John Wait is a second-year attorney in North Carolina, a solo practitioner who has been trying to develop experience and a reputation by serving on the court-appointed criminal defense counsel list (a common recommendation made to new lawyers). He’s worried about obtaining enough clients that way, so he wrote a basic question to the American Bar Association’s “Solosez” listserv:

Here are my ideas [to bring in more clients]:

1. Bite the bullet and pay for traffic ticket lists. Do mailings.

2. Pay for SEO to increase my website’s search engine effectiveness.

3. Continue networking as much as possible.

Not the first time someone has discussed marketing for young attorneys on the internet. E.g., see my own Why It’s Hard For BigLaw Associates To Start Rainmaking.

Brian Tannebaum, a criminal defense lawyer in Miami (his website says he did consulting for CSI: Miami, so we know he’s all about professionalism, not marketing) wrote back:

Don’t buy traffic ticket lists, fire the SEO fraud, and yes, network. Buy lunch for people, sponsor charitable events, speak at the local Rotary club, say hello at your kids school, reconnect with old friends, take a small ad out in the local business journal, get on a Bar committee, write about something interesting.

Time-tested advice (though I’ll asterisk the SEO for a moment), as also reflected by Scott Bovitz’s recollections about changes in the legal profession over the past thirty years (found via Legal Writing Prof):

In 1980, a client found a lawyer by reputation and word of mouth. Martindale Hubbell was a daily tool, and lawyer certification was still a pilot program. Lawyers promoted themselves by public service, getting quoted in the paper, writing articles, and volunteering in organizations. In 2011, clients still find lawyers by reputation and word of mouth. But Martindale Hubbell is now part of LexisNexis. State and national certification programs abound, and lawyer advertising is everywhere. But lawyers still like to be quoted.

I’d also add these ten marketing tips for first-year and second-year associates, particularly:

1. Excel at the Basics

Take every opportunity to learn and hone your lawyering skills. Arrive on time and stay until the job’s done. Ask thoughtful questions. Pay close attention to detail. Meet your deadlines. Seek feedback about your performance. As a first or second year associate, your clients are the partners of the firm. Partners notice when associates are in the office late or when they’re slipping out early on Friday afternoons. Make sure you earn their notice in a positive way by just becoming the best lawyer you can be.

2. Find a Really Good Mentor

Don’t wait on your firm to establish a formal mentor program. Identify and spend time with that lawyer who embodies what you want to be and emulate his or her good behaviors. Since you’re asking your mentor to be generous with his or her time and talents, reciprocate by delivering yours. Find opportunities to do good work for your mentor.

The second point also works well for young lawyers who either decided to or were forced to hang out a shingle: find a mentor. There’s no better teaching or marketing tool. Luke Skywalker and the Karate Kid were nobodies until they were trained by their mentors.

If you don’t have a mentor from law school or family relationships, then find one another way. Bust your behind on a political campaign or charitable cause; that’s a great way to start networking among practicing attorneys, since campaigns are loaded with not just lawyers, but connected lawyers who like to make friends and like to connect people.

Didn’t work? Cold-call some lawyers you respect and ask them if they could possibly meet with you just to discuss, briefly, how to get started. Don’t ask them for a job or for networking; if they like you, they’ll help you with the networking. Cold-call some other lawyers and offer to work for them for free in exchange for some guidance. Maybe rent some office space from them, paying your way, and ask them if they’ll help you informally, maybe even refer you a case or two.

Then, with your mentor’s (sometimes critical) guidance and (maybe verging on cruel) tutelage as often as you can get it, build your practice the way you’d built a cake store or a plumbing business: through superior quality, exceptional customer service, making calls and wearing down your shoe leather. Get your name out there and make sure it’s associated with quality.

Unfortunately for John Wait, though, it wasn’t so simple to get to that advice. Alas, poor John started his request as so:

Quite possibly by July next year, North Carolina will have public defender offices in every county. What the hell am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to get courtroom experience and earn bread and butter pay while I am trying to build a reputation as a civil litigator? Law schools are churning out more and more lawyers, and the opportunities to get hands on experience get smaller and smaller. I need business plan ideas, immediately, from those of you who work in states where there is already a public defender in every county.

That reference to law as a business, that outrageous concession that he would like to provide for his family the same way that CSI:Miami consultants provide for their families, and that he intended to transition from court-appointed criminal work to civil litigation, got him smacked on the knuckles by Brian Tannebaum and apparently several other folks on the Solosez listserv. John was, they told him, an ignorant, unprofessional, unethical and greedy fool, disrespectful of his profession and its wise elders.

Some of this hostility is well-intentioned and understandable. Like white blood cells in the presence of an infection, the old guard of pay-your-dues lawyers see the legal profession under attack from marketers, and worry about the combustible combination of jobless, desperate young attorneys and greedy, unprincipled marketing “gurus.” If a young lawyer gives off the impression that they are too greedy or impatient for the norms of professionalism for generations, those elders will make an example out of him.

Some of this hostility is understandable, but most of it is just Internet snark. Missing from all the criticism was anything actually constructive. Only Carolyn Elefant, the patron saint of new solo practitioners — I use that term not in jest but with great affection; I know many new attorneys who journeyed into the dark wilderness of the post-2007 legal market with nothing more than a dog-eared copy of Solo By Choice and emerged alive and thriving) — came to his aid, offering him the concrete advice of choosing a niche based on his interests and experience.

The wise elders, though, offered John little more than sanctimonious lectures about the evils of marketing (as if Thurgood Marshall boasted of his work for CSI:Topeka) and his insufficient commitment to doing criminal law exclusively, as if that was even an option for John. Even Tannebaum, who at least gave John the stock advice about legal marketing, did so only after toying with John for several snarky comments. Over a century of legal experience showed up in the comments to that thread, and all they can tell a young lawyer desperate for advice is: “you suck” and “be the ball.”

That’s not mentoring. That’s just snark. It demeans the profession as a whole. Making matters worse, they then went back to whining about young lawyers not wanting mentors. Look: I’m sure you think it’s fun to take jabs at a new attorney, but after you’re done acting like the cast of South Park under the guise of “mentoring” before giving the truly original and helpful advice of speaking at a Rotary Club, he’s going to go back to the drawing board, back to wishful searches on Google for “how to build a law practice as a young attorney,” and will be pulled back into the sirens of the internet telling him that fame and glory can be found on Twitter and puffery.

In the spirit of constructive criticism — which is all my mentors ever gave me, no sugar-coating but also no sarcasm, no snark, and no half-hearted generic advice — here are two additional concrete pieces of advice for John.

First, the last thing you want to waste your money on is search engine optimization. It’s expensive and there’s no way you’re going to dislodge Crumley Roberts from their rankings for “North Carolina personal injury lawyer” or “High Point personal injury lawyer” and the like, and you don’t want to, not at this stage. You know what you get for ranking on the first page of Google on a common lawyer search term? Dozens of calls every week from people whose cases you either can’t or don’t want to take. “But I can refer them out and collect the referral fee,” you think yourself. No, you can’t; the people with those good cases have already signed up with the firms that have outspent you 100-to-1 on SEO, the ones with whole teams of lawyers and paralegals to weed through thousands of intakes to pick that handful of diamonds in the rough.

That said, you might want to start a blog. Not necessarily for search engine optimization — although targeted and in-depth posts about relevant issues can hit “the long tail” of searches — but rather to ensure that, when someone hears your name and Googles you, they find not just your website, but you writing about the area relevant to them. Writing a blog will not by any means make you an expert, but it can be a useful teaching tool for you and an effective way of conveying at least some degree of competence to potential clients.

Second, if you want to be a civil litigator, you will need to do all of the usual steps like getting your name out there every way you can, including through old contacts in school or athletics or clubs and in practicing “door law” (as in, everything that comes in the door) for a while, like writing letters to renters’ landlords and reviewing employment contracts for $100 a pop. But let me give you another trick you can use to meet civil litigators and even pick up some work.

Just like how big corporate defense law firms have hundreds of associates doing “document review” on consumer class actions, the plaintiffs’ trial lawyers on those cases need lawyers combing through millions of pages of documents, but they don’t have the same armies of associates to bill out to clients at hundreds of dollars an hour. Those consumer lawyers thus often farm out this drudgery work to other plaintiffs’ lawyers, commonly solo practitioners. Take some time going through your local legal news publication and class actions court opinions over the past few years to find small firms serving as counsel on these consumer class actions and offer to do some work for them on the same contingent fee (split proportionate to lodestar and costs expended) plus attorney’s fee basis as their other outsourced attorneys are working. A lot of them might ignore you or brush you off, but some of them will genuinely be looking for people to help them comb through the mountain of documents, and will be willing to share a small piece of the pie in exchange for good work.

Of course, this gives you yet another opportunity to prove yourself in front of the bar community, so you better do a good job. Like all those lawyers said in an unnecessarily snarky and hostile manner, the best marketing is to be the best lawyer you can be.