As you know, making a client look for a different lawyer can be good—or bad. It depends on why. And it works the same way for your website.
A smart website makes a case for you. It makes the client feel good about you. It also makes the wrong client self-select out.
But, a bad website can make the right client leave. It looks unpleasant or clunky. It’s poor with words or rich in frightening language. It makes the prospect feel stupid. It scares the client. Or, the worst possible transgression in an age of digital savvy, it makes the lawyer look out of touch.
Does your website represent you as you are? Does it make the right client feel like you’re the answer? Or does it represent you as someone you’re not and point to the exit?
Online competition is more fierce than ever. And this is not about chasing the dragon of Google SEO. Most clients are seeking you out via other means. Most often, it’s a referral. The next step is visiting your website. And if the website isn’t representing you as it should, what are the odds that the client is going to contact you?
Bottom line: your website is entering into a conversation the client is already having. Is it saying the right things? Does the website make the client want to know more about you and take appropriate action?
At the ABA Techshow in Chicago, I got a lot of knowing smiles and nods. I was often asked, “What’s a writer doing at a lawyer tech event?” My reply: I write websites for lawyers who don’t care about being found on Google.
For some, that seems like a radical position. But then the conversation would come around to how Firm Appeal’s core client is a lawyer with no website who realizes they need one. That’s the part that inspired the knowing smiles and nods. Lawyers who have websites know: having no website is expensive.
Does the high cost of no website seem counterintuitive? If you don’t care about getting clients in a Google search, why even have a website? In fact, this question was just asked by a PhD who consults to big pharma about oncology meds. (Surprise: he also has no website.) This points to the conflation and confusion. There’s a difference between having a) a website and b) an SEO marketing plan.
An SEO marketing plan is about paying big bucks to chase the elusive butterfly of Google page one. But having a website means having a conversation with a prospective client, no matter how that client finds you. SEO costs money. Websites save money. But, again, why?
Two words: Evocative Efficiency. A good website makes the prospective client feel good about your firm without any one-on-one, non-billable time. In a world where 80% of a lawyer’s time is spent on things other than billable hours—including business development—it stands to reason that there is a more efficient way than telephone to handle referrals and other prospective clients.
One of the easiest ways to handle the prospect is to own internet real estate. Build an online location that answers basic questions and evocatively reflects your client’s experience inside your office, and you’ve solved a couple of problems. 1) The people who would normally call you to use up your non-billable time now have a place to go that’s better for both of you. And 2), there’s a device in place for capturing leads that might otherwise evaporate because, let’s face it: When you have no website, you don’t exist.
How many phone calls does that save? How many hours do you get back? How many prospects do you capture who otherwise went away because they couldn’t find you? How many referrals already know what you’re about by the time you get on the phone with them?
Better yet, how many prospective clients do you stop losing simply because there's no website? It is shown that most people, especially Millennials and Gen Z, probably want to check out your website before calling you. A survey conducted by Verisign shows that 93% of consumers research a purchase online, 77% believe that a website makes a business more credible, and 84% believe a business website is more credible than just a social media page for the same business.  Research by Epsilon also shows that those Millennials and Gen Z'ers are influencing the tech use of the older generations with whom they live.
The culture is wired. The youngest users are influencing behavior of older users. And everyone wants to know about you before contacting you. If they can't find a convincing case for you, odds are good they just move on...
With apologies to Oscar Wilde, there’s only one thing worse than having a website. And that’s not having a website. The website is an interview. You enter into a conversation the prospect is already having. And your Evocative Efficiency—making them feel good about you before you ever speak to them—yields all kinds of benefits that make your life easier and more profitable.
Writing this is a struggle. I so don’t want to be the knucklehead branding himself as The SEO Curmudgeon. SEO works. It really does. But it’s a zero-sum game. There are limits. And those limits are well illustrated by a web developer with whom I was speaking last week. We were talking about bundling SEO services for lawyers who want the full Monty when it comes to duking it out for the 17% of survey respondents who say they would use a search engine to find a lawyer. (That number from the Clio 2019 Legal Trends Report.)
My web developer said, “I will never promise a lawyer that I can get him organically on Google page one.” And this is a problem, especially when coupled with the realities of buying SEO. He went on to say, “There are so many big firms spending so much money, it’s a jungle. If a lawyer has 10-12 thousand dollars a month to spend, I’ll get them results. But more than half of that budget is going towards ads.” The rest will be content. And still, he refuses to guarantee the elusive butterfly of SEO results: living and dancing organically on Google page one.
I repeated these figures to a new, small-firm client, who replied, “10 to 12 grand a month? Forget it.” And this is why we do not encourage the small firm or solo to chase the dragon of SEO. It’s unwinnable. There’s only so much room on page one.
But, you know what the small firm can win? The small firm can win in the soft and squishy world of conveying customer experience. “Customer experience” is the new marketing buzz phrase. (Frankly, the "buzz phrase" thing is annoying. Customer experience has always been part of delivering on the promise of your marketing messages.)
Now, if only 17% of prospective clients would use a search engine to find a lawyer, you’re probably asking, “Where do the other 83% come from?” To which I ask: Does it even matter? Once they hear about you, what’s the likely place to check you out? Your website. And that is where their client experience begins. Not on the phone. Not in your office. On your website.
FOOTNOTE: Survey says, “Referral!” According to the Legal Trends Report, that’s where a lot of the other 83% are coming from. Over half of prospective clients seek a referral. And in the brave new world of endless thumb typing and mouse clicking, your website is likely to be found not in a search for “lawyers near me,” but in a search for “INSERT YOUR NAME HERE.” And that is where your prospective client is first likely to meet you: in a search for you. That’s why paying $120,000 a year for SEO matters less than conveying the client experience on your website.
Not that I have an opinion on this.
Is your website merely a marketing-like object? Or is it a conversation with the person you'd most like to have as a client?"
Marketing-like objects plague the landscape. Some look like websites. Others seem like advertisements. Still others are social media posts. They all read like they want money for something. But the thing about marketing-like objects is they don’t matter. They aren’t making a case. They lack persuasion. There’s no clear voice. They’re devoid of anything resembling a resonant message.
Welcome to a symptom of the overcommunicated culture. Everyone knows they need a website. They just don’t know what it’s supposed to say or how to say it.
You know what to do in an interview, right? You’re not likely to sit with a prospective client and speak in bullet points or empty advertising phrases. “Good to meet you. I can handle your business law, tax law and estate planning needs. I’m dually qualified as both a business attorney and tax accountant.” (Most of that verbiage is from a website I visited just for the purpose of this exercise. It's on Google page one. How much do you think that helps?) In an interview, you speak conversationally. You’re interested and interesting. You make sure your words matter to the person opposite you. You make points with relevance and resonance. You are you. You do not behave like a placard that says, “For all your legal needs.” So...does your website reflect that?
You know what one thing is missing from so many lawyers’ websites? The lawyer. The expanse of high-priced real estate at the top of the home page is often given over to a photo of Lady Justice or the Constitution or a court building or a gavel or some other anonymous stock photo speaking to the idea of, “Law.” The writing is often stilted, uncomfortable contortions of lawyerly language that boil down to three words: “I do law.” On one website home page, the first sentence is 58 words long. And those 58 words might as well say, “You need an estate plan and I do that.” It’s unfortunate. This lawyer is obviously better than what is a failed exercise in keyword stuffing. It will not appeal to Google, and will probably be penalized for lack of relevance. And it will not appeal to the prospective client, who will penalize it for the same thing.
But then, there’s always the About page. That’s where the website shows a glimmer of hope. In the bio, that lawyer comes to life for a brief, shining moment. There’s a glimpse of the person one might meet in the interview. Then, in stumbles a contorted, 43-word gymnastic sentence about discovering a passion for helping the client’s compliance boat navigate the complex and dangerous seas of compliance, assisting businesses of all sizes and of various industries in establishing and maintaining regulatory compliance. Instead of all that, how about saying: “Man, I love the puzzle of regulatory law. ” It might not sound like a lawyer. But remember: Nobody wants a lawyer. They want a relationship.
The website is a place for the lawyer to be the human who chose law. That’s who the prospect wants to hire. The prospect is a human who has come to your site, most likely as the result of a referral. This human has a problem to be solved. The only person who can solve it is you. So, your persona can hide behind generic keywords and generic writing about generic things law. Or, your website can portray you as The Answer to the age-old question, “Should I talk to this lawyer?” And the only way to get there is by entering into a human conversation that your prospect is already having.
An attorney recently said to me, “I’m not happy with my website.” I asked why. “It doesn’t bring in what I desire.”
That’s an interesting phrasing. I liked it. “And what do you desire?” The desirous lawyer replied, “More estate planning.” So, I looked at the site.
The most obvious thing about the home page was the scales of justice. Then, a generic headline about life’s challenging moments. That was followed by a sentence (that might as well have been bullet points) about practice areas and geography. Finally, a click for a free consultation.
So, above the fold, it's a gigantic Post-It note. It says: “I’m a lawyer and I’ll talk to you. Click here.” Who is this lawyer? What is the lawyer’s focus? And why should the prospective client care?
“If you could have only one client ever, who would it be?” That is one of the questions Firm Appeal asks when we’re working with someone new. In this case, the answer is, “An estate planning client.” We’d always ask more questions and drill down. But for the sake of this exercise, let’s be satisfied with wanting estate planning cases.
Why isn’t that the first thing an estate planning prospect is seeing? When landing on the website, why are they seeing scales of justice? There’s no estate-planning focus, no feeling, no difference, no brand. And this is a common challenge. It’s not just this website. It’s many websites.
Part of the problem is this lawyer’s site looks like a good website. That’s a challenge. As a website, this is a marketing-like device. It talks about things that seem to matter. The colors are good. It looks nice. It says many nice things.
But at the end of the day, this website doesn’t matter. And that’s a shame. Because someone who needs an estate plan matters. They deserve a pro to ensure the family’s future. And you know who else matters? This lawyer. Everything I’ve learned about this lawyer is honorable and admirable and excellent.
And that’s why this lawyer’s desires are not being met. The website isn’t offering a message that meets the desires of the prospect. And that prospect is the most important person being discussed on that website. If the website treats the prospective client as important, the prospect and the lawyer both win.*
*This is a fictionalized account based on many true stories. No one website is actually represented here because so, so many of them share this problem.
That might sound strange from a guy who’s written branding books. But the reality is that never have more gurus been banging the drum for branding—without ever understanding it or explaining what it is.
Branding for lawyers is especially challenging. Unless you’re a DUI or PI attorney, it’s difficult to see how you’re going to brand yourself.
In reality, it's a simple concept to understand and embrace. But it is difficult to execute, especially for oneself. In fact, the Firm Appeal brand took months—purely because we are branding consultants trying to brand ourselves. A self-portrait in branding takes longer. Once you think you’ve got it right, you then have to show it to objective pros—who tell you it’s wrong and where it needs work.
But it’s worth it. Done well, branding helps the prospect make a decision. A good brand is emotionally evocative. And emotions drive decisions. Emotions inspire action. Intellect? Intellect leads to conclusions. But a brand that makes the prospect say, “This feels right” is what leads to choosing you over another.
But what is brand? Brand as we define it at Firm Appeal is: The one way your core client should feel about your firm.
For a lawyer, a better way to consider brand is as persona. Unless you’re the “Top Gun DUI Attorney” (a Los Angeles brand) or “The Law Tigers” (a national brand) or “The Attorney Who Rocks” (an Austin PI brand), you’re not likely to dress up in a catchy suit of branding clothes and bang the drum for your brand of law. Persona is subtler.
Think of persona is a 10% sliver of your personality magnified 10 times. It doesn’t have to feel tricky or unclean. It doesn’t have to make you feel like a carny. Persona lets you bring focus and feeling to your website and marketing materials. You can let your core client feel one way about your firm. You can be decisive and evocative without bringing the hat and cane. You can be all business—but smart business. And that ends up being money in the bank.
Blind kid? What blind kid? It's an expression in internet marketing (as well as the name of a San Francisco SEO firm) that search engines are like blind five-year olds. That's your baseline for simplicity. Handle your SEO elements in such a way that you're understandable to a blind 5-year old. Do that, and you attract the right attention from the web crawlers determining your relevance.
Are you selling widgets? If it's mass retail your after, this kind of SEO makes perfect sense. However, there are no widgets in your world. You're selling a high-priced professional service. It's not a commodity. And Google shoppers are usually seeking the lowest price. (If you wish to sacrifice yourself on the altar of price-per-pound shoppers, have at it. But it'll be expensive.)
What about being a vision for the sighted adult in the room? We like to joke about SEO vs. HBO--Human Being Optimization. Since the higher-quality client is typically coming to you as a referral, you want your website to appeal to that person on a level that search engines may not care about.
There's a level of emotional engagement required for a human being to make a decision. (Yes, this is real science. Decisions are made emotionally, then rationalized. See also: anything that gets a couple into divorce court.) Emotions lead to action. Reason leads to conclusions. And the kind of appeal that you need is the human kind.
That's not to say you don't want SEO. There are all kinds of grizzly little SEO details that need to happen under the hood of your website. But what you're not interested in is chasing the dragon of a six-figure annual SEO budget to compete with a firm for whom those six figures are paper clips, and their marketing budget dwarfs the GDP of some third-world nations. Like the man says, there's only so much room on page one.
Why is HBO emotional appeal better for you than SEO blind child appeal? Because that's a battle you can win. And just as a case in point, you've read all the way to the end of this blog post. And you know what? Google will never list it for someone searching for what you do. You know why? Because this post never uses any one of the specific words that refer to what you do and the service you provide. And that much you can bank on.
Many years ago, we were working on branding for an oncologist. This oncologist’s story had an unusual, resonant component: Within a very short time, during his formative years, he lost both his father and his uncle to cancer. It shook his world. That was when he vowed to become a cancer doctor. And as a cancer doctor, one of the things he wanted his patient to know is they weren’t alone. He was there to be a partner in this treatment. And if the patient ever felt alone and in need of a conversation, they had the doctor’s personal cell phone number.
This doctor’s brand was magnetic to someone experiencing the emotional upheaval of a cancer diagnosis. The reason is not because this doctor was the best in the nation, or was oncologist to the celebrities, or that he was a media personality. His brand was magnetic because he understood something integral to human nature: people want relationships.
This is not an exhortation for you to hand out your personal cell number willy nilly. Hardly. Instead, it’s a recognition of a fundamental truth about hiring a lawyer. As you know, nobody really wants to do it. Instead, they feel they must hire a lawyer. Often, they feel this way under duress. It might not be as serious as a cancer diagnosis, but it’s serious enough that they feel a loss of control.
So, how do you persuade this person under duress that you’re the lawyer they need? One way is to let your prospect peek behind the curtain. The oncologist was good at it. He had a personal story that implied not just sympathy but empathy.
We know an employment law attorney who was once employed by a big litigation firm. She defended corporations against charges made against them by employees. Eventually, she stopped feeling good about her job. She went out on her own, and began representing the plaintiffs. And her story resonated with her base of prospects. This made her appealing, and made the prospect feel that this would be a worthy relationship.
Another client, an estate planning attorney, had a personal story of loss that resonated with her prospect base. Her own father had died without an estate plan, and her mother was left bereft and destitute. She dedicated her life to making sure what happened to her family didn’t happen to others. Her prospects immediately felt this was a professional with whom pursuing a relationship was a worthy idea.
People don’t want to hire attorneys, but they do want relationships. And the more you can bring to the table about the intangible benefits of having a relationship with your firm, the more likely you are to be magnetic to the person who needs your service. Your personal story matters, especially when it has relevance to the prospect who might want to hire you.
I've spent a great part of my career working in the voiceover industry. There's a popular “branding” exercise undertaken by a lot of radio and voiceover people. They go find a font for their name. Then they dig up a graphic of a microphone. They put them together and use it as a logo.
It’s a branding exercise designed to make the prospect say, “So what?” It says zero about who they are, what they sound like, what their attitude is, or anything else that matters. When you're hiring a VO guy, a microphone is the price of entry.
It’s as if you’re a carpenter, and your branding is a hammer. Or if you’re a writer and your branding is a quill pen. Or if you’re a lawyer and your logo is…
Scales of justice.
If anyone who does what you do can change the name and use your brand, it’s not branding. It’s whitewash. It’s indistinctive and meaningless.
Does that sound harsh?
For your law firm, your brand is the one way your core client should feel about the firm. “One way” because focus is essential. It’s the same in your practice. Without focus, you can't do your job. Same with branding. You identify your “core client” because once you define the person to whom you’re speaking, it becomes possible to speak in a way that resonates. And “feel” because decision making is an emotional process. Influencing a decision is difficult without appealing to the correct emotions.
Does this sound like salesman hoohah? Consider the words of famed neuroscientist, Dr. Donald B. Calne: “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions.”
The job of marketing is not to lead the prospect to a conclusion. That’s the job of a legal argument. The job of marketing should be to inspire action. And in our case, we want to inspire the right client to feel like you’re the right lawyer. The desired action is a request for consultation.
There are various ways to do this. But the foundational effort, the background app, as it were, is your brand. You don’t need to brand yourself like the PI attorney who rocks or the DUI guy who's the top gun. But you do need to distill your personality into an identifiable persona that is evocative for the right prospect. Just like the Firm Appeal brand does not appeal to a lawyer who wants a $500 website, your website should appeal to a prospect who wants something better than the best price on law by the pound.
You may not have a logo and a fancy slogan. (Both are elements of brand, but not branding in and of themselves.) Nonetheless, you require brand definition. Call it your legal persona. Everything in your marketing plays back to that persona. When properly defined and conveyed, your persona helps the right client make the decision to call you.
“I’m not interested in getting found on Google. I just want a place to send people when they ask about my website.” In all the years we've been working with attorneys on their websites, this is the most common refrain we hear.
Isn’t that crazy? Why on earth would you not want to get found on Google? Well, it’s pretty simple: The lawyers saying this don’t need the kind of business Google is going to send them. They don’t want tire kicking price shoppers who see lawyering as a commodity. “I’d like half a pound of divorce law, please. What’s your best price?”
Many of the lawyers we serve thrive on referrals. And at this time in the 21st century, even for a referral, having no website means you don’t exist. It’s the problem Descartes didn’t have to grapple with: "I have a website, therefore I am."
Also, a lot of these lawyers know the cost of competing with the 600-pound gorillas of law-firm SEO. “I can spend six figures on SEO, or I can buy a house in Belize. Hmm. Decisions.” They know that spending a quarter million bucks to compete with a big firm in a market like New York or San Francisco is a losing proposition. Much smarter is to put fewer marketing dollars into more tactical media.
When a referral does come their way, they want a website that improves the odds of converting that referral into a client. Also, they want to have the same appeal for the prospect who finds the website through other avenues, like social or video or blogging or traditional advertising. They want a website that makes it clear who they are, what they do, and how a client should feel about them.
That doesn’t mean there is zero SEO. There are SEO fundamentals. For instance, when someone searches your name, your website should appear in the search. That’s Website Building 101. But at the end of the day, you are not Baker McKenzie. Your game is about being efficient, nimble and cost effective. There’s no reason to try and compete in the SEO arms race with the superpowers. You are a marketing guerrilla. Approaching it that way is how you thrive.
IT IS PRESENTED AS A TRUTH THAT "Without SEO, lawyers die." What if you defy this ostensible truth? In a business where referral is king, SEO is useful. It just isn't a silver bullet. Instead, be human. Be evocative. Be the best part of you. A search engine can't understand that. But your client can.
Blaine Parker writes good words for good lawyers. Learn more at Firm Appeal.