The last 10 years have seen a 75% rise in legal costs, which compares to a 20% increase for other fields. It’s estimated that there are one billion dollars worth of unrecognized legal needs in today’s market. Even when legal needs are recognized, it’s common for potential clients to see their problems as prohibitively expensive. As a solo practitioner or law firm, you might be wondering how to tap into that potential billable revenue. As it turns out, your answer could be branded networks.
In this episode of Legal Toolkit, host Jared Correia and Solo Practice University founder Susan Cartier Liebel discuss the benefits of being part of branded networks like Legalzoom, Rocket Lawyer, Avvo, upcounsel, LawGo, Priori Legal, and lawtrades. By leveraging network marketing resources, participating practitioners get the benefit of a large scale advertising campaign without having to make an in kind investment. In addition, some of these organizations are capable of offering low cost malpractice insurance and/or invoicing platforms to help make practice life easier. Whether you decide to join a branded network or not, the prediction is that they are here to stay. Stay tuned to hear advice on selecting a network to be part of as well as Jared’s true feelings about Peyton Manning.
Susan Cartier Liebel is the founder and CEO of Solo Practice University®, the only online educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students who want to create and grow their solo/small firm practices.
Special thanks to our sponsor Amicus Attorney.
Legal Toolkit: Marketing Your Firm Through Branded Networks – 2/21/2016
Advertiser: Welcome to the Legal Toolkit; bringing you the latest legal trends and business initiatives to help you manage your law firm. Here are your hosts – experienced lawyers, writers and entrepreneurs, Heidi Alexander and Jared Correia. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Jared Correia: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Legal Toolkit, here on the Legal Talk Network. Before we get started and earnest, we’d like to thank our sponsor: Amicus Attorney, the world’s leading practice management solution for lawyers. Amicus Attorney helps manage your law firm so that you can concentrate on being a lawyer. To learn more, visit AmicusAttorney.com. If you’re a returning listener of the show, welcome back to the show. If you’re a first time listener, hopefully you’ll become a longtime listener. And if you’re Happy, the New Year’s baby from Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, just pull your hat down. I’m your host, Jared Correia, and in addition to casting this pod I’m the assistant director and senior law practice advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program. LOMAP for short, that’s easier to see. We provide free and confidential law practice management consulting services to attorneys in Massachusetts. For more information on LOMAP’s offerings, visit our website at MassLOMAP.org. You can buy my book, Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers from the American Bar Association on iTunes, Amazon and at the Barnes & Noble in Kirksville, Missouri. If your desire is of more podcasting freshness, check out our Lunch Hour Legal Marketing show where we release monthly episodes featuring legal marketing experts. Here on the Legal Toolkit, we provide you each month with a new tool to add to your own legal toolkit so that your practices will become more and more like best practices. In this episode, we’re going to talk all about branded networks. What are they? Should you think about joining them? Now be patient, we’ll get to that. Our guest today is Susan Cartier Liebel, the founder and CEO of Solo Practice University®. Solo Practice University® is the only practice of law school. It’s an online community featuring practical courses designed to help solo and small firm lawyers build successful law firms. Susan herself is a former practicing lawyer who started her own law firm right out of law school and she’s also been an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law. She shut down both of those endeavors in 2009 to found SPU. She maintains the popular Solo Practice University blog and is a frequent writer and speaker for local and international lawyers and organizations. Susan was an advocate for solo and small firm lawyers before it was cool. So, Susan, welcome to the show.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Hi Jared, how are you? I’m happy to be here!
Jared Correia: Now, Susan and I talk all the time and we talk often about branded networks, so this is going to be like old home week here. Now, Susan, as I just said, we’ve known each other for quite a while so I’m not going to miss words. Can you tell the people out there what on earth is a branded network and does that definition change at all when we’re talking about branded networks in the legal vertical versus other verticals?
Susan Cartier Liebel: Well, it’s very interesting because whether we realize it or not, if there was an audience out there and I can see a show of hands, I’d ask people right now how many people are on Facebook, how many are in LinkedIn, how many are on Twitter. Who has a profile on another branded network like an Avvo or something else; because the reality is a branded network is simply a company that has created a single brand around their products and product services which are marketing direct to the consumer, so they call it DTC. And if it was a brand that was directed specifically to businesses, you’d call that direct to business or DTB. So the funny thing about branded networks is we all engage in them, we just don’t realize exactly what they are. And they are playing an astounding role in the legal profession right now. They’ve been around forever in every other type of industry, but right now it’s finally coming home to the legal profession because as we all know, the legal profession is neanderthal knuckle dragging kicking and screaming in the 20th century, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. The interesting thing about branded networks, though, is you’ll hear – and I hate to mock it – is the word hot and a sadly overused and misused word is disruption. And disruption is not coming from branded networks in and of themselves, okay. The majority don’t really know what disruption means in the legal field. So I want to give a great analogy, something we all can relate to if we’re over the age of 40 – I’m only kidding-
Jared Correia: You’ll have to explain it to me!
Susan Cartier Liebel: It’s kind of like explaining to someone that there was a time on television sets where you had to get up and turn the dial on a television station. The best analogy I can come up with is the automobile. When the automobile first came out it was an invention. It was a shiny new object, it was extensive, and primarily it was a novelty for the elite because as you know, the majority traveled by horse, by buggy, by bicycle, or they walked. And we’ve all seen those beautiful black and white pictures of New York or San Francisco. Then Henry Ford came along and he introduced the assembly line. The assembly line was the innovation. It had the ability to bring down production costs on the invention, which was the car, and that’s if people wanted to buy it. They might be able to afford to buy it. It was the innovation, it was not the disruption. The car was the invention, the assembly line was the innovation. But what it permitted was the disruption. And the disruption was when the masses wholesale adopted the purchase of cars. So the way to explain disruption, disruption is when there’s a massive adoption of an invention that’s made available to you through the innovation; it’s the only way to describe it. So the legal profession is about to experience a major disruption in a lot of areas. And my guess is the biggest disruption is going to come when there is a wholesale adoption of these branded networks to generate business, to connect the lawyer to the consumer because it goes to the heart of how we get clients to the door. And I just want to say one other thing here because I want to get it out of the way: In the processions, you’ll hear word of mouth – I call them the WOM practices. Word of mouth is clearly the best way to get business, but it’s only half the truth. These practices actually do exist, they’re real; they’re not unicorns. But the achievement happens much further along in the professional life of a successful lawyer. Basically, these word of mouth practices are the brass ring. So if you meet someone, a lawyer who says they get 85-100% of their business from referrals, it means that lawyer has arrived. It’s not the beginning or the middle of the journey, it’s the ultimate dream destination. But in order to build your practice, you have to start somewhere. And I think once you get this idea in your head that you’re working towards your 85-100% word of mouth referral practice and that’s not how you start out the door, then you’ll be more open to understanding how these innovations, these branded networks, only innovative in the sense that they’re now coming into the legal marketplace have a role. And as consumers start adopting them on mass, that’s where you’re going to be getting your business. That’s the disruption.
Jared Correia: I think that’s really interesting. Let me plug my man Ken Burns in here for a second, here. It’s a great documentary on the Roosevelts on PBS right now and on Netflix. Fascinating stuff on Henry Ford if you’re into that sort of thing. But I digress. So I see where you’re coming from. Disruption is soon to take place but has not taken place yet. I think now that we’ve qualified instruction and the branded networks are not yet that but certainly have the potential to be that, what’s different about branded network in legal as the new year unfolds that represents a change from the way things were in say, the last three to five years ago?
Susan Cartier Liebel: Let’s back up a little bit, because most lawyers, when you talk about them, they have an irrational reaction when they hear a name like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer and even Avvo. It’s a little less irrational with Avvo, and they actually now have curiosity when they hear names like UpCounsel and LawGo and Priority Legal and Law Trade. And all of these and a tremendous number of others all fall into the category of branded networks. And what these networks are starting to offer – just so you have an understanding of how they’re coming into the legal vertical – they’re offering legal forms and documents through document automation, they’re offering assembly programs. They’re offering concierge services to clients by connecting clients with lawyers while providing all the services a lawyer needs such as invoicing. Some of them are even talking about providing malpractice insurance for their lawyers that come on board and a whole host of other things. So this is all really kind of wide open. So when it comes to why there is potential innovation and disruption in 2015, it’s coming from some facts that you need to understand. Basically, these companies are coming in with marketing budgets that far exceeds those in most law firms. I mean, it’s crazy, the amount of money that’s coming in. And so they’re building brand recognition to drive clients to their own websites. And individual lawyers, solos, really can not compete with the reach and marketing power of these branded networks. They’re going online, they’re going on TV, they’re flooding social media, they’re flooding it with email marketing and snail mail marketing. They’re like fishing trawlers sweeping the ocean and scooping up every form of sea life then cherry picking who to give the fish to. So if you ask yourself, can you really compete effectively? For now, you probably still can. But if you don’t understand branded networks and how they can potentially benefit you as a solo, it actually can be bad for business. So let’s talk about some facts. The legal services sector is a half a trillion dollar industry. The legal industry is one of the largest and most inefficient service economies, and there’s been a 75% rise in legal costs in the last decade compared to 20% rise in non legal costs. And I can give you the sources, it’s William Blair & Company, National Law Journal, Eversheds, on and on. And it’s been estimated there’s more than 1 billion in unaddressed legal needs. They’re unaddressed because they don’t recognize they have a legal need. If they recognize they have a legal need, they feel the cost is prohibited for the value to them to resolve or they think they can do it themselves. So these big branded networks have access to capital simply because of these statistics. And because of these statistics, we know there’s a huge laiden market of underserved individuals, so this is where they’re headed. And just like a heat seeking missile hones in on its target, so flows venture capital. So you’ve got Upcounsel, and I’m going to give you some – the back is like 6 months. Upcounsel has 14 million dollars, 10 million just since July of last year and they’re just two years old. You’ve got RocketLawyer with 46 million, I think they’re probably more than that now and they just bought LawPivot which is a Q&A site. You’ve got Avvo with 132 million, 71 million just as of July of last year. And they started Avvo Advisors which was a whole other issue. And LegalZoom is 266 million dollars. That’s just four companies with nearly a half a billion dollars in venture capital and they’re targeting your clients. So you have to understand, they’re going to just plow over the marketing world for lawyers. So you have a choice: you can be part of it as you build your practice or you can dig your head in the sand and drown as the waves wash over you. So that’s where the disruption is coming from. Because if they flood the market and they reach your clients and draw them in to them as the masses adopt that as a way of finding lawyers, they’re going to control and process who gets these clients. That is the disruption that’s coming down the pike. So there you go.
Jared Correia: That was an excellent buildup. So we’ve got more money coming in to branded networks, they’re utilizing new types of services, and they’re also associating with lawyers in different ways. So now, if the practicing lawyers out there have not soiled themselves yet and are still listening to the podcast, let me ask you this: Aside from the obvious advantage of money, what other advantages have branded networks obtained over the individual attorneys that they’re really competing with for business?
Susan Cartier Liebel: Let’s give some examples. You have to realize where your consumer and client is coming from, and I always talk about this on the Solo Practice University blog: You have to understand, what is your client experiencing? What is your potential client experiencing in this economy? What are they going through? And these companies are tapping into it. These consumers and clients – just to give you some backstory on it – they’re very price-sensitive. Even though they have money, they’re price-sensitive. You’ve got your hardcore do it yourselfers who feel they have the intelligence to figure things out. But I’ve talked with people at LegalZoom and even when they’re buying legal forms, they feel the need to talk with an attorney. And that’s why models like LegalZoom are bringing attorneys on board and you’re going to see changes there too. But here’s where they’re going also: They’re developing relationships with Sam’s Club. They have a program for real estate – sorry, wills and trust. They’re starting out small with transactional matters. So you go in there, you can purchase a year’s worth of an attorney’s services, plus these documents. So they’re blending the two; and where are they doing it? At a large big bucks store where people have memberships. So they’re discounting and creating price competition at a much lower level. Now wouldn’t you as you’re starting out maybe want to be on board to get started at an environment like that where they’re again, funnelling clients your way through a massive program with big marketing dollars behind it? Then you have to ask yourself, could Costco or BJ’s or Walmart be far behind with this type of thing creating those kiosks and making it part of membership?
Jared Correia: Yeah, and you’ve got that Canadian company; what are they, Axium Legal? Is that the name of them? They’ve got offices set up in Walmarts in Canada, I think.
Susan Cartier Liebel: I wasn’t sure of the name but someone in Canada was able to get into the Walmarts and created kiosks precisely for this.
Jared Correia: I’ve just got to say, if you’re in Canada, wouldn’t you go to Tim Horton’s instead of Walmart? I don’t know. That’s my only objection.
Susan Cartier Liebel: And have a coffee and a donut store! Here’s what’s happening: you’re getting these large companies and even smaller companies that are creating franchises where you’re coming in and you’re setting up a lawyer with a menu of services at fixed prices. If it’s something bigger or more complex, they feed that attorney the ability to represent that client or they send it out. And that’s what’s happening. That’s the big thing that’s happening. And how difficult is it to do? You’ve got the biggest marketing playground out there, the internet, which includes all your social media forums and here’s where these people are. Here’s some more statistics because I know you love them: 87.9% of North America is on the internet. They’re on their mobile devices 3 hours per day out of the total of 5.6 hours per day online, which is surpassing desktop usage, 51% to 42%. And then you add in TV which is 4.3 hours per day and you have a screen time total of 9.9 hours per day. Now ask yourself at a solo law firm, are you able to get in front of them on their screens? No. But LegalZoom can, Avvo can; all these other people can’t, all these other big buck companies can. 9.9 hours per day in front of one screen or another. So they’re advertising. They’re out there advertising and you can’t. Then you have to look at how clients are finding lawyers on the internet today. Those top three destinations are Q&A sites. Now who’s got the Q&A sites? You’ve got Avvo Advisor, you’ve got Rocket Lawyer who just bought LawPivot. You’ve got the non legal sites who’ve got Q&A, such as JustAnswer.com who used to be Pearl.com. We haven’t even really factored in their money! The second one is a lawyer rating site. Avvo again, Yelp, Lawyers.com, LawyerRatingZ.com and more, and then you’ve got your own website. Those are the top three destinations. Then you’ve got the matching websites, the people who I call the legal dating sites that are creeping up there too, and that’s after online directories. So how is the solo to compete with these marketing money? Everything is in place now. It’s just a question of when are the clients going to adopt this en masse. It’s ready, it’s right. The consumers are price sensitive, the marketing’s in front of them 9 hours a day with the ability to get in front of it 9 hours a day. And if you’re not part of it, if you’re not recognizing it as you’re building your practice, you will be pushed to the side because you can’t rely on word of mouth. That’s the goal of your practice. You have that word of mouth reputation.
Jared Correia: It’s the American way. You pick up six pounds of laffy taffy at Walmart. Now we’re going to take a quick break. It’s going to be just a minor disruption here. But when we come back, we’ll put a bow on this discussion with Susan Cartier Liebel of Solo Practice University.
Jared Correia: Amicus Attorney’s world leading practice management solution allows you to do more, bill more, and go home early. It serves as the hub to your practice and Amicus customers report that they save over eight hours and bill an extra five hours each week. Built by lawyers for lawyers, Amicus has two award winning solutions: Amicus Premium with a unique client portal, and the exciting Amicus Cloud with seamless email integration. To learn more, visit AmicusAttorney.com
Jared Correia: Thanks for coming back. We were here the whole time though. So why don’t they just build an army of robot lawyers? Why do they still need attorneys?
Susan Cartier Liebel: Do you really want me to answer that?
Jared Correia: No.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Actually it’s a very good question. The fact is 80% of the information a lawyer can provide is available on the internet and that’s where you get your Google scholars to go online and think that they know everything. It’s a very smart lawyer who’s going to recognize that 25% of the information can not be had on the internet. That’s experience, that’s advocacy, that’s understanding the individual. That is putting all that legal information together in precedent and everything else. The smart lawyer’s going to be the one who understands that and gladly gives out that other 80% and becomes the go to source. So robots really can’t do that so we’re safe there. That’s not going to happen. Even if robots were able to sift out documents and pick out keywords and everything else like that, but that’s not why you want to hire a lawyer. You’re not going to actually be able to replace that advocate as well. If you want just social work that’s fine, but you’re not going to be replacing lawyers any time soon.
Jared Correia: Alright sorry, robots, put all your resumes away.
Susan Cartier Liebel: But I did want to say this though: I’ve been talking about branded networks but all branded networks are not creating equal and all branded networks are not right for you, that’s the truth. And there’s another problem too: I see it at Solo Practice University because I get approached all the time by people who want to be sponsors on our site and they’ve just come up with the newest, greatest latest and then I ask them, “Well have you heard about this?” And they say, “No, I haven’t heard about them.” So you’re going to see a lot of interactive startups in this place, you really are. And you’re going to hear names come and go. Somebody who was hot one day gone the next. So not all of these startups are equal in any way, shape or form, and you’ve got to do your homework. It’s going to be hard for you to separate the good from the bad, hard to figure out which one’s actually best for your practice because some of these startups are going to thrive. But the truth is most are going to die, they really are. But right now it’s like the gold rush. Everyone’s coming in and saying, “Ooh, this is where the money is, I have a great idea; let me figure out how I can do this.” Platforms are cheap to start so they figure they’re going to go out and do this and maybe write for somebody and get their name out there but there’s a lot more to it than that. So the goal that you have when you’re pursuing branded networks – and the goal of this session, actually – is to get you to think about where you want to be in this ecosystem. It’s identifying what’s going on, understanding what’s coming down the pike, where you want to fit in and how you can fit in in a responsible way. So you have to ask yourself is a branded networks right for you, and my suggestion is that there is at least one or two branded networks that will be right for you and you should be part of them.
Jared Correia: Okay, I think that’s a good strategy point. Pick one or two, see where it goes.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Exactly. So what we wanted to do today, we’re not going to talk about it out loud, it’s just easier for us to provide a document to you. But what we created, and I say we because Jared has some great input to this, is we came up with I think a really awesome document on how to vet a branded network because you really need to ask very important questions of any network that you are interested in because it’s your law license on the line. And associations, associations are very important. So we came up with a branded network, how to vet a branded network document that’s available on the Solo Practice University site. You can download it from SoloPracticeUniversity.com/vetbranded. And you will see a whole host of questions to ask of the branded network, but also a set of questions to ask yourself what is it that you’re trying to accomplish here and how does it fit in with your personal goal and professional goal for your practice, which is very, very important. It’s too much to discuss on this podcast, sorry if we’re trying to flake you, we’re not. It’s just too much to discuss. But it’s something you really need to think about.
Jared Correia: My stick figures in that paper are particularly amazing, I spent a lot of time on those. And before we end here, I’ll let you give the link again. But before we go, I’ve got a couple of more questions for you. So my first question is there are a lot of conscientious objectors out there, as I refer to them; the lawyers who are refusing to use branded networks. So the lawyer that says, “You know what? I’m not going to fill out my Avvo profile. And when the company collapses because I haven’t done that, I’m going to laugh.” Now should those attorneys who are sort of seeking to crumble the industry by the sheer force of their own will, should they relent at some point? And how so?
Susan Cartier Liebel: I love to use analogies and I don’t know if anybody ever saw the movie Happy Feet-
Jared Correia: The penguin movie, alright.
Susan Cartier Liebel: At the end of the day, there was a penguin who just didn’t fit in and there was an issue going on; they were starving, they had no fish. And he kept hearing these noises and he didn’t understand why there were no fish. Nobody else would go and explore why there were no fish. They just decided that we’ll get the fish, someone will take care of us. There was a preacher penguin out there saying everything will take care of itself, we have to maintain the same way. And this oddball penguin went on to the other side and said, “If I don’t figure out why we’re not getting fish we’re all going to perish.” And he went to the other side, he swam, he hit all these perils and everything else. And there was a fishing trawler sweeping up all the fish and taking it back to Asia. So he had to stop the fishing trawler, he had to find another fishing hole. But the other penguins just said, “If we stay, if we believe, nothing will happen to us, we’ll get fish,” as they all starved. That’s the best analogy I can bring here because you have to be willing to explore. You have to accept things are changing. And if you don’t believe that things are changing, you will crumble. You can stand firm and you can turn around and say, “I’ve been doing it this way for so long and I’ve always found clients and someone has always walked in the door.” And if that’s your business plan, if your business plan is based on history and hope, then god bless. Go for it. But that’s not how I would advise someone starting out today or someone who’s looking to build a business for the next 30 years. You have to understand the changes that are coming and you can’t just rely on your old sources for food because someone will come along and disrupt your ecosystem as my analogy in Happy Feet.
Jared Correia: Wow, Mumble from Happy Feet. I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t quite know how to recover. I think we just went to a dark place. Okay, I have one more question for you.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Sure.
Jared Correia: So let’s talk about lawyers, like the future lawyer and the revenue streams. How much of the lawyer’s future revenue stream do you think – let’s say 5 or 10 years from now – is going to be developed by branded networks, the participation they’re in, and how much from the traditional private practice sources?
Susan Cartier Liebel: I am not even going to try to prognosticate on that because every lawyer’s going to build their firm differently. If a new lawyer is just starting out today, I would strongly encourage they get involved in one or two branded networks to start building business and getting accustomed to having these clients and then working these clients that they get for referrals and heading where they’re going to go down the road. And they may keep with the branded networks where they may just use it as a stepping stone to get where they want to go which is ultimately referral business. That’s quantity and quality that they want based upon who they know they want to represent. If someone’s starting out five or ten years from now and the very first thing they come into is going to be a very different conversation. Okay, you’re starting your law practice? Join this branded network, this branded network, this branded network. I think in ten years from now, there’s going to be branded networks that are going to be geared strictly for specific practice areas. I think that’s how it’s going to proliferate. So percentage wise, I can’t really say. It’s how you want to build your practice. But I think if someone is starting today, they should look to them immediately as leverage to step them up and get them started, get them practicing, get them working with clients right away. Now understand this too, if you’re fresh out of law school, I don’t know all the criteria that each individual branded network has in order to be a potential lawyer for them. Some have thresholds, some have just sign up, you’re good to go. So that’s all part of how to vet a branded network. What works for you and what are the criteria of each branded network.
Jared Correia: That was a very political answer, perfect for the season right now. I have to say, I think we’ve turned this subject matter over fairly effectively at this point. And it is true, we’ve come to the end of another episode of the Legal Toolkit. But don’t worry, we’ll be back next month. Now in the meantime, if you’re feeling nostalgic and you have a lot of time on your hands, you can check out our entire show archive any time you want at LegalTalkNetwork.com. So thanks again, Susan Cartier Liebel of Solo Practice University for taking the time to stop by the virtual studio today to talk to us about branded networks. So, Susan, hit us up with that link for the branded networks article and then tell us a little bit more about how folks can find out more information about you and Solo Practice University.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Okay, so if you want to get this download, it’s SoloPracticeUniversity.com/vetbranded. And you also can join us any time. Follow us on Twitter, @SoloPracticeU. Join us on Facebook, we’ve got a great community there that has great conversations, and that’s Facebook.com/SoloPracticeUniversity. And more importantly, we’d love for you to join us over at Solo Practice University because we are an online community, educational and professional networking community with more than 1,500 classes on the 360° experience on building your solo small firm practice. We’ve been around, we’re celebrating our 7th birthday in March. And certainly sign up to get our blog posts in your inbox and we’d love to have you participate in the conversation and join us!
Jared Correia: Thanks again, Susan, always a pleasure.
Susan Cartier Liebel: Oh, absolutely.
Jared Correia: Thanks to all of you out there for listening. Except you, Peyton Manning. You’re still the worst.
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