Picking on the New Guy

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One more call from a Social Media "Guru" or Search Engine Optimization "Expert," and the computer gets it. Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, I received a call on my private phone number. I said my usual “This is Eric” as an opening salutation, and the female caller responded with “Hey, are you taking any new clients?”

Although I’m pretty selective about my cases, I’m still open to new clients. I figured the call came from the office of a buddy who occasionally refers cases to me. After all, the call was on my private number, and her opening reply certainly suggested some familiarity. I replied, “Sure.”

This began the sales pitch, not from my buddy’s office, but from a Search Engine Optimization firm seeking to sell me their amazing services. Obviously, they had retrieved my number because of some registration I made prior to establishing my business line. Immediately, I moved to quickly and expeditiously terminate the conversation. It still cost me a few minutes on my precious family cell plan. Damn them.

Interestingly, the call coincides with a recent debate about online lawyer marketing and the ABA’s self-stated goal to study the issues and regulate as appropriate. This, of course, may have implications on websites, twitter accounts, blogs, and any other web presence by attorneys.

I’m not, as a general proposition, for any additional regulations separate from my state’s existing professional responsibility rules. I just don’t like a lot of regulation. After all, as a CDL I spend a great deal of time taking the government’s structured, reasoned case and injecting as much anarchy, counters, and confusion as possible. What can I say, I’m an entropy kinda guy.

The lawyer blogosphere erupted with a variety of different takes on the ABA, their role in lawyer regulation, and online marketing. As a sampling, you can read Scott Greenfield’s takes here and here; Brian Tannebaum’s takes here and here; and Mark Bennett’s takes here, here, here, and….awww, heck….just go to his main page and start clicking around.

You see, compared to these guys, I’m new to the lawyering and CDL worlds. They have well-established practices. They are comfortable in their businessman-lawyer skins. While not a new lawyer, I am new to the business and marketing sides. I see things from a slightly different angle than they do.

A friend of mine once told me that the first 6 months of starting a new private law practice feels similar to the first 15 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.” You put your head down, charge through unknown territory, and hope that you aren’t the guy running and carrying his own severed arm. That phase of law practice is still fresh in my mind.

You go through normal (and I’d say healthy and realistic) anxiety. Will I get clients? When will the phone ring? Why isn’t the phone ringing? Is my web page good enough? Does my web page comply with ethical rules? What about my blog? What disclaimers should I use? Should I hire a secretary? Is my computer good enough? Hey, back to the client thing, where are the damn clients?! It can be nerve-racking, particularly if your mortgage and family nourishment rely upon your ability to generate income. This leads to my gripe about organizations looking to help young firms/lawyers to “maximize their potential and quickly reach the tipping point.”

The problem: So many folks seek to prey on these anxieties, and they smell fresh meat from miles away. They call themselves “experts,” “gurus,” and “experienced lawyers.” (many so-called experienced lawyers barely practiced in their firm long enough to find the restroom, and some have even been disbarred for misconduct). Once they see a sparkly new webpage, your phone starts ringing, the emails pour-in, and the talking heads start their emphasis on saving your career and marketing plan. They talk about how to stretch the truth in your bio, how to seem experienced and worldly, and how to appear like one of the “top lawyers in your field.” Charlatans abound, and they are looking to pick on the new guy to get rich. Ethical rules be damned.

The shame of it all is that, as long as you have a solid mentor (or mentors), a practice area that could use another good lawyer, a base of legal skills, and the ability to perform online searches, you can weather the initial storm and succeed. Total monetary cost: negligible. Total individual effort: significant. (but that’s the price of taking a chance in small business, deal with it). Plus, you’ll want to listen to the financial experts and have at least 6 months of income saved (actually, probably more like 12-18).

You don’t need consultants. You don’t need “gurus.” You don’t need “experts.” And, you certainly do not need “change agents.” You will not get clients from Twitter, and everything you need to know about this internet menace can be discovered in about 2 hours of idle experimentation or a 15 minute conversation with a teenager.

You cannot pay someone else to experience the discomfort of starting, work hard, be disciplined, and keep your eye on long-term goals. Those duties may not be delegated, no matter what some “change agent” tells you. Patience is not a virtue, it is a necessity.

There you go, and it didn’t cost you anything.

Knowing this, I sincerely hope that the ABA focuses on the charlatans. So many of us benefit from the ability to freely and ethically design our web pages and write (or vent) our blog posts. Especially for us solos, the ability to learn and collaborate with others is invaluable and healthy. We are not the ones advocating shady marketing practices. Focus on those looking to make a buck from marketing–those who make guarantees of instant success through shady advertising. Regulate those looking to carefully circumvent ethical rules for the sake of selling the perceived ability to gain clients through modern technology.


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