“Those larger firms have well-known brands, and no one really knows us.”
“We don’t have the staff or the budgets they do.”
“We don’t know how to compete against them.”
Yes, I am a mind reader. I know thoughts like these swirl around the heads of small law firm lawyers when they’re pondering how to attract the type of clients that often go to larger firms. Whether in a solo or small practice (or even in a larger firm but without their own clients), these lawyers can compete with the big girls and boys.
They also can level the playing field by engaging in the right activities that get them in the arena; and they can build a reputation that attracts the next level of clients with whom they want to work.
Know what you want to do
Before we start, however, we must make some assumptions. If the type of matters you, as a small law firm lawyer, seek needs armies of lawyers that you don’t have, then you’re fighting a losing battle. If you have little or no knowledge or talent in a specific area, you first need to upskill before expecting to land work. However, if you’re choosing matters you can handle from a staffing and skills perspective, here are some things you can do individually to help make your case:
Your bio — This is your first audition for the job, and most lawyers fail miserably. Most bios are cold, sterile, laundry lists of services that do little to inspire, intrigue, connect, or convince. Open with an interesting statement that sets a tone, focus on the type of work you want to attract, add some (properly edited) success stories, add a pinch of personality, and highlight some characteristics that make you different from other lawyers.
Identify your targets — After you determine the type of work you want, clearly define your audience. With what type of companies do you want to work? In what geographies? What are the names of those companies, and who are the decision makers you need to meet? Where do they congregate, what do they read, and what do they listen to? These are your future business friends, the people who need to know you. Few lawyers put in the time to gather this information, but it’s a crucial step toward making a name for yourself in the right crowds.
Become famous — Once you’ve identified your audience, find ways to get on their radar to build your reputation and establish important relationships. Be ubiquitous and saturate the market with your name. As they say in the Broadway smash Hamilton: “Be in the room where it happens.” Go where they meet, speak where they listen, and write where they read. There are several ways to accomplish these goals:
- Speaking: If you have the personality for it, get on the speaking circuit. Get some coaching and study videos. This is another opportunity to audition, where people extrapolate your skills based on how well you present yourself. If necessary, start small and build yourself up. Use one talk as a reference for the next. Get in some practice so when you get on those bigger stages, you’ll have honed your craft. Also, while your firm may not be a household name, the bigger stages allow you to borrow their authority to enhance your personal reputation. Fortunately for you, many lawyers are poor presenters, so if you put in the time, not only can it become a major differentiator for you, but it also amplifies your presence in front of large, targeted audiences.
- Writing: Similarly, you can borrow the authority of news publications, trade journals, blogs, or social media channels. Without too much strenuous work, you can create short pieces that provide insights, add a bit of style, and find topics not everyone else is talking about. Again, start small if needed. When I began my career in legal marketing, I was living in Boulder, Colo., and I reached out to the local Boulder Bar Association to ask if they wanted an article. That was an easy yes, and after I was published, I used it as social proof to get an article in the Colorado Bar Association. I repeated the process and got published in American Bar Association publications — it took off from there, and I now have written 14 books and more than 60 articles to date.
- Establishing personal connections: I won’t kid you into thinking speaking and writing are the Holy Grail for magically attracting top clients. It’s good for reputation-building, but you need to get down in the trenches and go one-on-one to build personal relationships with the right people. You can do that by using your speaking and writing as reasons to reach out to your target audience. Interview some, ask a few to co-author or co-present, and request feedback from others.
- Leapfrog: In the game of leapfrog, you use someone as leverage to go from where you are to somewhere else. Similarly, you can ask people you know to introduce you to high-value people that they know. For example, if you interview someone for an article, at the end you can say something like “Thank you so much, I really appreciate your insights. By the way, do you know any others who might be interested in sharing their thoughts for this article?”
- Take leadership positions: I’ve heard it said it’s better to be the star in an off-off-Broadway show then to be buried in the chorus of a big production where no one sees you. Get people used to seeing you a leader. Even if you start small, it gets you visibility, you gain social status through the reputation of the organization, it provides access to others, it gives you reasons to reach out to targeted people, and it provides a launching pad for leadership positions in higher level organizations.
None of these approaches require staffing, gobs of money, or a pre-existing brand name. It does take planning, grit, and consistency. If you follow these steps, you’ll start finding yourself on the short list for the type of work you most desire. “Be in the room where it happens.”