Remarkable attorneys have no need to advertise. Clients are drawn to remarkable. Like Matlock for murder, there is a name for a remarkable attorney that comes to mind for every area of law. If you don’t know the name, you can discover it in a few calls. Some attorneys are geographically remarkable. If you need a lawyer in Tuskegee, Alabama, you probably want Fred Gray – he is remarkable.1
To further illustrate remarkable, I have profiled a few non-lawyers who have moved into the legal services industry. Jon Colgan, for example, built a company that effectively represents consumers when cell phone companies breach their contracts and demand an early termination fee when cell phone customers want to leave. Colgan’s company effectively charges a one-third contingency fee of avoided early termination fees. He built his company to a $13 million annual run rate.
Remarkable Attorneys Don’t Advertise
These lawyers and legal service providers are remarkable because they are doing something exceptional – something worth talking about – not because they advertise. In fact, as advertising is defined here, remarkable attorneys don’t do it. Now in the sense that a business card is advertising, most all lawyers advertise in some way. But in the sense of commercial advertising, not all lawyers do it. Here, I am focusing on commercial advertising (television, billboards, and radio) that was originally used to convince or convert consumers into customers. Commercial advertising, by definition, reaches large, mostly untargeted, groups of people. A super-majority of attorneys “polled stated that they think legal advertising has harmed the public image of attorneys.”2
Look Inside a Law Firm That Advertised
Normally, it would be difficult to get an inside look into a highly profitable law firm that used, as its primary source of new customers, commercial advertising. In the case of Davis v. Alabama State Bar 3, however, the Alabama Supreme Court pulled the curtain back on just such a practice and there is a lot to learn from it.
The law firm in this case spent in the high six figures4 primarily on television advertising. The advertising drove a high volume of prospective clients to call the law firm.
Triage and Turn-Down Expensive
Commercial advertising causes the phone to ring with hundreds, maybe thousands of potential clients. Each prospective client that calls can either be a million-dollar case or a malpractice claim. The person answering the phone must be able to triage (decide on the urgency of) the prospective clients and decide on at least a preliminary course of action. Six figure claim? High priority. Statute runs tomorrow? High priority. Everyone else? Less than high priority.
Also, the Davis firm had to clearly communicate to each caller who was turned down that any attorney-client relationship that was established during the call was terminated. This hazard would be heightened due to the lack of sophistication of most callers.
Enormous firm resources were invested in this triage phase. And, the resources that were allocated to triaging prospective new clients were taken away from working with actual clients. The process encouraged treating every client as routine.
Expenses Required Quick Turnover
In Davis, the cost of commercial advertising plus the cost of managing the high volume of calls pushed the firm to “minimize expenses and maximize profits.”5 For example, inexperienced associates carried an average of 600 active cases with little support staff. If you consider that the average number of billable hours is 2,081, that comes to roughly three and one-half hours per case. Written policies, however, encouraged the development of new clients over working with existing clients. The Alabama Supreme Court concluded that “[t]he amount of time that could be spent on each case was limited to make it impossible to adequately represent clients.”6
Rather than a culture that encouraged remarkable representation, the Davis case describes a culture where there were not enough file cabinets so client “files were simply stacked in various parts of the office, including the employees’ break room and the hallway near the bathrooms. … Policy requir[ed] associates not to return phone calls of existing clients so that the attorneys could free more time to sign new clients.”7 And clients’ lost any chance of recovery to missed deadlines.
A Call to Remarkable
In Quoting Justice O’Connor, the Court encouraged advertising firms to continue (or perhaps return) to a professional life:
There are sound reasons to continue pursuing the goal that is implicit in the traditional view of professional life. Both the special privileges incident to membership in the profession and the advantages those privileges give in the necessary task of earning a living are means to a goal that transcends the accumulation of wealth. That goal is public service, which in the legal profession can take a variety of familiar forms.
Being remarkable is a public service. In Davis, a motivation for high volume and quotas encouraged others to be motivated by high volume and quotas. Contrastingly, a commitment to being remarkable encourages others to be remarkable.
Another non-lawyer, Derek Bluford, demonstrates how to find remarkable. He observed that getting to talk to a lawyer was a delayed, anxiety-filled process. Even if a prospective client could get an appointment the next day (and that was fast), they still had a sleepless night ahead while they wrestled with a gnawing unanswered legal question.
The problem, it takes too long to talk to an attorney. Derek Bluford’s remarkable answer – Quick Legal – a company that connects prospective clients to attorneys within minutes 24/7 via Facetime or Skype. Where attorneys are constantly complaining about a shrinking or flat legal services market, Quick Legal built an annual run rate of $780,000 in its first year of operation. Quick Legal became remarkable by identifying a pain point for clients and providing a solution.
Incidentally, Quick Legal drives numerous clients to attorneys that might otherwise be concerned about a shrinking legal market.
The Road to Unremarkable
As soon as legal service you provide is unremarkable, there are plenty of competitor attorneys who are willing to provide unremarkable service and charge a smaller fee. As shrinking fees ratchet downward, clients are inevitably commoditized. Lawyers that rely on commercial advertising for client development and then provide legal services a commodity are doomed to the fate of the unremarkable.
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- For those who feel forced to advertise, see ABA Aspirational Goals for Lawyer Advertising. ↩
- James Podgers, ABA Journal, Feb. 1994, 66-72, internally cited in Davis v. Alabama State Bar (cite omitted). ↩
- 676 So.2d 306 (1996). ↩
- Adjusting for inflation to 2016 dollars. ↩
- Id. at 307. ↩
- Id. ↩
- Id. at 308. ↩