Most law firms are familiar with companies that offer subscription-based “legal marketing services.” For a monthly fee, law firms are promised a website combined with several other services: a listing in a directory, a dedicated page on the vendor’s website, e-newsletter software, or off-the-shelf content that can be re-used by the firm.
You’re trying to service your clients and run your firm with only 24 hours in a day, so this subscription sounds great. You have a predictable line-item monthly expense and you don’t have to do anything but click a couple of buttons.
Now think about a totally different kind of service on the market: the kind that allows people to DIY their legal services. For a small fee, the client can click buttons and answer some questions and – presto – get the “same” result that they would get if they retained an attorney. Except that it’s not the same process or the same kind of result. There is a difference between the work that you perform for your clients and what a piece of software can deliver at scale.
The same is true of legal marketing services. I have worked with law firms who’ve gone down the automated ecosystem route and the same problems come up over and over again:
- The firm website looks like a lot of other law firm websites. This is because a “customizable” template can only be customized so much. It’s like clothing: a shirt at a department store may come in different colors and sizes, but the fabric, thread, button placement, sleeve length, pockets, stitching, shape, and fit will be the same for everyone who buys it. It’s the same with website templates for law firms. The written words or the images in your website header may be different, but the structure, size, and placement of those elements will be the same for every attorney who purchased that template.
- The firm website can’t be optimized for search engines the way the firm needs to optimize it. Part of SEO is content and part of SEO is technical, or how the code of the site works. With many legal marketing services, the client cannot access the site code. This means you’re dependent on whatever technical SEO comes off the shelf. That can leave the firm without options for targeting specific geographic markets or areas of law.
- The firm doesn’t own the site. Instead, the firm is essentially renting their website from the vendor – not until it’s paid off, but forever. If the firm doesn’t want to do business with that vendor anymore, they lose the website, and, depending on the platform, even their domain name.
- Legal marketing services can include marketing campaigns, advertising, or social media services. Because those are also off-the-shelf, they don’t necessarily take into consideration the professional responsibility rules of the jurisdictions in which the firm is located and practices. This can lead to firms inadvertently violating the rules and courting disciplinary action.
- Legal marketing services tend to be staffed by non-lawyers, so they aren’t experienced in issue-spotting to help the firm proactively stay in compliance with applicable rules.
- The analytics reports provided by legal marketing platforms can range from helpful to meaningless because they’re reporting templates that aren’t tied to any one law firm’s specific goals. For example, your firm’s website may be getting a lot of traffic – but who makes up that traffic? Is it the traffic you want? Is it spam? Is it coming from overseas? Generalized reporting can make it hard for firms to know the true value of the marketing services they’re paying for.
Think about what you would advise a client who asked you if it was a good idea to do her will online. Depending on her situation and what she was hoping to accomplish, an online legal service might suffice. But it wouldn’t be a one-for-one replacement for a will drawn up by her own attorney – and it wouldn’t be a substitute for the judgment of an attorney in identifying issues that might impact her estate planning.
Law firms who choose to use “plug and play” legal marketing services should know what they can reasonably expect, be aware of potential pitfalls, and have a plan for recovering if something goes wrong. With that added effort and time, these services may not be the easiest solution after all.