Internet marketing for lawyers: good, bad or ugly?

In the good old days of legal practice, effective marketing meant being good at your job, and once in a while taking clients out for long, expensive and boozy lunches. That, at least, is what a senior partner at an international law firm once told me. Those days, if not entirely mythical, are long gone.

In this post I'm going to look at the nexus between internet marketing and legal services.  I'll consider how the peculiar features of legal businesses affect the marketing of legal services online. The focus is on law firms, particularly commercial law firms, for no better reason than my familiarity with them. Nevertheless, some of the issues raised are of general application across the legal services sector.

One warning before I dive in: I'm a tech/IP lawyer, not a marketing professional. I have a long-standing interest in internet marketing – especially search marketing - but I'm by no means an expert.

Law firm marketing

The modern law firm undertakes a wide range of different marketing activities: print advertising, branded merchandise distribution, newsletter publication, article and book-writing, running seminars and workshops, event-based networking, public relations campaigns, sports sponsorship, even TV advertising – not to forget the traditional lunch. Branding consultants are called in upon every law firm merger to help decide if the new firm should be called Smith Jones LLP or Jones Smith LLP.  And a year or two later they're called back to help decide whether to shorten the name to Smith LLP or Jones LLP.  If marketing departments aren't perhaps as well respected in law firms as they should be, then certainly senior marketing roles can be very well paid. Today's law firms take marketing seriously, even if many lawyers don't have a very deep understanding of the discipline.

Firms have embraced some forms of internet and digital marketing. A law firm without a website is now a rarity – although whether many law firms' sites actually constitute a marketing activity is moot.  Many if not most firms have an email newsletter of some description – an easy transition from the old printed newsletter.  There are thousands of lawyers around the world blogging regularly, covering every area of practice imaginable.  And many individuals and firms use Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks to spread their messages.

On the other hand, there are areas of internet marketing that are not well used by lawyers. Search engine optimisation (SEO) is one such area, and search advertising another.  Affiliate marketing was never widely used by lawyers – for good reasons that I'll come to.

Most of the techniques for marketing legal services on the internet are the same as those that might be used for marketing other professional services, but there are a number of important factors that affect how they can be used in a legal context:

  • the culture of the legal profession;
  • the effects of professional regulation;
  • lawyers and legal compliance;
  • the skills of individual lawyers;
  • the weightlessness of legal services;
  • law firm billing mechanisms; and
  • the difficulty of engaging users with legal subjects.

Conservative cultures

The culture of the law is conservative by any measure. Anything new – and internet marketing is  positively nouveau to a discipline that helped birth the written word – is suspect, potentially unprofessional.

Not a few lawyers profess a weird snobbery about marketing per se; many more would not dream of using internet marketing to further their businesses.

For all the usual reasons, internet marketing can be perceived as rather low-rent: search engine optimisation is a bag of manipulative tricks, email marketing is a fancy name for spam, affiliate marketing is a bedroom-based business for the semi-employed, and so on.  Many lawyers – many people – when they think of internet marketing think of Viagra etc.

In part, this is the fault of the internet marketing industry.  To call forum and comment spamming, email spamming, link exchanging, link farming, article marketing, MFA websites etc low-rent would be far too kind. But to reject all of internet marketing because some of this is like refusing to use the telephone because others cold call.

If you want to persuade lawyers of the benefits of internet marketing, you'll need challenge these assumptions head on.

In addition, commercial law firms assume that good clients cannot be won through the internet. Although this assumption is demonstrably false in some marketplaces, there is an issue of lead quality that does need to be addressed. If a law firm is to use internet marketing as a source of new clients, efficient lead filtering is certainly required. Of course, lead generation is only one aspect of online marketing.

Special regulation of publicity

Legal services marketing by regulated businesses – solicitors, barristers, etc - is usually subject to special rules.  In the UK, the largest contingent of lawyers are solicitors, and solicitors are regulated of the Solicitors Regulation Authority.  Chapter 8 of the SRA Code of Conduct governs the conduct of solicitors' firms publicity:

This chapter is about the manner in which you publicise your firm or in-house practice or any other businesses. The overriding concern is that publicity is not misleading and is sufficiently informative to ensure that clients and others can make informed choices.

The newish (2011) Code of Conduct is mostly concerned with outcomes rather than the specifics of how those outcomes should be achieved.  Solicitors should achieve the following outcomes, amongst others, in relation to their publicity activities:

  • publicity must be accurate and not misleading, and must not be likely to diminish the trust the public places in the solicitor or in the provision of legal services; and
  • clients and the public should be supplied with appropriate information about individual lawyers, firms and how they are regulated.

What does this mean for internet marketing by solicitors?

First, deceptive tactics are a big no-no.  Bait-and-switch tactics would, for instance, be prohibited.

Second, techniques which aren't actually deceptive, but which nonetheless might have a negative impact upon the solicitor concerned or the the legal services industry generally, should be avoided. Anything perceived as spammy by users might fall foul of this principle. Note, however, that just because a tactic is frowned upon or considered “black hat” by Google and/or the other search engines, that doesn't mean that it is spammy from a user perspective.

Third, all internet marketing activities should be transparently associated with the firm in question. For example, micro-sites created for marketing purposes should be clearly associated with the law firm.

Special regulation of referral relationships

Chapter 9 of the SRA Code, which covers fee sharing and referral relationships, is also relevant to internet marketing:

This chapter is about protecting clients' interests where you have arrangements with third parties who introduce business to you and/or with whom you share your fees. The relationship between clients and firms should be built on trust, and any such arrangement should not jeopardise that trust by, for example, compromising your independence or professional judgement.

The outcomes in this chapter show how the principles apply in the context of fee sharing and referrals.  They include the following requirements:

  • the solicitors' independence and professional judgement must not be prejudiced by virtue of any arrangement with another person;
  • clients' interests must be protected;
  • clients must be in a position to make informed decisions about how to pursue their matter;
  • clients must be informed of any financial or other interest which an introducer has in referring the client;
  • clients must be informed of any fee sharing arrangement that is relevant to their matter;
  • solicitors must not make payments to an introducer in respect of clients who are the subject of criminal proceedings or who have the benefit of public funding.

Importantly, introducers must also comply with the Code in their marketing activities.

How do these rules affect internet marketing by solicitors? 

First, they make it harder to undertake any form of affiliate marketing. If a solicitor is using affiliates to drive traffic to a website, they will need to ensure that the affiliates marketing accords with the Code, and in some circumstances may wish to audit compliance. (Note: the pre-2011 rules on referrals effectively made affiliate marketing by solicitors impossible.)

Second, other types of referral arrangement must be structured in such a way as to comply with these rules.

Some legal services businesses are subject to different regulations, and others – such as my own business, SEQ Legal – are unregulated.

Legal compliance

Electronic marketing law is widely ignored, usually without adverse consequences for marketers and their clients. Herea are a few examples from UK/EU law.

The practical effect of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 is to require some kind of opt-in for most email marketing campaigns to be lawful (the main exception is the so-called “soft opt-in”). However, the marketing industry standard for email list building remains the opt-out. I've lost count of the number of times I've had to un-check an email marketing consent box in circumstances where the soft opt-in clearly did not apply.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998, an organisation that is passing business leads to another organisation must be transparent about what it is doing. The types of information that should typically be disclosed to users include: the fact that information is being passed on, the identity of the persons to whom it may be passed, and the legal basis on which the information is being passed – i.e. will the other organisation be a “data controller” for the purposes of the 1998 Act. Many lead generation websites do not adequately explain to users what is going to happen to their personal data.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 prohibit a wide range of unfair commercial practices.  Undisclosed advertorials – adverts dressed up as editorial content – are one target of the Regulations.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that bloggers in some niches are regularly invited to publish this type of material.

Most lawyers are pretty straight-laced, and most want to avoid any type of a marketing activity that sails close to the wind.  It follows that these unlawful if generally unpunished marketing activities will not be appropriate in the legal services sector – even assuming you think they might be appropriate in other sectors.

Frustrated authors

A fair proportion of lawyers can write. Larger law firms firms will usually have many competent and some excellent writers on staff.

Some types of internet marketing are heavily dependant upon the production of high quality written materials. Search engine optimisation professionals, for example, have long been declaring that “content is king”. The importance of quality content has be increased further over the last year or so with the Panda, Penguin and other updates to the Google algorithm.

Here, then, is an advantage of sorts for legal services providers wanting to market their services online – at least insofar as they are competing for users with businesses in other sectors.

In this connection, I should also mention the rel=author attribute. The reputation of a lawyer is largely an individual matter, rather than a matter of the firm to which the lawyer belongs. It follows that the systematic attribution of authorship to individual lawyers using the rel=author attribute works well in the legal context.

A knowledge industry

The services provided by lawyers in large part take the form of information/advice and documentation – services that can be provided using or with the assistance of internet technologies.  Accordingly, there are opportunities for the integration of free offerings into the marketing plan of organisations.

One obvious example is the provision of free legal documentation. Regulated professionals may however have difficulties here: to the extent that regulation is designed around traditional legal services, then free documentation and similar free services may be caught by the regulations in a wholly inappropriate way.

The chargeable hour

Lawyers sell time. Clients say they don't much like the chargeable hour, but reports its death are much exaggerated.  It is the mainstay of law firm remuneration.

One consequence is that lawyers tend to think that the most important hours of their working lives are chargeable hours. The comparative value of lawyers is in some sense calculated by reference to their hourly charge-out rate. Lawyer bonuses are typically based in large part upon the number of chargeable hours a lawyer records.  It's not unusual to hear big firm lawyers boast (sic) of charging 2000+ hours in a year.  That's upwards of 8 hours each working day: very hard going unless you're working on only one or two big cases or deals at a time, have zero non-chargeable work on your plate, and you never have a quiet week. In any event, it doesn't leave much time for non-chargeable work – such as marketing.

When a lawyer makes a list of the things that he or she must do in a day, marketing comes a distant second to chargeable work. So, just getting private practice lawyers to produce knowledge-based marketing materials (newsletters, articles, case summaries, books) can be a real struggle.  In some industries, marketing professionals or generalist freelance writers may be able to produce these types of marketing materials, but in my experience that just doesn't work for anything but the most superficial legal reporting or analysis.

If you're planning to use legal content marketing as part of your online marketing mix for a law firm or similar organisation, you're going to find a way to tackle this problem.

Engaging users

There's one last question I want to ask: is law too boring?

Getting users engaged with legal subject matter isn't easy.  It depends to some extent upon the area in question – human rights is easier than pensions law – but this problem affects most legal subjects. 

Law is sometimes, rightly or wrongly, perceived as a subject without much human interest. Murder is interesting; the law of murder not so much. Also, law can be hard-going. It isn't easy to explain complex laws in terms non-lawyers (the dreaded "layman") can easily understand. See any UK government website for evidence.

Many of the techniques of internet marketing depend upon user engagement, and the problem of engaging users with legal subject matter is not easily overcome.  But if you want to use social media marketing, link baiting, or viral marketing techniques, overcome it you must.

Concluding notes

There are aspects of the legal services industry that lend themselves to the use of internet marketing techniques: an essentially literary subject matter, and a large numbers of competent writers being prime among them.  On the other hand, there are aspects that are not so conducive to internet marketing: a conservative culture, heavy regulation, a requirement of strict legal compliance and the socio-economic baggage that comes with the chargeable hour.

These negative factors affect the traditional law firm with more force than alternative legal service providers.  Perhaps it's no surprise, then, to see that many of the more successful organisations when it comes to the online marketing of legal services are not law firms.

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