Going from huh? to duh! The four stages of learning how to market legal services


When I opened my first law office, I had no idea how I was going to get clients. Had I known how tough it was going to be, I may have given up before I began.

But I was motivated by the need for independence and the stubborness of youth and I found myself with an office, a typewriter, and no work.

What to do. . .?

I had read a lot about mail order and direct marketing in my youth, but I didn’t know anything about marketing legal services. I didn’t think I could use mail order to bring in clients (although I think that now) and so I took out some ads (to other lawyers) and that did bring in some work. Not the best work–overflow and some appearances, mainly. It helped pay the rent.

I knew there had to be something else I could do. Other lawyers brought in clients, why couldn’t I?

Experts in learning would say I was a “conscious incompetent”–I knew that marketing could bring in clients and I also knew that I was clueless about how to do it.

Years later, I learned that there are four stages to learning:

  1. Unconscious incompetent: You don’t know what you don’t know. Think of the young child in the car seat with one of his parents behind the wheel. The child doesn’t know what “driving” is, let alone how to do it.
  2. Conscious incompetent: You know what you don’t know. The child is aware that his parent is doing something to make the car go but he does not know what or how.
  3. Conscious competent: You are able to do it with focus and mental effort. You are aware that you are doing it. After drivers’ training and some practice, the child is able to drive, but he has to think about what he is doing.
  4. Unconscious competent: You can do it effortlessly, without thinking about it. Eventually, like the rest of us, the child is able to drive on autopilot.

As a “conscious incompetent” in marketing legal services, I made the decision to start learning. I read every book I could find on the subject. I studied ads and brochures and seminar sales letters. I talked to other lawyers and asked them what they were doing.  And I tried lots of different things. Eventually, I had some success.

But I wasn’t good at everything. Some things came easily to me. Writing, for one. And speaking. But other skills I am not as good at. I know how to network, for example, and I’ve certainly done enough of it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. As a result, I have to think about what I’m doing while I’m doing it. (“Jeez, why on earth did I say that. . .!?”) With networking, I am a conscious competent.

Knowing these four stages of learning has helped me to appreciate my strengths and weaknesses. Whatever you’re trying to learn or improve, it helps to know where you are and what you need to do to get to the next level:

  1. Unconscious incompetent: Read, listen, observe, ask questions. Find out what you don’t know. You’ll discover things you’ve never heard of before, (especially in the social media arena–and let’s use that as an example) and you will become aware of what you don’t know.
  2. Conscious incompetent: Now that you know, you need to do more reading, listening, observing, and asking even more questions. You need guidance and support from others. And you need to try it. Open an account, set up a profile, play around with it. Practice and you will get better.
  3. Conscious competent: So you know what to do. You’re posting regularly, networking online, integrating your web site, and downloading the newest apps. You know what you’re doing but it’s still something you have to think about and remind yourself to do. You need to continue doing what you’re doing (more practice) and you need to get feedback and advice from others.
  4. Unconscious competent: You have mastered it. You tweet and post and link like a pro and you can do it in your sleep. The risk here is that you will get bored and stop learning and stop growing, so make sure you stay up with all the new tech and trends and continue to challenge yourself. Even better, help others learn because the teacher always learns more than the student.

If you find yourself stuck in stage two or three and you never get to stage four no matter how much effort you put in, the odds are this is not a natural strength. You might want to get someone to do it for you so you can go do something else.