Last week I taught Southern Methodist University's Law Practice Management class - for the third year in a row. In 2011, the students were mostly 2Ls, but this year, there was an equal mix of 4Es (evening students who have fulltime jobs during the day), second and third years. They are in this class not to learn about the practice of law, but to study the business of law. (Read last year's blog post about this class.)
Like last year, I kicked off my presentation, "Marketing on the Internet", by asking two questions:
When you think of starting your careers in a year or two, what is the biggest opportunity that you see the Internet can bring you?
What is your greatest fear when you think about the Internet and your career?
We discussed the students' answers before I continued with the Ten Foundational Best Practices of law firm websites, and the increasingly far-reaching world of serious social media. I've written about both on this blog.
Because these students are covering the "real world" aspects of running a law practice, they will be much better prepared than their classmates who don't understand the complexities of law firm profitability, client relationship management, service delivery, business development - and yes, the opportunities and risks associated with marketing on the Internet.
Here is how the students answered the first question (I am using their names with their permission - and you can find them all on LinkedIn if you want to get better acquainted with them):
- Steven Strobl (a 4E entrepreneur): The biggest opportunity that the Internet can bring . . . is the ability to easily, cheaply communicate at a global level. The Internet is the ultimate symbol of services globalization. More people are connected every year, making it one of the easiest ways to increase your clientele on a global scale.
- Brett Talley: The Internet is an easy way to connect with clients and provide info about your law firm. The problem is that a lot of firms use web pages in much the same way, and they often all look the same to prospective clients. So, the way the Internet is being utilized currently provides an opportunity to do something different - to stand out.
- Laura Fenstad (2L): Biggest opportunity that I see are websites that rank law firms and give people a chance to blog about their experiences.
- Emily Benbrook: Online client reviews of the work attorneys have previously provided for them. Yelp, Google Reviews, etc.
- J. Brooks Durham (2L): You can learn about your new employer and learn how to advance in that practice area by learning about the career path of the partners and senior associates. Often there is information available online that you cannot get from them face-to-face.
- Chase Crosby: Access to a wider consumer base, which (while it presents a greater set of challenges) also offers a greater chance of success. And actually making a substantial difference in society.
- Scott I. Hooker: It gives me the opportunity to target the niche I wish to develop. In my case, estate, business and tax planning. Over the long-term, if I can carve out such a niche, it gives me a chance to target that niche as a prominent practitioner in it.
- Thuy Nguyen: Exposure to an audience outside your immediate network.
- Justin Wilson (2L): I'd like to use the Internet as a means for educating legal clients to the process my trial animation business will use to revolutionize the way animations are used as demonstrative evidence - through cinematic techniques like motion-capture.
- Sarah Russell (2L): Advertising/publishing, quick access to information. many forums for communication.
- Cade Jobe (3L): Social media - from jobs to contacts to customer service. I don't trust a company that doesn't have a website and it's getting that way with social media.
- Clarence Wilson (3L): Marketing and branding to a global market.
- Chase Potter: The plethora of information it provides me.
- Greg McAllister (an alumnus of this class from two years ago, and now an associate at Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail & Shank): Social media - passive marketing, but opportunities to be active, plus SEO opportunities. Build your brand on your law firm's website.
Unlike some lawyers who have been practicing for a few years (although it's not entirely a function of age or generation), these guys get the enormous potential of the digital assets available.
Here are some of their fears:
- Steven: Over-regulation or excessive government control. SOPA/PIPA are good recent examples. Further, depersonalization of legal services concerns me. Everyone interacts screen-to-screen more than face-to-face these days. This can reduce the drive to engage in more meaningful ways (more meaningful than "I need XYZ, please respond.")
- Brett: Easier for clients to contact you via email, leads to them to expect more communication and quicker responses.
- Laura: Losing a trial and having a reputation ruined.
- Emily: Software or websites providing legal advice or services for clients - and thus stripping business from attorneys.
- Brooks: New employer may lie on the website, so you think you are taking a job at one firm and end up at a completely different firm. And ending up on WSJ Blog bad writing examples.
- Chase: Because of the easy access, how do you "brand" yourself in a manner that is both unique/specialized and valuable to a wide consumer base. The fear is in finding that optimal mix when it seems as though the Internet has grown the number of competitors.
- Scott: Probably the biggest fear is the Internet's permanence, especially regarding disgruntled clients or other negatives. It's also the challenge of establishing a reputation at all online as one builds a practice.
- Thuy: The possibility that you can't congtrol what someone else will post about you on the Internet and the irreparable damage it could cause to your reputation.
- Justin: I fear potential clients won't find my site in a Google search (not being on the first page in a Google search).
- Sarah: Things I don't want out there getting published (particularly quotes being taken out of context).
- Cade: Making a mistake and it being published on the web.
- Clarence: Damage control.
- Chase: The plethora of information it provides clients or potential clients.
- Greg: Missed opportunities. Failure to take advantage of it all.
As natural as it is for these students to "live" online, they have most of the same fears that practicing lawyers have. Last year, the big fear of these students was "privacy," and I cautioned them about posting things on Facebook (or anywhere) that could embarrass them or someone close to them later. Strangely, this year it didn't come up, although reputational risk was mentioned several times.
Advice to all law firms with established summer recruiting programs: Ensure that your summer clerks understand the opportunities and the perils of maintaining an active digitial presence. Feel free to download a copy of my SMU Law School presentation.
And Good Luck to the 2012 Law Practice Management class. See you on LinkedIn!