“I am a brand-new lawyer and I don’t know how I can compete.”
“I cannot claim expertise because I don’t have it, but if I don’t claim it I cannot get any experience, i.e. expertise.”
“How do I compete in this economy as a new solo lawyer?”
There are a lot of ways that a new lawyer can compete with other attorneys, including more experienced attorneys. A lot depends on what commitments you are prepared to make.
1) In most states, claiming to be an “expert” is ethically suspect or outright prohibited. Even if your jurisdiction allows it somehow, it is almost certainly unethical conduct for you under your state’s version of Rule 7.1 (truth in advertising, etc.) and Rule 8.4 (misconduct = conduct involving deceit or misrepresentation.) Don’t do it.
2) Instead, consider claiming NOT to be an expert. Why?
a) It is the right thing to do because it’s the truth – if you are new, you don’t have experience, which derives from the same Latin root as expertise.
b) It lowers expectations of the client so that if there’s a hiccup, they will be more forgiving. (Obviously, you must be competent, i.e. adequately possessed of judgment and skill to get the work done, to take the case at all under Rule 1.1.)
c) It keeps you humble, i.e. makes you more likely to seek out the answer.
d) It is a powerful, absolutely ethically approved marketing ploy that will shock and stun more than a few clients and potential clients.
How often do people hear, “I am competent but I am NO expert at this”? I don’t know that it is in any way unethical to use countercultural shock strategies like honesty with clients and potential clients. If anyone is aware of it being unethical to be brutally honest, due to the risk of stunning clients like deer in the headlights, please let me know the citation. Maryland has no prohibition on blunt honesty to my knowledge, though some states might fear the emotional effect on clients and potential clients.
What’s the competitive advantage? Well, after the client recovers from the shock, you will be remembered.
3) What CAN you really compete on? Well, you can theoretically compete on tech-savviness, but I am not convinced that clients care about tech toys. Maybe iPads are “cool” for jury work or some types of presentations in transactional practice, but I doubt it. What do clients care about? Getting what they pay for, getting treated like a human being, good results, good access, empowerment, justice, revenge, etc., in my experience, though I don’t endorse all of these motives. Point: don’t view tech as a client relations or competitive advantage unless you KNOW (not think or hope, KNOW) it’s an actual advantage.
4) Educating clients. A lot of lawyers fall short on this. Not all clients want to be educated about the legal system, but many do. Many may not know they want it, but when they learn more they appreciate more what you do. Many clients want to feel empowered or reassured; education may help with either emotional motive. You may not have “expertise” – if you are new, you don’t – but you can help clients learn more (if they want to learn.)
On this site, there are pages that describe, in (I hope) pretty plain language, the basics of Maryland unemployment insurance appeals procedure and Maryland traffic court procedure.
5) Calling people back timely. My office has a strict policy: clients get a call back with 24 hours, or an apology for the breach of the Client Bill of Rights which my office adheres to. Ask your carrier or your disciplinary authority: what angers clients? I’ll bet you a crabcake in Baltimore that the answer will be failure to respond to communications. I don’t promise 24-hour returns on email, but I return calls within 24 hours. Do not worry that the client will interpret your prompt callback as evidence of a lack of work; tell the clients that their time merits respect (which is true) and that’s why you called back fast. Who can argue with that?
An attorney near me who does some of the same work that I do has lost clients to me, a lot of clients. Why? Because she is a very good lawyer but not so quick with the return calls, whereas I am prompt. I view it as her buying me lunch, often. I am not “stealing” the clients; the clients just go where they are well-treated and if my esteemed colleague won’t return her calls, I will return mine. Technology that makes you NOT miss or lose phone calls is actually a worthy spend.
6) The human touch. Do you know any arrogant lawyers who take a high-and-mighty tone with everyone? Of course you do. They may know more than you, but you can be disciplined to extend courtesy to a visiting client, guide the wheelchair-using client with her wheelchair, cane, seeing-eye animal or bad hip to your office, offering a cold or hot beverage and thanking her. This is not so hard unless you are incapable of the human touch.
7) Using PROPER terms of address, PROPER greetings and pronouncing names PROPERLY. Never, and I mean never, address a client by her or his first name if she or he is over 18 unless invited. In my office, addressing a senior citizen by his/her first name unless invited would be a firing offense if I had associates to fire (I don’t.) In several American subcultures, that form of disrespect is extremely offensive even with younger clients. Don’t ask to address the client by first name; let the client direct you. There are books on proper forms of address for clergy, academics, military and diplomats, etc.; get good at those and don’t be afraid to ask questions to get it right. If your client is a Marine Lance Corporal or a Marine Corporal, it’s a very good idea NOT to get those ranks mixed up, as doing so is considered disrespect to both ranks.
If your clients are very religious or, especially, clergy, get it right. An Orthodox rabbi may hesitate to shake the hand of his attorney if she is a woman. An Orthodox priest will usually receive warmly the request for a blessing – “Father, bless.” Getting the ecclesiastical title right matters; a bishop may be a different role among Latter-Day Saints than among Roman Catholics, and knowing that an Episcopal clergyman is usually a “priest” while a Lutheran clergyman is usually a “pastor” gives you credibility.
Similarly, it is polite to ask your client what the proper pronunciation of her/his name is if there is the least doubt. Know that the English “j”, the Spanish “j”, the French “j” and the German”j” have four different pronunciations. Prohibit stupidity in your office on this issue and enforce the prohibition. No sound is worse in any language than the sound of one’s name butchered by some fool’s lassitude. If your client list includes many names from non-English-speaking regions, it may behoove you to take a lesson or two in that language.
You’d think this would be obvious, but because it’s not, you can compete. There is nothing unethical about strict courtesy.
8) Fanatical respect for the client’s money. I don’t refer here to respecting the escrow rules; doing that’s a given or you are hitting the bricks to another career. I refer to non-billing petty things, not charging for borderline items or reducing charges when something simply runs on longer than is fair or good business to bill for. Not billing for mistakes, not billing for discussing mistakes, not billing for correcting mistakes; this triad will keep your client’s respect and gratitude for your integrity and your good sense.
Lawyers are infamous for overbilling; nothing makes a client feel better than the sense that her lawyer respects her money and her intelligence. Consider using the “niece” test: would you tell your niece that your bill is fair and reasonable as a whole, in addition to mere technical compliance with the four corners of your services agreement? Does your bill say that you respect yourself but also respect your client? If not, it’s a fail. If yes, you will be competing – effectively and ethically – against your lazier, more experienced sisters and brothers in the Bar.
9) Affinity group affiliation. This is a hard category to define, but a good one to think about. There is in my state a very well-regarded attorney who is known as an expert on same-sex adoption and in vitro fertilization legal work. (She cannot call herself one, but other people call her one and apparently with great justification.) In addition to being a very good attorney by all reports, she is also known to some extent as an attorney affiliated with the LGBT community. Does this help her practice? I don’t know. But it is part of her “identity” at least online – not “identity” as defined by legal marketing hacks but by real affiliation, real legal work and quite possibly/probably her own identity.
I know of another attorney near me whose trial practice is very respected and who is without doubt a leader in Baltimore’s African-American legal community and the broader African-American community. His communications, connections, allies, heroes, etc., are strongly derived from (though presumably not exclusively from) those communities. I am probably not “religious” by conventional definitions of that word, but if I were, I might pray I never have to oppose him.
In LA, there is an attorney who advertises herself, or did recently, as “L.A.’s dopest attorney,” and who handles marijuana legal issues in that state. By all accounts she is a very skilled practitioner who knows her material quite well. I personally would not be comfortable with describing myself as the “dopest attorney,” although I am proud to be a Maryland member of the NORML National Legal Committee. The point, however, is that she has a strong identification with that highly regulated, legally ambiguous industry and subculture and without a doubt that fact has aided her practice growth in her acknowledged area of technical skill and interest.
What do these three different practitioners have in common? Well, all are regarded as excellent in their work, first. But second, they also have in addition to hallmarks of excellence a practice identity that is connected to a specific culture or subculture. Can I tell you how to apply this to your real life? No, but maybe you might be the first _______-American attorney in your community. Or maybe you are a vegetarian and you have a passionate interest in promoting that community. I wouldn’t know if there’s a need specifically for a “vegetarian community attorney”, since I am not a vegetarian. But maybe you can establish – ethically, tastefully and wisely – a bona fide subcultural identity or affinity to your practice that reflects your real life, values and relationships. It’s worth thinking about though there’s no “answer” here other than to pursue excellence first.
You can probably build your practice successfully despite the difficulties of starting out, being inexperienced and facing a difficult economy – IF you get good, ethically cautious and generous mentors, you are diligent and ethically cautious and you actually want to do it. Good luck, counselors.