On Legal Marketing and Blogging: A Newbie Offers His Perspective

by Jamison Koehler on February 5, 2010

When I moved down from Philadephia to D.C. and opened my own criminal defense law practice, I decided to find out what some of the criminal defense lawyers I respected in Philadelphia did with respect to marketing.  So I went on-line to check out the websites of such Philadelphia lawyers as Brian McMonagle, Daniel Paul Alva, and Barnaby Wittels – guys I wanted to emulate — only to find that not a single one of them even had a website.  The same seems to be true for at least some of the most established criminal defense lawyers in D.C.  If you google Jon Norris, for example, you will pull up his LinkedIn and Avvo profiles but not a website.

The fact is, these lawyers don’t need a website.  They don’t need to market.  The business comes to them on the basis of their reputations, referrals, and contacts within the community.  That sounds great.  Unfortunately, it is a luxury that many lawyers setting up their own practices just don’t have.

A colleague of mine at the Defender Association of Philadelphia went out on his own a couple of years ago.  I asked him about the experience.  He had plenty of clients, he said.  But he got tired of the marketing side of the practice – the need to visit the jails every weekend trolling for clients, the constant back-and-forth with clients to collect on fees.  At best, he said, he was spending about 50% of his time on the practice of law.  The rest of his time was devoted to finding new clients.  He didn’t like it.  This was not why he went to law school.  After a year of pounding the pavement, he returned to the Defender Association where there are far too many clients.

There has been a lot of discussion recently within the blawgosphere about some of the more extreme forms of marketing some criminal lawyers use to generate business.  One such practice has been to hire a ghostwriter to write the lawyer’s blog.

Carolyn Elefant, Mark Bennett, Brian Tannebaum, and Eric Turkewitz each have done very thoughtful posts on the topic, and the arguments they make are sound. My wife, who knows a little bit about legal ethics, was horrified to hear me suggest the issue might be debatable.  As for calling people out on it, she said exactly what Mark Bennett has been saying:  If lawyers themselves don’t regulate the practice, who will?

Sorry about that, dear.  I stand corrected.

In addition to his own entries on ghostblogging, Scott Greenfield had some fun at my expense based on the commercial nature of this website and blog.  Specifically, he pointed out that my blog is integrated with my very commercial website and that my blog prominently includes my contact information.

Greenfield’s criticisms were both fair and constructive.  And, when a number of people emailed me links to some of Greenfield’s interactions with other new lawyers, I realized that he had gone easy on me.  Thank you, Scott.  As someone asked me, what are you complaining about? He said he liked you.  He said he liked your blog.  Don’t be so defensive.  Don’t be so thin-skinned.  Fair enough.

Apart from ribbing me, Greenfield’s post also raised another issue which has been discussed extensively:  What is the purpose of a blog?  And to what extent can and should a blog be used to market a law practice?

There are, as I understand it, at least two justifications for starting a blog.  When I set up my website last fall, my website guy encouraged me to merge my existing blog into the website.  The website, he told me, will send traffic to the blog and vice versa, and the combination will improve search engine optimization for both.  That sounded pretty good to me, and I agreed.

If improved Google rating is one reason to do a blog, a much more important purpose of a blog would be, as Elefant puts it in Solo by Choice, to keep yourself current in your practice area and to put yourself and your ideas out there with the hope of developing a reputation for sound writing and legal analysis.  I say “hope” because I know Greenfield often warns about putting yourself out there and developing a bad reputation.  In that case, says Greenfield, a bad blog is worse than no blog at all.

If the purpose of a blog is fairly straightforward, the other question raised by Greenfield’s post – the extent to which a blog can and should be used for marketing purposes – is much more controversial.

Unlike lawyers with more established practices, I personally do not feel that I have the luxury of blogging for the sake of blogging.  Just like many other lawyers who are opening up a new firm, I find myself needing to devote every waking moment to the building of that practice.  If I cannot justify use of my time on blog as a marketing device, it is hard to justify use of this time at all, no matter how much I might enjoy it.

I understand this may be short-sighted.  It means that, in order to attract the type of people who might employ my services, I need to focus on local issues affecting criminal practice in D.C.  And it may mean, as Greenfield warns, that my blog will remain an “orphan” in the blawgosphere, one of the thousands out there that nobody reads.

But, even assuming I can come out of the experience without a ruined reputation, I am thinking about a local readership at this point, not a national one. I get phone calls and emails from people from all over the country who have come across my website or blog and who want to chat with me about a particular issue, usually a pretty obscure one.  As I complained to my wife this morning, don’t they realize “free consultation” refers to potentially paying clients?  Complaints aside, I am usually flattered that they contacted me and, if I have a moment, glad to speak with them. But they are not my targeted audience.  As much I might like to opine on issues of broader interest, I need to be practical.  I need to pay my bills.

I am not concerned about contaminating the website with the contents of this blog.  I am not concerned that potential clients will come onto the blog and read things they don’t like about me and, on that basis, decide not to hire me.  Through Google Analytics, I have a pretty good idea that most potential clients don’t do much surfing. They come to the website or blog on an issue that interests them.  And then they leave.  Besides, if they see something on this blog that they don’t like, they shouldn’t hire me anyway.

I may need to revisit all of this in the future.  In the meantime, while my combined website/blog has not brought in a whole lot of new clients, the business it has generated has in fact been the difference between success and failure for my firm.  If I need to add a few key search terms to a title or post to draw in more readers, that’s what I will do.  And if it means I need to sit on the sidelines of the blawgosphere for a while, that is fine too.

10 Comments on “On Legal Marketing and Blogging: A Newbie Offers His Perspective

  1. She’s brilliant as well as beautiful. Koehler, you’ve married way above your station. You know what that makes you?

    A criminal defense lawyer.

  2. There are ways to do it more subtly. Like using “criminal defense” only twice in the first paragraph. There are also ways to do it more unappealingly. Like using “criminal defense” four times in the first paragraph.

    Besides, if they see something on this blog that they don’t like, they shouldn’t hire me anyway.

    That’s the right attitude. Be yourself on the blog, let the potential clients know what they’re getting. You won’t get hired by the ones who are wrong for you, and you can charge more to the ones who are right.

  3. Mark:

    Since my wife never reads this blog, I will have to pass along your compliment to her. Thank you — on both the beauty and the brilliance.

    And don’t forget about the “Philadelphia lawyer” thrown in there for good measure. And I’m not even targeting the Philadelphia market. But point well taken. It’s become so automatic, I don’t even realize I’m doing it anymore.

    And just to be clear: By saying “sorry about that, dear,” I was referring to my wife and not to you.

    Thanks for commenting. It’s an honor to have you on the site.

  4. Unlike lawyers with more established practices, I personally do not feel that I have the luxury of blogging for the sake of blogging.

    If you write well about intersting issues, others will link to you.

    If you lard the posts with SEO, people won’t.

    So choose: Do you want Google juice from inbound links or do you want to be a blogospheric orphan by trying to game Google with SEO?

    Which do you think will enhance your reputation?

  5. Fair enough, Turk. At the same time, I’m not sure the two options (writing interesting posts that will attract a broader audience versus seeding the post with Google-friendly terms) are necessarily mutually exclusive. I don’t want to name names, but there are a number of very interesting blogs that I follow in which the author by his/her own admission also factors in SEO.

    Mark Bennett kids me above about having seeded my opening paragraph of this entry with three “criminal defense lawyers.” He’s right. That was excessive. But even one use of the phrase would have served its purpose without detracting from the overall quality of the entry.

    I noticed that, unlike most other commenters, you do not include a link back to your own site. Do you do this on purpose? And, if so, do you do this on principle?

  6. You’re a dope. You have a great way about you, write very well and have a brilliant future in the blawgosphere. The links will come and, to the extent blawgs matter for marketing purposes under the best of circumstances, the marketing benefit will come organically. Mind you, it may be enough to pay the phone bill but it will never be the basis for the type of practice you hope to create.

    Don’t worry about trying too hard. You’ve got the juice to be a blawger. Just do it. Write well and I’ll send you links all day long. So will Bennett and Turk and everybody else, and it will beat the pants off of SEO any day.

  7. Jamie

    Thanks for the mention, but us “old heads” do it in a different way. I guarantee you that we market every day. We just do it in a different way. A lawyer who doesn’t “market himself or herself” is independently wealthy, foolish or determined to fail. We carefully nurture our referral sources. We find ways to keep our names in their heads and, if we can, on the tips of their tongues. For example, my partner Steve LaCheen likes to send referral sources articles he reads in law journals that apply to their practice. I e-mail articles from sources like the NY Times and make phone calls as well as give “curbside opinions.” We both spend a good deal of our day answering questions from other lawyers. The whole point of “marketing” is to get and keep your name in the front of someone else’s brain so that when a criminal case comes in that needs to be referred out they think of you instead of someone else. We learned this the hard way and over time. A friend sends a case to someone else and not you. Why? Whoever they sent the case to was probably the person they last had contact with on a criminal matter. So we spend a lot of time keeping ourselves in the front of other lawyers’ minds. That way we do not become an afterthought.

    I think the difference is that you think in terms of media, websites, etc. we think of marketing as a personal task, a one to one exercise. Each has its merits.

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