Game-Changer: How the Internet Has Changed the Legal Profession
The Internet has been a game-changer for those engaged in the practice of law, like so many professional services.
While the focus of this monthly column moving forward will be marketing issues and ideas as they relate to lawyers — and again, in most cases, to many professional services providers — there are confluences that have made the Web’s impact far greater than what it can do for you as a promotional mechanism. It is about improving delivery of legal services, allowing for virtual law offices, legal research, discovery and allowing consumers and business owners to perform better due diligence in selecting counsel.
The competitive playing field that is the Internet means lawyers — regardless of whether you are a solo practitioner, in a mega firm, at a niche boutique, rural, or urban — must figure out which online marketing tools will work best. These can include websites, blogs, mobile sites, videos, PPC, Yelp reviews, Facebook…and on and on.
In 1996, I was a sports and entertainment lawyer with a marketing and public relations interest. My pre-law background in professional sports as a front office executive focusing on media relations, PR and marketing at the team and league levels provided opportunities to be creative, entrepreneurial and edgy. My stint as a journalist for The Baltimore Sun and Associated Press — among other publishers — helped me develop a writing, research and storytelling style. However, having a normal life and making some decent money were issues, and led me to the short-term decision to try my hand in selling Internet stuff to lawyers. That was 15 years ago. So much for the short-term strategy.
If you can picture trying to get law firms to understand the power of the World Wide Web back then, it was quite a sales job. First, lawyers — usually admittedly — are terrible at business development. Second, we may be worse at understanding technology than marketing. Third, the U. S. Supreme Court only lifted a full ban on lawyer advertising in 1977. And fourth, we generally dislike what we don’t understand.
There were exceptions to the rule. My colleague Greg Siskind developed one of the first law firm websites and blogs. He used the power of the web in its infancy to take a small immigration law practice — using Visalaw.com to help build what today is one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious immigration law firms. When we first met—on the speaking circuit he’d drive me nuts. I was trying to get law firms to commit real dollars and resources to web development. He was talking about how anyone could do what he was doing for pennies a day, and without anybody else’s assistance. Tim Stanley and Stacy Stern were very smart lawyers that first founded Findlaw, and today run Justia —recognizing that the Internet could make the world a better place by providing everybody with all the legal research and information they could muster—for free.
Law Firms Reluctant, At First
My first website marketing projects were for a few of the largest and most successful law firms in the U.S. Yet, they balked at committing in the neighborhood of $10,000 annually on building a proper web presence. Many of those same firms spend more than that today on buying up domain names. Between the sites, blogs, social media and staffing tied to them all, the commitments are often more in the multi-million dollar range. In my day — say, 1997 — at many law firms, the attorneys had determined that the best person to handle the building of a law firm web site was the law librarian. Many still did not have any full or part-time marketing professionals, and others were often administrative folks that they felt had time on his or her hands. There was no such thing as Google. Some had heard of Yahoo!. And the fears of getting involved in an industry where porn was king did not seem too palatable. Who is going to contact me on this Internet? Crazies? Conflicts? Old girlfriends?
I was not a tech guy by any means. I was a marketing guy. And it was my quick understanding and love for what the Internet could do that made me money. I was the lawyer that knew the Internet, and spent much of the year writing, speaking and teaching the virtues of putting yourself in position to be found on the web. With time, I built a website called InternetMarketingAttorney.com, first to show people how to build a site and later as a resource for the profession. I changed the site into a place where I’d candidly and sometimes cattily review law firm websites. The Internet Marketing Attorney awards — i.e., IMAs — were born, annually rating and reviewing the websites of the largest U.S. firms. I added a component called the “Nifty Fifty” that highlighted cool things law firms were doing on the Internet. Between the successful launch of my law-marketing consultancy in 2001 and the arrival of my now eight-year-old daughter and now four-year-old son, maintaining the sites and reviews became a hardship. My leadership roles in the American Bar Association did not make things easier. And my wife found the IMAs, ABAs and other initials (like watching the NFL, MLB and NCAA) were getting tiresome — and not big revenue generators.
Which all brings me back to Web Marketing Today, a resource I’ve followed and enjoyed for many years. When publisher and editor Kerry Murdock contacted me to ask if I’d write monthly columns on law firm Internet marketing for the site, I jumped at it. Rather than maintain my own resources, I get to contribute to a great one. And provide advice and guidance that should prove useful to lawyers and administration at law firms, vendors developing products to sell them, and as I’ve found—any marketer or web developer looking for ideas and opinions on what works today, and what might work tomorrow. Now that you have a little clue to what I’m about and where I come from, let’s explore the virtues of the Internet for the betterment of professional services development for the legal profession.