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June 16, 2010

Marketing by the Checklist

If you've come to this post expecting a checklist of criteria by which to evaluate your current marketing efforts or implement a new marketing initiative, then you've come to the wrong place.  Those kinds of checklists (especially a task list) are useful to be sure, because they make it easier to delegate marketing to a subordinate or assistant so that it doesn't go by the wayside when your schedule picks up.  But today, I'm addressing another category of checklist:  the kind that lawyers use, or at least should use, that outline the steps or procedures involved in handling the substance of a case.

If the "checklist" concept sounds familiar to you, it's because it's the focal point of Anul Gawande's book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, which has been the subject of many-a-recent blog post.  I recently finished the book myself and was convinced by Gawande's thesis:  that the "humble" checklist can minimize error in carrying out complex tasks by helping with memory recall and setting out the minimum necessary steps in a process.  Moreover, by committing routine procedures to a hard and fast list, a checklist frees up professionals to devote more time to the kinds of judgment calls that they always have to make, whether there's a list in place or not.

Gawande draws on examples from medicine, engineering and aviation to demonstrate how checklists can minimize error.  In the medical profession for example, a study showed that by using a checklist for placing a central line (comprised of seemingly mundane tasks like wearing a mask or body-draping a patient), the  the ten-day infection rate was reduced from 11% to zero.  But you can probably imagine situations in your own practice where a checklist - such as the essential elements of a personal injury complaint to a list of documents required to file a bankruptcy petition - could also help avoid error and eliminate the risk of dismissal of a case.

OK.  So you're convinced of the importance of checklists.  But what's that got to do with marketing?  Plenty.  Consider these potential ways to use checklists to market your practice educate your clients and keep your firm at the forefront of their mind.  Here are some ideas:

1.  Create a task-oriented checklist of all of the steps involved in a particular type of proceeding -- for example, a typical divorce dispute.  Post the checklist on your website or blog, or publish it online as a mini-ebook.  The checklist will help clients understand all of the steps involved in even a so-called simple divorce.  As a result, the list can help weed out prospects who aren't really serious about divorce, but nevertheless, eat up your time at a free consultation.  And where a client does hire you, a task-oriented checklist helps clients know what to expect, and also familiarizes them with the amount of work that their case may potentially entail - which can help reduce complaints about excessive fees down the line.

2.   Create a client "to do checklist" - for example, a list of documents that clients should bring to the first meeting or gather together for a bankruptcy filing or preparation of an estate plan.  A client to do checklist will help you to market your practice because it makes clients' lives easier.  Going through a bankruptcy or preparing an estate plan is stressful enough for busy clients; it's even more stressful if they need to keep providing additional information because they forgot to write down a particular item that is required.  Clients will appreciate a checklist that they can work from and they'll appreciate it even more if you offer it on your website and in both paper and computerized format, so that they don't have to keep calling for another copy if they lose the list.  Satisfied clients will provide positive testimonials, which if accurate and sincere, are one of the most effective ways to attract new clients.

3.  Create a post-engagement checklist for clients to use after you've finished the matter for which you were retained.  Even after you've finished a case for a client, there are still matters for which they are responsible, or that may trigger further legal action.  For example, even after an incorporation is complete, the client retains responsibility for filing annual reports and other documents to keep the corporation in good standing.  Creating a checklist of these post-representation matters will help the client avoid problems down the line.  And if you put the checklist on your law firm letterhead (or if you're feeling particularly ambitious, create a branded mobile app for a client to download a checklist on his or her phone), clients can always get in touch with you for follow up questions or problems.

For other matters - like a bankruptcy discharge or a divorce and child custody agreement - you'll want to create a checklist to help clients determine whether they need further assistance.  For example, after a bankruptcy, clients shouldn't be getting calls from creditors whose debts were already discharged - and if they do, they should call you.  Likewise, for divorce matters, a lawyer might identify a list of events - such as loss of a job or an ex-spouse's remarriage or relocation - that may trigger the filing of modification petitions.

Checklists are an ideal marketing tool:  they educate clients and enable lawyers to serve them more effectively.  Checklists aren't as flashy as a T.V. commercial or even a fancy website, but they're inexpensive and most of all, something that lawyers should be creating for their practices anyway.  So when you get around to making a list of the tools that you want to use to market your practice, be sure to include the humble checklist.
October 11, 2009

Marketing to the Do It Yourself-er

Years before I started blogging here at Nolo's Legal Marketing Blawg, I was an unabashed fan of Nolo for its pioneer work in providing legal resources to pro se litigants at a time when they had no other alternatives.  Flash forward three and a half decades, and though other self-help resources now exist, Nolo remains out in front both in the variety of offerings and more importantly, quality of material.   

What's more, the self-help trend is growing faster than ever -- and it's not just because the economic downturn is forcing folks to cut back.   Instead, the move towards self-help is at once driven by generational preferences and technological advancements.

Consider the evidence, like this recent press release about Generation Y's propensity for   taking charge of their own investments instead of relying on a financial manager, broker or other professional.  Gen Y'ers are playing a far more active role in overseeing their finances -- 31 percent are doing their own investment research compared to 12 percent of Boomers, and a full 50 percent are keeping track of their accounts compared to 30 percent of Boomers.  The trend isn't surprising -- after all, Gen Y'ers have grown up online and are accustomed to researching online.  For that reason, Gen Y'ers rated online research as the most important tool for investment information and they frequently use iPhones for stock quotes or to check investments.

Technology is also making self-help options more desirable for consumers. The Chicago Tribunehighlights the growing popularity of self-service Redbox kiosks for videos and self-check out at supermarkets.  Kiosk transactions are expected to surpass $775 billion this year, up from $607 billion in 2008, according to IHL Group, which tracks the self-service industry. It could hit $1.6 trillion by 2013.

So why do lawyers need to learn about DIY and self-help trends?  After all, don't self-help options reduce the need for lawyers?  Not necessarily.  In many instances, self-help products for consumers - like Nolo's books and forms - capture a market segment that either didn't want or couldn't afford to hire a lawyer.  In other words, many self-help options help clients who weren't going to hire lawyers anyway.

The 21st century version of self-help has evolved from the more traditional concept of doing it yourself to save money.  The modern day version of self-help is all about education and empowerment; today's self-help tools aren't intended to displace the need for professionals but rather to supplement the services that they provide.  

In the survey that I mentioned, for all the work that Gen Y'ers are doing in tracking their own investments and researching their portfolio, at the end of the day just 24 percent (compared with 11 percent of Boomers) are actually managing their own accounts.  That still leaves 75 percent of the Gen Y population as potential investment company clients.  And an investment professional's ability to cater to Gen Y's self-help urges -- through services like online research reports on market trends and internet connection to accounts--is what will make them appealing.  

That's why understanding the self-help trend is critical for lawyers.  Acting in a protectionist fashion and keeping information close to the vest for fear that clients won't "buy the cow if they can get the milk for free" won't generate more clients.  Instead, hoarding information will only drive clients to those lawyers who understand and respect their desire to educate themselves and play an active role in their case.

With that goal in mind, what features can you add to your practice to make you more attractive to the independently minded Gen Y'ers, not to mention the kiosk-patronizing consumers who've grown accustomed to the convenience of self service?  Consider the following ideas:

--Start a blog and pack it full of posts related to your practice, such as answering "frequently asked questions" that you hear all the time (will I lose my home in bankruptcy? Is it really a hassle to go through probate?) to explaining how you handle certain types of cases.  You could supplement the blog with a newsletter which is another way to feed information to clients.

--Write an ebook or special report that can help clients better understand or even solve a basic legal problem.  Ebooks and reports educate potential clients, which means that they may self-screen themselves if they learn from your materials that they don't have a case.

--Incorporate tools in your practice that makes it easy for clients to help themselves.  Add a client portal, where clients can log-in and check the status of your case.  Client portals aren't costly -- services like ZohoBasecamp or Clio offer portals and cost $50 per month or less. Plus, the portals will save you time by eliminating, or at least reducing calls from anxious clients seeking updates.

--Offer unbundled services virtually.  If you're interested in trying to capture more reluctant do-it-yourself clients, you might consider providing unbundled services exclusively on line.  Two companies, VLO Tech and Direct Law offer reasonably priced, turn-key systems for serving consumers online.  As a virtual lawyer, you'll provide legal advice and draft and review documents, but the client will still do much of the legwork, such as filing an incorporation with the Secretary of State or executing a will that you've drafted.  

By helping clients help themselves, you help yourself too.  Because when those self-help client need a full service lawyer, they'll turn to the ones who helped them when they didn't need to.