Maybe you’re just out of law school, forced into a solo “career” out of circumstance. Or maybe you’re the one burned out on Big Law life and flirting with striking out on your own. Either way, you know the competition’s stiff and the market saturated with other striving professionals just like you.
And now you’re doing this thing alone. You need to be your own marketing engine. You need to make your own rain. You need clients. And you need them now.
The pertinent question is... how?
For Ernest Svenson, a/k/a “Ernie the Attorney,” with whom we spoke last week, the answer is in part finding low-cost, low-calorie ways to show your authority, approachability and authenticity. The answer is getting the audience come to you — both because they like you, and because, well, they feel like they can.
The answer, in short, is blogging.
A veteran of larger firms where he spent the better part of two decades, Svenson has since become a sort of marketing and biz-dev guru who has carved out a growing niche as a solo-turned-consultant who shows small firm attorneys how to leverage technology to reduce overhead, win clients, build credibility and outmatch their big firm counterparts.
In these excerpts from our conversation, we focus on practical marketing tips that, while directed here toward small firm and solo attorneys, translate at all levels of the legal profession — and other walks of life for that matter.
Logikcull: You’ve talked about some of the struggles and failures you’ve had trying to convert people to this new way of doing things — adopting, as you say, "dumb" technology created by smart people. Can you talk about some of those failures and what you’ve learned from them, and how you made them successes?
Ernest Svenson: First off, I started early, so some of the failure and difficulty was related to the idea that I was explaining technology to lawyers before they were willing to pay attention to it at all. Nowadays, most lawyers have a smart phone. They have an iPad. They have an Apple TV. They use Netflix and Dropbox. They’re using a lot of these tools that are consumer-based, low cost things that are just kind of immersed in people’s lives without thinking about it much. Their kids are all using this stuff. So they’re surrounded by this amazing technology that’s incredibly low cost that’s just pervasive and all around them.
But the thing that I think has made a huge difference as well is understanding that you can’t start telling people about things — “Hey here are features! Look at all of these features!” — nobody cares about the features. Nobody wants a drill. They want to make holes. They want to hang pictures. They want to do useful stuff. If you tell them about the features of the drill, they do not care.
And the same is true of a computer. Only the geeks care about that stuff. But if you tell a lawyer, “Look, you create lots of paper documents, right? And you file these paper documents. Do they have a table of contents?” Yes. “Do they need to have this page numbering done correctly?” Yes. “Are you filing them in federal courts and need to PDF?” Yes. “Okay.” Well, how about we automate some of things? How about we create templates for that kind of stuff so that you don’t have to start from scratch each time you make a routine filing -- so that when you open this thing up to start, you’re starting from the 20 yard-line instead of the goal line. And when they see examples of this being done, you don’t have to convince them of the value.
You just get the questions, “How can I do this?” and “How much will it cost?”
And there are just so many things where the problem isn’t convincing them; they’re just not even aware it’s possible. And if you say, “Look, look at this! See, it’s possible!” They’ll say “Oh, my god. That’s amazing. I want this.”
Of course you do! It will make your life easier. So that’s the trick — just showing them what the tool can do in a way that’s meaningful for them and they get it.
Logikcull: I wanted to ask you about your blogging. You started off in 2002. Can you talk about… I mean, this is a very different style of writing then legal writing.
Svenson: Oh yes.
Logikcull: What that a difficult change for you? Did you really have to work on developing a style? Or was this something that came naturally?
Svenson: I think other people would say it came naturally. But here’s what I’ll say. I always liked writing. As a kid I liked writing. I think I kind of wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to write a novel or even know what kind of novel I would even write. But I liked writing and when I went through the legal world and learned to write — first the judge I worked for for two years, he was really efficient and compact and drilled me with every word I wrote. He would review it if it was going out for publication in his name, which, a lot of it did. He would sit there and help me make it tighter and easier to read and direct. So I had that training.
And then I went to go work at a firm. I worked for a lawyer who had worked for the US Supreme Court who wrote the same way — really conversational, not freewheeling but for a lawyer it seemed freewheeling. And I learned that that style was really persuasive. Whereas most lawyers would write stuff and it’s all dense and long-winded and a lot of syllables, he would just say things in a more direct way, and suddenly was amazingly persuasive and would win a lot of cases simply because he wrote so clearly. And you would just read something he wrote and say, “Oh my gosh, there’s no argument against this! You win.”
So being around those people helped me get better at writing in a more natural way, but I never really had a chance or an outlet to write in a really down to earth way.
It was frustrating. So what happened with the blog is a friend of mine who I met at a legal technology conference right about the time I was starting to pay attention to this stuff. He said, “Oh, you know I posted some stuff on my blog about my trip to New Orleans and what a great time I had with you.” So I looked at the blog post and he had links to the places I had taken him and a link to my bio and my firm’s website. And I thought, oh this is really interesting. He’s got this tool where you create your own website. You don’t have to get hosting. It’s just there, and then you write stuff and when you put new stuff up, it’s moved to the top. Huh, how interesting!
This was the other eye-opener for me. One of the links he had… I took him to this restaurant on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, which is kinda this old family-owned restaurant that only takes cash and closes down for a month. Talk about old school? This is an old-school place. They had a website, because he linked to it!
And I was like, “wait a second!” Sid-Mar’s has a website? This thing has taken off faster than I thought. So I said, I’m going to play with this and see if I can figure it out, because that’s how I learn technology — I experiment with it, get up close and personal with it.
So I just started posting stuff just to see what the process was like, and I had a 30-day free trial and I figured I'd play with it for 30 days, but I don’t really know what the utility of this is going to be, so I’m sure I’ll just shut it down. And I serendipitously, in a masterstroke of Mr. Magoo-level marketing, I decided to name it “Ernie The Attorney” only because there was a magistrate in federal court who used to call me that, and everybody else — everybody else who was not a lawyer — had cool names for their blogs. And I figured, just so I don’t stick out like a sore thumb, I’ll pick “Ernie The Attorney.”
And all of a sudden, people were like, “Oh wait? This is an attorney blogging?” And they’d ask me all these questions and all of a sudden I had information to give. And I gave it. But I wasn’t trying to get business, I was just trying to answer these questions in a straightforward way. And all of a sudden, I became one of the handful of people who became a go-to to talk about any issue that caught the eye of the techies or other people. And I realized, I’m broadcasting this stuff with no cost whatsoever right from my computer whenever I want to. It goes up. People are already paying attention to me. They’ve already bookmarked my site or have an RSS reader, and then journalists are dropping by and I’m getting asked to talk about stuff. I’m not having to go off and browbeat people to publish an article. They come to me. Okay, this is powerful. And it was! It’s maybe the most powerful thing that I’ve stumbled across.
Logikcull: So you mentioned journalists started reaching out to you. What other successes did you have early on that encouraged you and made you keep going with this?
Svenson: Well, I got clients! People would email me and say, “Hey Ernie, you’re the only lawyer we know in New Orleans. We really like and trust you because we read your blog, and you seem like a really straightforward guy. This friend of mine is a lawyer and looking for help, or not a lawyer and looking for help. Can you help us with this matter?”
And they wouldn’t even ask, like, do you handle this kind of stuff? They were just like, “We like you. We trust you. Can you just work on this with us?” And I’d have to say, “I don’t really do that, but I can refer you to this person.” So that was also an eye-opener. I didn’t even have to market.
I didn’t like marketing. Marketing, as it was explained to me when I was at the big firms, was like, we need to get out there and network, join as many organizations, try to speak, try to write. And I would do all that stuff, but no one could explain to me how that would translate into getting business, or if there was a system for that — which turns out there is, but I didn’t know. And so none of that worked, because lawyers don’t really know how to market other than, go out and meet a bunch of people, write stuff… But all that is slow-moving, it’s friction.
And I didn’t even have to structure the articles or research them. I would just give an off-the-cuff analysis. And people would say, “That’s good enough. You’re a lawyer. An off-the-cuff analysis from you, Legal Expert, is really kinda all we were looking for — and bonus points for being readable and entertaining. My gosh this is great!”
And I thought, “That’s it? This is what marketing is?” Yes, that’s what marketing is.
Marketing is online. It’s low cost. You just have to show that you know stuff. Prove your authority. And then be approachable and authentic. The three As.
As told to Robert Hilson, a director at Logikcull. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.