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.


Your LinkedIn profile is boring. Congratulations!


your linked in profileLinkedIn studied 135 million user profiles and released their second annual list of the top ten “overused buzzwords”. Here is the list for the US:

  1. Creative
  2. Effective
  3. Organizational
  4. Extensive Experience
  5. Track Record
  6. Motivated
  7. Innovative
  8. Problem Solving
  9. Communication Skills
  10. Dynamic

If you’re grimacing because you used one or more of these words, relax–it’s okay. In fact, using some of these words is probably a good idea. Here’s why:

  1. These words are overused for a reason: they are associated with positive attributes, the kinds of attributes people looking at profiles expect to see.
  2. If you didn’t include these words, people may wonder why. “What, you’re not creative?”
  3. People who use Linkedin profiles for hiring run through them quickly, like resumes, looking for reasons to reject a candidate. If a profile doesn’t have the basics, it may be rejected for that reason alone.
  4. Nobody pays attention. Profiles are skimmed, not read, at least initially, and most of what’s in a profile doesn’t matter. It’s like wallpaper–you would notice if the walls were bare or they were covered in red velvet, but you pay no attention to “regular” wallpaper (unless you’re a designer).
  5. Giving people what they expect to see, albeit with overused buzzwords, makes them comfortable, but it won’t get you the job or the client. Don’t limit your profile to the banal, flesh out your profile to show the uniqueness you offer.
  6. Nobody believes you. You can say what you want about yourself but what really counts is what others say about you, so make sure you have “recommendations”. It’s the most read and most persuasive part of your profile.

What’s the opposite of boring? Flamboyant? Loud? Exciting?

When people are looking to hire an attorney, I think being a little boring is actually a good thing.


What I learned in the fourth grade about marketing legal services


After my post, “What to say when someone asks, ‘What do you do?”‘ I read an interesting take on the issue at The Non Billable Hour. In, “The Haiku of What You do,” Matt Homann suggests crafting your answer using Haiku.

As you might recall from fourth grade English, a Haiku is a three line poem consisting of 17 words (or syllables), five on the first line, seven on the second line, and five on the third. Homann suggests structuring your response as follows:

  • Who do I help? (Answer in Five Words)
  • What do I do for them? (Answer in Seven Words)
  • Why do they need me? (Answer in Five Words)

The minimalist nature of Haiku lends itself well to an elevator speech. It forces you to get to the essence of what you do and for whom you do it.

Holmann offers this example for a personal injury attorney:

I help injured accident victims

understand their rights and recover medical expenses

from people who are responsible.

Here’s what I came up with for what I do:

I show attorneys how to

get more clients and increase their income

accomplishing more and working less.

Give it a try and see what you come up with. Post your results in the comments.