Free writing makes attorneys sound less professional and be more successful

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“Writing is thinking on paper,” said William Zinsser. As someone who does a lot of thinking and a lot of writing, I have to agree.

Years ago, I read an ode to writers and would-be writers, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” by Natalie Goldberg. If you love writing–or want to–this book can help you overcome doubt and unshackle your hidden talent.

It was in this book I first learned about “free writing,” a technique for writing quickly, without editing or a hint of self-consciousness. Free writing is raw and uninhibited, allowing you to find out what you think, and what you feel. Goldberg describes it as “writing practice,” a warm up before getting down to “serious” writing and a way to create raw material that can be cultivated into finished work.

For some, free writing is a cure for “writers’ block”; for others, it is a form of therapeutic journaling, unlocking hidden memories, imagining a better future, or reconciling a troubled past. For me, it was the key to becoming a better writer and a better attorney.

As a young attorney, I wrote in a way that could only be described as “constipated”. My writing was clear, my points well thought out, my letters and pleadings effective, but I still wrote “like a lawyer”–stiff and constrained. Free writing helped me stop trying to sound “professional” and start sounding like myself. My writing came alive and in a way, so did I.

Free writing helped me not only to write better but to get clear on what I wanted and what I could do. It helped brainstorm ideas and simultaneously see what I thought about those ideas. It helped me weigh pros and cons and make better decisions. In short, it helped me to think better.

I’ve just read, “Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content”, by Mark Levy, a writer and business consultant who teaches free writing to his business clients to help them, “. . .spot opportunities and options, solve problems, create ideas, and make decisions.”

As Goldberg does in “Bones,” Levy uses a series of writing exercises that stimulate thought, but more importantly, action–the action of writing. In free writing, quantity produces quality and writing exercises get the hand moving and keep it moving long enough to bypass the critical mind and produce meaningful results.

I like Levy’s ideas and recommend his book; his exercises are suited to writers and professionals alike. And yet, as I read Levy’s exercises, I couldn’t help feeling, “this is something I should do,” whereas when I read “Bones,” I felt, “this is something I want to do.”

It may be because I was at a different place in my life when I read “Bones”. I haven’t read it in years but I still remember how it made me feel. Goldberg’s voice was comforting, warm and empowering. And, she got my hand moving. Her exercises were simple and unstructured and I did them all. I wrote and wrote and wrote and I felt good about it. I never once looked over my shoulder to make sure I was doing it right and that, of course, is the point of free writing: letting it happen rather than making it happen.

Levy references several books about free writing (I’ve read most of them); curiously, he never mentions, “Writing Down the Bones,” the book that introduced me to free writing and helped me discover my “accidental genius”. In my view, “Bones” is a seminal work, one I’m sure he’s familiar with, and I was surprised by its omission.

Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic and if I read “Bones” today, as the person I am today, I would see it as more suited for writers than professionals and look for something else. Nah, I’d probably be too busy writing to give it any thought.

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What if you really could learn how to practice law in law school?

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Two law professors have come up with an admittedly radical proposal, designed to help law students learn real world lawyering skills before they graduate: law schools that operate their own law firm.

The idea is akin to what doctors do by working in teaching hospitals. You get hands-on experience working on real cases for real clients, under the supervision of real attorneys. What’s radical about that?

Clearly, law students need the experience of working with real clients, and maybe I’m missing something, but how is this idea better than working as a law clerk while you’re in school? Instead, why not simply mandate so many hours of clerking experience during law school, and possibly after, as a condition precedent to issuing a license?

Everyone knows that law schools do a poor job of preparing graduates for the actual practice of law. I’m willing to hear more about the law school firm idea but right now, I say let law schools teach theory and law firms teach practice.

A comment to the ABA Journal’s post about this story sums it up best: “For 70 years, law schools have “trained” lawyers how to be not ready-for-prime-time. What makes you think THEY know how to practice law. More ivory tower fantasy.”

What do you think? Is this a good idea?

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What the iPhone app store can teach you about marketing legal services

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I was scrolling through the “Top 25 list” in the app store on my iPhone and noticed that the top grossing apps (mostly games) are either free or .99.

How can something that’s free or almost free be top grossing? The answer is simple: Upgrades, add ons, and back-end purchases. These companies sell “other stuff” via “in app purchases”–additional tools, levels, or other capabilities–and enough people buy on the back end that they can afford to give away their product on the front end.

It’s the “freemium” business model and while the term is relatively new, the concept is as old as marketing itself. “Sampling,” as it is traditionally referred to, is a proven way to sell everything from toothpaste (coupons and trial size) to automobiles (free test drives) to Tempura chicken in the food court (a sample on a toothpick).

Even attorneys use it (free consultations).

The idea is simple: give people a taste and they’ll want the whole meal. The free sample allows the consumer to overcome doubt and indecision, to experience the product or service on a small scale, with no cost or obligation, before making the decision to buy. The more you give away, the more you sell.

How can you apply this to marketing your services?

If you’re not now offering free consultations, I suggest you consider doing so. Many attorneys resist this, claiming their time is too valuable, they don’t want to give away their expertise because that’s all they have to sell, and while these may be brilliant attorneys. . .

they’re not very good at math.

If you invest an hour of your time in a free consultation and get a $10,000 paying client as a result, I don’t know, that seems like a pretty good trade off to me. I know you say there are only so many hours in a day and you can’t equate giving away a game app with giving away legal services, but actually, you can.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a six-year old with a lemonade stand or a partner in a 1,000 lawyer firm, the formula is the same:

  1. How much did you spend to get the business, and
  2. How much did you generate in revenue?

The difference, minus fixed costs, is profit.

And, since legal services are generally high ticket and high margin, attorneys are actually better suited to using sampling in their marketing. We can afford to spend more to acquire a new client since we earn so much more.

So, let’s take things a bit further. If free consultations work, how about free services? Could you offer a free or highly discounted service on the front end, knowing you will more than make up the difference on the back end?

Yes you can.

Which brings me back to the app store.

Recently, I’ve noticed a spate of new apps by lawyers, mostly personal injury firms. They explain what to do in case of an accident and provide a place to record information, take photos, etc., and they are free. The lesson isn’t that iPhone apps are a viable way to bring in clients, although they may well be, it’s that if you can’t or won’t give away a sample of your services, give away information.

Free information in any form–reports, tip sheets, checklists, booklets, audios, and iPhone apps–can do much of what a free consultation or free service can do–give prospective clients a taste of what you can do for them.

If you want more clients, give samples.

Update: After posting this, I saw this article discussing app pricing strategies, in case you’re thinking in that direction. Interesting reading even if you’re not.

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Why some attorneys shouldn’t blog (and most attorneys never will)

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The evidence is clear: content is still king and blogging does work. The more (quality) content you have on your web site, the more traffic and leads and clients you get.

The August issue of Entrepreneur Magazine, reports that, “sites that have 401 to 1000 pages get nine times more visitors than sites with 51 to 100 pages”. Hubspot reports that consistent bloggers saw a 4.2x increase in the number of leads without four months, and reduced their lead costs by 60 percent.

The reasons are equally clear. Search engines like fresh content and so do readers who use those search engines to find that content. When someone has a legal issue, they’re not looking for an attorney’s “about” page, they want information that will help them understand their problem and their options for solving it. The attorney who provides that information is the attorney who gets more traffic, more leads, and more clients.

But it takes time to write good content and doing it consistently is hard work. That’s why so many people who start a blog don’t keep it up. (95 percent of blogs are abandoned, according to Technorati, long before they see an appreciable return on their investment.)

But you’re not like other people, are you?

“If you knew you could earn an extra $20,000 per month by blogging, and it would take you an hour a day, five days a week, would you do it?”

Let me ask a question: “If you knew you could earn an extra $20,000 per month by blogging, and it would take you an hour a day, five days a week, would you do it?”

If the answer is “no,” stop reading.

Of course I don’t know how much you will earn by blogging any more than I know how much the attorney-bloggers in the top 5% earn through their blogs. I’m pretty sure they are happy with their “top 5% results,” however.

And here’s some good news: you don’t have to spend an hour a day on your blog for it to be effective. An hour or two a week will probably be enough. That’s because:

  • You’re already reading in your field; you don’t have to invest a lot of extra time for blogging purposes.
  • You can write. If you can pass the essay portion of a bar exam,  you probably write well enough to write a blog (although you might want to have someone edit out the legalease).
  • You can get help. Your staff can do research, find articles you can incorporate into your blog, write first drafts and even write finished posts. If you don’t have staff, you can outsource.
  • You don’t have to post every day; once or twice a week, done consistently, is enough to put you in the top 5%. Even once or twice a month can bring you more business.

What are you doing now to market your practice? Could you use some of that time for blogging? If you’re not doing anything right now to market your practice, don’t you think you should?

In the past, my blogging has been sporadic. Stretches of consistency followed by stretches of “I’m busy with other projects and I’ll get back to blogging when I can”. Recently, I decided to take my own medicine. Not only have I started posting consistently again, at my wife’s urging I’ve been doing it every day. Even though it’s only been a couple of weeks, I’m already seeing a lot more traffic, subscribers, and new business.

Is blogging for every attorney? No. If you have other ways to build your practice and they are working, you don’t need a blog. It is hard work and it is a commitment. (Actually, the writing really isn’t hard, what’s hard is the commitment.) But if you’re looking for something to bring in more business, if you have more time than money or you’re willing to make the time because you can see why it would be worth it, if you like to write or have someone on staff who does, then blogging is a great way to rise above the competition and get into the top 5%.

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What is Google+ (Google Plus) and do I need it?

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This is another extremely well done video that instructs while it entertains. I am not an early adopter for most new ideas, especially in the social media world, but I think I need to spend some time getting my “Plus” on.

[mc src="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=hC_M6PzXS9g" type="youtube"]What is Google Plus and do I need it?[/mc]

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Rocket Lawyer, Legal Zoom: How the Online Law Business Affects Your Business

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The success of Legal Zoom, the online legal forms service which advertises heavily on the web and on talk radio, has apparently demonstrated that there is money to made in the low end of the legal services industry. Wherever you find money, you’re sure to find Google, which recently invested in Rocket Lawyer, the newest contender in this growing market.

What does this mean for your practice?

For most lawyers, the answer is “not much”. Online legal services are still small relative to the size of the market and inasmuch as they primarily provide forms and access to inexpensive legal advice, provide no direct competition. Unless of course your practice targets the same lower end of the market and in today’s economic climate, more and more attorneys are doing just that.

I don’t have a crystal ball but here are a few of my predictions:

  • No matter what the economy does, the online legal services industry will continue to grow and continue to take business from attorneys who offer commodity-level services to consumers and small businesses.
  • Attorneys who continue to target the low end will find it harder to compete with the simplicity, speed, and lower costs available online.
  • The attorneys who survive this trend will be those who (a) abandon this market altogether, in favor of higher level services (e.g, “asset protection” vs. “simple Wills”) or offer services where the hands-on advice and ongoing involvement of an attorney is mandated, or (b) get very good, and very creative, at marketing and finding under-served niche markets where they can carve out market share.
  • The growth of online legal services will expand the overall legal services marketplace, ultimately leading to more work for all attorneys. How that work is distributed and at what price points is the multi-billion dollar question.

Never fear competition. Embrace it, learn from it, prepare for it. Competition will make you a better attorney and, in the end, make you more money.

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Social media marketing for attorneys in a nutshell

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This morning, I was reading an interview with Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, which as you know is my favorite application. I’m not the only one who loves Evernote; they’re adding one million users a month, without advertising.

The company’s growth comes in large part from its enthusiastic user-base sharing their love of the product with their friends and colleagues. Libin said,

“The job of getting someone who’s [sic] never heard of Evernote to use it for the first time is the job of our existing users. The job of our marketing department is to help our existing users do that job.”

He’s talking about social media marketing, of course, also known as referrals.

It struck me that this is the essence of social media marketing for attorneys. Social media platforms are just another conduit for customers (clients) to recommend products (services) to others. Obvious? Sure. Then why do so few get the referrals they want?

The key to success in social media isn’t how many likes or followers or friends one has. Those numbers are important, of course, but far more important is “passion”.

I didn’t just recommend Evernote, I raved about it. Well, my version of raving. I wasn’t over the top, mad with emotion (the California Bar frowns on that, I think) but I hope you could hear the enthusiasm in my voice, my love for a product that has truly changed my life.

I don’t know how many readers of this blog or my social media posts and tweets will go to the Evernote web site and try it but I do know that Evernote doesn’t pay me a nickel for sending them. Social media marketing works and it’s free.

There’s another point I want to make but Libin made it for me:

“. . .we started measuring stuff and found that users who had been referred to Evernote by a friend were much more valuable to us than users who had stumbled across us by themselves. . . .”

Bingo.

Referred clients are better clients. They are pre-sold on you, more likely to pay their bills on time, and less likely to complain about something you did or did not do. Best of all, referred clients are themselves more likely to refer other clients.

If you want more referrals, do something your clients can get passionate about.

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Evernote helps lawyers get organized and get things done–Part 3

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In parts 1 and 2 of this series I talked about how I use Evernote for collecting and organizing information and for managing my tasks and projects. Today I want to show you the details of my set up and workflow.

Evernote allows you to organize notes in (up to 250) notebooks. Notebooks can also be arranged in “stacks” or sub-notebooks. While this does not provide a complete Windows Explorer-like hierarchal folder set-up (you can only go down one notebook level), it does provide a logical way to organize information. And by hiding sub-notebooks (click the arrow to the left) it makes the left navigation bar less cluttered.

In the beginning, I set up twenty or thirty notebooks. I had notebooks for different areas of my business and personal life, for projects, and to archive notes I probably wouldn’t need soon (i.e., finished projects, receipts, user manuals, etc.) After several months, I found some issues with this set up. For one thing, every time I “filed” a note I had to decide which notebook it belonged in. I have a lot of cross-over in my business and many notes could logically reside in more than one notebook. I had to take time to decide which notebook was best or defer the decision; either way it meant more work.

I could duplicate the note and put it in multiple notebooks. Also not good. If I ever changed or added to a note, I had to find and change the copies.

When you search for notes, you designate which notebook to search in. If you don’t remember, you have to search different notebooks, until you find it, or search all notebooks, and if I’m doing that, what’s the point of having separate notebooks?

Notebooks vs. Tags

I began reading other blogs, to see how others organized their notes. Many people use just a few notebooks and organize primarily using tags. Tags are notebook agnostic–they apply throughout your Evernote database. I’d been using tags since I first started with Evernote, but I didn’t have a system. That soon changed.

The lights went on for me when I read how some people used just one notebook. One notebook! They used tags and Evernote’s robust search function to quickly find things. I was sold. I eliminated all notebooks except two. First is my “Inbox,” my default notebook; everything goes in there first. I review my Inbox at least once a day, assign tags, decide if there’s anything else I need to do with the information, and move the notes to my primary notebook, which I’ve named “My Notes”.

This simplified approach makes my work flow much quicker and more intuitive. I could simplify it even further and use just one notebook, using a “inbox” tag to designate that a note has not yet been processed, but having the buffer of a separate Inbox notebook allows me to quickly upload notes without having to think about them and process them later.

Right now I also have two temporary notebooks. They are both “local” meaning they are not synced to the Evernote server (and I cannot, therefore, access them on the web or from my phone). The first is “Private” and includes passwords, log-ins, sensitive documents and the like. The notebook is temporary because I haven’t yet decided what to do with this information but with an eye towards simplicity, I am leaning towards merging it with all my other (synced) notes. I will probably use Evernote’s encryption function.

The other temporary notebook is named, “To be uploaded”. It is a repository for documents on my Windows hard drive, in queue to be uploaded to Evernote. There is a monthly upload limit (60 mb on the free account, 1 gb on premium) and I simply wait until the last couple of days my monthly cycle to see how much “room” remains in my monthly allotment, so I don’t exceed it. Once I’ve moved everything to Evernote, I won’t need this notebook any longer.

As for tags, Evernote allows you a maximum of 10,000, way more than anyone should need. I currently use less than 100, and, with searches and “saved searches,” another Evernote feature, I think I can get away with even fewer.

Like notebooks, tags can also be nested. Unlike notebooks, tags can be nested to as many levels as you want. You can create a true windows-like hierarchy, using tags like folders. Not only does that allow you to browse your notes, it makes for a very clean left navigation panel. I currently have only seven top level tags, as you can see in the screen shot below.

Getting Things Done with Evernote–My GTD Work Flow

As noted in my previous post, I manage my tasks and projects using David Allen’s “Getting Things Done(TM)” methodology, also known as “gtd”. If you aren’t familiar with gtd, I recommend you buy his book. You may not “get” everything the first time you read it (I didn’t), but with a little effort, I think you’ll find this to be the system that finally allows you to get organized and get things done.

I’ve set up Evernote with tags that allow me to utilize gtd. Below is a screen shot of my Windows desktop client, which I use about 95% of the time. (I occasionally use the web app and when I’m out, I use the iPhone app.)

I’m still tinkering with the names and nesting of my tags because as I use Evernote each day, I learn more about how I work best. Like you, I have different roles in life and many projects for each of those roles, as well as single “next actions” (as Allen describes them). So, by the time you read this, my tags may be different from what is now depicted, but the changes are likely cosmetic rather than functional. And yes, I know that some of what I do isn’t pure gtd.

My tag list shows the top level tags (think “parent”) and some nested ones (“children”). The “Projects” tag, for example, is used to organize “Active Projects” and “Inactive Projects” which are nested under them. Each of those tags has nested tags; to get to them, I click the arrow to the left of the parent tag.

The numbers to the right of the tag indicate how many notes have that tag. You’ll see I have 7 Active Projects and 17 Inactive Projects.

The !!Today tag is for tasks I want to do today, or as soon as possible. It is pre-pended with two exclamation marks to keep it at the top of the list. Below that is my !Next list; these are tasks I want to get to, well, next. As I complete today’s tasks, I find other tasks I want to move to the front of the line. I remove the !Next tag and replace it with !!Today.

I spend most of the day working in !!Today. That keeps me focused on doing what I’ve already determined I want to work on before I work on anything else. But I can also dip into other tags and find other tasks to do.

“Contexts” are preceded with the @ character, representing location or the tool (@Computer). Since I work from home, my context menu is pretty simple; you may have contexts for different locations and areas of your life: @work, @home, @calls, and others. The more I use gtd, the fewer contexts I’ve found necessary but they do come in handy when I want to, say, find tasks @computer, @15 Minutes, and tagged “personal,” or when I’m out and I need to find @Errands.

“Lists” are items I use regularly (e.g., my “weekly review checklist,” another gtd concept, or frequently referenced conference call numbers).

“Musing” is something I came up to tag things I’ve got floating around in my head that I need to think about. Once I’ve done that, they will be tagged !!Today or !Next or @Someday/Maybe, or they may be deleted altogether.

“Reference” is a catch all for all non-actionable items. It is my repository of notes and drafts and ideas, web clips and documents and everything else. I have nested tags in Reference for my two businesses, one for Personal, and a few other “top-level” tags. Each of these tags has tags nested within them. For example, for the attorney marketing business, I use a top level tag “am” and have nested tags for “am-blog,” “am-products,” “am-consulting,” and so on.

How I handle Projects

Each project has it’s own tag. I use a period in front of project tags to designate them as projects instead of single tasks. My project for setting up Evernote and my gtd work flow has the tag .Evernote/GTD. All notes related to that project get that tag. They will usually have other tags too, for context (@Computer, @Errand), Reference (e.,g. am-blog), and, if it’s actionable, !!Today or !Next. If I’m not sure if it’s necessary, I’ll use @Someday/Maybe.

Each project has a primary note tagged with “Active Projects” (if I’m working on it now) or “Inactive Projects” (to be done later). In this note are the objectives for the project and a checklist of tasks and/or “note links” to other Evernote notes. Thus, the main note becomes an index for the entire project with each task usually having it’s own note. That way, as tasks are done, they can be marked with a “Done” tag (or deleted) and the primary note can be updated to show that the task for that project has been done.

Evernote also has check boxes which can be used for checklists or for designating actionable tasks. Check boxes are also searchable, so you can find all tasks in Evernote that are done (checked) or not done.

Calendar: Appointments and Tasks (Ticklers)

I use Evernote to manage time-oriented tasks and projects by linking notes to my Google Calendar. (This may change once Evernote introduces a “Due Date” field which has been promised “soon”.) Each note in Evernote has a unique link. By right-clicking and copying that link, you can paste it into your calendar, either as an appointment (date and time) or as a task (“All day” event).

Every day I review my appointments and tasks, click the link and it opens the Evernote note I need for that appointment or task. (Actually, on gCal, the link isn’t currently clickable; I have to cut and paste the link into a browser window and that opens the note in the desktop app.) I also assign a “Tickler” tag to notes that have been tickled so I can browse those notes if I want to.

The Weekly Review

Every night, I go through Evernote and my calendar and decide what I want to work on the following day. Those tasks get tagged !!Today. Some days I get through the entire list, often I don’t. Tasks not done get carried forward to the following day or, if I decide there are other things I need to do first, I might remove !!Today and replace it with !Next.

I also do a weekly review, (Sunday mornings), to plan the following week. The daily and weekly review are key to making the gtd system work because you’re regularly looking at your lists and making decisions on what to do next.

As you can see, this is a very simple system. It works because it is simple and because I don’t keep anything in my head, everything’s in Evernote, which means I can focus on getting things done.

Read part 1 and part 2 of this series.

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