I have been fascinated by the internet ever since I discovered, on buying my first computer when setting up as a sole practitioner in 1994, that there was this thing called the internet, where computers could talk to each other through telephone lines. I truly believe that it will bring in changes of the same magnitude as those brought in by the development of the printing press and the telegraph. Already we are able to collaborate with colleagues in real time wherever they are in the world; blogging allows us all to be journalists and the growing popularity of ebooks allows us all to become publishers.
In this new world, the sole practitioner solicitor has a big advantage over his colleagues in larger firms. He (or in my case she) can develop new ideas and services without having to get them past hostile partners. My partnership meetings (of one) are invariably harmonious and generally productive!
So how can the sole practitioner (or small firm lawyer) take advantage of the opportunities presented by the internet?
The membership site
I set up my membership site, Landlord Law ten years ago. I had to get bespoke software specially written, but now membership sites can be built fairly easily using open source software such as WordPress and Drupal (the software Landlord Law uses). If you are a techie, you may even be able to create your own site, using WordPress and plugins. There are courses online to help you do this sort of thing.
What can you provide in a membership site? My site, Landlord Law, is aimed at landlords, tenants, letting agents and housing advisors. The services provided fall into the following groups:
- Information – eg FAQ, articles and the like
- Documents – tenancy agreements, notices, standard letters etc
- One to one help – principally provided via the members discussion forum but I also “sell” fixed fee telephone and written advice
- Casework – I offer standard repossession work, for fixed fees.
When Landlord Law was launched in 2001, case work was the biggest part of my income. Now it is the membership subscriptions which are more important. I am lucky in having a small discrete area of law which lends itself to this subscription service model. However, it is not the only one. Have a think about your practice. Is there any specific area where clients would appreciate (and pay for) an online service to keep them up to date? Where you could also provide precedent documents and give some quick advice in a forum? Most people don’t want a great long written opinion, they just want a quick pointer, or perhaps a bit of reassurance that they are on the right path. You can do this really easily in a forum – and your answers will also help the other members and enrich the site generally.
An online instruction facility for basic case work is also worthwhile. For standard repossession cases it is not necessary for clients to come in and talk to me about it. All they need to do is give details and send over the documents so I can get on with it. Some case work requires more client contact than this of course, but many sole practitioners do some work which would fit this model.
My service also requires payment in advance. This means no bad debts which is a considerable saving in time and irritation.
It is no good just putting up a membership site and expecting hundreds of members. You have to market it and one of the best ways to do this is with a blog.
When people are considering paying for a service, they like to know a bit about the person or company providing it. A blog lets you show that you “know your stuff” and are a suitable person to help them. It will also help raise your profile generally, in particular in the search engines. Inevitably your articles will have “keywords” relevant to your service, making you easy to find for someone searching for information in your niche. However, there is a lot of writing involved in keeping a blog and you need to write in an “easy” style which ordinary people will understand. You don’t want to come across as a pompous fusty lawyer type, as this will put people off.
Audio and video
Writing is not the only option. You can record and publish audio “podcasts”. This is surprisingly easy to do, and the podcasts can be promoted via your blog and registered on iTunes. People can then subscribe and download your podcasts regularly. Lots of people enjoy listening to podcasts, eg in the car, while walking the dog, at the gym etc. Through listening to your voice regularly they will come to feel they know you, making you an obvious choice if they need legal help.
Or what about “vlogging” – video blogging? If you have a camcorder you can set this up on a tripod and speak to the nation regularly, updating them with news and comment on your niche. This can easily be published on your blog. You can also set up your own YouTube channel and publish it there. It’s really not that difficult.
People often think Twitter must be silly because of its name, and how can you say anything sensible in 140 characters? Actually you would be surprised but that’s not the point. If you have a blog, you need a Twitter account because it is an important way to promote your blog posts. A vast amount of Twitter traffic consists of people either “tweeting” about their new blog post, or recommending (or “retweeting’) someone else’s blog post. You need to become a part of this. It needn’t take a lot of time (although it can do if you are not careful).
As a sole practitioner you have an advantage in that you can tweet for your business under your own name. People like to follow a real person with a real photo in their Twitter profile.
Let’s talk technical
Blogs are quite easy to set up. You can set up a blog using the free Google software on blogger in a couple of hours. However if you are serious about blogging it is best to have a self-hosted blog, maybe as part of your firm website.
WordPress is the most popular blogging software. Many web hosting companies provide it for free and you can install it with just a couple of clicks. You then need to customise it with a “theme” to give it an individual look. I use a brilliant premium theme called Headway, which has a “visual editor” allowing you to change the appearance of your site without using code. You can further customise your blog with bits of add-on software called “plugins” of which there are thousands.
Or you can just commission your web designer to create a bespoke website but I find that half the fun is messing about and tweaking my site.
As well as writing your blog, and giving out useful nuggets of information to your followers on Twitter, you should produce a regular newsletter. This performs a number of functions. It keeps you in the forefront of your client’s mind, making you (hopefully) the obvious choice for legal work if they need it. You can also use it to sell your services and any products you may decide to produce (see later).
However, remember that it is all too easy for people to consign your newsletter to the spam folder. Once this is done, all future newsletters will go there automatically, so they simply won’t see them. Try not to do anything which would make them want to do this.
If you decide to set up a newsletter it is a good idea to use one of the specialist companies such as Constant Contact, Aweber or Mailchimp.
If you are worried about producing content there are firms out there who will do this for you, such as words4business.com.
Be your own publisher
If you write a book nowadays, you do not need to worry about publishers. You can do it yourself! With the growing popularity of Kindle, iPad and other ebook readers, people are increasingly buying ebooks rather than paper books, and they are not hard to create. The ebook can either be given away for free, maybe as an incentive to get people to sign up to your mailing list, or be sold via your website to form an extra income stream.
Many people sell their ebooks using an online service called E-junkie which is fairly easy to use and very cheap. Alternatively you can add a shopping cart to your blog or website. You will need one which will allow you to sell digital downloads.
I have set up a whole new ecommerce business recently with my web designer specifically to sell my ebooks and kits, which we produce ourselves (see yourlawstore.co.uk). This has already started to make a modest profit
With the ever increasing complexity of our world, people are crying out for easy to understand information about the regulations which affect their daily lives. Lawyers are the best people to provide this. The internet is the perfect medium for providing it, promoting it, and selling it.
If you are a sole practitioner who likes writing, has keyboard skills and enjoys messing around with computers, the world is your oyster!