Now Everyone (Suddenly) Has a “Heart” (or a Sob Story) – Marketing for the New-Age Lawyer
1.Most lawyers today would have some form or online presence. Not too long ago however, this was not the case. Understanding the numerous ways that lawyers market themselves these days, can potentially assist you in your quest to obtain suitable and satisfactory legal representation.
2. When I first started practicing, lawyers’ attitudes towards ‘marketing’ drew mixed reactions. There were the gung-ho cowboys whose mottos were “Any publicity is good publicity”. On the polar opposite, were those who saw marketing as being “beneath” them. By the time I got called to the bar, most (like myself) understood the need to market, but options seemed limited (until recent years). More importantly, were the realconsiderations that we faced due to the restrictions under our relevant professional rules. For example, if a client made a public complaint about us on social media, how much could we publicly respond to such a complaint without breaching “confidentiality” rules? This question remains up in the air.
3. Of course, the wave of digital transformation just swept us all in its tide before we could “debate” this issue. Holding on to archaic views on marketing / publicity was no longer an option, even for the relics. To me, more lawyers going online was good for both the public and lawyers alike. People had a starting point to search for lawyers (*of course older folks took more time to adapt), and lawyers similarly had a chance to let the public know that they existed.
A. Factors to Consider
4. Before searching for a suitable divorce lawyer, it would be useful for you to consider what you are looking for in a lawyer. Understandably, some may find themselves clueless either because they have not encountered lawyers or divorce before. After all, most people would rightfully try their best to avoid both. However, here are some factors that I propose you consider (*Note: This is not an exhaustive list):
4.1 Charges / Costs / Fees:
(a) This is fundamental because there is no point engaging a lawyer that you are not able to afford. However, I do not suggest looking for just the “cheapest” lawyer.You would need to consider what the “charges” include (i.e. the kind of work, the competence of the lawyer handling your matter, etc.).
(b) Law firms are businesses too, so they would have running costs (i.e. rental, salaries for lawyers / staff, infrastructure, etc.). So, if you land a “good deal”, always ask yourself what is being sacrificed. In the most simplistic of terms, people (and law firms) can only handle a certain volume efficiently. For a law firm, lower costs would mean the need to take on more cases, meaning less time able to be spent on each matter. No matter how “simple” a matter is, to handle a legal matter properlyrequires a certain amount of time. As the saying goes, “There is nothing more expensive than a cheap lawyer”.
(c) I am also not suggesting going in the total opposite direction. “Most expensive” does not mean “best” either. An inexperienced lawyer may end up spending more time and costs compared to an experienced lawyer who is able to accomplish the same piece of work in a shorter time. Ultimately, price must be seen together with all other relevant factors and should not be the only consideration.
(d) Knowing the basis of charges is equally (if not more) important. Certain aspects / events are unpredictable, such as another party’s response, and sometimes these result in necessary deviations. Understanding the basis of charges, would avoid unnecessary misunderstandings about fees due to such necessary deviations. Of course, I always set out my proposed course of action (and my fees). If any deviations are necessary, I would inform my client as soon as possible, and concurrently set out my revised fee estimate, which are in turn calculated using the same earlier basis of my charges.
(e) In my view, expecting lawyers to keep lowering their fees is just unsustainable. Eventually, good lawyers are going to leave the industry, thereby lowering the overall standard of our profession. At the same time, expecting the public to pay for more is equally unsustainable.Perhaps the appropriate balance can be approached in 2 ways:
(i) We lawyers should set a Price/Costs Guide. This will just be a guide and non-binding.The guide would be based on certain basic assumptions which would be made known to the public. The purpose would be to provide a “starting point” or a “point of reference” for both lawyers and the public alike. Lawyers who charge more to differentiate themselves, would have to convince clients that they are worth that much more. Equally, clients who appoint lawyers based on lower fees alone do so with realistic expectations – e.g. that the lawyers may not respond so promptly because of the volume of cases they are handling to make up for the lower fees, or a less experienced lawyer may be assigned to the matter.
(ii) Concurrently, I hope that either the government and/or other larger insurance / financial institutions could study the possibility of some form of“LegalInsurance”. I am well-aware of the various policy considerations and concerns against such schemes, amongst others, not encouraging litigation, and insurance fraud. But, for the Rule of Law to truly be engrained in our DNA, people must be able to take part in the legal process. Access to legal representation needs to be brought closer to the level of healthcare access (*in the Singapore context).
4.2 Competence / Experience / Approach:
(a) Competence and experience may not always go hand-in-hand. Generally, greater experience should mean greater competence too. However, less experience does not mean any less competence. Admittedly, short of seeing a lawyer’s actual results for your matter, it is difficult to judge one’s true competence with certainty based on a meeting or 2, and by reading information on a website. Nonetheless, this is still an important factor to consider.
(b) Perhaps you need to set a list of priorities you want in your lawyer. Do you want a combative lawyer? Then perhaps you should look at the number of the lawyer’s reported cases, which would signify the lawyer’s Court performance. But do consider whether your legal issue necessarily requires such a lawyer. Perhaps in a multi-million-dollar civil suit I would want such a lawyer. However, do you necessarily want a combative lawyer in a family dispute (e.g. divorce, inheritance dispute with siblings, etc.)? Also, remember that with every action comes a reaction, so be prepared to pay for your lawyer’s fees if his/her combative approach brings about an unexpectedretaliation from the opposing party.
(c) When you engage a lawyer, you should leave the lawyering to your lawyer. So, I would caution against you attempting to become a competent lawyer before going to see a lawyer. There must be a degree of trust. Yet, you should not fall for hard-sales pitches and over-promises. Even when I want to assure that my client that he/she need not worry, I will present the basis for my assessment.
(d) Overall, you need to be comfortable with your lawyer’s proposed approach. Personally, I would always provide my suggested approach (*except when clients themselves are not sure about what they want). Sometimes clients do not agree with my approach, and sometimes they do. Ultimately, I am always guided by this consideration “Can I justify my proposed approach in terms of costs balanced with the client’s interests meant to be advanced / protected”.
4.3 Trust / Comfort Level:
This is subjective but very important. Without trust, it is easy for your legal matter to be compromised due to internal conflicts with your lawyer. I am not suggesting giving your lawyer (or anyone for that matter) a “blank cheque”. But if you are going to question your lawyer at every step of the way, it is going to be very difficult for the lawyer to do his/her job, and very (unnecessarily) stressful for you.
Different clients have different requirements. Some are on a budget, whereas others may want more personalized service. Either way, there is a “price” to pay. For the client wanting more personalized service, he/she should pick a lawyer who is able to provide such service and expect a certain price-tag. Clients on a budget on the other hand may find that they do not have as much facetime with their lawyer. However, for simple uncontested matters, this may not be an issue. In short, expectations should be realistic.
5. I wish to emphasize that you should be looking for a balance. Like the common saying goes, “Cheap, Good, Fast. Pick 2”. Something always gives way.
B. How to Go About Searching
6. Ok, so you’ve got your list of requirements and your expectations are realistic. How then do you go about looking for a lawyer?
(a) This method has withstood the test of time for good reason. When someone makes a recommendation, it comes with an unspoken stamp of approval in most cases. Indeed, most of my clients come from recommendations by ex-clients, friends and even some spouses of my ex-clients.
(b) Like all things in life, this method comes with its limitations. The most obvious of which would be physical – i.e. your word travels only as far as your network. One may also not know who exactly in their network to ask for recommendations on a divorce lawyer because divorce is not something that people would usually share openly except with closer friends or acquaintances. Importantly, what works for someone may not work for others. So, when you get a recommendation, you should ask “why” and “what” your recommender liked (or not) about a particular lawyer.
(c) Some seek to replicate the effect of word-of-mouth through “reviews”. Personally, I have always been skeptical about reviews (both positive and negative) especially for divorce matters. Having to engage a lawyer, more so if it is for a divorce, is not something most people would want to flaunt in public. So, unlike leaving a review on Expedia, a travel / hotel / restaurant / product website, I doubt most people would want the world to know that they went through a divorce or family dispute, let alone leave their name for all their network to see. After all, the social stigma surrounding divorce is still very real.It is also possible to buy “likes”, and I know of lawyer(s) who literally make-up reviews and send themselves “thank you” hampers, to (falsely) create this “word-of-mouth” effect.
6.2 Google / Internet Searches:
(a) The internet has been a game changer by providing a space where lawyers can place their profiles, and the public can search for these profiles. It connects a vast space whilesaving time, effort, and costs. Over the past 7 years or so, various portals and/or directories have also popped-up, in addition to more and more law firms and lawyers jumping on digital marketing bandwagon. This has been a lifeline to many lawyers, especially since more and more lawyers are coming out on their own younger and younger [*Note: Topic for a separate article].
(b) What users must be aware of is that the internet does not give a full representation of the whole industry. Digital marketing for lawyers works about the same as digital marketing for other industries. Those with deeper pockets are able topay for better placement of their respective adverts. Your search results will depend on the keywords that you use.Each website is also limited by the amount of information available – put too much info and the reader may be put off, but put too little info and the user may not have the full picture of a lawyer’s / law firm’s capabilities.
(c) The internet only displays the information that is put out there. Obviously, everyone will want to display (what they think are) their most flattering sides. With more and more readily available and user-friendly gadgets, apps and software, everyone is now able to make themselves a “star”. For now, the common theme running through so many marketing / publicity campaigns seems to be “Now everyone (suddenly) has a heart…or a sob story!”.
6.3 Your Own Network
(a) Among your friends may be a lawyer. Make sure that your friend handles family matters before asking for help. If your friend does not handle family matters, perhaps it is best to just ask him/her to put you in contact with one. Every area of law involves slightly nuanced approaches, so getting advice from the wrong kind of lawyer can lead you down the path of more pain than any gain.
(b) Engaging a lawyer friend as your lawyer can be a good thing in terms of trust. However, you should be able to compartmentalize your “personal” from “professional” relationship, otherwise you could put a strain on your friendship. Just because your friend is a lawyer, does not make the law apply to you differently. So,if you engage your friend as a lawyer, you should be prepared to be put in your place by your lawyer friend, if you insist on an untenable legal approach. Please also remember that your lawyer friend is earning a living like everyone else. So, expecting a “discount” is actually quite an unfriendly thing to do. Am speaking from personal experience in this paragraph.
(c) There could also be some wannabe-lawyers in your network. You should distance yourself from these people. It takes much more than reading some articles to be a lawyer. Furthermore, the law requires us lawyers to act in your best interests and lawyers are covered by professional insurance for any negligent advice. There are no laws to guide wannabe-lawyers, whose interests are most likelyto boost their own egos, and if they give you the wrong advice (which they most often will), the only one suffering consequences will be you.Friends should focus on being friends, and lawyering should be left to lawyers.
7. Eventually, once you have narrowed down your choices, you should meet up with the lawyers (whether in person on by video conference) to hear what the lawyer has to say about your case, as well as for you to see if you are comfortable working with that particular lawyer.
8. This article does not aim to provide an exhaustive list. It is just to highlight a few options and my views on each. Got any views on this topic or feedback on the points raised? Let me know through the contact details below.