Not sure how to get your name out there and compete with big boy law firms? Attorney Gary Port spells out the basics on the most effective ways to market and manage your small law firm.
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Tracy: Good morning. This is Tracy Merda with Speakeasy Marketing podcast. I want to thank my special guest this morning, Attorney Gary Port Copelander of Port and Sava, Attorneys at law, a leading law firm located in New York City. Good morning Gary. Thank you for joining me.
Gary Port: No problem. Thank you for having me on.
Tracy: Gary, I want to know a little bit about your background and what prompted you to open your own practice?
Gary Port: Well, first of all I’m a 3rd generation lawyer. That’s 3 generations ready, if you will. My dad was a solo for many years. I started out in the army and then I went to the DA’s office. I started with a mid-sized firm in Manhattan, didn’t like that, went to a small firm on the island and I was there for a few years and then my boss did a few things I didn’t feel were really appropriate so I literally walked out one day, no plan at all. It was as if I can’t stay here. Fine. I’m out. I did that at 40 years old with 3 children and one on the way. It was not exactly a planned exit and I do not recommend that for anybody. Always plan your exit.
Tracy: Well, it seems that all of it turned out well for you. The odds were obviously in your favor What made you feel that starting out your own practice is going to be a success or was it more of a leap of faith? This is an often risky environment in terms of any business.
Gary Port: I think part of the problem with lawyers is we have this myth. The myth of the lawyer practitioner, the lawyer businessman hang out your shingle and the world will be the path to your door. It’s a myth which is well engrained in our profession, probably going back to the time before there was this country and we were going back to the English tradition. Go out there and things will happen. That myth can be kind of dangerous. People don’t realize that there is a lot more to it than just saying I’m going to set up my own practice. It’s something that we as attorneys have never been prepared for. We go to a law school, we work at a firm and we learn to be lawyers but we don’t understand a thing about how to run a business. It is not something that you should do without real considerable thought.
Tracy: How did you start out when you had those first few months of starting your business? Was it a fluid ride, was it easy breezy or did you have some struggles in it? How did you survive?
Gary Port: It was terrifying in the beginning. At the beginning I just had a few handful of clients. I was working out of my house. Somehow there was enough money from a few clients, plus I did a side job. I was in the army reserve and I went for one to two weeks a month for about 3 years which supplemented my income. For other attorneys going out, if they are making that leap some of them do things like, they will work for space. In other words, they’ll take an office with someone and instead of paying rent, they’ll do work for that person or they’ll try to buddy up with an elder attorney, an older attorney who will hand them work to try to supplement that first beginning. If you don’t go out with clients, you are going to have very lean times unless you have a secondary stream of income from some place.
Tracy: You take a class on Law office management and marketing. Tell me a little bit about what you share with those individuals who end up taking your course?
Gary Port: I’ve done some CLEs with the Nassau Bar or the Pennsylvania bar on this whole issue of what you need to do and it’s what I said before. We are not good businessmen. We don’t understand the front office versus the back office. When I set up my office, I was really worried about front office. Front office which is get case in, get them in. Between 2002 to 2008 I was doing quite well at that but by 2008 we had the economic crisis and when the revenues dried up, that’s when the mistake in my back office started to show up. The mistakes were, I wasn’t keeping track of my accounts receivable, my accounts payable, my return on investment, how much I was paying my employees. When the money was just coming in, I gave no thought to that. So one of the most important things I tell people is when you set up a practice, you have to set up a business. The first thing you want to think of is what kind of entity are you doing? Are you going to be doing a PC or are you going to be doing a sole proprietorship? Are you doing an LLP? What are you doing? You have to talk to your accountant about this because there are tax implications on this. The next thing you need to do is you need to get a bookkeeper. Not a full time one when you start but a part time bookkeeper but also learn yourself what bookkeeping is so you can look over the bookkeeper’s shoulder and understand what the bookkeeper is doing otherwise you may end up with a bookkeeper who is either inept or corrupt. If you don’t understand basic accounting, you are not going to understand what the bookkeeper is doing. You’ve got to keep track of your expenses and you’ve got to keep track of your receivables and you have to look at the return for your investment on advertising. When you spend money on advertising what are you getting back? These are very basic business concepts that attorneys have no idea about. Again, they admit, I’m just going to hang up my shingle and the world will be the path to my door. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a struggle and if you don’t understand it, you can end up going out of business. In 2008, when the crisis hit, I had fortunately just hired a very good bookkeeper and she put us on starvation wages. She shut everything down and was very militant on collecting our receivables. She changed our entire way of how we have to look at stuff. That’s very important. If you are not looking at your business as a business, then you are not going to be in business. This is something that I stress at the very beginning when I talk to these attorneys.
Tracy: That’s all just incredibly interesting information. I’m just wondering, how much of this knowledge of business management and marketing and creating a whole entity by itself but how would you find attorneys do actually have before you come into contact with them?
Gary Port: Almost none. In fact, in the Nassau Bar, my buddy Tom Foley who is now what they call the associate dean of the Nassau Bar Academy of Law. He and I had been doing a series of programs at the Nassau Bar. We started out when we were running the general solo and small firm committee there where we would just once a month bring in speakers to talk about things that attorneys don’t know about but they should like I brought in a real estate agent, renting offices, how do you rent an office? I brought in an accountant, accounting for lawyers. I brought in someone from the Offices of Court Administration to talk about how you can ethically collect your fees because we have some very strict and stringent rules, if you miscollect a fee or collect it wrong, you can get disbarred. I had web designers come in, social media consultants come In. We have had people come in for time management because Tom Foley is big on time management. He runs a PI firm on the island and he is very attuned to the idea of managing my time as an attorney and managing my staff’s time so that my time is not wasted and their time is actually leveraging on to my time and that’s the kind of stuff that it’s all business related that people don’t think about. They think that I’ve got to be a lawyer, I’ve got to go to court, I’ve got to answer papers, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. Yes, that’s being a lawyer but you have to be a businessman on top of that. The gap between being a lawyer and a businessman, we have found is huge.
Tracy: At Speakeasy Marketing, we work with a lot of small Law offices and it blows my mind that an attorney would have at the time to handle his own marketing, to handle his own business, run payroll. I mean it’s just astounding what all can fall on a small firm.
Gary Port: That’s quite right. You have to wear so many hats. So the question now is can you do it all? The answer is probably not but at the beginning you have to. At the very beginning when you start out, you don’t have the money to hire everyone so what you would rather do is learn everything. Do a little bit of everything and as you start building, then you have to start looking and seeing where you can start putting your additional money. This is your return on investment. The bookkeeper, you go with a part time bookkeeper at first. With marketing, it can be very important based upon which area of law you are in and what type of marketing you use. At the very least every lawyer needs a website. The website can be either a website for straight outright marketing or merely a presence to give substance to your practice. You need to have some basic understanding of it and then later because of the basic understanding, you are better fitted to hire someone and know what they are doing and not just get the fast shuffle. I’ll give you a perfect example on attorneys being fast shuffled. More and more attorneys are being pressured to take credit cards because clients want to pay with credit cards but if you don’t know anything about credit card processing, you are going to get screwed. I got screwed by my bank, I got screwed by another processor and then I found out from another guy who turned out to be an honest credit card processor. He went through and explained to me all the hidden charges. I now save money when I take a credit card payment so you’ve got to learn and then find the right person. Ultimately as you are practicing this growth to take care of that lead for you but because you’ve learned, you are a better consumer when you are purchasing that service. That’s part of being a good business person as well.
Tracy: Gary, do you have any sort of requirement when it comes to business management or any sort of marketing courses that are required and if not, do you think that should be part of the program?
Gary Port: First of all I think that the Bar association are getting better at that. I say so because of the Nassau bar but it’s very idiosyncratic. It’s based upon, are there attorneys in the bar association who are doing this? The law schools are picking up on this and my intern is actually taking a law practice management course but it’s being taught by a guy who is the managing partner of one of the largest law firms on Long Island. As I was saying to the kid, it’s great. He’s teaching you how to manage a large law firm but how much of that is really going to be applicable to the one, two or three man operations. I think they still need to get a little better on that. Again because they still have this myth, the myth of going up and hanging your shingle and the other myth of I’m going to go work for a big law firm and I’m never going to have to worry about this stuff.
Tracy: You’ve touched on some of them quite a bit but what are some of the other challenges that a small firm is going to face when it comes to marketing themselves and getting themselves out there especially if they are starting out with little to no marketing budget?
Gary Port: The first thing is most people may start out, they need to ask themselves, who am I as an attorney? What is my market? What is my field? A lot of folks will go out there and they will specialize in whatever walks through the door. That makes marketing very difficult because if you are not identifying your market, how do you know how to advertise into that market? So that is really the first thing. Who am I servicing? If I am servicing a, let’s say I want to go into bankruptcy. Okay, my market is people who are going bankrupt. How do I get those people in my door? There are going to be 2 ways. One is broadband marketing which is internet or print media but you also have to think about targeting which is a lot of attorneys don’t know bankruptcy so maybe your more bang for the buck is to target and market to attorneys. Again, you have to look at who your market is and then how did those people find you? I do a lot of divorce work. Most people looking for divorce lawyers are embarrassed that they are looking for divorce lawyers. I can look on my website and I can tell that most people are on my website at lunch time or late at night. Very rarely do I get people between those times. It’s a much smaller number. It’s when I am alone and no one is looking at me, I’m going to go on the website and look for a divorce attorney. Again, you need to look at your marketing. Who are you targeting? Then you can sort of figure out how you can adjust your budget. If you are going to be in a field where people are going to be on the internet a lot looking for an attorney, say it’s a divorce lawyer, then you are going to want to look at how to market on the internet effectively. If you are in a field where you need to talk to other attorneys, then you need to go to Bar associations, you need to network with attorneys. So that really is the first thing. Who am I? Who am I marketing to? Now you can start to figure out how you get to those people.
Tracy: So it sounds like a lot of effort should be spent on targeting versus just throwing a big wide net out there for marketing.
Gary Port: You have to. I mean if you went to a straight marketing class in college that’s what they are going to tell you but we as attorneys don’t think about that. Oh I’m a lawyer. What the hell does that mean? What kind of lawyer are you? We are in such an age of specialization. So who are your clients and where are they getting their information from? My partner does a lot of high end commercial litigation. He targets other attorneys because there are a lot of attorneys out there that don’t litigate and they have clients who have these issues so they’ll go to another attorney. The clients that he has are not looking for him on the internet. The clients that I have are. So again, where are you targeting? How are you targeting? Now, just because his clients are high end doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a web presence because everyone needs a web presence now and people Google you all the time and in that one of the first things they do is they look at your webpage. If your webpage is terrible, its like walking into a disheveled, dirty and filthy office. If you walked into an attorney’s office and there are files all over the place, there is garbage flowing out of the garbage pails, there is a stale smell in the place, the windows are dirty, you are going to turn around and walk out. Same thing with the webpage. You may be getting a direct referral from someone but they are going to go check you out on that website and if your website looks terrible, it looks cheap, it doesn’t look like you are a substantial attorney, they are probably not going to call you even though if there was a buddy saying, this attorney is great. Call this gal, she knows what she is doing. So if the website is bad, that could kill the whole deal over there. So that’s something which is very important as well.
Tracy: Gary, besides the targeting that was talked about, what are some of the other ways that maybe some of the smaller firms or the guys starting out can get their names out there or compete with those bigger offices with that small or little to no marketing budget? What are some other tools that are out there in the big old world?
Gary Port: Obviously, networking groups. Very important about networking, many people don’t understand how to do it properly. Networking is not I got an email to show at a networking event. I show up there and I hand out my cards and no one calls me. That’s not the way networking work. Getting into a networking group where you meet these people on a regular basis, you’ve now formed a relationship with these people. That means that they start to trust you and they know that if they refer something to you, they are going to see you every week or every other week and if you screw up, you know you are going to have to face that person. So there is that level of trust and checking when you are in a networking group where you meet people on a regular basis. It’s important in a network to make it clear to the people that you are networking with, I’m not the kind of guy who just shoves a card out and says hire me. What you want to say to people in networking is I need people like you to help my clients so you want to make sure that they get to buy into your practice. So if I meet a realtor, I do divorce work, I sell houses all the time. I need a realtor, you can help me. You do insurance, we have insurance issues in divorce cases, I need your services. That gives a buy in as well. Another thing to do is beyond the traditional networking, you can make use of social media by writing articles, not big articles, 600 words or less on LinkedIn, Facebook, on your website as a blog geared towards clients. Too many attorneys on their websites or on their LinkedIn or on another posts, they write articles like they are written for attorneys. “In the case of Smith Vs. Jones, Judge Pompous opined that…” That’s not what they want. They want to know if my spouse committed adultery, can I get the house? No. You can’t. Let me explain why. Is a prenup a good idea? Well it depends. So you do conversation and stuff. Keep it short, get the message out there but again, in a way that is easy for people to Obviously, networking groups. Very important about networking, many people don’t understand how to do it properly. Networking is not I got an email to show at a networking event. I show up there and I hand out my cards and no one calls me. That’s not the way networking work. Getting into a networking group where you meet these people on a regular basis, you’ve now formed a relationship with these people. That means that they start to trust you and they know that if they refer something to you, they are going to see you every week or every other week and if you screw up, you know you are going to have to face that person. So there is that level of trust and checking when you are in a networking group where you meet people on a regular basis. It’s important in a network to make it clear to the people that you are networking with, I’m not the kind of guy who just shoves a card out and says hire me. What you want to say to people in networking is I need people like you to help my clients so you want to make sure that they get to buy into your practice. So if I meet a realtor, I do divorce work, I sell houses all the time. I need a realtor, you can help me. You do insurance, we have insurance issues in divorce cases, I need your services. That gives a buy in as well. Another thing to do is beyond the traditional networking, you can make use of social media by writing articles, not big articles, 600 words or less on LinkedIn, Facebook, on your website as a blog geared towards clients. Too many attorneys on their websites or on their LinkedIn or on another posts, they write articles like they are written for attorneys. “In the case of Smith Vs. Jones, Judge Pompous opined that…” That’s not what they want. They want to know if my spouse committed adultery, can I get the house? No. You can’t. Let me explain why. Is a prenup a good idea? Well it depends. So you do conversation and stuff. Keep it short, get the message out there but again, in a way that is easy for people to se. put it on Facebook, put it on LinkedIn, write articles for your local paper, things that start to get your name out and keep track every week, Google your name. Go to AVVO, go to some of these other sources where if people start to Google, your name will start to come up. It’s a matter of leveraging because again, everyone goes back to the internet even if it’s a direct referral. When I first started looking at this about 10 years ago, I Googled my name, there were people with my name but they weren’t me and they were showing up in the first 3 pages. Now you Google my name and it’s localized. Google is localized in the geographic area. In my geographic area, I generally get the first 3 pages if you just try and Google my name out. The things that you see are things that people will think I’m very substantial. I ran for office, I was appointed a professor at Hofstra Law School, I’ve written articles, so when you start to read that, you get the impression that Wow. This guy. He is substantial. It’s all a matter of getting your name out in as many different venues as possible so that when Google correlates all that together, you have a strong web presence and people say that person is reputable, that person is around, that person is someone people respect.
Tracy: Just touching on some of the things that you said, I find that as myself, a layperson, getting that information from an attorney in layman’s terms is so much less intimidating and so much more helpful in terms of actually being able to process it as a consumer.
Gary Port: Absolutely. Lawyers have a tendency as in every profession, we get so tied into our own lingo whether you are talking about law, medicine, law enforcement, military, we all have our own secret handshake and we sometimes forget that when the person comes in, they have no idea of what we are talking about and if we don’t bring it into their vernacular we are sort of locking them out. We need to make ourselves look smart but accessible. One of the other things I did is I hate these videos on the lawyer websites where the video shows up and the lawyer looks so serious. You know, do we do it? How we care for our clients and we take; It just annoys the hell out of me. What I did was set it deliberately the other way. I had my associate and I sit down in front of some law books in a slightly amateurish thing. She and I spent about 5 minutes talking about various legal issues but the key in those discussions was that one wasn’t a talking head and two, it was two people talking together, who seemed like nice people. That was the goal. I wanted people to look at this video and say I like those two. They seem like they are very good people. I’ve gotten good feedback from people who have gone to my website seen the video and said, “Hey you guys really seemed like nice folks.” That was my point. I didn’t want to look like I was some ponderous self-important pretentious guy because I’m not and that’s not what people want from an attorney. They want someone who is accessible. They want someone who knows what they are doing but as a human being is going to care about me. That’s what we try to portray in these videos. These are the type of people that we really are.
Tracy: Just one more thing about the social media, you kind of touched on. I’ve heard conflicting reports from some attorneys on what works and what doesn’t. What do you find are your thoughts on social media and what do you find is irresponsible ways? Just one more thing about the social media, you kind of touched on. I’ve heard conflicting reports from some attorneys on what works and what doesn’t. What do you find are your thoughts on social media and what do you find is irresponsible ways?
Gary Port: Social media is constantly evolving because the audience is constantly changing. What was a really great website 10 years ago is a really ugly website now. In fact what was a great website an year ago maybe an ugly website now. People are constantly changing. Google is constantly changing their algorithms and you’ve got to figure out what that is. You can’t be promiscuous because that’s a problem because Google will hammer you on being promiscuous as well. You’ve got to really look at again, what is my target audience? What is my plan? What am I trying to achieve? The other thing which is very important with the social media is that Google searches social media just like Google searches everything else. You’ve got to figure out what are the words that people are looking at when they do searching. This is where a good SEO person can help you out and a bad one can mess you up. When a person is searching for an attorney, they may just write in Divorce attorney. The word Divorce attorney has a very high value on Google searches, so a lot of people are spending a lot of money on that. So if you used divorce attorney and you are not sending a lot of money, you are going to get crushed by the big guys. What you have to do is think what are people actually looking at? Are they writing divorce attorney or are they writing things like if my wife cheats, can I get the house? That’s a real search and it shows up quite a bit on my pages. You have to then start to think about getting your search engine optimization on your social media, on your blog posts. What are the words that real people are going to be looking at? A good SEO person can take a look at the Google analytics and start warning some of those numbers. Maybe a million people look for divorce lawyers and a thousand people look for if my wife cheats, can I get the house? But for a small guy, the thousand people looking for that. I’m going to do my SEO on that term because a lot fewer people are, as you say, bidding against that term so I can get more people on to my website in looking at that as opposed to trying to compete against divorce lawyer. That’s part of the things that these guys don’t understand. You have to look at how people are searching, how many people are searching with those terms and then the value of those terms as part of the open market competition trying to get Google’s attention.
Tracy: This has been some great information Gary and I’m sure it will be helpful to a lot of our listeners out there. Are there any final words of wisdom that you can share with other attorneys out there who are struggling to make a name for themselves or who might be finding it difficult to market their firm?
Gary Port: I think that the best thing is
If you don’t have the money and you don’t have the time, then you are wasting your time because I spend money for a couple of weeks and nothing happened. Of course, nothing can happen. Marketing takes time to build roots. It isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes months to get the campaign going and it takes years to get the name really out there. If you think that people are going to be at the path to your door immediately, you are probably delusional.
Tracy: I just want to really thank you for your time Gary. It has been a true pleasure. A special thanks to my guest Attorney Gary Port of Port And Sava, Attorneys at Law. Gary if someone would like more information on perhaps the courses that you teach or just to get in contact with you in general, what’s the best way to reach you?
Gary Port: My office number is (516) 352-2999 and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org and if anyone is a member of the National Bar Association, you can get some of these courses at we teach on DVD and I believe that the Pennsylvania Bar also recorded my presentation there so if you are a member of the Pennsylvania bar, you can contact them and get the copy for those presentations as well.
Tracy: That’s fine Gary. Thank you so much. Alright and I appreciate your time. This is Tracy Merda with Speakeasy Marketing Podcast signing off. Thank You so much Gary. Have a good one.
Gary Port: Okay. Thank you so much. Alright, bye.
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