Amy Yeung is General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer, for Lotame, the world’s leading unstacked data solutions company. Recognized as an expert in digital data and privacy, Yeung was previously Deputy General Counsel at Comscore, which she successfully helped guide through a corporate crisis. She also served as Vice President of Legal at Dataminr and Assistant General Counsel for ZeniMax. Yeung earned a J.D. from Duke University School of Law and a B.A. in political science from the University of Chicago.
Amy Yeung’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/amy-yeung-0518883/
The relationship between law firms and in-house counsel is complex, but it boils down to one thing: how well each party understands the other. That’s a lesson Amy Yeung, General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer at Lotame, has learned all too well during her time as in-house counsel. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about how she selects the law firms she works with, how junior attorneys can prepare for partnership, and why diversity and inclusion isn’t just a fad. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Amy Yeung, General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer at Lotame Data Management. The Lotame Data Management platform is a data collection application that gathers and unifies audience data from a plethora of sources such as blogs and websites as well as offline information. Today, we’ll hear more about that as well as how Amy evaluates and selects outside counsel. Amy, welcome to the program.
Amy: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.
Sharon: Thank you so much. It’s great for you to talk with us. Give us an overview of your career path. You’re quite accomplished.
Amy: You’ve very kind and generous, thank you. I went to law school, and from that, I clerked in the Delaware Court of Chancery under Vice-Chancellor Parsons, which was a phenomenal experience and gave me a chance to look at corporate law and corporate law litigation. After that, I joined the wonderful firm of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, where I was in a very broad securities group that included regulatory litigation enforcement as well as some corporate work. It was from that point in time that I took, let’s call it, an early detour.
These days it’s a little different, but at that time, going in-house was not expected, certainly not at those mid-level years. I spent nearly seven years at my first in-house counsel role. They were a publisher, and I helped them expand it for print and software across to a global platform. It was a phenomenal experience. I really enjoyed it. I think for all the lawyers and law firm individuals in the audience, it was a great way to get your chops and have an opportunity to work through a variety of issues, for me, squarely in the software and data space. During that time, I became a subject matter expert in data privacy and product counsel, which I mentioned. These days it has a name and phrase; back then, not so much. I also gained understanding of hardware, software, intellectual property and a lot of those issues.
It’s from that experience that I became general counsel for the then-unicorn in New York. There was another company that had already gone public, and this company, Dataminr, focused on social media and big data in the software and data space. In that regard, I helped them scale and easily pivot in significant ways. My work for Dataminr included things like getting certain tweets better geolocated and specific to subject matter that is an interest and for organizations like, say, the Orlando Pulse nightclub.
At that point in time, when there was a shooting in a gay nightclub, it provided media opportunities, like there were eyeballs inside the club just because of the number of people that were tweeting about the situation indoors. It really has made and continues to make such an impact on how we think about tweets, how tweets can be used in the broader public policy and global arena. These days when we get news, there’s a reason why there are now tweets incorporated in stories about Pulse. Otherwise a journalist would have to go and search for them instead of tweets just being provided and shared by somebody.
From there, I went to Comscore, which was going through a corporate crisis. Two public companies merged, and then weeks later, an SEC investigation was announced for corporate recognition. So, I was comprehensively redoing business development with clients and redoing data privacy in light of the impending GDPR requirements. They were going through a lot of financial and other considerations.
Where I am today is Lotame, which is still in the space which focuses on advertising technology, and in that regard, continues to do a lot of data collection. I continue to stay in software and data, but I’m particularly in this area. I help companies and organizations get to audiences and bridge the gap and encourage the sale of the products that we sell.
Sharon: It seems like an amazing application and platform, to be able to gather all this data from different sources and build a picture of who you’re targeting or where they are.
Amy: That’s absolutely right. Certainly, many of the companies I’ve been involved with have a component of that. At ZeniMax, they started, frankly, in the digital age and did digital advertising when very few people were focused on that, not knowing, of course, that there would be a big pivot in the coming years. They do have a platform to be able to incorporate advertising data themselves. Dataminr had a slightly different use scenario, especially when it comes to where the true value is in the company, but being familiar with how one uses those platforms to derive those insights is very much fundamental to Comscore.
What we want to focus on, which is to your point, Sharon, is really understanding who your audience is, trying to drill down and get that full picture. Also, as we all realize, we have a laptop for work; we have a different laptop for personal use; there’s a phone. What we do on each of these devices is very different, and it’s also very different from how we watch TV or use Roku. These days, as I know we all realize as marketers ourselves, are trying to get that singular picture, which is very complex. We’re not trying to bombard you across all the platforms, in most instances anyway. We’re trying to get a personal product directed to you when you’re using your personal device, as compared to a work-related product when you’re using a work-related device.
Sharon: It sounds like as you’ve been building your career, you’ve had to learn about marketing, or get more into marketing. How has that been for you, as somebody who didn’t study that in school? All lawyers have to be marketers, yes, but—
Amy: That’s absolutely right. You’re so on point. I’ll say one thing here is knowing what your core products are at the heart. I serve as strategic advisor to these companies. Of course, there are certain areas in the law, in data privacy, in intellectual property, that could put me in a much larger position or disproportionate position to be able to serve as a strategic advisor as the companies themselves pivot what they’re trying to sell. That’s certainly one of the key areas, but to your point, other things I didn’t study in school include the business of the business itself, as well as the marketing. I am grateful to have individuals who are generous with their time to help me understand what they do, which gives me the opportunity to think about how I can service them and service their needs. Also, frankly, I’m a consumer just like everybody else. There are lots of things I like buying. In that vein, perhaps different from some of the other areas of my practice, it is intuitively helpful to have those analogies, because I’m a consumer just like anybody and everybody else. Keeping my finger on the pulse of how marketing turns and what those initiatives are helps me round out the picture, which in turn helps me become the best strategic advisor I can be.
Sharon: I would imagine that when you’re evaluating outside counsel, or when a lawyer’s trying to get to know you, that demonstrating that understanding would be very important to you.
Amy: It’s essential for every company I work with. I will say that, especially when it comes to law firms, one of my expectations—and I know this is not typical, although perhaps it may not be far off the standard—is that I always expect our new law firms to onboard with a day of learning with us. I say that because I have been counseling disruptive companies across all life cycles, so many of these companies are going through a significant change. It’s not standard work, and I’m not looking for a standard law firm; I’m looking a partner in the long run. In order for you to best serve me, and for me to be able to best serve my clients, it means understanding what the business does, understanding where the asks are coming from in the big picture. It also relates to the level of risk, because in each of these companies there has been a different risk. There have been different short-term and long-term risks that we know and need to balance. That is the explanation to how there have been some wonderfully successful law firms I’ve worked with in the past. I think we all recognize and agree that the legal answer needs to be massaged in shape for the client, but it’s really difficult, I think, for the law firms and partners and teams to give unqualified advice if you don’t have familiarity with the types of choices and operational work the company is going through. Some of that is default. For a large, multinational public company, you can probably guess what that risk is going to be, or for a public company in a corporate turnaround. That probably gives you some ideas you can guess at, but there’s still a wide variety. The day of learning is very much an investment with both parties, both the partners and anticipated staff on my side, individuals and executive leadership—who also have busy days—to share in terms of understanding what everybody does.
Sharon: When you select outside counsel, are you looking at it for your clients or for your company, or for both? Who are you choosing for? It sounds like you’re advising your clients as to who would be a good firm to talk to.
Amy: Yeah, there’s a little bit of that. Obviously, when I say client, I mean the people in the company I service. Some of it’s a little bit of both of those pockets. As general counsel, I’m looking at their whole company’s profile and what the risk is. There’s certainly a level of understanding what we can do on the legal side to make sure we’ve got a well-rounded team, which includes reaching out to outside counsel and drawing the line between what’s in and out based on experiences with what the company’s gone through and the current legal team. After that, selecting a law firm and understanding their expertise and niche is, perhaps to your quite astute point, Sharon, a little bit of magic as well as a science, in that you are looking for the right fit, the right team with the leader, what their fundamental goals and purposes are. That can significantly narrow or generally broaden the number of law firms that are in that pipeline. I will say for me, the best practice, both normatively as well as philosophically, is that I will ask for multiple RFPs from different law firms. I want to give everybody a shot. I also want to give many individuals an opportunity to get to know us, because even if this time it doesn’t work out, it still gives us exposure and a learning opportunity. I think fundamentally, that’s important.
Sharon: Have you ever gone back to a firm when you initially selected a different firm, but the other firm stuck in your mind? Something came up and you went back to them and said, “This would be great for you,” or “I’d like to work with you on this.”
Amy: Yeah, I think that goes along with the philosophical approach of a long-term partner. It doesn’t make sense, in my opinion, to spend that much time thinking about an isolated circumstance. I think there’s a lot to be learned. Frankly, I wouldn’t be doing an RFP if the team wouldn’t be learning something new. To your point, there are several times I can think of off the top of my mind. I might not have any doubt, but either we learn something new, or, frankly, it comes down to the way the firm continues to build and maintain their relationship. They’ve already given more reason to take a look at them a second time.
Sharon: How have they continued to build? How would you suggest somebody continue to build on that initial contact of presenting an RFP? How do they build and maintain that relationship and demonstrate that they would be the firm for you the next time around?
Amy: There are any number of ways a firm can do this. I’m thinking about discrete examples that can be useful. I think it’s fair to say we all get hundreds of emails a day, so adding a line to a newsletter, while it may be on point, doesn’t actually help me winnow down what’s useful. There are a number of partners, for example—and not even partners, associates—who will add another line or two as they forward, to say specifically, “Take a look at X, because I think X would be applicable.” By definition, if they catch my eye, it gives me the opportunity to examine a lending opportunity and say, “Yes, that was very much on point,” or “No, it wasn’t.” It’s a next step which in and of itself I see as a learning opportunity.
There are events, for example. I know it is frequent that people want to send those along. It’s often useful for the contextualization, such as, “This event might be of use in particular. When we talked about X, I thought the panel at Y would be really useful to you.” Again, it’s an opportunity to learn more about us. It’s an opportunity for them to respond and think about somebody on the team, if not myself, to join. There are a number of conferences and events that law firms have and host. You can see where I’m going with this item. Knowledge about that for in-house counsel, especially when compared to my law firm experience, resources are far fewer. Being able to quantify that, especially in a discrete way for my team, is helpful. We’ve all got so many virtual panels right now, so having a virtual panel, a virtual conference alone, is not necessarily going to move the needle. But again, being tactful about it paves the way for that type of relationship, because I know you’re not going to inundate me; I know you’re already working hard to understand the business in different ways. That is a distinguishing factor, in my opinion, with a number of law firms and individuals who reach out.
Sharon: I think it’s important for lawyers and marketers to hear the fact that you do consider firms you passed over the first time around. I’m sure a lot of lawyers say, “Well, that was a waste of time,” and put the RFP on the shelf and never look at it or think about you or your needs again, whereas it sounds like it would be worth it for them to build on what they’ve already invested.
Amy: I think that’s right.
Sharon: You’ve been involved in several attorney organizations. Can you tell us about which ones, attorney or personal, that have been most beneficial? Maybe you’ve identified lawyers there at times because you’ve gotten to know them.
Amy: I’ll say as somebody who builds teams, I’m always on the lookout. When I think back to any of the organizations where I haven’t otherwise met someone connected with somebody or hired in some capacity—I’m not sure I can think of one where I haven’t had that situation. As we all know, talent comes in all shapes and forms, so it’s my role to keep my eyes open in that regard. To your first question, Sharon, I certainly had a wonderful and many years with the D.C. Bar and the ADA, both being elected in initial polls with the D.C. Bar as well as some of those roles overlapping with the American Bar Association. I found that organization to be and continues to be wonderful and a great source of broad legal networking and the like. It was great, especially for me in understanding contextually the variety of things that somebody, even in the business law section or another section, could still be involved in. With that said, since then, I’ve also been very active and involved in other groups, which might arguably be a little smaller in nature. That includes, for example, NAPABA and other voluntary bar organizations.
Sharon: NAPABA? I’m not familiar with that one.
Amy: Sure. NAPABA is the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. It’s a great group of individuals. Ultimately, we are not only serving our leadership on the local level with NAPABA D.C., but also on the national level, culminating with my last role as the Chair of Diversity and Inclusion in that committee. I am also serving in leadership as the char elect for the Association of Corporate Counsel, ACC. It provides an opportunity for in-house counsel to come together and share their experiences in a way that, as some would say, avoids the law firm “sharks in water” situation and permits individuals to speak frankly about their experiences. I think the ACC, under this leadership, does a wonderful job of being able to balance that. We all realize it’s a full life cycle in terms of needs between companies as well as law firms and law organizations in order for all of us to be successful in our careers. That’s been a wonderful set of experiences with law.
Sharon: You mentioned diversity and inclusion. Has that grown in importance? Have you ever experienced that a law firm has brought in a team to meet you, and they had their token Asian, let’s say, or their token ethnicity to prove diversity and inclusion? How has that been for you?
Amy: I have to say it’s been a bumpy road. I’d like to think the issue is much more prominent on its face, and in particular much deeper and richer conversations are happening. To your point, I do still have experiences where individuals will pull together a team and think that’s the right message to send to me, but ultimately that message is short-lived and doesn’t actually prove itself out in the way the work is done and the way in which the individuals themselves are being paid and compensated. Those are issues and concerns that I have always been of the mind to note. I would be surprised if there’s any in-house counsel in a position to hire where that isn’t a competitive factor. That’s the case, at least for me, in software data, because all of my companies and teams have been global in nature. The reason for that is because from my perspective, it is impossible for me in my role to be able provide the appropriate guidance to a company that has so many points of view. So, I need my teams, whether or not they’re inside the four walls of the company, to be able to provide the creative guidance and global perspective in order to advise the business. If they’re not able to do that, I’m not doing my job, and if I’m not doing my job, you know what needs to happen.
I’ve had a lot of success in that. Maybe one can say, “Well, she’s in software; she’s in data and a lot of things.” I admit that things like pivots of a company, disruptive business ideas, these are all traits that can only encourage a diverse team to be able to come up with creative solutions. I also admit that, at least for a while there, this industry probably entertains larger, greater ideas in that scenario than perhaps a traditional company, but you can’t tell me, especially in the days of Covid, that there isn’t a company that isn’t otherwise struggling for better places broadly in our ecosystem. If I don’t have these few clients, I simply don’t do enough of a good job for my company. My team is encouraged to think outside of the box, in alignment with the legal requirements of what needs to happen. Where we end up ultimately is another thing, but I want to make sure my team is supportive of the company leads, and in order to do that, we need global views, whether or not that’s in data privacy, whether or not that’s in intellectual property. We need to be able to see and peer around the corner. The only way we are able to do that is when there are fresh perspectives and multiple perspectives, when we discuss and debate, and then ultimately align with the course of action that comes with the next steps.
Sharon: Do you see things outside of your firm? Do you see things changing in the world of diversity and inclusion, things that are going to stick? Maybe people are saying, “Well, that’s the buzzword of today,” like Earth Day was the buzzword decades ago and then it popped up again. At least, that’s my interpretation.
Amy: Yeah, it’s a great question, Sharon, and I thank you for asking it, because it’s a very important topic. I mentioned earlier that the conversations these days are richer. By that, I not only mean total conversations and the transparency with which these conversations happen, but also in terms of the metrics that I and a number of other general counsel and chief legal officers expect. We anticipate a more fulsome picture, especially from law firms, in their data. I was just having a conversation last week with a global law firm. They had identified mutual stacks in terms of initial hiring and the like. We all know and recognize that we need to invite diversity of all sorts. It continues to be a work in progress, but is perhaps the easiest of all of the steps to achieve, to be able to then build that in your attention and create that pipeline is something I think all companies or organizations continue to struggle with. This is what I would expect to be the next steps in this dialogue. How has your firm retained diverse individuals moving up? How has your firm been able to elevate? I’ve worked with partners in law firms to be able to ensure that potential elevations are getting the substantive work that puts individuals in a position to be partner ready. We need that. That, to me, is a full cycle of success for all lawyers. That is the business model that I not only believe in, but I actually put the investment in. That is how this conversation is richer, but we need more people in the conversation, and we need more transparency with respect to how we can advance the profession overall.
Sharon: What would your advice be to emerging attorneys or those that want to rise up the ladder, who don’t have the sponsorship or patronage you’re talking about? I think it’s fabulous to be able to say to a partner, “This is a person we need to groom.” How would you suggest that lawyers pierce the corporate veil, in a sense, to get to you? That’s my vision of it.
Amy: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ll add to your good observations what I’ve described as a dialogue. It happens over the course of a few years, so it’s not just me who might say, “You’ve got an excellent attorney for these following reasons.” It’s a way for us to get that full cycle of improving the next generation of attorneys coming in, which is what I hope all juniors in our space want to do. With that said, there are a number of things a junior attorney can do to put themselves on the radar. I know from a law firm perspective, the one thing that is often said is do the best you can do. Always say yes, all of those good things that I don’t need to go over in our interview today. But certainly make a mark on the people for whom you work.
These days, more junior attorneys are getting mentorship with their counterparts, which is amazing and certainly didn’t exist when I was on the law firm side or when we went to in-house counsel. I think there are more people on the in-house counsel side that create the opportunity for those parallels. I think that would be another thing I would tell junior attorneys to ask, which is to say—at least in my book, I make sure all of my attorneys start getting early exposure with law firm colleagues. It’s important not only to understand the cadence and the business model, but also to build upon the ways in which one can create a relationship. If I’m expecting you on my side, that’s an opportunity attorneys can ask for on the other side, which is to say, “Look, I’m not going to bill for my time, but it goes without saying there cannot always be a fly on the wall. I’d love to hear that early exposure about the way in which you, senior counsel or partner, are able to manage the client. Help me understand the political dynamic on this case. What’s the risk profile?” Being curious and thoughtful about the group picture is something that a decade ago, I don’t know that law firms were necessarily thinking about in terms of giving the right answer. That’s a terrible generalization. I don’t mean it to be quite literal, but what I mean to say is that these days, there are so many more opportunities. It’s so much better for senior attorneys to bring in their junior attorneys to have that experience and start giving attorneys earlier opportunities for that exposure to be thinking about as they rise. I’m pretty positive that a lot of junior law firm attorneys I speak with or mentor are looking for that. It’s a huge benefit to them in so many different ways.
Sharon: I could see how it would be a tremendous benefit in having the people within the firm know who you are and what you can do, but I’m saying, “Hey, I don’t want to wait around for that,” or “Yes, I do that, but I want to get to know you better,” or “I want you to see what I’m learning here.” Basically, how do I get to you without having to wait for the partner to make the introduction or do whatever he or she has to do to get me to you? What’s the best way to do that? Speak at conferences? Publish? What are you looking at?
Amy: That’s a really great question. Let me see if I can’t break it down, because you raise what is, at the essence, a complication of human dynamics. I don’t mean that to be so philosophical, but I think that’s true, because there’s no one way that’s going to catch my eye or catch somebody’s eye. When you accurately identify, for example, writing an article, that is bound to catch somebody’s eye. I don’t know if it’s going to catch my eye or somebody else’s, but you got to put yourself out there. That’s the number one rule in marketing, they say. You can’t get the business unless you’re at least trying to do that. There is some nuance in the other suggestions I raised, which is to say I’m not sure. I wouldn’t necessary be advocating for a junior attorney who’s on an account to directly reach out to the general counsel without having connected with the relationship partner.
Sharon: I understand, but what if the relationship partner—if they don’t feel threatened, let’s say—says to the junior attorney, “You’ve got to figure out how we’re going to build this relationship with Amy. We have our foot in the door. Where do we go from here? I’m too busy to think about it. You come up with a plan.” What would you say? What would your advice be? You’ve given us ideas, but how would you help advise him to expand the relationship?
Amy: For a junior attorney?
Sharon: To maybe go to the relationship partner or one of the partners and say, “Hey, I have Amy’s ear. Let’s do something with it.”
Amy: Yeah, it’s a great question. I would hope that all junior attorneys are thinking about how the state of relationship is more than just doing the work and thinking about the bigger picture. Maybe one way I would respond to this—again, this really does boil down to human relations—is that if this individual is involved in other types of organizations, such as the voluntary bar, it’s a good opportunity. To answer your question, Sharon, which I think gets to the heart of human dynamics, I would hope that every junior attorney is thinking more broadly than just, “Let me do the work that’s being asked of me,” and they are learning more about the client; they’re thinking about the business relationship and, in particular for those who want to help develop the business, are taking all of the experiences they’re learning from in each of their client matters and understanding where the core of that relationship is. That relationship can change quite drastically, whether it’s a core corporate client of the law firm versus somebody who’s smaller.
To answer your question more specifically how a junior attorney might be able to help expand, I think this is also where things like bar associations or just your knowledge on the street might be helpful. There might be something that comes in over email that they can forward on to the partner to say, “Hey, the law firm is doing this, and I think it would be great to forward for X client. I’m happy to do it unless you prefer to do it.” This is also where having parallel relationships between the level of the law firm associate and the level of in-house counsel can be helpful, because now you’re not having to go up and down the ladder, so to speak, but rather you can just forward that on to the mid-level, and it’s probably something you are both interested in, in terms of expertise or takeaways. Another way to do it is if you are learning about something yourself, bullet point three to five takeaways and share them with the partner for the panel. The recording might be of interest to the associates you’re generally working with at that company, or it could be something you send directly to your midlevel. Again, if it’s something new you’ve learned, I suspect it might be something your counterpart in the company might also be interested in, or at least it’s an opportunity for you guys to be able to synch on knowledge.
Sharon: I think that’s wise. What you said is almost the essence of this whole conversation. First of all, I want to make it clear: I’m not advocating for anybody to go jump over their senior professional, their partner, whoever, even though I’ve seen that. The relationship doesn’t end up very well. That’s not what I’m advocating for. I do think what you’re talking about is level-to-level, in a sense that the rising professional, the rising outside in private practice, if they are building that relationship with somebody around the same level in-house, how that could work in the long run very well, if one assumes they are providing value. Maybe I’m naïve, but some of the things you’re talking about, I don’t have to bring them up because—doesn’t everybody say, “O.K., the bottom line is you’ve got to do good work, and you got to let everybody else know you’re doing that good work”? I guess I skip over that because, to me, it’s a given. Maybe it isn’t.
Amy: No, I wish it were a given. It wasn’t in my life. I’m still struggling with that. I think studies show, actually, that is not a given with cultural considerations. Some assume that the work speaks for itself, so it is a plea to them to acknowledge, in a tactful way, what you’re doing and elevate that. That’s an art, and we all have to practice it. To your point, I’d love to think it’s a given, but I don’t think it is. Doing good work is also contextualized. I’ve said for many years, for myself as well as from others when listening to them identify, that you have to do the best work you can do, but what exactly does that mean? I think in this day and age, what it means to do good work is to understand what your fundamental client needs are, and that oftentimes isn’t information you necessarily get from the first round. You have to be proactive about understanding that. That goes not just for the junior attorneys, but also for the relationship partners and the individuals who are working on the matters.
Sharon: I think that’s very sound advice, sound thoughts. We could have a whole conversation about what doing good work is.
Amy: We certainly could.
Sharon: Amy, thank you so much for being here today.
Amy: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the invitation, Sharon.
Hugo Gomez is Founder and President of Abogados NOW, a national bilingual digital marketing consultancy exclusively exclusive to attorneys. The company was founded in Los Angeles in 2018 and has since expanded nationally to help law firms reach Spanish-speaking markets throughout the U.S.
Spanish speakers in the U.S. need lawyers, and lawyers need new clients—but these two groups often fail to connect due to barriers in language and culture. Hugo Gomez set out to solve this problem by founding Abogados NOW, a legal marketing firm that specializes in the bilingual market. Hugo joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about why Spanish digital media presents a cost-effective opportunity for growth; how to choose the best website and brand strategy to reach bilingual clients; and how you can reach Spanish speakers, even if you don’t speak Spanish yourself. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Hugo Gomez, founder of Abogados NOW. The firm specializes in legal marketing, working with their client law firms to help them maximize their share of the bilingual market. Today, we’ll hear all about Hugo’s path and how the firm works with clients. Hugo, welcome to the program.
Hugo: Thank you so much for having me, Sharon. I’m super excited to be here.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. Tell us about your career path. Did you want to go into law?
Hugo: No, I was actually working in personal and commercial finance for most of my early career, doing a lot of high-volume lead generation. Those are great organizations I worked with. They were super fun, but having done most of what I could do in the financial sector, I wanted a new challenge. I was fortunate enough to get a role as a director at one of the nation’s largest lead generators for attorneys. What I learned very quickly was that there’s an opening in the market to advertise in Spanish on behalf of attorneys. After learning about the legal industry a little more, I decided to start Abogados NOW to empower smaller firms, sole practitioners and medium-size firms to own their marketing, to grow on their own terms, essentially to have their own lead generation sources in Spanish that most attorneys simply do not have.
Sharon: Do they not have it because they think it’s going to cost too much, they’re too small, they don’t know how to do it? What is the opening you saw?
Hugo: Yeah, most attorneys largely advertise in English because digital marketing agencies, all they know is advertising in English. The opening we saw was that the fastest-growing audience segment is Spanish-speaking consumers in the United States, and there wasn’t anyone really giving attorneys specific strategies to connect with these consumers authentically. And I say authentically because a lot of attorneys, when they attempt to advertise in Spanish, they’ll simply translate their marketing into Spanish. We all know what works in Spanish won’t work in English, and vice versa. The opening we saw, the opportunity we saw, was the ability to connect attorneys to these communities the right way, the authentic way, so that attorneys who don’t have that footprint in these communities can be trusted authorities.
Sharon: I can imagine people might hand off website copy to somebody who can translate it and say, “Translate it into Spanish.” You don’t know what’s actually happening or whether they’re doing it right, or whether I need to get out my high school Spanish book.
Sharon: I would assume all attorneys today know that digital marketing is important, that online marketing is important, so I assume they have some sort of program in place when they call you in. Is that true? What’s your first step in terms of O.K., let’s take a look at this?
Hugo: Typically speaking, when we onboard a new member, we onboard them after discussing a few qualifying questions. We want to know if they are on a growth path. If an attorney or a firm wants steady business, we’re probably not the right fit. We’re more equipped for hypergrowth strategies. We want that solo practice to grow, to find new revenue, so we reverse engineer their business goals. As much as we are a digital marketing partner, I think we are a great business partner as well. It all comes down to what the end goal is. Are you pointing yourself to an exit? Are you trying to increase the valuation of your company? Are you simply trying to grow for growth’s sake? There are many different goals attorneys have, so we try to determine what that goal is.
More often than not, the low-hanging fruit is Spanish media online, because Spanish media online is competitively priced. Online marketing for attorneys in English is quite competitive. We hear the horror stories from attorneys who don’t do well on Google search for this very reason. We’re able to hedge against that reality by owning Spanish-speaking consumers when they’re looking for an attorney.
Sharon: Is that mostly when they’re looking for a plaintiff attorney? Do you work with defense attorneys, intellectual property attorneys? What kind of practices do you work with?
Hugo: That’s a great question. We work with a variety of practices areas. We’re most popular in personal injury, workers’ comp, immigration, bankruptcy and criminal defense. Anything that hits a large mass of the population, we’re able to generate qualified calls, forums, chats, etc. for attorneys looking to grow their practice.
Sharon: How do you measure that? Do you help them? Do you work with them on lead intake, or do you just get the phone to ring and they’re on their own after that?
Hugo: It’s pretty inclusive. We don’t consider ourselves an agency. We believe we have way more value than most agencies do in that the marketing, the lead generation aspect, that’s standard. That’s something everybody gets in our program, and we’re very proud to do that quite well and competitively priced. Now, what happens when those calls are generated? A variety of things. A firm may have an intake center that’s bilingual already on site, which is amazing. We love to hear that. Sometimes they only have a receptionist, which is fine if they’re a low-volume player in the beginning, but if they’re confused or they’re not really familiar with intake operations, we connect them to the right partners for intake.
There are amazing answering services for attorneys. We work directly with LEX Reception—they are our official service partner—so for any attorney who is worried about answering calls in Spanish, we have a high degree of confidence saying, “Hey, we already have a solution for you; they are Abogados NOW’s certified answering service partner.” They’ll answer your calls 24/7. They’ll walk you through the script. They already know the best practices in getting personal and sensitive information from these markets. We’re proud to say that as much as we are a digital marketing partner, we are a great business operations partner.
Sharon: You would come in and say, “Let’s see what we would do in terms of your strategy, your positioning.” You’re working from the ground up.
Hugo: Absolutely. More often than not attorneys don’t have a Spanish strategy, and if they do, 99 percent of the time we have to break it down and build it from scratch again. It’s because the market’s changing quite fast. The census data that was released I believe a month ago, the 2020 census data, shows that this market has a very high purchase power. They make a lot of life decision on their mobile phones. Even the Pew Research Center confirmed that the vast majority of Spanish speakers use their phones as a primary source for the web, at a higher rate than the general English-speaking population. That surprises a lot of people, but the data supports that you really have to understand the market and build a strategy for them in that particular metro market, because the strategies that work in California will oftentimes not work in San Antonio and Miami and Newark, New Jersey. They’re very different markets, and you have to have a deep understanding of the value systems in these metro areas to build the right marketing program for them.
Sharon: So, you work across the county.
Hugo: Yeah, we’re national now. We started in California. That’s where our headquarters are, here in Los Angeles County. We knew the demand was there. Sometime late last year, we did a soft launch nationally. Just a few months ago, we announced our official national rollout. Right now we’re in nine or 10 states.
Sharon: Do you have people in San Antonio and Miami, or somebody that understands that market as opposed to Long Beach?
Hugo: Yeah, absolutely. We are fundamentally a post-Covid organization.
Sharon: I’m sorry; I didn’t hear that.
Hugo: We are fundamentally a post-Covid organization.
Hugo: Yeah, we’re nearly fully remote. Most of our team members work from the comfort of their own home offices or at libraries, wherever they feel most comfortable. We’ve made it work. We have a great culture that’s virtual. Our team loves the flexibility of working on their terms, but with strict standards and deadlines.
Because of that, we’re able to say, “We’re not that familiar with the Spanish-speaking market in Louisiana. Maybe we should reach out to some copywriters or designers out there who are part of the community and get a sense of what the market’s like.” Again, the Spanish-speaking market is not a monolith. What we do is not a translation exercise; it’s a brand positioning exercise within your local community. To answer your question, we’re able to find great talent based on our infrastructure.
Sharon: That’s very interesting. I know markets vary, but I hadn’t thought that the Hispanic market in Miami might be very different from the market here.
Hugo: It is. Just by definition, if you look at the numbers, there are more Dominicans and Cuban-Americans per capita in South Florida than there are in Southern California, where it’s largely Mexican, Central American and, to various degrees, South American as well. Those value systems are very different because of how relatives, your immigrant roots, immigrated to the United States. They all came through various channels and have different political systems. The way in which you land in this country will set the tone for your values and potentially the values of future generations after you.
Sharon: It’s very interesting and I’m sure very, very true. I’m thinking about people like me, whose ancestors came over at the turn of the century from Eastern Europe, and it still echoes today. Are your clients ever bilingual? Do they ever call in and say, “Hey, this is just too much for me”?
Hugo: The majority of our members do not speak Spanish. I think that’s why they choose us as their digital marketing and business partner, because they realize that in order to scale, you have to find other markets. You have to find lead generation sources. You have to find other media channels that your competition has not figured out yet, and because marketing in Spanish isn’t a translation exercise, the bar is quite high to do it the right way. We often tell attorneys at the very beginning, “It’s O.K. if you don’t speak Spanish; however, someone on your staff should.” That is a requirement. Whether you have a partner who comes to every Zoom or in-person meeting with you, or you have a paralegal who might be bilingual, that is a requirement in our program. Otherwise, there’s no way the Spanish-speaking market is going to be able to communicate effectively with your practice. We do make that a requirement, to have bilingual staff, but it is certainly not a requirement for attorneys to speak Spanish.
Sharon: We’ve worked with quite a few law firms, and they’ve been great law firms, but they’re like, “We should go after this ethnic market. Nobody here speaks anything but English, so who can find someone who knows something?” What do you do? Do you say, “We’ll assign somebody”? How do you handle that?
Hugo: If the attorney is at the point that their firm does not have a Spanish-speaking resource, that’s when we immediately default to our answering service partners. What we’ve learned is—and this is a really interesting phenomenon—that a Spanish speaker will handle the call wonderfully. They’ll establish trust. They’ll get the personal information. They’ll set up the engagement. What our answering service partner is very effective at doing is telling that person, “Hey, you might want to bring a relative who speaks English,” and more often than not, they will. The consumer will bring someone who speaks English, whether it’s a loved one, a neighbor, a friend. So, there’s always a way to market effectively in these languages, but it really does start with the strategy. If you don’t have a credible website, credible advertising, a credible message, you’re never going to be able to establish that communication they’re after.
Sharon: If the firm already has their website, will you then build—I’m not saying translate directly—but will you build a parallel site in Spanish for them?
Hugo: There are a few options. Depending on how well their website is built, we may be able to add what we call a “translation switch.” It’s a deceiving name because there are no translations happening. You’ll see the “en Español” button on the website, and when you click it, you’ll see the interpretations, not direct translations, of the English copy throughout the site. It’s almost like you have two websites in one. That is a popular option; however, this also depends on the market.
We oftentimes recommend a sister website because of the state bar Rules of Professional Conduct as they relate to advertising, because some states do not allow different trade names. If trade names are allowed, like separate trade names where an attorney can incorporate or use a DBA or do something legally to file that name, we absolutely recommend that. I’ll give you an example. Javaheri & Yahoudai, they’re two personal injury attorneys in Los Angeles. They’ve been with us for over three years now, and their name—we had an honest discussion—is kind of difficult to say quickly, difficult to memorize. So, we pared it down to J&Y, and that’s their English strategy; J&Y, Javaheri & Yahoudai. They’re known as J&Y Law, and they’re very successful in arguably the most competitive PI market in the country.
However, in Spanish, we don’t use the J&Y name, because in California we could use separate trade names. So, we created Abogados Campeones, which means “Champion Attorneys.” This separate trade name has a completely different marketing angle, branding, website, video strategy, ad strategy. The way we describe it to potential members is we’re not just building this marketing program; we’re effectively building a new business that’s tacking onto your existing infrastructure.
Abogados Campeones does extraordinarily well. Some months, it outperforms their English marketing. That name came about after many discussions with the brand team, many discussions with development, many discussions with the firm to find the values we want to evoke. In Southern California, we’ve done a lot of polling. The immigrant population likes to win, win at all costs, so we knew this name was going to be a homerun. When we acquired it, it essentially established the model for how we operate today. We try to find out that value system, the right branding. We know that if we pump some ad dollars behind all that research, you’re going to have a successful launch in Spanish.
Sharon: I can see how a name like that would be compelling. Do your clients call you in when they feel like, “O.K., I’m spending a fortune on Google. I’ve maxed it out. I have been effective at competing with everybody and his brother, but I’ve been spending millions every month on paperwork. I want to find a different way. I think there’s more here.” What are they saying to you?
Hugo: The majority of clients that are members who sign up for an employment with us, I would say four out of five times they are very unhappy with the way things are going in their current marketing. The feedback we hear—and we’re very glad to hear—is that attorneys see the value in working with a consultancy that only works with attorneys, that essentially doubles the value of your marketing reach because of English and Spanish. Attorneys see that we’re all native English speakers, but we also come from Latin American countries; we all come from Spanish-speaking families and we’re all fully bilingual. I think the logic with attorneys, what they oftentimes tell us is, “We’re not happy with the way things are going, and we see a lot of value in being fully bilingual rather than focusing on this one area of the market that’s super-crowded.”
Sharon: You mentioned several times that you have members. I’m trying to think of some of the other legal membership groups. They escape me, but is this something where you’re calling your clients members, or is this a membership program?
Hugo: The reason we don’t use clients is because the nomenclature gets confusing, because we generate clients for our clients. We just established that if you’re a part of Abogados NOW, you are a member of our program. There’s no network referral opportunity. There is a community of sorts, an unofficial one, but generally speaking, there’s no formal discussion board or anything of the like. We are working towards that. We do anticipate having our first in-person event in Q2 next year to further establish our reach in person, just because we’ve been so virtual the last four years. Our members are members mainly because of the nomenclature, but also we do feel they’re part of something new. They’re part of something that’s original that hasn’t been established anywhere else in the country.
Sharon: Do you track your success by whether they’re increasing the number of leads? Everybody’s going to ask that—“How do I measure success with you?”
Hugo: I think this is why we don’t sign everybody, because we like to ask these questions day one. What are you looking for? Then, how do you and I agree on the metrics or key performance indicators that are going to tell us whether we’re winning or losing? Oftentimes attorneys say, “I don’t know. I don’t know how many more clients I want,” and then we’ll schedule another call, but I love it when an attorney is ready with their game plan for the next quarter, the next year, the next five years.
We do focus on what we call the frontend metrics. Yes, there are costs per lead; there are costs per click. Ultimately, we never really get into these discussions with attorneys. What they’re most interested in is, “How much have I invested in advertising and what was my direct output?” I think attorneys appreciate that because they know we’re not just celebrating cost-per-lead goals. Cost per lead is all relative. All that matters is how many are you converting, how many are you signing and what value each signed client has for your firm.
Sharon: That’s very true. What’s the value? If you’re not getting quality people calling in, quality meaning—it sounds awful, but a serious brain injury, that’s what every personal injury attorney wants. Not to make fun of anybody, but there’s a lot of money in that. Hugo, thank you so much. This is very, very interesting.
Hugo: Thank you so much. For any attorneys listening who are serious about scale, who are serious about making that trusted connection with your Spanish-speaking community, please make an appointment with us on our website. We’re at AbogadosNow.com. You can create a meeting invite per your availability and we can discuss your goals. That’s what we want to talk about. We want to talk about how to grow your business and then work backwards from there. Thank you so much, Sharon. I appreciate your time.
Sharon: I greatly appreciate yours. Thank you so much.
Jason Hennessey is an internationally recognized SEO expert, author, speaker, entrepreneur, and business executive. Since 2001, Jason has been reverse-engineering the Google algorithm as a self-taught student and practitioner of SEO and search marketing.
His expertise led him to grow and sell multiple businesses, starting with a dot-com in the wedding industry. After presenting his SEO knowledge to a group of lawyers in 2009, Jason founded and later sold Everspark Interactive, cementing his reputation as a thought leader and authority in SEO for the legal industry. As CEO of Hennessey Digital since 2015, Jason grew a small consultancy to a $10MM+ business that made the Inc. 5000 list for the second year in a row in 2020, and he also runs SEO industry news site iloveseo.com.
A keynote speaker and frequent podcast and webinar guest, Jason is a columnist for the Washington Post and a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, Inc., and the National Law Review. His team is currently preparing to open Hennessey Studios, a state-of-the-art audio and video production facility located in the Television Academy building in the heart of Hollywood where Jason will host a podcast interviewing entrepreneurs and business leaders. He also recently released his first book, Law Firm SEO, described as the “holy grail of digital marketing for lawyers.”
Jason is a United States Air Force veteran and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Marketing from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A New York native, Jason launched his SEO career in Las Vegas and grew his reputation in the legal industry in Atlanta. He now lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife, Bridget, and their three children.
When Jason Hennessey discovered SEO in the early 2000s, it was a largely unknown novelty. Today, SEO is the cornerstone of digital marketing, and Jason leads a successful agency, Hennessey Digital, that specializes in SEO and digital marketing for law firms. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about how he landed in the legal industry, why he’s so passionate about empowering lawyers to understand SEO, and why he wrote his new book, “Law Firm SEO.” Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to The Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Jason Hennessey, Hennessey Digital works with law firms to maximize their SEO, their search engine optimization, and rankings. Today, with ranks being impacted by all aspects of the online world, Jason’s firm works with law firms on their websites, blogs and social media in order to maximize their rankings on Google. We’ll learn more about Hennessey Digital’s work today. Jason, welcome to the podcast.
Jason: Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate you having me.
Sharon: We’re so glad to have you. Thank you much. To me, SEO is its own art and science. You can’t do a lot more besides that. You can’t become an expert in other things. Tell us about your background there.
Jason: It’s not like I was a kid and I said, “I want to be an SEO person when I grow up.” There was no such thing. I got into SEO back in 2001. I had just finished college. I was going to UNLV in Las Vegas after I had gotten out the Air Force. I was contemplating taking the LSAT to get into law school, and then my journey took more of an entrepreneurial route. I started a couple of businesses. As a result of starting the businesses, I had to learn how to market these businesses, and search engine optimization was one of the first things I studied. Back then in 2001, when I got into SEO, there wasn’t a lot of information on it. There were a couple of books that were reliable and a couple of blogs, so I started to read up on it and I got pretty good at it.
Then in about 2008, I was living in Atlanta, Georgia—we relocated our family there—and I got asked to speak to a group of lawyers. There were 50 DUI law firms that didn’t compete with each other, and they met for a mastermind in Atlanta. I got up there, didn’t know anything about legal marketing, but I gave a presentation about how I was able to rank on Google for the keyword “wedding themes,” because one of my businesses was an e-commerce website. As a result of me being transparent, a couple of relationships were made; a couple of business cards were handed out, and that was the genesis of how I got into legal marketing.
Sharon: Were they banging your door down saying they wanted you to do that for them? What happened there?
Jason: After I showed them exactly how they could rank their websites on Google for the terms that were important to them with practical examples, I think they realized they didn’t want to do that themselves; they wanted somebody to do it for them, or they already had people that were doing this for them that weren’t as transparent or weren’t getting results. That’s how the conversation went: “Here’s my card. Do you do this?” I’m like, “Well, not really, but give me your card. Maybe we can talk.” I thought, “Maybe there’s something here. Maybe there are law firms that really need help with their marketing. They should be getting paid to do what they’re good at, and that’s being good lawyers, being in the courtroom, depositions.” We got one or two clients as a result of that. We turned those clients into case studies, and then we used those studies to grow our business.
Sharon: Was there something that intrigued you about doing it in the legal world?
Jason: It’s probably one of the most competitive spaces from a digital marketing perspective. I was up for the challenge because here I was, ranking nationally for another competitive space, wedding favors and weddings, and this was a little bit different. I didn’t know the vernacular of law, so I started to go the conferences. I would sit in the conferences and listen, and I would listen to the phone calls they were getting as clients were working with them to truly understand their world and that vernacular. Since 2008, I’ve been immersed in that industry, so I’m one of the thought leaders in legal marketing. I just published a book called “Law Firm SEO,” which I’m proud about.
Sharon: Congratulations! We’ll have a link to the book and you can tell me more about it.
Jason: Thank you.
Sharon: In our experience, when we started out we were working with defense firms, and they were still wondering whether they needed a website, let alone SEO. How do you find the reception now? Does everybody say, “Oh, yeah, we do that. We spend millions of dollars on it”?
Jason: Yeah, we do a lot of work with personal injury law firms. There’s a lot of demand in those markets, and those are some of the most competitive keywords from a pay-per-click perspective. There are lawyers that will pay $400 or $500 a click just to send somebody to their website. Over the years, we’ve also started to work with criminal defense lawyers, bankruptcy lawyers, even business attorneys as well. In fact, I actually found my business attorney—I live in Santa Clarita—by Googling. Even me, as a consumer on the other end, I use Google myself to try to find things, whether it’s a restaurant or whatever. Particularly in this case, I found my business attorney that way.
Sharon: Now, everybody finds everything today. The first thing you do is go on Google or one of the search engines. Whether you want it to or not, it puts it right there.
Sharon: What’s the reception? Today, is it more like, “Oh, tell me about it”? Is it more like, “We have guys who do that, but I’m not sure they’re doing a good job”? What do you find?
Jason: I think that’s it. It’s a very nebulous space, and most of the attorneys are not really educated on digital marketing. They should be, and it’s a little intimidating. If you were to go to a bookstore and pick up a book on SEO, it’s in the computer engineering section. Lawyers are not really—their brains, for the most part, generally aren’t wired to be coders. That was one of the main reasons why I ended up writing this book. It was to educate and empower lawyers, whether you’re just out of law school or if you run a very successful, hundred-person firm. It educates and empowers you to understand it without the complexity of understanding how to write code. I break it down in a very easy-to-understand format. As a result, lawyers will now be armed with the right information to make good decisions with their business, to know how to keep score when they’re paying an SEO company, and overall how to not get taken advantage of. In our world, there are charlatans that, in some cases, will leverage the nebulous and confusing world of digital marketing. That was my biggest thing, to make sure lawyers are never getting taken advantage of in this world, too.
Sharon: You’re probably in a similar situation to us. Being a marketing and PR firm, we always find that if we’re talking to a prospective client, they say, “We’ve done that. We’ve worked with people. It didn’t work.” You find yourself being two steps behind before you even start. How do you handle that?
Jason: This is one of the ways, to be honest with you. When they say, “Hey, I don’t know. I’ve been burned so many times. It just doesn’t work. I’m not sure if I should even do this,” we never really sell anything. When we work with a client, we’re never selling; we lead with education, and the education is based on our experiences with the clients we work with today. In some cases, we’ll be able to show them why it wasn’t working, and we’ll be able to educate them in a way so they understand it. If they really want more information, then we’ll basically mail them a book. If they’re curious about why it’s truly not working, we’ll say, “Here, read the book. This will give you a much bigger understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.”
Sharon: Do you find today, because search engine rankings are so critical no matter what you do, that practice areas that weren’t interested before are starting to come to you? Let’s say the corporate practice area might have said, “What do I need it for?” Do you find they’re showing more interest?
Jason: Oh, yeah, 100%, corporate. We even work with Ben Crump, who’s a national civil rights attorney. That wouldn’t have been the practice area we would have started to go after as far as marketing ourselves 15 years ago; “Let’s go after a civil rights attorney.” But now, it’s important. There are different aspects of coming up with a strategy. Sometimes it’s just educating. Even then, it’s educating with answers, FAQs, and creating video content to be more of the trusted source when a consumer is in the market for an attorney for whatever it is they need the attorney for. So, there’s definitely branding, there’s direct response, and then sometimes there’s educational content that they should be putting out on the web.
Sharon: Are you called in by lawyers, by managing partners, by law firm marketers? Who calls you in?
Jason: It really depends. We like working with marketing directors because they speak our language, but most of the attorneys we work with, a lot of them don’t even spend a lot of time in the courtroom anymore. These are businesspeople that are very aggressive marketers. Sometimes the most successful lawyers are not the best in trial; it’s the guys or the ladies that are actually the best marketers. In most cases, we either work with a marketing director or we’ll work with the owner of the firm who is the partner that does the marketing, that one that’s buying all the billboard ads and on TV and radio. That’s typically who we work with.
Sharon: Do you find that all works together? My question is, do you ever have to come in and say, “O.K., we’ve got to tear the website up and start over,” or “Let’s take another look at your social media”? What happens?
Jason: Yeah, in some cases, we’ll take over a campaign and one of the first things we’ll do is look at the website. We’ll try to audit, like what are the blockers here, what’s going to have the highest impact, what changes can we make right away that will have the highest impact? We’ll get in and do that, but we also educate. We bring our clients along so they truly understand what we’re doing and it’s not confusing to them, because if it’s not confusing to them, they’ll appreciate us a little bit more. From there, once the site is fixed, sometimes we’ll go for a redesign if that’s needed.
Sometimes the sites are nice as-is and we can take that and fix the technical, SEO side of it. From there, it comes down to a couple of things, like maintaining the integrity of the technical code. We do that on a regular basis. We develop content strategies where we write and publish content on our client’s behalf, and then there’s the stuff you guys do with PR in bringing the eyeballs to the website. That’s so important. We work with PR companies for some of our clients. We also do something called link building, and link building is how you boost the popularity of your website. When somebody links to another website with a blue underlined link, that’s like currency on the web, and that’s how websites become popular. Once a website becomes popular, that’s how it ranks well in Google, and that’s how you start to get traffic.
Sharon: You talked about charlatans. Are there companies that promise to give you a thousand links by tomorrow or something?
Jason: Yeah, avoid those. Sometimes it’s better just getting one link by becoming a member of the National Trial Lawyers or becoming a member of the Better Business Bureau. Sometimes that one link is better than a thousand of those spammy links that you referenced there.
Sharon: Yeah, there’s a lot you find if you’re clicking around. What would you rank as the biggest barrier to success in this area for law firms, or what mistakes do you see? I guess those are two questions. What mistakes do you see in law firms?
Jason: Making sure that you’re following the right playbook and you have an agency that has some success in the area of law, because there is a difference between somebody that has a great deal of experience with e-commerce versus working with law firms. That’s important, but believe it or not, the other side is that a lot of lawyers are spending a lot of money to bring in more phone calls and more leads, but sometimes that’s where they fall down; they’re not really prepared on their end with the proper intake. This was actually something we ran a study on, because one of our clients was saying, “Hey, I don’t know why, but the SEO just doesn’t seem like it’s working.” We’re looking at all the traffic and phone calls, and it’s a campaign that’s doing very well and it was really surprising to us.
What we did was plant a lead into his intake. We filled out a form submission on his website, and it was a real, qualified lead. Thinking that we would get a phone call within at least an hour, nothing happened. Nothing happened the rest of the day, and it turned out that we got a call back two weeks later. We were like, “Well, that’s the reason why.” If you’re getting leads and you’re getting back to people two weeks later, there’s something obviously broken on your end with your intake. That inspired us to go out and do a whole study. We reached out to 700 law firms and planted the lead around the same time on a Monday morning. Believe it or not, 42 percent of the law firms that we reached out to didn’t even respond back to us.
Sharon: Wow! I can’t say I’m surprised. So many times, we may not be handling the actual SEO, but we will work with the law firm and the people answering the phones to put a process together and that doesn’t happen.
Jason: That’s critical, because it’s one thing to spend a lot of money to generate the traffic and the leads, but to fall down when they actually call, that’s a constraint. A lot of law firms during their growth, they have to fix that.
Sharon: It’s more than a constraint; it’s a real waste of money if you’re doing your job and they’re not getting the phone calls.
Jason: That’s exactly right.
Sharon: Then people are saying, “Well, if you’re not going to respond, I’m going to call somewhere else.” Do you find resistance to search engine optimization? When you say that’s what you do, do you find firms saying, “Oh, we do fine”?
Jason: We’re not in the business of cold calling people, because (a) good luck getting through the gatekeeper, and (b), you’re selling what seems like snake oil in our industry because it has such a bad reputation. I think a lot of law firms don’t really understand what is involved with SEO, so in some cases, they have a designer that designs them a new website and codes it and they say, “Do you do SEO?” and they say, “Yeah” and then they build a new website. A couple of weeks later, they have a nice website, and they think they have SEO now because they can check that box, like, “Oh yeah, my developer did the SEO on it.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth. SEO is something else. It’s like your health. Seriously, I look at it like that. If you want to remain healthy, you don’t just eat an apple and say, “O.K., I’m good now.” It requires constant jogging and eating healthy and dieting, and that’s how SEO is. SEO is a core to your business. You have to continue to maintain it; you have to continue to make it better. Publishing content on a regular basis is important, making sure there are no issues within the code on a regular basis is important. It’s definitely an ongoing strategy. It’s just a matter of how aggressive you want to be.
Sharon: What haven’t we talked about that you want to let us know?
Jason: The book that I wrote again is called “Law Firm SEO.” You can find it on Amazon.
Sharon: “Law Firm SEO.” Why did you decide to write it?
Jason: I decided to write this, again, because it’s been 20 years of me learning this, and I genuinely wanted to give back. Like I said, I wanted someone in law school that is interested in the business side of law to get a general sense of what this takes; what this world that I’m going to be competing in looks like. So, for $25 on Amazon, you can tap into 20 years of experience that I’ve had to go through.
Sharon: At one point, lawyers could do this all themselves. You didn’t have social media and everything else that you need to think about today.
Jason: Yeah, and that’s point of the book. When you’re starting out, you either have time or you have money to solve a problem. For example, my sprinklers broke this weekend. I don’t know a lot about sprinklers. I can invest my time into going on YouTube and watching videos about how to fix sprinklers, or I could just call somebody and they can come and fix it. I’d prefer to use my money, in this case, to have somebody that’s more professional come and fix it, but if I didn’t have the money, guess what? I’m going to have to watch YouTube and figure this out myself. I think that’s the same with law firms, whether you’re just getting started or if you’ve been in practice for a long time. It really comes down to time versus money. Do you really want to learn this and, if that’s the case, spend some time reading about it?
The book was written in a way where those that read it could certainly spend time starting to learn and teach themselves this or, alternatively, you could be armed with information now that you’ve read the book, and then you could make a better decision in hiring somebody to help you. When people say, “Hey, is SEO still valuable? Should I be investing in this?” I don’t think SEO is going away anytime soon. The question should be “Should I do SEO versus pay-per-click? Where would I invest my money?” I don’t think it’s an either/or question. I think if you’re able to generate business from paid marketing, continue to feed that marketing channel with a budget and continue to generate business as a result of that. If you’re able to generate business with organic, with SEO, again, same thing. Continue to test it, tweak it, and then keep ramping up where things are working. I think digital marketing for law firms is very valuable, and I genuinely hope those that are listening pick up the book, “Law Firm SEO”—it’s available on Amazon—and I genuinely hope that you get some real value from it.
Sharon: Jason, thank you so much for being with us today. This has been very interesting and informative.
Jason: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, Sharon.
Eric Bersano has been deeply involved in online legal marketing since 2006. He is the VP of Business Development at Market My Market, a digital marketing agency that helps businesses generate new clients by implementing the right systems and strategies. Depending on a law firm’s goals, Eric ensures the best marketing channel and modalities are implemented, including search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, and TV and radio. His focus on the legal space gives Eric the network to utilize the most talented designers, programmers, and marketers in the country. His clients maintain very high rankings for competitive online searches at the city, state, and national levels.
Most law firms recognize that digital marketing is crucial to maintain market share in a competitive environment—yet many firms cling to outdated websites and marketing strategies. That’s where Eric Bersano comes in. As VP of Business Development for digital marketing agency Market My Market, Eric has worked with hundreds of law firms to refine their SEO, pay-per-click and advertising efforts. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about the importance of having a website that’s equally beautiful and functional; the most effective strategies to move up Google’s rankings; and why the best marketing campaign is a well-rounded one. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Eric Bersano with Market My Market. Eric specializes in legal marketing, especially in the all-important areas of search engine optimization, pay-per-click and radio and TV advertising. I’ve known Eric for several years and have always been impressed with his ability to break log jams. When a law firm thinks it’s doing everything it should be doing, but is not getting the results it wants, they call in Eric. Eric, welcome to the program.
Eric: Sharon, thanks for having me.
Sharon: So glad to have you. I’m anxious to hear about this. We’ve talked about it before, but it’s always changing. How did you get into working with lawyers?
Eric: I’ll try to make it a short story, but I was actually on the other side, working with doctors for a while. My mom didn’t have a doctor or lawyer for a son, but I’ve worked with both now. I was working with doctors and orthopedic surgeons specifically. I had a friend who was in legal marketing, and he was telling me how great it was and that he enjoyed being a good resource to law firms. When you’re working with orthopedic surgeons, I always said I’m never going to know as much as them about surgery or the implants they’re putting in, but on the marketing side, I could become an expert and show some value to a law firm. If you change someone’s practices for the better, meaning you’re making them more profitable, they’re very happy to talk to you. It was a much more rewarding career path that I’ve stuck with for the past 15 years now.
Sharon: Did you study computers? Did you study marketing? What was your background and education?
Eric: I did advertising in school. That was my major. I also did business and marketing. I’ve always been fascinated with how to grow a company and the messaging that goes behind it. What I’ve learned working with attorneys, it’s messaging and efficiency: getting your message out in a hypercompetitive market, putting yourself in the ballgame, whether it’s on TV, radio, print or the internet. You need to get yourself in the ballgame, and once you’re there, it’s all about efficiency. How is your intake process? How quickly can you respond to people? Because in the internet age, it’s so easy to click the back button and go to the next law firm if you’re not responsive. I do marketing, but I also do consulting with firms and let them know, “Hey, I’ve worked with other firms that are really good at this and this is what they do.” Some people will take the advice and pull it in-house, and some people will say, “Well, we’re going to outsource that,” or “We’re not situated to do that yet,” but I always try to be there as a sounding board to point out inefficiencies and solutions for them.
Sharon: There are a lot of roadblocks, as you were saying, about what comes next and making the process smooth. What does Market My Market do? What do you do in that world?
Eric: Market My Market is a digital advertising agency and we focus on search engine optimization. I always tell people that a well-run search engine optimization campaign is typically going to be your lowest cost for good leads, and what I mean by that is SEO is typically a set fee. Whether you’re paying $2,000 a month or $10,000 a month, that’s the set fee. If you’re getting one case a month or 20 cases a month, your fee doesn’t change. With advertising, whether you’re talking TV or pay-per-click or social media, the more you want, the more you pay, and those are sunk costs. If I’m going to pay $10,000 to Facebook this month to get cases, once that $10,000 is spent, I get no more residuals on that. Whereas with SEO, it’s really about creating assets online, creating content, creating infographics, creating a presence. If you stop with that, you still have what you built up to that point.
Our firm, Market My Market, really concentrates on that organic side. We’ve got four members of the team that all worked in-house at law firms, so they understand how this process works from other side, what law firms are most interested in. SEO is compared—or at least I’ve made comparisons—to a used car salesman. All you need to have an SEO company is a laptop, a wi-fi connection and a phone and you can say you’re an SEO person. A lot of the history has been based on proprietary secrets or a black-box type of thing, “We can’t tell you what we’re doing.” We take the opposite approach. We develop 30, 60, 90-day programs for everybody. We let the attorney know what we’re going to onsite, what we’re going to do from an SEO perspective and all the content we’re going to write over that 90-day period. Each month we have meetings with the attorney and we go through that 30, 60, 90; here’s what we provided; here’s what we’re going to provide; here are the current results. That way they can see the activity. SEO in a competitive market can be expensive. Law firms, on more than one occasion, have said, “O.K. we’re paying you all this money. What are you doing for me each month?” We want to be able to answer that question emphatically and show the results.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I can understand them asking that question while you’re getting set up and then not seeing results, but if they’re seeing results—to me, I’d feel like you brought me 10 cases I wouldn’t have had. It doesn’t matter to me what you’re doing, in a sense. Do you find that?
Eric: Yeah, but there’s always what I call this valley of doubt. Even the best SEO campaign with the best trial firms—because it does help if you’re working with a really good law firm that works on the PR side of things, which can have some overlay into SEO. If an attorney is getting mentioned in the newspaper, if an attorney is being mentioned in social media, that does have some trickle-down effects to SEO, but even the most effective SEO campaign takes time, and the more competitive the market, the more time. In a midsize market, you’re looking around six months. In a hypercompetitive market like Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, it could be nine months to a year. That’s the valley of doubt: “O.K., Eric, we’re paying you all this money. We’re not seeing the cases yet.” You’re not going to see cases for months because it takes time to build up that trust with Google. That’s when it’s hyper-important for the attorney to see results. “O.K., we’re tracking these 25 terms for you. When we started, you were on page 8, then you moved to page 6. Now you’re on page 4.”
Instead of them hearing the line, “Just trust me. Just give me time,” we want to open up the book and say, “This is what we’re doing for you. This is the result of what we’re doing for you,” so they can watch and track that. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to get anything within those first six months, but to the victor go all the spoils when it comes to online marketing. When you Google “personal injury attorney Los Angeles,” those top five firms are getting all the phone calls. The ones that are on page 2 and beyond, none of the phone calls. There’s an inflexion point at a certain time where the law firm starts to see and believes. That’s when they stop saying, “What’s going on, Eric?” That’s when they say, “How do we get more?” or “How do we expand?”
Sharon: In our experience—and it sounds like yours is similar—everybody says, “Sure, I’ll be patient. I understand it takes time,” but the second month when they’re putting out money—which, I understand it hurts to take out your wallet and pay somebody when you’re not seeing results. It turns to, “Well, what are you doing for me?” It’s great to be able to show they’re going up the rankings, although I’m sure everybody’s fighting to be at the top spot.
Your firm’s website says that a law firm’s website is the core of a marketing program. I feel that way, but I often don’t hear that. Can you tell us more about that philosophy?
Eric: One of the things I hear from attorneys all the time is “We don’t need SEO because we get lots of referrals.” I believe to this day, even though I’m an online marketer, that the best cases are going to come from referrals, but there is a huge swath of cases that can be gathered from SEO and the website, the hub of their marketing. If you get a hundred referrals, how many of those referrals do you think will Google you? Probably 98 of them will Google you. Number one, they’re going to Google you just to find your contact information. Now, if they get to your website and it looks outdated, if they get to your website and they don’t see the practice area—let’s say you’re a mass tort attorney and you’re doing IVC filters or talcum powder. If all they see is car crash information, they might go, “Oh, the person who referred me to this firm, they don’t even do what I need them to do.” That’s where I tell people, “You’ve got to have really strong messaging on your homepage. Someone needs to get to that homepage and understand what type of law firm you are.” You’ll never know how many referrals were directed to you that never contacted you. That’s an unknowable.
It’s really putting your best foot forward online, creating a beautiful space for people. Believe it or not, even in the legal world, packaging matters. I worked for a technical company once that provided energy storage for all types of different products. One of them was to a company, Mattel, who made toys. Mattel engineers told us that 50 percent of the cost of the toy goes into the packaging, because what’s important is when that child or mother is walking down the aisle, what’s going to grab attention? It’s the exact same thing for attorneys. When somebody gets to your website, they are making a snap judgment about what type of lawyer you are. Are you quality? Are you experienced? What’s your personality? Are you the lawyer in blue jeans or are you suited and booted? That’s going to resonate with different audiences, but I always tell attorneys to go with who you are. If you’re the lawyer in blue jeans, that’s the image you should project because that’s who you are.
Sharon: I want to emphasize that this pertains to—I know you tend to work with personal injury, employment liability and maybe plaintiff, but what you’re saying applies to all law firm marketing. All marketing in general, but all law firm marketing.
Eric: Yeah, that’s a good point. We don’t work with a lot of B2B attorneys because if you’re a $100 million company, you know 20 attorneys already. But that first impression is still important. If you want to have a client that’s going to spend a half a million dollars with you and your website looks like your son-in-law put it together, that’s not going to work. You need to project this good image. I used to make this comparison with attorneys: say you’ve got $80,000 worth of furniture in your lobby, but your website is $1,500 and it’s dated by 12 years. You would never want that type of image in your office. You would never have somebody come in and sit on a crate and have a stool as a coffee table. That image needs to be projected online. More and more today, I see law firms doing that.
Sharon: That’s a really good point. It’s a good comparison. Think about all the times you walk into a beautiful lobby, but then there’s so much resistance: “What do you mean it’s going to cost me $5,000 to redo this or that?” That’s a very good point about how you want the website to reflect the polish of your lobby
Eric: It’s your digital office, and way, way more people are going to see your digital office than your actual office, especially these days.
Sharon: Yes, absolutely. Maybe not business to business, but very few people go to an office today to go visit their lawyer. Maybe they do it the first time and that’s it.
Sharon: I’m sure that a lot of law firms you talk with, whether you meet somebody at a networking event or however they got to you—I’m thinking about networking events where lawyers will say, “Oh, we have it all sewn up. We have an SEO person and we do billboards. We don’t need you. What could you tell me?” What do you say to that? Do you say, “O.K., fine. Here’s my card”?
Eric: We have the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Do no harm. Most people I run into, there’s some help they could use. It could be better messaging on their website; it could be more efficiencies in their processes. The luxury that attorneys have is their product is highly profitable. For the most part, it’s low overhead. Compare an attorney’s office to a restaurant. They say the profit of a restaurant is somewhere between six and 11 percent, where an attorney who’s working on criminal defense or personal injury or family law, they’ve got their office overhead and their time. You can afford to be inefficient, but time is running out. Attorneys listening to this know there are trial attorneys and then there are attorneys that market. The attorneys that market are going to gobble up the cases and then they’re going to refer them to you, and you’re going to do all the work.
What I tell people is there are going to be some ways to squeeze efficiencies out of what you do. Think about just five percent of everything: five percent more leads, five percent more of the calls that convert—that’s your intake process— five percent more reviews online. This has a compounding effect on your business. Five percent more cases in an entire year could be the difference between profit and loss, a good year or an amazing year. Attorneys do have this luxury of having a really high-profit-margin business, but if they don’t squeeze the efficiencies out of it, they’re never going to get the full benefit.
Sharon: I can see how that would make one complacent, if you say, “I’m making a lot of money and my profit margin’s really high. What do I care about an extra three percent?” I know they do, but I’m saying that you have to be motivated to move when you’re in a situation like that.
Sharon: Also on your website, I was intrigued to read about granular web pages. Can you tell us more about them?
Eric: Yeah. This is sometimes a difficult conversation when I’m trying to work with a law firm. I’m going to use an extreme example. Most people know Orange County, California, but Orange County consists of, I don’t know, eight or nine different cities. There’s Huntington Beach; there’s Newport Beach; there’s Irvine; there’s Santa Ana.
Well, if you’re going to create a web presence online, Google is going to try and serve me, the potential client, with the best result possible for that search. If I search Orange County, it’s going to look for people who are marketing Orange County. If I search in Santa Ana or Huntington Beach, they’re going to provide a completely different search. This granular marketing model is if you want cases in Newport Beach, we want to create a hub within your website that focuses just on Newport Beach. If you want Santa Ana, we want to create a marketing hub. That means all the content, all the references, the office location, is all related to that.
Think about it like a McDonald’s. If I type in McDonald’s—I’m in San Diego—it’s not going to show me the McDonald’s home office, wherever that is. It’s going to show me the closest McDonald’s to me because Google’s trying to give me a better search experience. That’s the exact same thing lawyers have to do. Let’s say I’m talking to an attorney for the first time and there are three cities around him where they want to pull cases from. I tell them, “You have to do a specific marketing granular campaign for each of those cities.” A lot of times there’s pushback, like, “Why do I need three different pages on divorce or family law or criminal defense or PI?” It’s because you need to provide a better search experience to your potential client.
Sharon: I think it’s easy to forget when a website is such a herculean task to put together. You think about the digital office, the entry page, but you forget that people may not land on that page based on what they’re searching for. They have to have the whole story on each page.
Eric: Right. Most people will only visit two or three pages at most. You’ve got to be able to tell your story and hit your key selling points on almost every page.
Sharon: I know this is not on the questions I sent you in advance, but tell us about the importance of the lawyer’s biography and what your recommendations are. I don’t like to put a long list of “they specialize in these 40 things,” because how do you specialize in 40 things? What are your recommendations for a lawyer’s bio on a website?
Eric: The general consumer basically has a mental checklist they’re going through. I’m not teaching anybody anything new here. They want to see experience, but they also want to see specific experience. If I was hurt at work, they want to look at your case results and say, “Oh yes, they’ve done some worker’s compensation or a slip and fall case or they’ve handled an aviation case before.” It’s not just experience—and years count. If you’ve got five years and all your competitors have 25 years, that’s going to affect you, but they want to see that specific experience.
The other thing they’re looking for is some indication of trust. Some of those might be a 10.0 Avvo rating. Most people don’t know what a Martindale AV rating is—I didn’t until I started working with lawyers—but have that on there and explain it. It’s not like they’re going to go in and read what a Super Lawyer is or what an AV rating means, but they’re doing this mental checklist. I would not overwhelm people. If your website covers too much, it’s called clutter. This is way back from the days of newspaper print. White space is very powerful. Make sure you have your logos from FindLaw and Avvo and all those places on there, but don’t slam everything in there. You’re not earning more points; you’re distracting, and that could be turning some people off.
Sharon: Maybe your technique has changed, but I always envision when you come into a law firm and they say, “Oh, we’re doing all this stuff,” and they are already doing it, but you peak behind the curtains or dig deep and look more at the analytics. How do you start if somebody’s doing something already, if they’re doing a lot?
Eric: The most common thing I see is that an attorney understands what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to provide good content. They’re supposed to have some nice calls to action. To use another analogy, it’s like they’ve got this V8 engine, but all the linkage to the wheels is weak and it’s not providing any power to the wheels. Let’s say you’re creating two blogs a week, you’ve got a granular page on every one of your practice areas, but the technical parts of your website are faulty. Google has what’s now called Core Web Vitals, which is a new part of their algorithm, and what they call User Experience or UX. What that means is they’re looking at how can I interact with their website? How quickly does that website load, specifically on a mobile phone, because over 80 percent of all searches are now mobile. Let’s say you’ve got this beautiful page and all this content, but it takes eight seconds to load. I’m not going to wait eight seconds; I’m going to hit back and I’m going to go to the next result. That’s the simplest technical thing I can point out, because everybody’s had that experience before where the site won’t load.
There are so many different technical things, like how easy the website is to navigate. Another good one that seems apparent after people learn about it—let’s say I have a car accident page and you have a car accident page. If people spend 25 percent more time on my car accident page than yours, Google is going to see that as a good indicator for a better page, and that’s going to help me move up the rankings. So, we’ll look for those key indicators. What’s keeping them on the page? Is it an FAQ section? Is it a video? Is it an image that’s captivating? All these little things add up, and you’ve got to check all these boxes. When you get towards the top of page one on Google, the competition gets really fierce. You’ve got to look for all those little efficiencies to get better rankings.
Sharon: As you were talking, Eric, I know your market is really plaintiff firms as we talked about, but everything you’re talking about in terms of SEO could apply to any defense firm that’s doing an SEO program. It’s not whether you’re a trial lawyer; it’s what are the keywords, how are you doing it? At what point do you cross over and say, “Have you considered billboards?” Not for a Latham, but for another firm?
Eric: I think traditional advertising is good when used effectively. I also think with technology today, everything can be tracked. You mentioned before about how I would talk to somebody and they’d say, “Oh, we’re all good.” Well, I’ll say, “Do you know where all your cases are coming from? Let’s say you’ve got a listing on FindLaw. Do you have a tracking number for that?” We put different tracking numbers on a Google My Business account than we do on the website, so I can tell you if somebody found you organically or if they found you through your Google My Business.
If you want to run bus bench ads, have a tracking number. If you want to do TD ads or radio, have specific tracking numbers. A firm that’s got a decent marketing budget can do a lot of different things, but you still want to put your dollars towards what’s providing you better cases. Let’s say that billboards are driving only a couple of phone calls, but every phone call is a great case, and let’s say that your Google My Business account is driving a ton of information or a ton of leads, but they’re very low-quality. Now, you can really decide where you want to pour your marketing dollars. I never try to convince somebody not to do something; I just try to convince them to track what they’re doing so they can use their dollars in the most effective way possible.
Sharon: Have you seen law firms be more open to the idea of radio and TV advertising and billboards? It seems like I see a lot more lawyer billboards around.
Eric: Yeah, there are two things. In the mass tort world, TV is still a great medium; the same with radio. Social media and digital are slowly going to start taking that over, though. We’re already seeing it today. The problem is the platforms aren’t suited to it. For example, you could run a $10,000 a week campaign for mass torts and be very successful. With TV right now, or if you’re going to try to do some digital advertising, the benchmark is around $100K. If you don’t have that budget and you don’t want to be a guinea pig for this new media, I wouldn’t suggest that.
But when it comes to billboards—I tell people this all the time now—there’s no secret that Morgan and Morgan is one of the largest law firms in the country. What I hear all the time is people in Morgan and Morgan’s market feel like they’re losing clients to Morgan and Morgan because people know their name. They see their billboards; they see their social media. There is something to be said for branding yourself. Maybe that billboard doesn’t get you a bunch of phone calls, but there’s recognition when they do a Google search and see your website; they see your Google My Business. “Oh, I remember that attorney. I saw that attorney’s billboard. That person must be a high-quality, successful attorney.” That, in our world, is called attribution. How do you attribute where exactly that client came from? Did they first do a Google search, and then see a billboard, and then see a banner ad that was retargeting, and then see you on social media? They contacted you through social media, but they hit all these other buttons along the way. So, the most successful campaigns will be well-rounded.
Sharon: You say attribution; I always call it chipping the paint off the walls. You don’t want somebody to click past and say, “I’ve never heard of them.” That’s where public relations can come in, in our opinion. You have that credibility of, “Oh yeah, I read about them,” hopefully something positive. You have to warm people up, and they have to see you in different places. Sometimes it concerns me because it seems like—we grew up through traditional marketing and advertising in terms of strategy. Not that people ignore that today, but it seems so easy, especially for millennials, younger people, to skip all the foundation and go right to online, digital, pay-per-click, SEO, and not have a foundation. Do you ever see anything like that, or is that just my concern?
Eric: Like you, a lot of this new media is stuff that I—it took me forever to get on Instagram. But as the population gets older, those millennials or 20-year-olds now are going to be potential estate planning clients; they will be potential criminal defense clients; they’re going to be potential PI clients. I always ask people, “Where do you think your audience is? JUUL, which was a mass tort; it was the e-cigarette. It was predominantly a younger audience that was using JUUL. That’s a perfect campaign for Facebook, Instagram. If we’re talking about an estate planning website, where is that? That’s going to be an older audience. Where is that older audience going to be? There are probably certain TV shows. There are going to be certain places to place banner ads to capture them. You want to try to hit people where they’re at.
The other big thing with legal especially, is it’s not always the end person who we need to market to. For personal injury, the person could be in the hospital or, in some cases, deceased. So, you’re really looking for family members. The same thing with criminal defense. I work with attorneys that are in college towns where it’s typically the parents that are calling on behalf of the student. Every campaign is a little bit different, and you need to tease out who the true audience is that you’re trying to reach and then create the campaign around that person.
Sharon: So, you’re seeing social media grow as a part of this. Do you see it, not taking over, but taking a much larger percentage than it is now? Is it something that people should jump on the bandwagon now, as opposed to waiting until their competitors are spending $100,000 a week, a month?
Eric: Social media’s good for two things right now. One is branding. You can inexpensively brand, and you can hyper-target. You can target a zip code; you can target your city, your state. The other thing it’s good for is awareness campaigns. What I mean by that—I’ll use mass tort because that’s the easiest to explain—let’s say I’ve taken Zantac my whole life and I also have stomach cancer. I may not have put that together, but if I see an ad saying Zantac causes cancer, I might go, “Wow! I took a lot of Zantac and I have stomach cancer. I’m going to call this attorney.” That’s an awareness campaign, just like TV is an awareness medium.
Now, Google and pay-per-click are for people who are actively searching. If I’m going out to buy a new pair of running shoes, I’m going to type in “running shoes near me.” I’m actively looking for that. The same thing will happen if I’m looking for a car accident or a medical malpractice lawyer. I’m going to do those searches. Social media is not a good medium for that, because now you’re just throwing a dart at a huge wall and trying to hit somebody maybe in the process of looking for an attorney. It’s almost impossible to target somebody who was recently in a car accident because that could be any of us. Social media is still an emerging medium for legal, but it is very good when you know your exact audience: again, somebody who took Zantac, or now we’ve got wildfires again. We know where the wildfires are. We know exactly the geography where people are affected, and that’s a good medium for a social media campaign.
Sharon: SEO, what you’re talking about, is effective, but it’s also very complex. This is not something you want to try yourself at home because you’d never have time to practice law, but is there a place you would recommend that a law firm or a lawyer start?
Eric: Not to be self-promotional here, but if you visit the Market My Market blog, we give away tons and tons of free information. One of our most trafficked blogs—it gets 100+ visitors a month—is the top 125 directories to list your firm in, and we just give it away. These are things we perform for our clients, but the reason we’re in business is because real SEO is a lot of hard work. It is very time intensive. Every I has to be dotted and T has to be crossed, but we give away tons and tons of information. We tell people, “Hey, here are the best practices. Here’s how to do A, B and C.” If the attorney has time to do that on their own while their building up their law firm, great. If you’ve got more time than clients, I always suggest somebody go in and try to handle their own marketing. You can do a lot with just your time, but at a certain point, if you’re trying to get competitive in a competitive market, like Los Angeles in a competitive area like personal injury, you’re going to need a team behind you.
We’ve got over 20 people at our company, and we’ve got our own in-house content writers because we want to be able to control the quality and the pricing of our content. We don’t want that to be outsourced. We’ve got our own SEO team in-house. We’ve got our own developers that are trying to squeak efficiency out of the website. But if somebody wants to get tools like Semrush, which is an SEO tool; it’s like $40 or $50 a month that will give analytics of your website. Ahrefs.com is another tool you can use. They will basically tell you a lot of the problems you need to fix with your website. You might be able to fix some of those on your own, or you might hire a computer programmer at $100 an hour to do some fixes here and there. There’s a lot you can do on your own without a company like ours.
Sharon: If a law firm is contemplating a redo of their website, do they need to build the SEO in from the get-go? I’m not trying to knock anybody else, but an SEO company might come in and say, “We can add it on top of what you have.” How do you suggest somebody go about that?
Eric: There are two things, and I’ll use the analogy of buying a home. If you’ve got a home that was built in the 60s and it’s got good bones, then you can work with it. If we look at that website or that house and the electricity’s gone, it’s got lead pipes and there’s termite damage, sometimes it’s better to flatten that and start anew.
There are only two ways to get Google’s attention. One is the onsite. That is how well your website is designed, both technically and in the content on there. Is it original content? Is it informative? Does it answer the questions that people are asking Google? That’s one of two really big places to impress Google. So, you’ve got to take your website seriously, and it’s not just aesthetics. Aesthetics are great, but it’s your conversion methods on there; it’s making things easy to navigate; giving people plenty of opportunity to reach out to you when they want to.
The other thing is the SEO. That’s the offsite. That’s the high-quality and relevant links you can build into the website. You’ve got offsite and onsite, and those two things need to be dialed in. If somebody comes to us with a decent website, we’ll say, “Hey, we’re going to make a couple of minor tweaks. We’re going to increase the load speed and we’re going to give you better calls to action and then we’re done.” Some of them we have to say, “This website is almost offensive. We need to start over. Let’s get you something that’s more modern.” Again, this is your first impression from people that are contacting you.
Sharon: What are the biggest mistakes, the top two or three mistakes, you see law firms make when it comes to their marketing overall or their online marketing? What do you see?
Eric: I feel a lot of people try to trick Google as opposed to working with them. Google’s very explicit: we want high-quality content. Some people take that as “just throw as much against the wall and see what works.” One of the most competitive terms out there is “car accident lawyer.” Obviously, eight car accident lawyer pages are better than one, right? No. You don’t want any pages on your website that compete with each other. So, you might have a car accident lawyer page. That’s for people who are searching for “car accident lawyer.” But then you might have pages on “Should I negotiate with my insurance company after a car accident? What are the five steps after a car accident?” These are all car accident terms, but you only have one page that’s really focused on that one car accident lawyer search.
The other common mistake I see is people building a beautiful website, uploading lots of amazing photos, having really good content, but when you look at the core web vitals of the website, you find out it takes eight seconds to load; you see their navigation is broken. Sometimes the desktop version is amazing, but the mobile version is un-usable. Again, when I talk about dotting I’s and crossing T’s, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of things that need to be looked at in order to make that seamless experience happen.
Sharon: Being effective in professional services marketing is educating people. You’re showing people, “Hey, I don’t want to do that.” This is a science; it’s an art.
Eric: It’s exactly that. I used to use that term all the time. This is part art, part science, because you’ve got to have the art. People have to see the packaging. They have to be impressed by it. You don’t want to turn them off by that. You also have the science part. You’ve got to have that technical piece and marry those together.
Sharon: That takes so much experience. The art is the experience of knowing, “O.K., this is going to work, or this might not work.” It takes experience, and I know you have a lot of experience. Eric, I want to thank you so much for being here today. We’re going to have to have you back again in a year for a completely different conversation.
Eric: Absolutely. Thank you, Sharon, I appreciate the opportunity.
Sharon: I was so glad to have you, thanks.
A legal marketing industry pioneer and thought leader, Jan Anne Dubin is an award-winning consultant and executive coach with global experience leading, innovating, and serving as a change-agent, and connector. Jan has led hundreds of cross-functional legal teams which have helped to build and deepen client relationships generating in excess of $100 million in revenue.
For more than three decades Jan has occupied a unique niche in the legal services industry, where she has worked with leadership of global, mid-size and boutique law firms and corporate law departments, with law firm marketing professionals and other senior professional staff, and with law students. Jan concentrates on providing value-driven business solutions focused on business development, client service, marketing, branding, and strategic communications.
Jan serves as an executive coach to hundreds of leaders and managers, including high potential individuals and those seeking both to work at a peak performance level and to achieve the next level of career development. As a career-long champion of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging, Jan is passionate about working with women and diverse individuals and helping them achieve their career objectives.
Offering goal-oriented, practical executive coaching solutions, Jan provides perspective, guidance, tactical suggestions, and strategic networking resources for individuals and their organizations to determine and achieve goals and objectives. Her philosophy of executive coaching is to focus on the core skills of leadership development and executive presence; strategic communications; client service; business development; and enhancement of a personal brand, profile and visibility in support of an individual’s strengths while improving weaknesses that otherwise may hinder performance.
Jan serves as a strategic partner to the Association of Corporate Counsel where she helped to create their in-house counsel executive coaching program and career skills workshops. She is a business partner with the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute and helped co-create and chair their Women’s Transformative Leadership: Empowerment by Improving Participation and Representation forum.
If Covid taught us anything, it’s that agility is necessary for long-term success. Law firms and individual lawyers sometimes need a shot in the arm to move to the next level, and that’s exactly what Jan Anne Dubin specializes in. As Founder and CEO of Jan Anne Dubin Consulting, she helps individuals, and therefore their firms, become the best they can be. She joined the podcast to talk about her time at the forefront of legal marketing, the trends that emerged during the pandemic, and how she helps her clients step into leadership roles. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Jan Anne Dubin, Founder and CEO of Jan Anne Dubin Consulting. She is an award-winning consultant who assists clients by helping them develop long-term relationships. She has coached thousands of lawyers, law students and marketing professionals and garnered many accolades along the way. We’ll hear more about the work she does today. Jan, welcome to the program.
Jan: Thank you, Sharon. I’m delighted to be here with you again.
Sharon: Jan, tell us a little about how you started working with lawyers because, as I remember, you’re not a lawyer, but I know you’ve worked with so many.
Jan: Thanks, Sharon, for asking that question. Yes, I started my career after graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism thinking that I might want to go law school down the road. I felt the best way to get some experience was to apprentice as a paralegal at a law firm and gain real insight, and then make the decision to go to law school. Subsequently I got hired by a firm in the early 80s to head up their recruiting work and do some paralegal work. So, I gained the skills, as I used to laugh and joke about. I got to do big, paralegal-type projects once and then never again, such as attending a bankruptcy hearing on the last day of the year when you’re helped with a very large multi-million-dollar real estate closing. My challenge after 3:00 p.m. was to somehow convince a teller at a bank that they had to accept the funds before 3:00 p.m. so the closing could take effect on the current year.
Subsequently I got involved in marketing and business development in the mid-80s, when I was asked to take on a role in decisional recruiting but not to tell anyone. At the time, I was maybe the eighth law firm marketer in the country. I’m number 32 according to my LMA number, which is ironic, given the profession is somewhere upwards of probably 10,000 people today. For me, it was an opportunity to learn. Subsequently I made a choice not to go to law school, but in the early 90s while working full time at a firm called Rudnick and Wolf—which is today known DLA Piper—I went to business school full time while working full time at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. That was my journey into law firms.
What happened also along the way was that I was given some extraordinary opportunities to be the first coming in to build the department and build the function of recruiting and then marketing. When I got to Rudnick in the early 90s, my job was also to start delineating, within the construct of marketing and strategic communications and business development, each of those separate functions as they were evolving with the profession. I felt really fortunate to be at the ground level. Legal marketing has sparked a very complex half-forward as it has over the years.
Sharon: Are you a natural networker? How was it that they said, “Can you handle marketing?” Did they even know what marketing was then?
Jan: To answer the question if I am a natural marketer, my parents are probably smiling down at me from heaven saying, “Yes. You have to say yes.” As the record reflects, I was once known to have sold rocks and notebook paper to my parents’ neighbors, which they thought, as endearing as my parents were, absolutely horrifying. I also had a lemonade stand at the end of my driveway, which was the sort of gatekeeper for the beach. Every car was stopped by a police officer who used to park at the end of my driveway. He would pull people over long enough to ask if they had a beach sticker and allow me to sell them a nickel cup of lemonade, which I did often.
After that, at a young age, I was very outgoing. I became shy, but I used my tools of people skills and knowledge and the power they brought to get more comfortable as I progressed in my career to network with people. I was good at listening to people, understanding their needs and, conversely, thinking about insight, information and the other people I could connect them to. Stringing those dots together is probably one of my superpowers, if I have any.
Sharon: You say you come from a family of architects. Did you see a lot of focus on business development with them?
Jan: Yes. In my early career in the 90s at Rudnick and Wolf, it was a confluence of things that were occurring: the globalization of the world and certainly the legal profession, the advent of technology and the computer being used beyond a secretarial function, the world growing such that the lawyers that historically had relationships and allegiances to firms changed. As lawyers were leaving with portable business and coming in as laterals or joinders with other firms as a result of groups leaving, the pressure for business development increased.
I remember in the early 90s, also with the failure of the savings and loan industry and the development of the FTC and the FDIC, a lot of firms that historically had done real estate work found themselves now doing the same work for the government in workouts and restructuring of failed bank loans. I think some of the first proposals I worked on were very labor-intensive government proposals. The first time I saw one of these documents, I had no earthly idea what to do with it. I remember calling a colleague of mine who was the director of marketing at the accounting firm Laventhol & Horwath, which has been extinct for probably 30 years, to ask him about it. Then, I actually went over to my father’s office. Architects typically pitched business on spec, and they were very familiar with the whole process of pitching as a result of the business development process.
I looked at what those responses to requests for proposals or information looked like and began to pattern our business development materials after that. Little by little, we created and grew a library of documents very similar to the pitch materials that law firms use today. Today they’re more sophisticated. They’ve got many more areas of practice specialties as well as nuances that delineate one firm from another, but it certainly was the beginning in the 90s, probably five to seven years before a lot of firms were engaging in pitch activity. I started to do that, and I loved that work. I loved the thrill of new business and helping lawyers solve problems. A lot of times in a pitch scenario, you have to create hypotheticals; you have to create financial models to demonstrate pricing. I liked the puzzle aspects, thinking through the challenge and figuring out unique solutions to win work.
Sharon: You were way ahead of your time there. One thing that really intrigued me—well, a lot of things intrigued me while we were talking—but you talked about how you helped lawyers and other executives in this business so that people found their fit within an organization. I thought that was really interesting because, to me, it’s like the organization is a static animal; you can’t come in and change that as much as you have to come in and find your place. You fit here and that’s it, or you don’t fit. How do you help people find a fit?
Jan: I would challenge that comment a little bit in terms of organizations being static. I think if the pandemic and the responses to social unrest over the last 18 months have taught us nothing, it’s taught us that in order to survive and thrive going forward, we have to be nimble. I think that comes from organizations needing to shift course quickly and correct and adapt and those within them, their people—their greatest asset—having to follow suit and do the same. I think one of the interesting things that happens during a time like a pandemic is the volume of innovation that comes out of it. People also have to think of their careers from a resiliency perspective and truly think about what’s going to make them happy within an organization.
Historically, as we look at the diversity, equity and inclusion spectrum, those were processes that firms put forward to retain their best people, but the dot at the end of the sentence of DEI is belonging. How do organizations help people feel like they belong? Equally important, how do people who are trying to manage and direct their careers over time seek out to find belonging? That’s a complex journey, and part of that requires us to figure out, sometimes with the assistance of an executive coach, what the means and what that looks like, so that people aren’t just parking time and doing an O.K. job, but they’re really thriving in the work that they do, and if they’re not currently with the right organization, taking the steps necessary to either turn their current function into one that’s tenable or finding the right next opportunity.
One amazing thing I saw over the course of the pandemic is the number of transitions that occurred. Over the course of the last 16 months, I’ve probably done 30 programs for the Association of Corporate Counsel, for Seyfarth Shaw. They have a program and a project called The Belonging Project, which is focused on a combination of career discussions related to finding resilience and strategic networking in this remote work-from-home environment. It’s interesting to hear stories from law firms and those in-house counsel that have onboarded with organizations and never actually met their colleagues until recently, and the comments that come out. I did a program for Women in the House for the Association of Corporate Counsel two weeks ago. One of the comments one of my panelists made was the fact that people were surprised that she was as petite as she was, given she had a much more dominant presence on Zoom calls. I think they were surprised when they actually met her, which is an odd thing to focus on. It’s interesting.
To your point, some organizations are static. Some are, but I think they’ve found that they need to adjust and be more nimble, whether they are dragged into this process by individuals wanting or needing something different or by experiencing tremendous growth or transition. I think the dramatic change that we have endured has impacted organizations to be more flexible, and I think they will only continue to do so going forward.
Sharon: I do understand what you’re saying. What I mean by static, the corporate world is very different. The law firm world is very different than it used to be. I think everybody understands that they have to make—not concessions, but they have to adapt; they have to make people happy. When people are satisfied, they feel exactly like what you’re saying. It’s interesting; every organization still has a personality. As much as you bend over backwards or you have people work from home, there’s still a personality. I guess that’s what I mean by static.
Jan: Yeah. I think the opportunity over the last months has allowed for organizations to refine that personality and soul search as an organization to figure out the traditions that are valued, what’s their import to people, and what are some new traditions that need to be embraced. Looking at written and very thought-provoking conversations that have come out because of the social unrest this country has experienced, it is refreshing to see people who have concerns and truths that they don’t want to suppress any longer. I think the dialogue has become more raw, more real, and hopefully it paves the way for things that are meaningful and significant in firms.
Firms are looking at old traditions that are outmoded and need to be replenished, or they’re looking at things that matter, things that are woven into the fabric of the firm. Having smart, talented management people to help organizations figure that out is critical, especially in light of this environment. People are beginning to return to work or some hybrid of work-from-home and in-office work, and they need to make sure that not only is the organization intellectually one that somebody wants to associate themselves with, but also one that’s safe and supports an environment that people are comfortable working in.
Sharon: Right, every organization today has to think about that, people feeling safe and comfortable. Those are important words. The other important word you used was one of my favorites that I ponder a lot. It has to do with resilience. You talked about how you kept all your resilience during this pandemic and how that meaning is going to change for lawyers, for professionals, post-pandemic. Can you tell us about that?
Jan: I think resilience is the watchword of this time that we’re in. Midstream during the pandemic, I interacted with two types of people. One was so stretched and they were doing the work of one-and-a-half to two people because their organization had a hiring freeze. They literally went from project to project and worked many more hours from home or a remote environment than they ever did being in the office.
Then there was another approach of folks that had not enough to do, and they were all of a sudden seeking out new avenues. That was a lawyer looking for innovative ways to a go down business development path, trying to figure out how to stay in contact. You saw some creative things that came out of that, as well as the proliferation from law firms at the onset of the pandemic of more material in the form of more newsletters and webinars and podcasts than anybody could ever watch in one lifetime. Thank goodness, I think people have backed away from jumping on everything and throwing the kitchen sink at clients and prospects to being more thoughtful and strategic about what people care about, what aligns with their needs.
I think firms have done some interesting things in the resilience area. You see more firms taking seriously the need of well-being and ways to create healthier lawyers and staff within organizations. That’s particularly important. Of this whole concept of well-being, resilience is a big piece of it. People being mentally, physically fit and feeling safe and secure in the environment they’re working in is important.
People also see this need to give back to others. There’s probably never been a greater need, certainly within our large urban cities. Homelessness has multiplied, and the challenges and demands they have are greater when you’ve got more people on the street. A lot of the shelters and single-room occupancy dwellings they historically would have stayed in were closed due to Covid. Figuring out how to fill those needs, how to help those that are hungry, has been particularly critical.
For me, I came up with some random and some strategic acts of kindness that I felt needed to guide my path starting early in the spring of 2020. I was fraught with the challenge as I was furloughed from my law firm clients. What would I do? I worried about what would I do long-term to replenish that work and what I would do in the short-term to stay sane and intellectually challenged. I took on some pro bono projects that were meaningful to me. One was a project called Milkmaid, where I worked with friends of mine that were partnered with Jose Andres and World Central Kitchen. It’s a catering company out of Evanston, Illinois called Soul and Smoke. At this point during the pandemic response, they have donated more than 150,000 meals to those in need in the Evanston and Englewood neighborhoods of Chicago. At the beginning, I called them to say, “How can I help? I have time. I have money. I have limited money, but I have a lot of resources that I can bring to bear.” One of the first demands they had was milk, so I started by calling a number of bottling companies to identify a source for milk and getting nowhere quickly in that process. By fluke, about a week after I had started making those calls, I say a story on ABC Channel 7 News at 4:30 that talked about farmers that were frantically pouring milk back into the earth because cows need to be milked, but they had no demand and no distribution of the milk. I wrote the names down quickly and started to map out each of the locations for the various farms and their proximity to Evanston.
On my first call, I talked to Max Tillges—actually, I talked to his wife first, who had to call to him out on the farm. I explained I was a small business owner, and I knew who he was. I was not looking to get milk at a discount, but I was looking to access a quantity of milk beyond what we could buy locally from any of the grocery stores. I needed pasteurized milk, and I needed to have it delivered in a safe, refrigerated manner to Evanston once a week. We started a project I called Milkmaid, which was the delivery of 200 gallons of pasteurized whole and 2% milk once a week. This program ran for a 12-week period. At the end of the 12 weeks we shut it down, as milk was back in plentiful supply at the local grocery and actually less expensive per gallon than the costs we were paying for milk.
It was an interesting experience from my perspective. I never spent a lot of time dealing with farmers or understanding the challenges they had. I was also pleasantly surprised how easy it was to coordinate the resources between Tillges Farm and the Soul and Smoke folks, and their ability to coordinate with the Montessori School in Englewood, which was part of Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen project to get milk and food to people in need in the community.
Sharon: Wow! That was quite a project. I give you a lot of credit. That’s quite an undertaking, besides the fact that you were busy and trying to do what everybody else was to keep their own lives going. We talked about in-house counsel and that you work a lot with in-house counsel. It always surprises me. You’re an executive coach also, but what do you do? What is the presenting issue?
Jan: Sure, it’s a number of things. Let me start. Throughout the last 30 plus years, I’ve had some relationship with the Association of Corporate Counsel. Initially it was through Rudnick and Wolf and then Piper, Marbury and DLA Piper, where I was the lead point person for that relationship. It’s extended beyond that up until today. About six years ago, they came to me as they were looking to develop their career resources for in-house counsel. Initially, it was to help those in-house counsel in transition with career needs. The first year we focused the executive coaching resources on career transitions. Subsequently, I found that more discussions related to those that weren’t looking necessarily to make a move out of the organization but were looking for ways to own their roles and strengthen their leadership skills and executive presence differently than they had done. So, we started to focus on that. In concert with that, I helped create a series of programs that looked at aspects of building a personal brand, developing thought leadership and a social media profile, strategic networking similar to what law firms do, but very focused on the in-house counsel audience. It was done with the understanding of how somebody in-house can build their network, both with others in a very large law department and with their internal clients who are the business units. In some instances, a general of a bank will have internal interactions with customers at the bank as well. It’s a lot of the same intellectual challenges that law firm partners and associates go through in thinking about how to build their book of business, but more with an internal focus.
I’ve worked with ACC and its members for a number of years in the area. I am on the career website for ACC. I’m one of probably 20 coaches or so that are there. I do some gratis work for in-house counsel that’s interested in exploring something different. That could be, again, leadership development; it could be wanting to get to the next level of development with an in-house organization; it could be somebody that’s been managing counsel that wants to become a general counsel, and we’re talking through the steps to successfully accomplish that. For others it might be inculcating a more robust diversity program within the construct of the law department. If there’s any question about the evolution and how much law departments have changed, just looking at the launch of the organization clock which very specifically looks at the operations function. Historically, a role that a general counsel would have served in is now often supported by somebody that’s got a purely operations function and is looking at improved functionality as well as cost reduction. I think it makes the role of GC or chief legal officer of an organization even more challenging, and it starts to relate differently to other C-suites within the structure of the organization. That’s a quick overview of the type of work I’ve done with in-house counsel.
Sharon: Well, it sounds very interesting. Is it usually an individual who will come to you?
Jan: It depends on the project. I get brought in by organizations. Often law firm leadership or law department leadership will bring me in to talk about the big challenges they may have. Sometimes it’s specifically regarding an individual they think might be stuck, if you will, in their career and needs some help. These are productive individuals that may need some improved skills in a specific area. It could be strategic communications; it could be hygiene, and when I say hygiene, I don’t mean body; I mean discipline in following rules. Things like timekeeping, where they work, how they interact with folks in the office. A lot of times an executive coach can be a sounding board to try to help an individual erode things that are in their way. Oftentimes, it can help them see themselves as others do. It can help them get out of their own way and allow them the ability to thrive in what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s unlearning habits and patterns that have been developed and adopted over many years.
Sharon: Jan, thank you so much. There are different feelings I’m feeling. First of all, your knowledge is amazing, and your experience is amazing, but I know there’s an aspect of frustration here. There must be so much satisfaction once you get past a roadblock or when a person sees the value you’re bringing and how you can make a difference.
Jan: Yeah, Sharon, you really hit it on the head. It’s an incredibly intimate process, to assure somebody that they can trust you and have confidence. I always say to people that are interested in hiring an executive coach, “Kick the tires hard on the person you’re going to meet to make sure they have the skill set you’re looking for and the personality to meet with you.” I know as a coach—and I learned this lesson over many years as a law firm marketing person—you can’t push a string. You’ve got to be met with the same energy that you as an executive coach bring to the table. They need to want to not just articulate change, but to put in the heavy lifting that’s required week after week to bring about the change they want to see. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Without getting into specifics, I can say the pinnacle of my opportunities came a few months ago, when one of my clients asked me to attend a senate confirmation hearing. They were a Biden appointee who has now been confirmed, and they asked me to attend their senate confirmation hearing, It really was one of my proudest moments, both for the this individual and also to be valued enough by this person to have them want me to come with them. It was quite exciting.
Sharon: It was quite a compliment. I can see why. Jan, thank you so much for talking with us today. I really appreciate it. There is so much depth in what you say, so thank you.
Jan: Thank you, Sharon. You’ve made the conversation flow very quickly. Thank you for your time and for allowing me to share my thoughts.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. Thanks a lot.
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Megan Braverman, Principal at Berbay Marketing and Public Relations, has earned an exceptional reputation as a strategic asset for law firms and other professional service firms and is known for her ability to execute marketing programs that surpass business goals. Immersing herself in clients’ operations enables Megan to identify what sets firms apart from their competition, and leverage this to create countless PR opportunities, generate awareness and reinforce credibility.
As Principal, Megan plays an integral role with all of Berbay’s clients, working closely with the Account Managers to ensure the successful execution of marketing plans. She makes it a priority to regularly revisit client objectives and assess if the current strategy is supporting those goals. This proactive approach results in a consistent marketing momentum for clients.
Megan is a member of Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and ProVisors. She previously served as a cabinet member and executive committee member of the Jewish Federation. Megan has been a volunteer with School on Wheels, which provides tutoring services and other educational assistance to homeless children in Southern California, and CoachArt, which uses art and athletics to help kids impacted by chronic illness.
Chambers & Partners is one of the most coveted legal rankings—and one of the most enigmatic. With an extensive nomination process and months-long research period, many lawyers and law firms are mystified when it comes to getting listed or moving up in the rankings. Megan Braverman, Principal of Berbay Marketing and Public Relations, has spent hundreds of hours completing successful nominations and gotten numerous clients ranked by Chambers. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about which firms should devote time to Chambers nominations, how to create a winning submission, and how to evaluate past nominations for future success. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is my colleague, Megan Braverman, Principal of Berbay Marketing and Public Relations. Megan has significant experience getting our lawyer clients ranked in Chambers as well as working with those already ranked to help them move up the rankings. Today’s she’ll share some of the ins and outs gleaned from her experience working with Chambers and partners. Megan, welcome to the program.
Megan: Thank you, Sharon. Glad to be here.
Sharon: Glad to be talking to you, especially in this remote world. Tell us a little about your background and how you came to work at Berbay.
Megan: Coming to work at Berbay was very haphazard. I applied to a Craigslist application and got the job and really grew from there. The trajectory at Berbay was not what I imagined. I started about 12 years ago and am now the principal of Berbay, running the day-to-day of the agency and being a strategic asset for law firms, real estate companies and financial service firms.
Sharon: I know how much our clients rely on you. A lot of listeners have heard about Chambers, but they’re not sure what it is. Can you describe it and give us a little background?
Megan: Sure. Chambers is a legal ranking. It uses an in-depth editorial and research team to assess lawyers and law firms globally. Many consider Chambers to be the leading directory in the legal profession, which is why it’s so coveted. It began in the early 90s, and today it covers over 200 jurisdictions and over 100 practice areas, and it continues to expand. It’s one of the toughest lists to get on. That’s what they’ve built a reputation for a high degree of selectivity. In fact, 2% of U.S. firms are ranked and you cannot buy your way in.
Sharon: Wow! You’ll have to tell us more about why it’s so difficult. I looked at the application and it seems daunting and time-consuming. Why should lawyers or law firms bother with it? What does it get them to get their firm or themselves ranked?
Megan: You asked why it’s so coveted, how it got to the place it is today, and if you look at the history when legal rankings or directories were first introduced, it was sort of like the Yellow Pages for lawyers. Most lawyers listening remember Martindale Hubbell, which is still relevant, but it was one of the first. It was practice-area-specific; you could easily find the kind of lawyer you needed, and many of these directories were comprehensive. They included every kind of lawyer, regardless of the caliber of work. Then you start to see an introduction of exclusive rankings, things like Chambers. They were much more exclusive, because they began to rank by quality and by caliber of work. Chambers, for example, they’re looking for things like technical ability, client service. They’re really drilling down into why this lawyer or law firm is so great.
The million-dollar question, the billion-dollar question, is who’s using these directories? Should I do it? Do I bother with it? You’re right; it’s daunting; it’s time-consuming. At every marketing conference I’ve ever been to, there’s almost always a question directed to a panel of corporate or in-house counsel on whether they use Chambers. Frankly, the verdict is still out. It’s very 50/50. I know most marketing professionals across the world would love if the Chambers of the world would go away, because it’s so time-consuming and it can be very competitive and very difficult to get folks on the list even if they’ve tried year after year.
One of the commonly heard answers is that it helps you get on the short list if corporate counsel or in-house counsel are looking for lawyers in unfamiliar jurisdictions or practices. It’s also a badge of credibility. A lot of people look at it as if you’re not ranked on Chambers, then something’s missing. It’s different for different firms. Whether you answer the question “Should I be doing it?” as a lawyer or as a law firm, that really needs to fit into your larger marketing objectives. For example, if you are a consumer-facing firm like a plaintiff firm, you might not consider Chambers because it’s not plaintiff-friendly. If you’re a local firm—let’s say you’re only looking in the greater New York area or the greater southern California area. Chambers is a national ranking, so consider other rankings before you pursue Chambers. It’s something you have to look at.
Keep in mind that Chambers is an every-year endeavor. If you’re going to commit to it, you need to do it every year. I’ll add this and close here, but we did an analysis several years ago on how much time Berbay spends on each submission. We found on average that we spend 40 to 60 hours per submission. You’re looking at up to 180 hours if you work on three submissions. If it’s your first time ever, then usually you’re on the higher end, either 60 or sometimes 80. So, it is incredibly time-consuming.
Sharon: And that doesn’t include the time the lawyer has to put in to send us information and review the information, and the time the marketing person at the firm has to run around and chase someone, a lawyer or someone else, to get the answers.
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot these hours don’t capture, so beyond the time investment, you have to make sure that it fits in your larger marketing and business development goals. That’s the push that we make for a lot of firms; does it fit what you’re trying to achieve?
Sharon: I think that’s an interesting point you raise, about how in-house counsel use it to market, if you want to attract the attention of in-house counsel. I know some lawyers are dismissive, like they don’t use it. Some in-house counsel say, “Oh, I never use it,” but I’ve sat next to in-house counsel who say they at least, as you say, develop the short list starting with Chambers. It’s almost as if there’s an embarrassment factor, like, “Yeah, I’ve used Chambers,” like they don’t want to admit it in a sense.
Megan: Yeah, absolutely. I think Chambers has done a really good job of developing the profiles they have on each lawyer and law firm. It gives a lot of insight into the kind of work the lawyer does beyond the bio. It’s quoting clients and how integral they were to their legal services and what they really excel at. It’s a good sales pitch for a lawyer.
Sharon: That’s a good point, too. I know Chambers dislikes a puff piece, like if you just copied over what’s on the website.
Sharon: When you look at Chambers, it looks like it’s only for big firms, but I know we’ve been successful with smaller firms. Can you give a couple of examples of when it might make sense for a smaller firm, or when we’ve been successful in getting a firm in?
Megan: Sure. Chambers does not consider the size of the law firm in their rankings. They’re very clear about this. It’s obvious that larger law firms dominate Chambers lists, but they absolutely consider and rank smaller firms, and we’ve been very successful in getting several smaller firms and midsize firms in their rankings. They actually have an entire page on the Chambers website explaining their commitment to smaller firms. I think over the last eight to 10 years, Chambers has made a stronger commitment to accommodate small firms.
You really have to focus on highlighting the strengths of your practice and your firm. Again, it comes down how strong your submission is, so it may be that you see a lot of larger law firms on there. It could be a combination of things. It could be they have bigger deals, bigger matters, more to boast, but I think smaller law firms absolutely should consider this as part of their marketing strategy. We’ve worked with a number of folks that had a difficult time getting onto the Chambers list and they thought it was because of their size, but we’ve seen time and time again that Chambers does not consider size.
Sharon: We’ve talked about this a lot. It’s leveling the playing field. How many times do we hear a firm say, “We’re a well-kept secret”? Well, get the word out and get on the same playing field with some of the bigger firms. That’s where I think Chambers and a lot of these directories are so important. What if you don’t see your practice area listed? What should you do?
Megan: Good question. Chambers has well over a hundred different practice areas you can submit for. Keep in mind many of these practice areas have subcategories. For example, for litigation they’ve got five different options, sometimes more depending on the state you’re in: litigation appellate, litigation general commercial, litigation securities and so on. They expand their practice areas every year. I think Chambers is well aware of adding new practices because when they first started, it was pretty limited and every year they add more. I think it was in 2020, don’t quote me, but they added a nationwide cannabis practice area, for example. If you don’t see something, when in doubt, you should ask Chambers. They’re very open about which ranking you should pursue in terms of what you’re looking for, and they can help navigate that for you. If you don’t see something or if there’s not something that stands out, I would ask Chambers.
Sharon: You also mentioned that you have to do this annually. If you’re in it one year, does that mean you’ll automatically be in it the next, or do you have to be selected again?
Megan: Yeah, I wish. You need to go after it year after year, even if you’ve been ranked. It’s not to say that you’ll automatically drop off the list, but Chambers hangs their hat on their research, and that starts with your submission. A lot of the things that are in your submission are not on your website. They do a lot of outside research, of course, but they need to see what you’ve been up to for the last 12 months. If you don’t submit, you’re hurting your chances. It’s really important; you have to go after it year after year.
Sharon: Yes, you can have a sigh of relief when you finish the submission, but it seems like the whole process starts in just a month or two again because it takes so long. You mentioned a really important point, I think. If somebody isn’t familiar with Chambers, the difference between them and other rankings is that they ask for what they call “referees.” Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Megan: Sure. You’re going to start to see this in more nominations than just Chambers. I think we’ve seen it more in the last couple of years than before. Referees is their term for, essentially, client names or co-counsel that can talk about the caliber of your work. Chambers asks you to submit up to 20 names, and you need to take advantage of all those 20 spots. Essentially, Chambers will call these folks—they email them first and ask for either a call or written responses to specific questions about that lawyer or law firm. One of the challenges when it comes to referees is that Chambers researchers get a very low response rate; typically, it’s less than 30%, which is very low. One of the most important qualities in your referees is that they’re responsive. It’s important that you don’t include referees you know won’t respond because they’re busy. For example, it’s amazing to have the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, but if you know they’re not going to respond, you shouldn’t list them.
The second piece is that it’s really important to work with your referees to ensure they know a Chambers email is coming. Sometimes if they don’t know, they’ll overlook it, or maybe it goes to spam or they’re not aware of the process. If you’re going to submit someone’s name, you should prepare them for the process. This includes making sure they know who’s going to reach out, what questions are going to be asked of them, what the process is. You may even want to help the referee hone some communication points about you. Maybe they don’t have it top of mind, or they could be putting it off because they don’t feel prepared, so you just need to step them through the process. Our belief, based on years of experience doing this for so long, is that referees are the most weighted. They’re more weighted than the actual submission itself, I think. So, this is the most important piece of the Chambers process.
Sharon: Yeah, I think it’s important to make the referee’s job as easy as possible. Like you were saying, it’s about developing communication points or letting them know at least that something’s coming so they can keep their eyes open for it. I haven’t seen the actual email, but I hear they’re really easy to overlook. Very often lawyers will come to us and are frustrated because they’ve been fortunate to be ranked, but they feel they should be higher on the list. They want help moving up. Is it possible to move people up?
Megan: Yeah, but there’s no formula. You have to have realistic expectations. We see folks get ranked and they immediately want to move up a ranking the next year, and I don’t think that’s realistic. It’s not that it’s impossible, but it’s the exception. You have to really demonstrate why you are moving up in the rankings and why you warrant that ranking bump. There are six ranking levels, one being the best. Sometimes firms get a little disappointed when they’re ranked in band five, let’s say, and they’re like, “Well, that doesn’t reflect well. We should be band one or band two.”
I think in addition to the referees, how important it is to get your referees to respond like I just talked about, I think the other piece of the nomination is your deals, your cases. You need to focus on the worthy cases over the last 12 months. The other thing is you have to remember that these—I feel bad for the researchers a little bit. They’re reading thousands and thousands of submissions. I think it’s important that you highlight what’s so important about your matter, what was significant about it, what was the outcome, what was the impact it had. Maybe there were nuanced areas of law; maybe it’s the first of its kind, precedent-setting. You want to try to underscore the important aspects of the matter and not just leave it as a basic description.
But I want to go back to having realistic expectations. Think about it this way: stack your Chambers nominations next to each other. Let’s say you were ranked in 2020 in band 4, but in 2021 you were still ranked in band 4 and you’re wondering why. Well, do you think you really had a step-up in terms of the kinds and size and importance of your matters? If not, then that’s probably why you didn’t go up a band. If you had, let’s say, the same referee response rate; it was 30% the year before and it was 30% again—and they will tell you how many people have responded. They won’t tell you who; that’s the struggle, but they will tell you five of your 20 responded or three of your 20 responded. If those haven’t changed, then you have unrealistic expectations. If you can point out that your matters were much more significant and you’ve got that increase in referee rate, sometimes it takes a couple of years of that. It’s a couple of years of a slow, steady rise.
There really isn’t a formula, but that’s the one thing I look at when we have law firms calling us and saying, “We really need some help moving up the bands.” I like to look at all their former submissions and compare them to each other and think about it logically. Do they warrant an increase in bands, and if they do, what’s happening? What’s going wrong with their submission or their referee response rate? If they don’t move up, it’s unfortunately having those conversations with law firms and setting better expectations and making sure you keep on keeping on. There are ways to highlight things, but I think realistic expectations is so important.
Sharon: Let’s say it’s been a good year, but we haven’t gone to the Supreme Court or whatever. We don’t have anything more to say. Should we submit anyway? Should we do our best and submit anyway, or should we skip a year?
Megan: You shouldn’t skip. I think you’re right. Not every year is your most amazing year, so again, it’s about setting realistic expectations. If you didn’t have a stellar year compared to other years, then don’t expect to move up bands. I think there are other ways to sell yourself. There’s a section in the Chambers nomination called the B10 section, and it’s an opportunity to sell yourself. This is the only essay portion of Chambers. The rest is focused on basic information about the firm, bios of the attorneys and the matters and deals I mentioned. If you haven’t had a stellar year and some of your matters or deal submissions are average or not as great as years prior, the B10 section is where you can really focus on other things. I do feel like many gloss over this section or use it as a generic description of your practice, but again, this is where you sell yourself.
What’s important is that you should not duplicate anything in the form, meaning in the B10 section, you don’t repeat the matters you already have listed. It should be other pieces of information that Chambers should know about, and you want to avoid marketing fluff. It should be substantive information. For example, don’t call yourself an unparalleled attorney. Say that you’ve done more than $4 billion in deal transactions in the last couple of years. Maybe it’s more impressive to take a look at the last few years together and quantify what you’ve done. Maybe you can talk about a new practice area that you’ve really started to gain traction in or that you’ve done something internally that was very unique. These are ways that you can highlight other parts of your practice and your skillset. That this section is great to showcase all of that, so I would focus on this. Your matters are still important, of course, but this is the section you want to focus on.
Sharon: And it’s the one that takes a lot of digging deep and having to stop and think about it. What haven’t I asked you, Megan? What else should people know?
Megan: Good question. A couple of things come to mind. One is that once you submit your submission, you should introduce yourself to the researcher. Let them know that you’re available for questions. I think that this is important. They make this information known and available. Check in with them about referees. They will tell you when their research period is; it’s a dedicated month. Check in with them, whether it’s every week or every week-and-a-half or so, and see how your referees are responding. If they’re not responding, then you need to do another push. That’s important, and it’s something we see a lot of firms don’t do.
I think the other thing is there’s something called Chambers Confidential. Those that know Chambers, this will be familiar to them. It’s essentially a report that Chambers will issue which explains some of the feedback they’ve received in prior years. This is a paid piece. You have to pay Chambers to give you this report. If you’re not making any progress in a certain practice area or with certain groups, you should request this. It gives you great feedback, and it can be insightful as to why you’re not ranked and help ensure that your submissions are focusing on these issues.
If you’re still not making any progress, this is really a sales pitch for ourselves, but hire an agency. There are a lot of pros to hiring an agency. First of all, it’s time-consuming, but you’ve got a team of specialists at your disposal. In hiring an outside agency, it provides you with that bench strength not only to draft a compelling nomination, but to juggle all the moving parts, and you get the plus of years and years of Chambers experience. I will say there is some benefit for someone in-house to do it because that person has company familiarity, but there is a benefit to having fresh eyes from an outside agency that can help determine the points that will be the most impactful or elements that you wouldn’t have thought through without outside input. If you haven’t made inroads with Chambers for a few years in a row, I think you should consider hiring an agency.
Sharon: Of course, we support hiring an agency, but you say there’s also a case to be made for in-house lawyers to do it. What do you mean exactly? I’m not sure.
Megan: I mean in-house marketing. It depends on the firm’s structure. For most in-house marketing departments, this falls under their purview. They’ve got company familiarity, so they have the benefit of pulling different numbers they have access to and things that an outside agency wouldn’t think of because it’s not at their fingertips. There are a lot of firms whose lawyers do it themselves. I’m always shocked when I find out that a lawyer is doing it themselves. It’s time-consuming, so most lawyers don’t have the time to carve out 40 or 60+ hours to do a Chambers submission. But again, company familiarity. I think that’s the one benefit of an in-house person doing it.
Sharon: One question law firms face (and we face working with law firms) is how many lawyers in a firm should be submitted. We know everybody wants to be submitted.
Megan: This is my favorite question because that’s one thing we see people doing wrong. Firms are submitting everyone and, frankly, not everyone warrants inclusion. I think this is where managing expectations and letting people down comes in. Your nomination should focus on the best and the brightest and those that have the most worthy cases or the most activity in the last 12 months, and that doesn’t necessarily coincide with who you want to put forth. Law firm politics; we get it. We’ve seen a lot of it and we know it exists. It exists in every firm, not just law firms. There are some folks that you have to put forward and that’s that, but I think it’s important to focus in on the people you think warrant inclusion and narrow this list down as much as you can.
I will say, too, recently Chambers has added an “up-and-coming” or “associates to watch” list. There are basically three additional bands for younger attorneys. A lot of times we’ll see younger folks on this list because they’re trying to push those younger folks. These up-and-coming lists are for those who haven’t had an established reputation but are driving the firm’s growth. This is something Chambers has recently added. I think that’s Chambers seeing the trends. For senior associates or associates, they’re starting to recognize them for their work and their role in these major deals and matters, so there is a place for younger folks as well.
Sharon: It makes a lot of sense. I didn’t know about the associate list, so that’s great to hear. I hear so often, “We have to submit Harry because we have to show him we support him and we appreciate all he’s doing for the firm,” but Harry may not warrant inclusion on a regular list yet.
Megan: Exactly. I think Chambers has been good about seeing this issue and the trends and creating new lists, new practice areas. That’s opened up the likelihood of other folks and other levels of folks getting in the door.
Sharon: Megan, this is fabulous information. Thank you very much. Unfortunately, we don’t have a magic wand. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of talking to Chambers and talking to lawyers, but this is great information. Thank you so much for being here today and talking with us.
Megan: Thank you so much for having me.
END OF AUDIO
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Helene Bizar:
Helene Rubinfeld Bizar has been the Director of Administration at the Law Offices of Michels & Lew since 2005. Being a small firm, she is responsible for all the non-legal aspects of successfully running a firm, from personnel management, technology, financial requirements, securing service contracts, managing insurance needs, negotiating leases and seamlessly transitioning the firm through the remote working process during the pandemic – it’s all a daily priority juggling act!
She has spent the last 44 years working in law firms in a variety of capacities. Having previously been the Controller of a major motion picture advertising agency, along with a background in psychology and being a Certified Legal Administrator through the UCLA School of Law, she is well grounded with the tools and calm demeanor for law firm administration.
Helene has been a speaker at several Los Angeles County Bar Association Small Firm Section meetings on various topics related to law firm management and she has contributed articles to the Association of Legal Administrators chapter newsletters, an organization for which she served on the Board of Directors for many years.
Episode 92: The Evolution of Law Firm Marketing with Helene Bizar, Director of Administration at Law Offices of Michels & Lew
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, my guest is Helene Bizar, Director of Administration at the Law Offices of Michels & Lew which specializes in medical malpractice and personal injury. Helene has longtime experience working in law firms and has worn many hats including that of marketing. We’ll hear all about her career path today and what she’s learned about working with lawyers and with legal marketers. Helene, welcome to the podcast.
Helene: Thank you for having me, Sharon, it’s a pleasure.
Sharon: So glad to have you. I’m really looking forward to this because we’ve known each other a while, but I haven’t heard—I’ll call it your story in a sense, but tell us about your career path.
Helene: O.K., I’m not going to go too far back, but I did work in a motion picture advertising agency doing accounting work and the production manager was married to an office manager of a very large, prestigious Century City law firm and they were looking for someone to assist in their accounting department and I was ready to make a change. That’s how my legal entry began—or my entry in the legal field—and I worked for that firm close to ten years. I did start in their accounting department and during my term there, I became aware of a class at UCLA through their School of Law and it was in certification, legal management and administration. So, I took the course and it was wonderful, very challenging but good and that really launched my career into the management side of law firms. When I left that firm, I went to a thirty-attorney firm as their administrator and that was in 1986, and while I was there the firm—they were kind of divided. One side was more insurance defense; one side was more general practice litigation and they decided to split. I maintained a dual management administrative role and managed both firms simultaneously until they were able to wind down the business and each go their separate ways.
That was my next entrée to another law firm where I spent almost close to 7½ years. And that was really my first involvement with any marketing and that was the early 1990s and as I’m sure you know, in the ‘70s, law firms couldn’t advertise. It wasn’t until 1977 when there was a Supreme Court case, Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, that struck down the prohibition of attorneys’ advertising. The concept is relatively new in the scheme of things, and it took a long time for attorneys to embrace the concept. TV advertising was certainly frowned upon; it didn’t seem prestigious. Law firms look at it as something kind of cheesy. So, they weren’t welcoming and embracing to the concept. My exposure in the early days of marketing was really more in terms of sending out newsletters, attorneys having speaking engagements, that type of thing.
When I left that firm, I decided I needed a break from administration and I partnered with someone who had an attorney recruiting background and we opened up our own practice, an attorney recruiting firm and we were both very well connected with administrators and recruiters, and we thought it would be a good fit and something different to try and be our own bosses. After a few years, we decided it really wasn’t satisfying. We had lots of job openings, but we really couldn’t get the quality candidates to work with us to make a move.
Things were very different back in the ‘90s than they are today. In 2005, I joined my current firm and that’s really where I cut my teeth on marketing because the concept was more widely accepted and it was easier to persuade attorneys to put their toe in the water and check it out and see how it went. I was very fortunate that my firm was visionary because the managing partner in 1980, which was early for marketing, launched a TV advertising campaign on the Spanish stations and it was wildly successful.
Sharon: Wow, that is visionary! And I can see why you would have been the only one.
Helene: Yes, and especially because he was able to identify that the Hispanic community was very underserved in the medical world. They didn’t have access to the top doctors and their resources were different. So, there were many more birth injuries that occurred and that was kind of our niche market, and still is, traumatic birth injuries, and he was even smart enough to have developed a tagline back then which was, “Abogados para los niños” which is “attorneys for the children” and even today people remember that and sometimes will say, “I saw you on TV” and we have not advertised on the Spanish stations in quite a long time. We’ve diverted to other advertising media. So, that was kind of the launching of my firm’s advertising.
Sharon: I’m curious because when I came into law firm marketing, even though it was 25, 30 years ago, it was underway. It was a long time after the Supreme Court decision. How did lawyers talk about marketing? It’s only recently that it hasn’t been a dirty word in the sense or sales hasn’t been a dirty word in law firm marketing. Did they talk about business development? What terminology did they use?
Helene: In my exposure early on in my career, it was because I worked at a large, more of a general practice firm, the focus was cross-selling. So, if you were a probate attorney and your client needed something that was of a corporate need, they would try to cross-sell within the firm. I can’t remember that there was a formal marketing program back in 1977 when I first entered law firms. It really didn’t start to emerge until the late ‘80s, early 90s and even today, my experience has been those attorneys who embraced the concept of marketing and advertising don’t actually want to do the work themselves; they want someone else to do the work, which I think you understand.
Sharon: Yeah, I do. I can understand that from several perspectives. So, was there a formal cross-selling program? I mean did the partners meet and when they were talking about accounting or the management of the firm, were they talking about, “We’ve got to cross-sell?” Was it just pounding on the table? I’m rather curious because I wasn’t doing this then.
Helene: At the first firm that I was at, which again was a large Century City firm, I wasn’t privy to those meetings. I just know in conversations that I would hear that they would always emphasize that business development equated to cross-selling within the firm. There weren’t really any formal outside attempts to market, though I do think some of the attorneys would speak occasionally if they had a connection with a particular group, but it wasn’t in any kind of formalized way and it was always an issue too because in that environment, which is different from being in a medical malpractice firm, the billable hour was the golden rule. People didn’t want to give up their hours to somebody else and where I am now, we’re on a total contingency basis. So, it’s very different than being in a defense firm or a general practice firm. The world has changed. The internet is here. The options are broad for marketing.
Sharon: Was it jarring when you moved from a firm that worked in billable hours to one that was a contingency? For you, was that a little jarring? I guess it’s a word that keeps coming to mind. Was it like, “Oh, my gosh?”
Helene: It was very different in many respects, not just that. I do think being in a contingency firm promotes a more relaxed environment and I’ll tell you our attorneys work long, hard hours, but there isn’t that same kind of pressure to meet an hourly goal, but my firm is also very different culturally. I’ve been in very large firms. It was a difficult decision for me to decide if I wanted to join this firm because I was actually, conceptually, moving down. I was going to a smaller firm and I was concerned about how that was going to look on my résumé if I wanted to change positions down the line, but it’s become a non-issue. This firm is very familial. It is cohesive. The people have been there, most well over 25 years, 30 years, some 40 years; some graduated high school and came to the firm. The firm is 40 years old and there are people that started in the beginning and are still here. I’ve been at the firm over 16 years, and I feel like the new kid on the block. So, it’s a very different experience.
Sharon: It must be. I mean I’ve seen the firm in action. It’s been several years, but I’m just blown away by the fact that the leadership of Phil Michels decided to advertise on TV early on. Talk about breaking a glass ceiling, in a sense.
Helene: Most of the people at our firm do speak Spanish and they can very well relate to the clients and our marketing has always been to—well, there’s divergent marketing. There’s the marketing to the attorneys and there’s marketing to the potential client. The client marketing has been focused largely in I’ll say the Inland Empire area where there had been—I think the dynamics are changing now—but had been a very large Hispanic population and again the doctors, the regional centers, the medical facilities were not of the level of the UCLAs and the Cedar Sinais that were—it’s rare that we would go against one of those facilities. So, we filled a niche and there’s a cultural issue too, because with many Hispanics, if something goes wrong in the course of a pregnancy or a birth, they feel that they are responsible. So, we have to get over that hurdle with them and let them know it’s not their fault and get to the source of what did happen and what caused the birth injuries, and these are really heartbreaking catastrophic injuries where a child will need a life care plan for the rest of their lives. Our cases are often what they call HIE cases; their hypoxic, ischemic, encephalopathy, where there is a deprivation of oxygen to the brain and limited blood flow. It’s so detrimental to these children and heart-breaking. We see them coming in in wheelchairs with all kinds of apparatus to help them breathe and suction and G-tubes, and as a firm, we fight so hard for them so we can get them a settlement that will allow them access to all of the medical needs that exist for them.
Sharon: I’m curious if you’ve seen a change in the way that prospective clients choose the firm or how they make a decision about which firm to choose, and the same with how lawyers who refer to the firm, has it changed in say the last 15 years in terms of what you need to emphasize to them in order to stand out? Does that make sense?
Helene: Yes, it makes sense and I’m just trying to think where to start to answer your question. We track, every week, our marketing. We have a software program where we enter every phone call that comes into our firm or any letter than comes into our firm into our system and we track the source of how that person or attorney found us and we’re able to see a trend by doing that and again, there are two different marketing venues I would say. We market to attorneys, and we do that through magazines and the newspapers that are indigenous to the legal industry. We attend a conference every year that’s put on by the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles—the handle is CAALA—that’s a huge conference for attorneys and it’ll draw 3,000 minimum attorneys typically and we have an exhibit booth there every year. So, we make ourselves visible. We let people know that we have an in-house medical director that reviews cases. We emphasize that we have great resources to analyze cases, whether or not they have credibility, if they have value and that has been very successful for us.
On the other side, if we’re marketing to prospective clients, we have to be more strategic and do target marketing and we’re also—everyone who knows about personal injury firms knows about MICRA which is a 1975 law, it’s the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act which limits the case value, non-economic damages, to $250,000. So, we are a firm that typically will not take those cases because they are too expensive to litigate to really get the client a decent settlement. Our market is in excess of $2 million, $3 million; those are really the catastrophic cases. Potential clients now have more ways to find us because of the internet and the worldwide web. I mean there’s Instagram; there’s Facebook, AVVO, Martindale-Hubbell, Google keyword searches. The internet is God.
Sharon: I know, yes, there’s so much that it’s overwhelming. There’s always a debate about whether—it’s been a while—but the debate about whether clients choose a personal injury firm because they see how much money you’ve gotten for other people, or they choose it because they feel like you’re warm and fuzzy in that sense. Has that changed or has one gone up and become less important than the other or more important do you think or are there others that have entered the picture?
Helene: I think that our clients select us because of our experience. They look at what their situation is; they look to see if we have experience in that arena and we have a client relations manager who is really, aside from our receptionist whom we love—our client relations manager is the one who really begins the conversation with the potential client and she’s the one that makes them feel comfortable; she’s the one who is able to explain whether or not typically we can take their case. She’s been with us so long, but she doesn’t make the ultimate decision, but she makes them feel comfortable and confident in us. They tell her their story. She gives the information to our medical director. He looks at the facts and determines if it’s a case that we want to look at further, in more depth. We have a huge array of experts in all areas of medicine who we use to also look at the data, the circumstances of the case, to help determine whether or not it’s a case we feel that we can successfully litigate. If we can’t help the client, we’re not going to take the case and we are very selective. I will tell you that probably somewhere between 1% to 3% of the calls that we get do we even look at the case, let alone accept it. There are many, many variables and whether or not you can prove causation and liability in a case and with the MICRA cap, it makes it more difficult.
Sharon: I know it’s a challenge. I mean there are a lot of sad stories out there, but if the evidence isn’t there or whatever—you’ve been involved in and had a marketing hat on at times and you’ve been involved in marketing your own business and you’ve hired a lot of different marketers and—I’ll use this word—vendors as search engine optimization firms. What do you look for when you’re choosing a firm or a person in marketing and business development?
Helene: Someone who can be persuasive with our attorneys and get them to actually take action. In the early days, I know my firm, they would do brochures; they would do mailings. We advertised extensively in the Yellow Pages, English and Spanish. Those kinds of things have certainly gone by the wayside. We have tried kiosks in malls; we have tried billboards; we have tried bus benches; we’ve obviously done TV, but today, it’s all about the internet. That’s really how—
Sharon: Sorry, it’s all about you said—I didn’t hear that.
Helene: The internet.
Sharon: Yes, O.K., yes, it is.
Helene: Everyone has a phone or they are at the computer; they usually have a phone. They can look up anything any time of day or night. I happen to be a late-night owl and I will see intakes come in on my computer at 1:00 in the morning. That’s when people have time. That’s when they sit down at their computer and say, “Hey, I need to find somebody to help me with this case.” The internet has changed marketing tremendously.
Sharon: It’s interesting to me that you say somebody who can persuade the attorneys to market, to have client lunches, persuade them to review copy. What do they need to be persuaded about when you’re looking at a marketing firm?
Helene: If someone is launching a new website and they’re going to put new content on it, sometimes it’s hard to get an attorney to sit down and focus and read the content.
Sharon: Yes, yes, yes.
Helene: “This is what I want to present and how I want to present my firm.” They want someone else to do the work for them. If it comes to a TV ad, they don’t want to be the person who is going to be interviewed or to deliver the message. They want someone to do it for them and I think you have seen that, that it’s difficult. They can get onboard with the concept of marketing and advertising, but they personally themselves say, “Oh, I’m too busy. I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. I’ve got clients I need to deal with,” whatever it is and sometimes it really does take the personal touch of someone at the top to make a difference.
Sharon: No, definitely, I mean that personal touch—literally a personal touch, just a hello or whatever, can make a big difference. So, what do you see post-COVID? How do you see the new normal and who knows what it’s going to be, but the impact on your firm? Do you think anything’s going to change or what do you think might change and how will it change? Or will it stay the same?
Helene: I don’t think it’s going to change. I think as a firm, what we need to do is to understand who our potential client is. For instance, we handle a variety of different cases, I’ve talked about what we do. We do spinal injuries and brain injuries and meningitis and paraplegic injuries, but for example because birth injuries are such a large part of what we do and we’re so expert at it, what you have to do is put yourself in the mind of the 18 to 35-year-old woman or husband/wife. That’s the person who, if they have problem, is going to be looking for someone to help them. What are they going to do? Where are they going to go? How are they going to search? And that’s where you want to have a presence. In my opinion, you have to put yourself in their shoes.
These days it’s all about artificial intelligence and algorithms and behavior tracking on the internet and there are so many programs that the software developers have, and we want to be the one who pops up at the top of their search. So, we are working with—we’ve had a person handling our website for quite a few years who’s very expert in, as you mentioned, the SEO searches and the rules that Google goes by, their algorithms and when they change and how they change and what we need. He’s the background person who says, “This is what you need to do now. This is what’s going to be helpful.” And lately what we’ve done is actually record some Instagram messages. We have not been on Instagram and certainly it’s very popular these days, so it’s something new that we’re trying, I don’t even think we’ve launched it yet, but we have done some clips. I haven’t even seen them yet. So, that’s something new that we’re getting involved in and trying to push the AVVO and the LinkedIn—I don’t know so much that our potential birth injury clients would be using LinkedIn. That probably would address more of an attorney level, but it’s target marketing. Who is it that you want to get the attention of and understand how their mind works and where they are going to go look for information?
Sharon: Right, which is always a challenge. Well, Helene, thank you so much for being here today. It was really interesting. We don’t talk to that many contingency firms, so this is very, very interesting. Thank you so much for being here today.
Helene: Thank you having me. It’s been fun.
END OF AUDIO
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Sarah Tetlow:
Sarah Tetlow is an experienced productivity consultant, trainer and speaker for attorneys and other legal professionals. She uses her past experiences, organizational and strategic thought process, education and training to help law firms increase their bottom line and operate more efficiently. Through one-on-one consulting, strategic planning, workshops and group trainings, Sarah works with attorneys and law firms to find personalized ways to manage one’s day with a proactive and focused approach.
Sarah has experienced first-hand the stress that attorneys endure in trying to manage multiple projects. Sarah’s mission, and the reason for starting Firm Focus, is the desire to see a change in the industry and to help attorneys experience control over their day.
Episode 91: Finding the Focus to Increase the Bottom Line with Sarah Tetlow, Founder & CEO of Firm Focus
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, we’re talking with Sarah Tetlow, Founder & CEO of Firm Focus which works with law firms to increase productivity with the ultimate goal of increasing firm revenue. She has worn many hats within the law firm environment, so she knows the ins and outs of how they work and where they encounter stumbling blocks when it comes to productivity. Today we’ll hear all about her journey, her perspective on law firm productivity and how it can be enhanced. Sarah, welcome to the program.
Sarah: Thank you so much, Sharon, it’s wonderful to be here.
Sharon: So glad to be talking with you. When I was reading stumbling blocks on law firm productivity, I thought, “Oh my gosh, there are a lot of them. So, tell us about your career path and how you started working with lawyers.
Sarah: Yeah, I went to UC Santa Barbara and studied law and society and always thought that I wanted to be a lawyer. My whole life, I wanted to be a lawyer and long story short, I ended up going a different path, but always within the legal industry and I was a litigation paralegal for many years in my career and then I moved into a marketing and business development manager role and, ultimately, during that time in my career, I started to really explore what I was passionate about and where there was a need in the industry which landed on creating Firm Focus and now I’m truly happy that my career took this path because I love helping lawyers work more productively, be more organized and basically fall in love with their career again.
Sharon: Was it helping lawyers that made you passionate or was it that you could enhance their ability to work more efficiently? What did you become passionate about?
Sarah: When I was a litigation paralegal and kind of the day to day and preparing the lawyers for trial or even depositions or hearings and helping manage a lot of the big, voluminous projects, it was always something that I really just enjoyed doing. I remained calm in the storm. I always had a really good sense of time and project size and the resources that we needed to use to be able to meet deadlines and effectuate the projects without burning out and it was just something I was good at, but also I really enjoyed that part of my career and helping manage the lawyers, helping manage the cases. So when I started to explore—when I was a business development manager and I was spending a lot of commuting time thinking about what was I loving about being a marketing and BD manager, what was missing about not being a litigation paralegal anymore, where are my skills, what am I good at and where can I fill a gap in the industry by marrying all of those skills and my passion to help the industry. So, it came from both. It came from just sort of my own selfish view of myself and what fulfilled me, but then matching that to what the industry could benefit from and gain value from and so that’s what landed me on their productivity experts, their business development coaches and I’m now bringing to the industry a productivity expert for the legal industry.
Sharon: So, tell us what made you decide to go out on your own, start your firm, and tell us a little bit about Firm Focus.
Sarah: That was scary of course. I had a career; I had a job; I had two babies; I was secure and comfortable, but I started on the side. I started doing some home organizing. So, on weekends or at night, I would go and do home organizing, just something that I found out twas a career and it’s something I do even in my own house to reduce stress, and I enjoy it. Yes, I’m crazy; I like organizing; it’s something that I love to do and so I would do it on the side on top of my career at a law firm in San Francisco and then I started to get the idea of, “Wow, I can make a business out of this.” But whenever I would kind of look at longevity in that industry, I just didn’t see it. I didn’t see my body doing this for the next 35 years or however long—not even 35 years. I’m a little too old to work for 35 more years, but I didn’t see myself doing it long-term and so it took about a year to evolve to the right idea, but I came to the idea of marrying again the idea of organizing, but also the skills I had in the law office and came up with Firm Focus and then the name came up because I landed on the concept; I landed on the idea; I started to strategize about what that business would be like and then of course I wrote down lawyers, law firms, productivity and came up with Firm Focus which I’m actually very proud of the name because I think it has a double meaning on both ends and I stand by what I do with my clients in really helping them develop a firm focus in their business and in their day to day.
Sharon: What’s the response when you tell lawyers or law firms or management partners that you can help them develop a firm focus? Do they always say, “I have that” or what? What’s their response?
Sarah: Almost 100% of the time, I get a laugh and says, “You’re saying lawyers need that?” Usually there’s some curiosity behind that as well because many lawyers—there are some lawyers that have their workday designed perfectly. They have systems in place. They have boundaries established. They are able to stay focused, mitigate distractions and interruptions, have effective communication skills within their law firm and this is not really an issue for them, but there are others, many others whereby the very nature of how the industry has manifest, productivity skills and organizational skills are essential and it’s not that lawyers are lacking these skills necessarily. They’re incredibly intelligent individuals. Usually it’s a result of just the fast-pace day and the slow-paced judicial system, the skills to be able to design the [unintelligible] of day, but then be able to react to significant changes that occur in their caseloads, things settling, trial dates being vacated, deals, the date being moved and all of these things elicit and need to be very organized and have a good sense of time, attention and project management skills.
Sharon: Do you find that most—and I guess there are some people who just can’t get organized. Can you help them overcome that or do you come in and set up systems or what do you do?
Sarah: All of the above. So, I work with a lot of lawyers that have ADHD; it’s actually quite common and the reality is—I’m a naturally very, very organized person and I don’t expect my clients to be 100% organized and they don’t expect that of themselves, but I have a lot of strategies, ideas and tips and of course it’s customized to the person. Are they a litigator or are they are transactional attorney? Are they remote or are they in the office or a hybrid? Are they a digital person or are they a paper person? And so, all of these I am able to help my clients diagnose where their weaknesses are or their challenges are, leverage the strengths that they have, but also work with the other variables like what I mentioned: in-person, remote, digital/paper and help them just make changes to their habits, make changes to their systems so that they can work more productivity and more effectively.
Sharon: And so, do you help them? Because a lot of times I think it’s not that people—they realize that they need this system. Lawyers need—everybody needs systems, but especially lawyers because they’re working so quickly most of the time. They need systems, but it’s like, “I don’t have time to stop and put that together.” So, is that what you do?
Sarah: Yeah, so when I meet with clients initially—I work with clients three ways. One is via coaching, so that’s usually one-on-one or very small groups and I have three-month, six-month packages where I meet with clients and what I do there in the beginning is I have a self-assessment I send them that I’ve created and I have them rate themselves on different statements that are in this assessment and then I take and I rearrange it into a scorecard by various categories that are some of the variables we think of for productivity. So, we have some goals established because—why are we being more productive? Why do we want to be more productive? What are we not accomplishing or what are we missing out on or what’s the feeling we have that this is something that we feel we want to improve upon. So I’m measuring goals; I’m measuring their organization; I’m measuring their well-being, their emails and then things like perfectionism, analysis/paralysis, procrastination, what kind of distractions they experience, what kinds of interruptions they experience and I’m measuring all of that, turning it into a scorecard and we meet in the beginning for an hour and a half to really dive into who they are, again what their strengths are and what their challenges are and then I kind of create a road map, so if it is a six-month coaching client, I have a general idea of where we’re going for six months. I meet weekly with my clients and what I say to them is, “This is not my journey. This is your journey. I’m here to support you and help you” and so each week we make micro-changes, really, really micro-changes which is why I prescribe usually a six-month engagement weekly for 45 minutes because we’re going to work usually the organization first—let’s get you a little bit more organized mentally and physically. So, are you getting things out of your head? Do you have a system to put those thoughts, ideas, assets, projects, tasks, to-do’s because without having a system set up, you’re too afraid to let them out of your head.” So, I’m helping them first to set that up and then from there we move into some of those issues that I talked about and that’s what can take the six months or longer to build these healthier habits. I’m not coming in and saying, “Day one, oh my gosh, you need to set up all these systems and you need to turn off your email and you need to do this and that and that. No, no, no, we’re going to do it in a slower paced but we’ll effectuate long-term changing growth.” And the last piece I was going to say on that was—I forgot. I had one more piece to say on that, but–
Sharon: When it comes back to you, you’ll bring it up. So, you mentioned a couple of issues. What are the top three issues you see that are stumbling blockings for lawyers and also impede their business development? I know that you’ve worn the marketing hat, so you see how the productivity—you could at least be more productive so that you would have more time for business development I presume.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah, well, from a higher level what I see a lot that affects productivity in a firm—I’ll talk about the firm first—I would say communication issues. That is email—and I just remembered my other train of thought by the way too–
Sarah: I’ll derail, and you can fit it in as you see fit, but I started to say there are three ways I service my clients and then I went way off on the coaching way. So, the other two ways in which I service clients is I do a lot of speaking and a lot of training. That might look like a small team, or it might look like a firm one. I’ve done firm-wide trainings where they bring lawyers, legal assistants, operations team, finance team, everyone to the table and I’ve done firm-wide trainings and then the third way I service my clients is email and digital management. I train a lot on email and not just how to use email, but our habits around emails. I connect people’s habits to the technology so that busy professionals can be in control of their email because that is a huge, huge distraction piece through the day. So, the top three kind of high-level things that I see that inhibit productivity within a law firm are communication and that’s giving projects over Slack, email, constant firing of email, ineffective emails or inefficient emails, volume of emails and then when we are in the office, a lot of just random projects being shouted out while walking by people’s desks and so we are getting tasks and to-do’s from too many mediums. That’s one challenge I see on a firm level.
A second challenge that I see on a firm level is disorganization and so sometimes, whether electronically or digitally or the paper file can be disorganized, there are things that need to be in the file that should be in the file that are missing that can lead to a lot of lost time, especially when it’s crunch time and we need original signatures or we’re trying to locate a document or a version and we’re unable to do so. That leads to a lot of challenges at a firm-wide level in productivity.
And the third one at a firm-wide level that can lead to inefficient use of time is a lack of policies or procedures and I find that a lot in firms that just don’t really have a lot of procedures implemented where lawyers are doing a lot of admin, non-billable, non-captured time because there’s just either no one else to go to ask or they’re unclear or there’s no—for lack of a better word—ramifications for some of the support staff saying, “I’m too busy. I’m not going to do it” instead, “Let me support you as the billable lawyer and find the answer or get someone who can help me help you” and I’m finding more and more in firms that that level of service internally has dissipated a little bit which is leading to a lack of productivity on a firm-wide level.
Sharon: Who calls you in? Is it managing partners, the marketing director? Who calls you in?
Sarah: All of the above. So sometimes it’s the individual. They see in themselves that they can benefit working with me and oftentimes they want to do it confidentially which of course is fine with me if they’re the ones reaching out. I try to encourage them if they can get firm support. If they increase their billable hours, maybe the firm will help pay for some of my services, but sometimes it’s a very vulnerable place and they’re just not quite ready to admit to the firm that they might need help in that area, although I will share it’s very, very common for many lawyers to benefit from working with someone like me and just helping them in the day to day. I also get brought in by either managing partner level or executive director level, somewhere around there. Usually that’s for either the firm-wide training or someone is being challenged at this level and we’d like you to work with them and marketing people also bring me in. I mentioned that I was in-house marketing and business development manager. I have been very involved with the Legal Marketing Association in the Bay Area for about six years now. So sometimes the marketing professional is the one bringing me in partially because of my involvement in LMA and partially because, as you even brought up yourself, Sharon, marketers are challenged with lawyers who need to find time to do the business development and marketing and oftentimes what they hear is, “I didn’t have time for that,” but in reality what we know that wasn’t a priority right now and so sometimes the marketers will come to me mostly for training, not so much saying, “We want you to work with this person, can you come in.” Me being the voice to let the attorneys knows the importance of finding time to develop business and sometimes the lawyers just need to hear it from someone other than their internal marketer to then go, “Oh my gosh, that’s just such a great idea” or “I see where I have gaps in my daily practice and the need to grow my book of business.”
Sharon: So where do you encounter the most resistance? I can see a lot of places, but if you’re brought in, who might feel the most threatened or–
Sarah: Sometimes if I’m being brought on by a stakeholder to work with a junior person on their team, sometimes I’m met with resistance by the person in the beginning. Almost always within a few sessions, they have opened up and find it incredibly beneficial to their practice, but it’s a tricky situation because as that person, I can appreciate that you’re being exposed to say, “Hey, we think you need to work with a productivity coach” and that can be a really confusing and scary situation and also the first thought is, “Am I going to get fired? Am I not developing enough here at the firm? Am I going to advance at this firm?” And ironically if the firm is reaching out to me, almost always what they’re telling me confidentially, but before I meet with the individual, they see a ton of value in that person. They see a potential in that person. They want to invest in that person and that’s usually where in the beginning, there’s a little bit of insecurity that gets developed by the individual because they think, “I’m being asked to work with Firm Focus” because they don’t see potential in me” and in fact it’s usually the reverse. They see a lot of potential and they want to invest in the one area that they see as a challenge for that person so that then they can grow in the firm.
Sharon: No, I can see how that would be unsettling to the person at first, but the message for the firm really is—they’re not going to invest in somebody they think they want out the door in a few months.
Sharon: So that would be quite in a sense almost—I’m sure I’d feel if somebody came to me and said, “Oh my god, we want you to work this,” I’d feel like, “Oh my god, what am I doing wrong,” but at the same time, it’s such a compliment in so many ways to have them bring you in to work with somebody. When we were talking before, tell us about some of your successes. I know you mentioned something about tremendously reducing the amount of emails they have. Tell us a little bit about that.
Sarah: Yeah, I get very excited on this topic because I developed a system; it’s called the Art Email Productivity System, ARTT. So just to step back for a moment, Sharon, in life, in anything we do—and if you think I need to cook dinner; I need to go grocery shopping; I need to draft a brief—anything we do, there are five D’s. We can do it right now; it’s going to take me two to five minutes and I’m going to do it. We can delay it. I’m going to do it in the future. We can delegate it. I’m going to ask somebody else to do it. We can diminish it, take a big, big project and break it down or we can delete it, not do it. Those are our choices. So, in developing ARTT, as I mentioned before, I train a person’s habits to match the technology because when the engineers developed email that we all use every single day, they created the tools within the software to support our habits, but no one ever really teaches us what our habits are and so that’s where I find a lot of my clients use things like flags. Flags are, “This is really important, and I must do it and I can’t lose it and I shouldn’t forget about it” or “I need to do this in the future, so I’m going to flag it and tell Outlook or GSuite to remind me of it in three days, five days, seven days.” We use things like, “Unread, I have an action to do. I still need to do something on this email” or “Read, I don’t have an action or it’s a lower-priority action,” but like I said, we’re never really taught how to efficiently use the software, use the tools and use the technology and so that’s where I come in with ARTT.
ARTT is action, reference, tracking, trash and that’s because I force my clients—I teach them what their habits are as they relate to those five Ds in the ARTT system and then I teach them the habit of touch once or mostly touch once. So, you get an email. You instantly decide is this something I need to do? Is this something I need to do in the future? Is it something I’m waiting for something back to unlock some bottlenecks? Is it something I don’t need to do anything on, but I want to save it? Is it something I don’t need do anything on and I don’t want to save it?
And so, then what do you do with that email? And what it has done for—I teach a workshop; I do a public workshop, a two-hour workshop and that comes with a one-hour private session because I’m not coming and saying, “O.K., Sharon, here is how you need to set up your inbox.” What I do is I go in, and I ask the right questions so that your inbox is set up to support your line of business, your way of thinking and it’s going to look different than John’s. It’s going to look different than Susan’s. It’s going to look different than mine and so the one-hour private session is where my clients share their inbox with me after they’ve gone through the workshop, and we set up the system fully and I have had many people come out of this system with a volume of email just sitting in their inbox and in the lower side maybe 12,000 emails or some-where between 5,000 and 12,000 emails. The highest was someone who had a million emails in her inbox and after implementing this system, the new habit, the new way of thinking, they finished most days with zero to maybe 20 emails in their inbox because it’s making you do something with the email, not just letting it sit there and overwhelm you and not only that, the volume of email coming in reduces by implementing this system as well because you start to become very aware of what’s coming into your inbox. I teach them to batch think by project or by what your behavior is with that type of email so that you can see how many future obligations you’ve maybe thought that you would do like, “I’m going to read all of these digests. I’m going to watch all of these replays. I’m going to listen to all of these podcasts” and now I’m forcing you to reduce decision fatigue and be intentional on what is important to you to design your proactive day and to mitigate the overwhelm. Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent on that, but I love it.
Sharon: No, no. Well, I guess what I was thinking is it sounds fabulous. I think everybody would benefit from something like this, especially lawyers with that volume of email. Let me ask you this: When you talk about inefficient email—this just came back to me. I remember when I used to work in a different lifetime at Arthur Anderson and I remember a partner who he got so annoyed about people saying, “Thanks for your message. Received your message” and he felt like, “Why are people sending me these emails?” What are your thoughts about something like that? I’m just really curious.
Sarah: Yeah, so we see that all the time and on the one hand, in the ideal world, when we’re communicating back and forth, a great thing to always try to add is, “Thanks in advance for your response” because you don’t feel the need to send a thank you on the back end. That being said, we can’t always train—we can train some people, “please don’t send these types of responses;” others we can’t and so that’s another way that my system is effective because now it’s a click of that delete button. You got it; you received it; it took you a second to read it, but you don’t really need that piece of the thread anymore. So yes, sometimes it’s trainable. If it’s internally or maybe if you have a really great relationship with the client, you might be say, “I appreciate your thanks. You don’t need to send those. I know you appreciate my response.” If I could elaborate on this for just a second though, another one we see all of the time, “Hi, Sharon, we should really talk about this report. Let me know when you’re available.” No, no, no, “Hi, Sharon, we should really talk about this report. I’ve got time tomorrow between 12:00 and 2:00 or Friday any time before noon. What works with your schedule?” I see this a lot where we punt the next action to the next person. It’s a way of avoiding making the decision or bothering to look at your own calendar for a minute, but you’ll see a response, “Yes, that sounds good. Let me know when you want to meet” and then that goes back and forth. So, if you are proposing to connect with somebody about something, give them some options of when it works for you to connect.
Sharon: No, I think that’s so important. It makes such a difference in the response you get if you say to somebody here are some times or some days as opposed to—no, that can just take forever.
Sarah: Sharon, can I say on more thing on that topic too?
Sarah: From a client development standpoint as well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. What I have found is when I’m reaching out to a potential client, I have my systems in place to follow up with them maybe in six weeks and the six-week day comes up and I know that that feeling many of us get where we go, “Oh, that’s right. Here’s this reminder. I need to reach back out to Susan today” and we go, “I don’t know what necessarily to write at the moment,” but when you reach back out to them, if it’s via email—certainly if it’s via call, that’s great—but it’s by an email, what I have found is that if you say, “Hi, Susan,” all of the salutations that you’re going to give and then you say, “Here are some times this week or next week that we can connect. Let me know if those work for you” instead of just, “Let me know if you’d like to connect if I can be of further help.” If you give specific times when you reach out, the likelihood of that person to respond increases and if they don’t respond and you’re waiting a day or two and you to follow up again, then you say, “Hi Susan, I know you’re extremely busy. I wanted to update my availability for you. Here are some times.” Then I actually find that they respond quicker to get some time on your calendar. So, it also leaves an open gate for you to be able to respond again to update that availability if you haven’t heard back from the person that you’ve reached out to.
Sharon: I like that a lot about updating availability because a lot of times it’s like you give them and they’d say, “Don’t respond. It’s past” and you say, “Well, when do you want to talk?” One thing just before we end I wanted to ask you because you talk a lot about these habits and I think most people who are in a law firm at some point have taken a productivity class or time management class or whatever and what you’re talking about, they’re great ideas, but I can’t say that they’re like nobody’s ever heard them before. I think it’s the habits. Over six months, are you circling back with the client to just check on the habit or what’s going on?
Sarah: Yeah, so I meet weekly, and they say it takes anywhere from 50 days to 365 days—don’t quote me on the exact number—to build a habit. The 21-day habit, that’s based on a response to plastic surgery that was blown out of the water and not accurate. It takes time to develop habits, good habits. Bad habits, they just develop right away. You start eating chocolate cake at 5:00 every day, you’re going to eat chocolate cake at 5:00 every day. So good habits take time to develop which is why I’m meeting weekly for 45 minutes and then many of my clients, whatever that new habit is that we’re introducing—again, they’re micro; they’re really small. So, I might for example introduce, “This week, let’s start your shutdown routine. Now, instead of looking at what you need to in the morning or just reacting to everything that’s coming at one, the night before, having a clear understanding of what you will get done the next day is a crucial part of being productive and staying focused.” And so that might be a habit that we’re starting to develop as we meet this week and we’re building upon it for a few weeks and talking about other things as well, but that might be the one thing that we’re doing, “How did it go last week? Do we need to refine? Do we need to change the time that you’re doing shutdown routine? Are you giving yourself enough time to do the shutdown routine” and then maybe that’s developed and we’re three months later into coaching and we’re working on another issue and they go, “Oh my gosh, I’ve not been doing the shutdown routine” or “I’m not doing it every day like I was when we first started doing it,” then we are going to lay the foundation for that again and build it again.
Most of the time though, as we’re working together, these habits are sticking, and I encourage—some of my clients are good. We meet once a week and then the next week and the micro-homework, they’ve done the homework; they are learning so much; they’re being more organized; they’re getting more done; they’re billing more hours. Others send me a text every day of the top three things that they’re going to focus on that day and it’s just that extra layer of accountability and I’ll usually respond with, “Looks good” or I might check in with them later or if I notice the next day that something that was written the day before is written again, I’ll usually ask them, “Did you not have time to do it yesterday or are you just continuing to work on that one thing?” So, I’ll usually communicate with them even outside of our weekly meeting and find out why am I seeing the same project day after day or I will talk about it at our next session if it’s a bigger, deeper issue than just over a quick check in.
Sharon: I’ll give you a final, final question because I can hear a lot of listeners going, “Sarah, that’s really great and what you’re saying is really great, but you don’t understand. Any partner can walk in at any minute and partners walk into my office all day and throw another project at me that I didn’t have in the morning, and you just don’t understand how it works exactly.” What do you say?
Sarah: Absolutely, I wish I had my hour-long From Frazzle to Focus presentation because I really lay it out in that presentation, but the short answer is it absolutely happens all of the time and it’s still crucial to know what the top things are that you need to focus on each day. So you go, “I need to work on this summary judgment brief. I need to get this letter out. I need to get three subpoenas out” and as long as you know what the top three things are you need to do—and I’m kind of giving two different paths to this answer; there are two different paths. On the one hand, you know what the top priorities are that you need to work on and so when the partner does not and say, “I need you to do and work on this and it needs to be today,” you can then know what things on your own list can be bumped or needs to be bumped because you’re going to have to bump something. So, can the letter get out the next day or can you delegate it? Can you break it down? You were going to spend four hours on a summary judgment brief, but now you can only spend two hours on the summary judgment brief because you need to do this other project. So, the one pathway answer is knowing your priorities so that you know how to shift them when other needs arise.
The second pathway answer is here’s that procrastination. So, you get in in the morning and what I see too often is we don’t know what those priorities are; we haven’t written them down or identified them. We know we need to work in the summary judgment brief. We know we need to get a letter out. Oh, we got the subpoenas we need to get it, but we spend time doing the small, piddly tasks. We get caught up in email, slap chit-chatting. We get point one and point three done and then when it’s time to get down to business and start working on the summary judgment brief, that’s when the partner has interrupted you and needs you to do something more important and so you get that anxious feeling. You don’t feel accomplished. You feel frazzled and the reality is had you know your priorities and immediately in the morning mitigated all other distractions and interruptions and started to work on that summary judgment brief, when you were interrupted, you would still feel like you accomplished that you needed to do that and not blame the partner for interrupting you and then of course let me talk to that partner about how they can manage their projects a little bit better so that they’re not coming to you with urgent needs.
Sharon: No, that’s really great. I’m sure everybody’s going, “O.K.” I’m sure you’ve given people some ideas to think about. There’s also the reality of, “Oh yeah, how is that partner going to react when I tell him, ‘Listen, I have other things I have to do,’ but I’m sure you have tips for that. Thank you so much for being here today and talking with us. You gave us some great ideas, Sarah. I really, really appreciate it.
Sarah: It was such a pleasure, Sharon. Thank you for having me and I would love to come talk with you again anytime.
Sharon: Sounds wonderful, thank you.
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What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Kate Stoddard:
As Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, Kate Stoddard is responsible for the firm’s business development strategy and the creation of branding, marketing, public relations and communications programs. Kate works with the firm’s Executive Committee, managing partners, practice group leaders and other firm leadership to design and launch meaningful business development initiatives. As a member of the firm’s senior administrative leadership team, Kate serves as an adviser to attorneys pursuing specific business development opportunities and on general management decisions.
Kate directs the firm-wide marketing team, promoting a collaborative work environment and the sharing of resources and knowledge across offices and practice areas. During her 12+ years at Kelley Drye, she has expanded the marketing and business development department, formalized the firm’s marketing infrastructure by employing CRM technology, and led a rebranding initiative that captures the spirit and culture of the firm through a new visual identity, enhanced website experience and fresh collateral materials. Whether through client service initiatives behind the scenes or through outward-facing communications campaigns, Kate trumpets Kelley Drye’s reputation as a powerhouse firm with the heart of a boutique.
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