that will improve your legal skills so that you can better serve clients. And there’s nothing wrong with being honest about those choices.

The problems with most of the gurus is that they won’t tell the truth about their financial situation. Their businesses depend upon conveying the appearance, if not the actuality of success. After all, what kind of lawyer wants to hire a marketer who’s teaching others to earn money but himself is struggling to pay rent? The other problem is that most are hypocritical. Many will advice lawyers to blog or produce e-books and give away information at no charge. Yet if you look at the content that they put out, much of it is nothing more than teaser. You have to actually pay for additional information.

So here’s my advice when it comes to hiring a coach or professional marketer. First, if you want to invest money in an expensive marketing course, ask others about their experience. Don’t ask the person sponsoring the course for references since they’ll cherry pick the best ones. But ask around on bar listserves or even Twitter for feedback on particular programs. Second, take a look at their web content and blogs. Do they make substantive, quality information available for free or at low cost (such as ebooks or tutorials) on an ongoing basis? Or is most of their content recycled over the years or consist of long pull quotes from other sources? If these people can’t produce the same regular, quality content that’s available widely for free, what are you going to get if you pay them.

But most importantly, stop obsessing about what everyone else is doing or earning. Stop thinking that you’d be better off working as a consultant, because trust me, in most cases, the average work-a-day lawyer (whether a practicing lawyer or freelance, contract attorney) earns more than a legal consultant. So just focus on what’s important to you – whether that’s paying for your kids’ college or retiring by the age of 50 or driving a Mercedes. And work hard at it, because you’ll have to. If you do that, in most cases, you’ll get where you want – not to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, which after all is as illusory as most consultants’ riches. But to a good life full of good, if not great fortune.