Use technology and make more money!

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Grow your business, dirt lawyers!

This blog is supposed to be about South Carolina dirt law, but I saw this great article entitled “Twelve Steps to a Profitable Law Practice” that I thought would benefit most South Carolina dirt lawyers. The author is Ernest Svenson (also known as “Ernie the Attorney” if you are interested in Googling his interesting blogs about technology, marketing and other topics vital for law firms but often overlooked by busy lawyers).

Mr. Svenson is the founder of Law Firm Autopilot, the stated mission of which is to help small firm lawyers transform their practices to improve their quality of life. Check out Law Firm Autopilot’s online courses and coaching services here.

technology money

The article is adapted from a chapter in a book I’m reading, The Secrets to Marketing and Automating Your Law Practice: A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating Systems, Getting Clients and Becoming a Legal Rainmaker by David M. Pitton (Practice Panther, 2018). You can download a free copy of the book at the end of the article linked above. This book is good. Chapter 1, entitled “The Ultimate Checklist for Starting Your Own Firm” blew my mind with its very specific, detailed advice about the technology a lawyer establishing a new practice needs. Most of what the author advised was extremely practical and extremely economical because he understands the financial pressures of a new practice. Example:  design a logo for only $99!

Why am I bothering Dirt Law readers with this topic? I know most of you are not thinking about opening your own practices. I’m troubling you with this because I believe marketing and technology may be two of the most vital components required to maintain healthy and growing practices in 2018. Real estate practitioners are always competing and are always trying to stay ahead of the quickly changing technology landscape. The lawyers who master technology and marketing are the lawyers who will thrive in the future.

Mr. Svenson does not suggest that you must master technology yourself. He believes in hiring experts to push the buttons for you. He says, “If you can follow a clear ‘process roadmap’—such as the rules of civil procedure—then you are capable of radically improving your practice with common technology, most of which you already own.” He believes that digitizing will allow you to simplify your practice and lower your overhead. He believes automation will exponentially increase efficiencies and result in cost savings. And he believes that you can learn to work virtually from anywhere with an internet connection.

Many of you know our staff was displaced in 2012 when our office building was involved in a fire. Thankfully, no one got hurt, and much of our furniture and equipment was eventually saved, despite the layer of soot that settled on everything. But we were displaced for a whole year! We rented a small suite in an executive space downtown, but most of us worked remotely (from home) for an entire year. And we didn’t miss a beat. As far as we were able to tell, we didn’t lose a dollar. The day after the fire, several of us were camped out in my kitchen at home disbursing funds for a large commercial transaction. If I was not a believer in being “paperless” before that catastrophe, I definitely am today. I call myself the poster child for business continuity.

(By the way, I am working in said kitchen as I write. I recently hired a new lawyer despite not having space for him, so I displaced myself instead of our new underwriter until we are able to move to a larger space later this year. Again, I am not missing a beat!)

This article says, “If you want to streamline your practice and reduce clutter and chaos, you need to stop managing information in paper form. Digital information is cheaper to store, easier to transmit, and can be automated more easily.”

And, of course, the author points out, and I want to emphasize, that the more we rely on digital information and automation, the more we have to pay attention to security. There are experts that are available to help with this issue. Use them!

Don’t be surprised if you see more blogs from me on related topics in the future. I’m on a roll, trying to read everything on these topics I can, so that my office and I will be in a position to assist our attorney agents as they grow and thrive. Grow and thrive with us!

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Criminal defense lawyer’s advertising debacle may be instructive for us

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Title insurance companies in South Carolina persistently encourage attorney agents to market their firms. We offer seminars on social media marketing. We invite experts to the table to explain the latest and greatest marketing tactics. I trust all the title companies also explain the professional responsibility rules that relate to marketing and bring in professionals to assist with compliance. The rules are detailed and specific, and any South Carolina lawyer who dips a toe into that arena should get the education needed to stay out of trouble. The South Carolina Supreme Court and the Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) are serious about the rules.

The criminal defense lawyer who received a public reprimand in last month’s disciplinary case, In the Matter of Lord,* apparently did not take the safe approach.

fingers crossed realtor

To market his legal services, Lord sent direct mail solicitation letters to potential clients who received traffic tickets. One of those clients filed a complaint with the ODC. Lord made several mistakes in those letters. He used the tagline “attorneys at law” in his letterhead although he was a solo practitioner.

He touted “28 years’ experience both as a lawyer and former law enforcement officer” although he had been a lawyer and former law enforcement officer for only 16 years. His telephone number was (844) FIXTICKET, which may have created unjustified expectations or an implication that he can receive results by unethical means. Further, the Court held that the phoneword is also an improper moniker that implies an ability to obtain a certain result.

The letter also referred to the lawyer’s website which claimed he has “unique insight into the South Carolina traffic laws that many other lawyers simply do not have.” Lord admitted that this claim cannot be factually substantiated. Finally, the letter indicated Lord learned of the traffic tickets from “court records”. The court held that this source identification as not sufficiently specific.

The letter also referred to the lawyer’s profile on www.avvo.com (“AVVO”), a legal marketing website. AVVO, according to the Court, creates profiles for attorneys without their consent, knowledge or participation, then invites them to “claim” their profiles and participate in a variety of AVVO marketing activities, including “ratings”, peer endorsements, client testimonials and online contact with prospective clients.  Lord claimed his AVVO profile and used the website to market his legal services, making him responsible for the content.

A prior disciplinary investigation revealed a negative review on AVVO to which respondent replied. In the response, Lord revealed information relating to the representation of the complaining client and said: “Do me a favor. The next time you are arrested, call a public defender and see what happens after you sit in jail for 3 months they might get around to sending you a form letter. Good luck.” He was issued a confidential admonition in 2013 as a result of this exchange. Lord failed to remove the offending post after receiving the admonition.

He was also required to add a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure regarding endorsements, testimonials and reports of past results. He added this disclosure, but the terms “clear and conspicuous” were not defined in the rules until 2014, and Lord failed to revise the disclosure when that rule changed.

The lawyer advertising rules are not always intuitive. But they are always taken seriously by the ODC and the Supreme Court. If dirt lawyers choose to market their services, as the title companies believe they should, they should make every effort to follow the rules. Your title insurance company will help. Ask!

* South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27741 (November 15, 2017)

SC Supreme Court publishes new commentary on social media

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Real estate lawyers are involved in two disciplinary cases

Two disciplinary cases* were published by the South Carolina Supreme Court on April 19 concerning lawyers involved in multi-state mortgage modification practices. Stay tuned for a blog on the mortgage modification issues because Palmetto State dirt lawyers should steer clear of the unauthorized practice of law and other prickly issues these practices may trigger.

But ostensibly even more pressing, the Court provided ample guidance on lawyer marketing in the context of social media. Using websites and social media in marketing effort is common in 2017 for most lawyers.

The lawyers in these cases failed to adequately monitor the individuals (staff members and third parties) who handled these marketing efforts for their practices.  Failure to properly supervise these effort resulted in running afoul of the Rules of Professional Responsibility.

Dirt lawyers, here are some practices you should avoid taking in your marketing efforts:

  • You should not “cut and paste” from other lawyers’ websites without scrutinizing the materials.
  • If you are a sole practitioner, your website and other marketing materials should not indicate your practice includes “attorneys” or “lawyers”.
  • You should not exaggerate your years of experience.
  • You should not use the word “expert” except in those areas where you are certified as a specialist by the Supreme Court.
  • You should not advertise practice areas where you have no experience in those areas and where you do not intend to take cases in those areas.
  • You should not congratulate clients on their closings without obtaining the clients’ permission to post their names and other information about their legal matters on social media. I see (and “like”) lots of these congratulatory messages on Facebook, and these messages are not objectionable if the lawyer has obtained the clients’ consent.
  • Your marketing materials should not refer to your legal services as “best”.
  • You should not advertise special discounted rates for legal services without disclosing whether or not these rates include anticipated costs.
  • You should not compare your services to other attorneys in ways that cannot be factually substantiated.
  • You should not allow third party vendors to identify themselves as employees of your firm when communicating with prospective clients.

Not many of us are “experts” in the area of attorney advertising, but I strongly recommend that you pay close attention to the Rules in all aspects of website development and social media use. Unlike most areas of the law, the Rules of Professional Responsibility that control advertising appear to be somewhat “black and white”. And failure to follow these Rules will anger your fellow lawyers and will likely to land you in the Advance Sheets. Be careful out there!

 

In the Matter of Bacon, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27710, April 19, 2017; In the Matter of Emery, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion 27712, April 19, 2017.

Creative Use of Google AdWords Gets SC Lawyer in Hot Water

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Supreme Court is not amused by timeshare attorney’s advertising technique


yellow card - suitThe South Carolina Supreme Court handed down a public reprimand last year against a Hilton Head lawyer for his resourceful use of Google AdWords.*

According to the Court, Google AdWords is an Internet marketing technique in which the advertiser places bids for “keywords”. When a Google search includes the advertiser’s keywords, the search results list may or may not include the advertiser’s ad. The advertiser pays Google for clicks on the ad from the search results.

The lawyer and his partner (the “law firm”) handled timeshare litigation and had filed numerous lawsuits against a particular timeshare company. The law firm bid on key words including the timeshare company’s name and the names of three lawyers who represented that company. The law firm’s ad appeared in some Internet search results when those names were used. The ad read:

“Timeshare Attorney in SC – Ripped off? Lied to? Scammed” Hilton Head Island, SC Free Consult”

Sometimes the law firm’s ad appeared as the first result and other times, it appeared later in the list. The law firm paid for its advertisement each time an Internet searcher clicked on the firm’s ad.

The Court held that the attorney violated the Lawyer’s Civility Oath by using the names of opposing parties and their counsel in this manner. By taking the oath, a lawyer pledges to opposing parties and their counsel fairness, integrity, and civility in all written communications and to employ only such means consistent with trust, honor and principles of professionalism.

Marketing is now virtually a necessity for successful lawyers. Attorneys are exploring many avenues in their marketing efforts, including numerous Internet marketing techniques. But, beware, this one is not a good idea!

 

*In the Matter of Naert, S.C. Supreme Court Opinion No. 27574, September 30, 2015.