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Guest Post: Marketing a Virtual Law Office

This is the middle post in a three-part series on the virtual practice of law authored by Stephanie Kimbro for the LOMAP Blog. The first part in this series provided a basic introduction to the topic of virtual law practice and the unbundling of legal services online. This piece will cover the marketing of a virtual law office. The final installment of the series will cover ethical issues and best practices related to delivering legal services online.

To hear even more of Stephanie’s take on virtual law practice, listen to her appearance on my “Legal Toolkit” podcast, here.

Stephanie is the winner of the ABA’s 2009 James I. Keane Memorial Award, for Excellence in eLawyering. For more information on Stephanie and her practice, visit her blog. And, watch for Stephanie’s book on virtual law practice, to be released by the ABA later this year.

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Marketing a Virtual Law Office

Marketing a virtual law office requires some out-of-the-box thinking. It also requires careful balancing of the application of non-traditional marketing methods with continuing compliance with state bar rules and regulations regarding attorney advertising. Where state bars are silent on specific forms of online advertising or the use of technology, attorneys must interpret existing advertising rules and regulations to fit the context of modern-day practice. (For an in-depth discussion covering the creation of attorney websites and the rules that apply to same, see the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Committee on Professional EthicsOpinion No. 98-2. More generally, Massachusetts attorneys are essentially asked to extrapolate ethical rules for traditional marketing methods in application to non-traditional, online advertising methods, per Massachusetts Rule of Professional Conduct 7.2 and Comment 3 to that rule. There is also available from the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, at its articles repository, a 2000 piece entitled “Brave New World Wide Web: Ethics Issues and On-Line Legal Services”, which addresses ethical questions related to new modes of online advertising.)

While in many ways the strategy for marketing a virtual law office does not differ substantially from the strategy for marketing a traditional law firm, the methods for advertising a virtual law office are most often online options, and are mostly digital, rather than paper-, or phone-, based. The methods used to market the virtual form of practice must be utilized with consideration as to where the prospective online clients are coming from and as to how the firm will deliver legal services to those clients online. In some cases, the marketing of a virtual law practice may cost less than the marketing of a traditional law firm. However, there are also unique risks associated with marketing unbundled, online legal services. Forms of online marketing and methods of building a brand change rapidly, as the technology underlying the internet and marketing on the internet shift over time. Before you begin to market your virtual law office, you must understand what your firm’s comfort level is with respect to using and keeping up with technology (and that “keeping up” includes addressing prevailing security issues, like those implicated by Massachusetts’ new data privacy regulations); you’ll also need to have a grounded knowledge in your state bar or ethics agency’s stance on attorney advertising and online marketing.

Creating a VLO Marketing Strategy

If you operate a traditional law firm that is integrating a virtual law office into a prevailing practice, consider writing a separate marketing plan for the virtual law office component, which separate marketing plan will fit in with the firm’s overall marketing goals. In establishing that separate plan, you may need to consider marketing to a separate online client base or marketing the virtual law office as an amenity to your existing, in-person clients. If you operate a completely web-based virtual law office, you may want a less traditional marketing plan, that reaches out primarily to online clients, and that spans your jurisdiction(s). Regardless of the type of virtual law office you opt for, don’t rule out in-person, local and community-oriented networking as an adjunct to your online marketing, that has reach beyond your physical location. With either form of virtual law practice, the combination of in-person and virtual reputation-building should help you to derive a steady online client stream, in the long run.

However, you should be realistic in your expectations. Just because you build a client portal into your firm’s website, it does not mean that prospective clients will filter into your virtual law office automatically. As with any business, expect to spend 9 months to a year building an online client base, building the SEO for your site and establishing a strong online presence and reputation within your virtual law office’s jurisdiction(s).

Regardless of the form of virtual law practice you are operating/intend to operate, finding answers to the following questions will help you to establish a marketing strategy:

-What are your prospective clients searching for when they go online seeking legal services?
-What keywords or terms are they searching online to find a virtual law office?
-How do you intend to market the firm’s unbundled legal services online? For example, Will you provide sample fixed fees for legal services packages, or offer unbundled legal services online, in addition to full-service representation? Plan out how you will present these unbundled offerings to prospective online clients.
-What is the age and socio-economic background of your target client base online?
-How do you intend to brand your virtual law office? What image do you want for the online presence of your practice?
-What is your firm’s comfort level in using social media, and other forms of online networking, to market your practice? Does your firm have a social networking policy in place?
-What resources can your firm devote to building an online presence? Will someone in the firm be responsible for monitoring this?

Build a Consistent Online Presence

Build an online presence and reputation for your virtual law practice by being consistent with your marketing methods. Make weekly and monthly marketing to-do lists that remind you to take a proactive role in developing your online presence. Monitor your online reputation regularly by using Google Analytics, Google Alerts and other web-based tools that let you see when your name, or your firm’s name, is mentioned online. Be active on networking sites and comment on blogs where appropriate, while also leaving your digital signature on posts, on listservs and on forums, so that the audiences wi
thin those groups can easily travel from that content to your virtual law office site.

Don’t Forget the Human Behind the Virtual

Just because your communications are primarily conducted online does not mean that you should forget to add a human component to the marketing of your virtual practice. Let prospective online clients see who they will be working with online. It may help to instill trust with respect to a process of receiving legal services that may be new to them. At a minimum, you should post your picture on your static website. You can also record a video introduction of yourself, and your practice, and that may also be included on your homepage.

Consider also recording video tutorials that will walk your prospective clients through the registration process for your secure client portal, or that will explain to them how to request legal services from your virtual law office. You might also want to host a free, educational webinar for the public that is related to your practice area. Real-time chat through your website is another option for connecting with prospective clients online. Use technology to create a personal experience for the visitors to your website.

With all of these suggestions, and other similar methods, you must consider the security of the web-based technology that is being used, and what types of confidential information may be transmitted using such methods. In some cases, you may need to limit your prospective clients’ access, or ability to communicate certain information, over unsecure methods, in order to protect them from themselves. You might remind them regularly, on the site and in other ways, that, in order to secure their communications with you regarding their personal legal matters, they must register on your secure client portal.

Social Media

Find ways to use social media to connect with other attorneys, business professionals and prospective clients for your virtual law practice. If you’re comfortable using social media networking, you might want to create profiles on multiple sites; or, if you’re not so comfortable, you might stick to sites where networking is limited to legal professionals. Before engaging in the use of social media as a form of marketing, establish some form of social networking policy for your office. Decide what image and brand you will be conveying, and which audience you will be directing that image to; then, be consistent with the application of that strategy.

Of course, you should, in utilizing social media, keep in mind that there are risks associated with communicating with prospective clients and existing clients online through non-secure social networking sites. So, pay close attention to privacy settings when establishing your profiles, and make sure that your clients understand that communicating with you via these methods is most likely not a secure transmission of confidential information. You will want to educate yourself, and your associates and office staff, about these significant risks before you dive in. One useful resource on social media and lawyers’ marketing can be found in the article, “Social Media: What It Is and Why It Matters” by Niki Black and Carolyn Elefant. There are many state ethics opinions on the topic of online advertising, so check with your state bar or ethics agency before engaging in any of these methods.

Avoid Certain Traditional Methods

There are some traditional advertising methods that are simply not effective for a virtual law office. Some of these include: phone book listings, paper announcements, business cards and print advertisements. Your clients are seeking legal services online, and rarely utilize these paper methods to locate you, even if directly presented with the option. Attorney online directories or registries will often limit a listing to a specific city or zip code; these services may even want to charge you separately for listings in each city that you wish to reach. This may not be cost-effective. There are, however, some online directories cropping up that exclusively list virtual law offices: MyLawyer.com is one example of this sort of site, open to the general public.

Similarly, rather than using traditional paper methods to update your contacts with announcements and news about your virtual law office, instead send regular email blasts to subscribers of your website or blog or to existing clients and contacts. This is not entirely radical, as, in many cases, you’re merely refocusing your efforts on updated, digital versions of the traditional marketing methods that you used to use.

Educate and Provide Quality Content

One of the most effective marketing methods that a virtual law office can engage in is to regularly publish quality content to its website or blog. Not only does quality content help build the SEO for a virtual law office site, but it also provides your prospective clients with a basic introduction to their legal needs, or to the practice area that you focus in. Create a blog for your practice that is geared towards prospective clients, or towards other attorneys in your practice area. Consider providing other educational resources on your site, as well, like: video tutorials on different subjects; web-based calendars or calculators; or, links to other legal resources or sites related to topics reflecting your clients’ legal needs.

What Makes Your VLO Unique?

As more virtual law offices open up, many of them will come to offer unbundled services and state-specific legal documents that may be similar to the offerings of your own virtual law practice. The ability of a firm to differentiate its virtual law office from the others will depend on how well that firm develops a unique brand for their online delivery of legal services. You must, then, find a unique way to identify with your prospective clients, so that enough of a connection is made via your virtual law office website that they will be prompted to think of your firm’s online offerings when their legal need does arise. Create a brand that the firm projects online, and be consistent with this image as your reputation becomes established.

In general, your firm’s marketing strategies should erase the concept that the law and the legal profession are intimidating, and that collaborative legal help is impossible to obtain. Make the convenient and affordable online access to justice a key focus of your practice’s marketing methods, and it will pay off in the long term.