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Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss online marketing with the best minds in the business.
In this episode, Dawood is in conversation with Micah Buchdahl, President at HTMLawyers.
Micah shares his thoughts on legal marketing and how it is different from other industries. He also shares his thoughts on SEO, paid advertisements and the growing importance of presence of law firms over digital platforms.
Micah speaks about content marketing, infographics and online legal directories. He also shares his thoughts on press releases, the growing trend of podcasts and Google Local Ad Services.
Lastly, he also shares effective ways to deal with negative feedback over the internet.
Tune into this insightful conversation and stay tuned for the next cup of E -coffee with Experts!
Depending on how educated the audience is, getting that content in there, having it come up on organic searches that are on point to whatever it is they’re looking for, is really the key to success.
I’m based right outside of Philadelphia and Morristown, New Jersey. For the last 20 years or so, I’ve worked on my own, working with law firms on various marketing and business development initiatives. Early in my career, before I went to law school, I worked in PR and marketing functions in pro sports. I worked for the Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. I worked in the Old Major Indoor Soccer League. After law school, I had a few in-house jobs as an attorney, back at the Flyers and at the NBA in New York.
At one point, I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I ended up working for a company that sells a lot of products to lawyers. My job was to sell websites to law firms, and this was in 1996 or 1997. For about five or six years, that’s all I did. I sold and worked on law firm websites. If you think back, the way it worked in 1997 to 2021 is a whole different world. I worked for some of the biggest law firms in the country and many of their initial websites. When I was working on those websites, I would travel around the country on behalf of the company, and I got to know a lot of these law firms. I would sit in on their marketing committee meetings and their management committee meetings. I started to realize that they were not very well-versed in a lot of elements of business development. This was something that I could do on my own. I didn’t need a product that I could go and basically have these law firms as my clients. So I started HTMLawyers in 2001. I’ve been doing it pretty much the same way ever since over the last couple of decades. It’s been a lot of fun.
It’s been fascinating to watch the changes in not just internet marketing but law firm marketing. Law firm marketing only started in the late 1970s. Before 1977 lawyers were not allowed to market. When the internet hit in the late 90s, in terms of being a marketing tool, law firms were still in their infancy in terms of investing in and knowing how to market themselves. It’s been really fascinating to watch over these last couple of decades to see the way it shifted and changed where law firms have invested their time and money and where they reach success.
Well, one thing I left out there was that I ended up developing a very niche ethics practice. As a lawyer, that’s the one time where I build by the hour and do real legal work. That’s really surrounding issues related to the rules of professional conduct in various states. It’s a tricky area. It’s been really lucrative for me. It’s great that It’s so confusing, and it’s different on a state-by-state basis. So a lot of the folks that play in this space, web developers, SEO folks, people that sell lead generation, often don’t realize that there are very strict rules of professional conduct that they need to abide by. In the end, usually, the lawyer is the one that’s responsible for the fact that whoever they hire has to follow the rules. But, they’re often also has been issues revolving around things like the unauthorized practice of law and overstepping that some companies have had to vary of and be careful of.
Some of these companies in this space have become clients of mine. Often they hear horror stories about another company getting in trouble, and they don’t want it. I’m usually trying to put in the parameters to keep them safe, make sure they don’t end up in litigation, and sometimes having the whole business model kind of disrupted. So, those rules are really complicated.
If you look at a bunch of law firm websites, depending on what the state is, you’ll often see various disclaimers, certain language on the homepage, certain language in the text that you’re allowed to use, even ethics opinions that deal with things like metadata. All of these things come into play. That’s really the differentiator. You can’t say things on legal websites that you can pretty much say in almost any other profession and in any other industry.
The interesting thing too is that a lot of times, I divide things into two. Law firms, they’re either consumer-facing or business-facing. So the difference between B2B and B2C is significant. The strategies are totally different. What you’re trying to accomplish is completely different. Where you spend your money is totally different. When you’re a plaintiff’s oriented practice, like personal injury, worker’s comp, like elements of criminal law, DUI, family law, the way that you market that is completely different. But, the interesting part about the rules is that the rules don’t differentiate consumer versus business. Even though the rules are in place to protect the consumer, they don’t differentiate. That creates problems for a lot of corporate firms. They’re not thinking about issues regarding certain language that they use because they’re thinking of their audience as being very sophisticated. But at the same time, the rules are the rules. They don’t differentiate between business and consumer.
I would say, again, it really depends on the practice area. I just referenced DUI. DUI is definitely an area that you’re going to focus on Google, AdWords, and elements of geo fencing. That’s a big geo fencing area- DUI because I just got busted or around emergency rooms and hospitals and police stations. That’s really effective. A lot of times, it goes back to when I’ve sat down with law firms and talked to them about their online strategy. They sit there and tell me, “you know, my client is writing my number down on the side of a bus.” That’s effective. Family Law Attorneys put a lot of money into print ads and in local publications.
If I look in Philly magazine or another similar magazine in my neighborhood, I’d say 80% of law firm ads are family law. It really depends on the area. The other area that law firms often struggle with is really avoiding kind of a one-off. When you create a strategy, make sure that you’re visible in the same place over and over again. We always say it usually takes three touches to register. A lot of law firms will like to do one-offs. They’ll do a one-off ad and be like, that’s not going to be effective. You’ve got to do that ad over and over again. You’ve got to have a media campaign, and you’ve got to build around it. It’s really a matter of looking at the practice and also measuring. We know the beauty of online is, it’s so much easier to measure—all these other areas.
The other area that’s been interesting to look at the past year and a half is complaints regarding billboards because people aren’t driving by them. They aren’t driving to work. So all these billboards along the interstate heading into the metropolitan areas are not getting the same visibility that they got pre-COVID. Almost all of our marketing efforts have shifted online in the last year and a half, and it’s fine in this way for maybe another year and a half too.
It becomes so competitive. When we talk about budgeting, one of the things that we often look at is who the players are in a certain market for some of my law firms and whether we can afford to play in that space. If you have a say like Morgan and Morgan, which is a big national firm that spends a lot of money on billboards, they come in, buy up all these billboards; it drives the price up. So I might now look for a different place to be. So a lot of times with a lot of my law firms, the budget drives a lot of the decision-making and who you’re. What your competition is doing in that space drives where you choose to be. There are a lot of times where I just sit there, and I throw my hands up and say, “I can’t play in this space on Billboards. I got to go find another area that’s not saturated. These one or two firms have a monopoly on a lot of space.
Yeah. I think that ends up being one of the problems for a lot of these firms is that their budgets are not high enough to be effective. So, they end up putting cash in, getting nothing out of it. They’re just not competitive. A lot of times, I look at that, and I’ll sit there and go,” You want to spend $2,000 a month. There’s somebody else spending $2,000 a day!” I can’t play in that space. So we’ve got to come up with another solution.
For example, I have a firm in the Midwest that was interested in spending money on getting trucking accident cases. Their budget was not enough. I came back to them, and I said,” Look, your budget is not big enough to support a proper “Pay Per Click” campaign. I want to come up with something a little bit more that fits your budget. I think we’ll be successful.” We ended up creating a blog, spending a lot of that money on hiring people to write for the blog, and then just doing a lot of posts and going organic as a solution as opposed to putting money into something where I know we’re just throwing it away.
Well, it varies significantly. Let’s say a personal injury law firm versus a large corporate firm. For the personal injury firm, our focus is usually on call to action. We’re not focused on content as much as we are like can I get you to pick up the phone? Can I get you to fill out an online form? Can I get the lead generated? That’s the focus on, let’s say, a PI site versus an IP site. It’s an intellectual property law firm. It’s a boutique, where it’s driven by content. In those cases, the most important pages by far are the Attorney bio pages. Those are the most accessed. Those are the ones that people are reading. Those are the ones you check out if you get a referral. Then just focusing now on either type of law firm is the whole concept of content marketing. Generating as much as quality content that typically leads to organic searches and success.
I was joking with a marketer I was talking to yesterday. I got a cold call yesterday from a really significant law firm. Not the kind of firm where you think you’re going to get a cold call from. I assume that somebody referred to them, “Oh, you gotta use Micah.” I said, “Well, how did you get to me?” They go, “I did a Google search and read some of your stuff.” It happens so often and getting people to realize that it’s not so much. Again, depending on how educated the audience is, getting that content in there, having it come up on organic searches that are on point to whatever it is they’re looking for, is really the key to success. I’ll tell you, it works. I said to somebody, “I’ve got so much work.” I don’t have an extensive SEO tied to my site. It’s optimized. I add content, I optimize the site, but there’s nothing fancy. I’m not doing anything really fancy, anything special. But, it comes up on organic searches, it generates opportunities, and it generates money in the door. There’s no question about it.
It really depends on the size of the firm. I was working this morning with a 15 Attorney firm on some stuff. What I’ll usually say is, if everybody here does one thing a month, I get tons of content. We’re in great shape. If I have 15 pieces of content in a month, we’ve got more than enough to keep the site fresh and generate opportunities to come upon our organic searches.
On the flip side, you have firms that sometimes struggle to update. Their site becomes a lot more like a brochure, like the sites from the 90s than the site from the 2020s. That becomes problematic. Somewhat I point to myself as being really bad at certain things. I updated my blog the other day, and I realized it had been a couple of months since I’d done a blog post. Now it has been a couple of months since I generated content, now I’m sure I’ve done things like this program. At some point in time, a couple of weeks, this will be a blog post, and I had failed to update it. That’s something that people look at. They look at the date. When stuff is not fresh, when it doesn’t look like you’re active and doing things, it works against you. There’s nothing worse than that. Every once in a while, you’ll hit a law firm blog, and you’ll see the last post was in 2017. You’ll be like, “What is this?”. It created a negative for your firm as opposed to a positive.
In those cases, either tell people to stop reading it or get on the ball. But don’t have that happen to you because it will work in reverse. Now, you’re less qualified because you’re not in the game. You’re not up to date.
Infographics are great. Infographics are valued, regardless of the audience. People love to see. They love to get that message across with a visual rather than having to read 1200 words. I’ve seen consumer-facing firms do a great job using them. But I’ve also seen defense firms do a great job using various visuals and graphics. We used to call it in newspapers the USA Today effect, which was short and minimize. The balancing act now is between generating enough quality content and word count to come upon a search versus putting out content that people are going to appreciate. Whether it’s an infographic, whether it’s a video, whatever it is, if it’s pertinent, it’s well done, and it’s on point; people would rather look at that than have to read something.
Yeah, they’re different styles. If you look at a bunch of law firm YouTube channels, the Plaintiffs firms are either akin to their TV commercials ( a version of their TV ads), or they’re sort of the Q&A type videos, which are really effective. The Q&A-type videos are consumer-oriented. The questions like, what do I do if I get pulled over by the police for a DUI, and you give a 45-second answer, those types of things are really effective.
On the corporate side, I’ve created hour-long programs on substantive legal topics that really drill down. We used to do videos instead of webinars sometimes because, with video, you have the opportunity to edit, clean up and not have to worry about connections. So a lot of times, we do videos instead of webinars, just to make sure that we can polish the product a little bit more.
Oh, yeah. I have often said the same thing about Twitter. If you’re into them, you’re into them. People that love podcasts love podcasts. I had a client create a really interesting podcast series surrounding different cool issues around intellectual property this past year. That has been pretty successful. It developed a good following. The thing to keep in mind with the podcast is that a podcast is still advertising. You still have to keep an eye on the content of the podcast and what you say, and what you do. But law firms, if you look at a lot of especially large law firms, if you look at their little online libraries, it’s a whole series of podcasts, webinars, and videos. It’s really moved away from just having static content.
The directory space is pretty interesting because it has changed a ton. When I started doing this stuff in the late 90s, there used to be in the legal space a directory called Martindale Hubbell. It was literally the legal directory. It’s been around for over 100 years. For the company, I think it’s still owned by the same folks as Lexus, Reed Elsevier. I don’t know; maybe they sold it off. That was the place, that was the legal directory, and law firms spent upwards of 100 grand a pop to be listed there. Then the internet really destroyed that business because that’s not how you look for lawyers anymore. So there are a number of directories out there that are good.y It’s me doing a search and hitting the directory listing. If I go on and put Philadelphia real estate lawyers, if your directory doesn’t pop up as an option, then don’t think that I’m gonna sit there and go like, “oh, let me check out one of the directories.” That’s not how it works. That’s changed a lot.
A lot of the directories are tied to these lawyer awards and accolades, where the law firms pay good money to be in them. It’s kind of tied to the rating and ranking law firm business. So those two industries, those two pieces in legal have morphed over the last probably 10 to 15 years. The listings, the rankings and ratings all are kind of together.
There are some that are better than others. It depends on the audience, like, I’m a big fan of the US News Rankings, because everybody knows them from other industries and other businesses. There are some others that I just think are a waste of money. In the end, to think that an end user is going to bookmark a directory and always use that to search for lawyers is kind of foolish. That’s not going to happen. Sometimes the directory within something very specific, like, I’m involved in the National Association of the Asian Pacific lawyers. It wouldn’t be unusual for me to log into that system and look at the directory to find a lawyer. Sometimes they are organization or Association based, but the pure online directories like for me to pay you just to be listed in the directory is not likely to go that route. I would rather put the money into my website and have somebody do a search and hit my website in my bio rather than hit a directory.
I love PR. I started my career as a PR person writing news releases. That’s what I did. That’s another area that has changed significantly in the online world. It isn’t unusual for me to do a PR Newswire purchase, and have that news really show up as the top ranking ahead of my own law firm’s news item. Those sites are powerful. It does create a little bit of an end around for some of the advertising rules, because it’s not really an advertisement, it’s really a press release.
If it’s something that’s really newsworthy, I like to invest in it. I always have in my file a handful of news releases that I purchased from PR Newswire. There are a number of other entities. I use those when I’m really looking to sort of get a little bit more play, and it kind of works in two different ways. One is that I obviously hope that journalists are using that database to look for stories and look for story ideas, and I get to play that way. But then also, the press release itself in that database usually is ranked high in a search result. There’s a lot of value in that. Sometimes it’s better to read. Somebody reading a news release on an item sometimes has a more powerful impact. If you’re reading that same news item on the website, because you feel like it’s an editorial thing, that somebody it’s a third party talking about it as opposed to you talking about yourself.
Half the time that a law firm asked me to do a news release, I say no. That’s not news. I try to really make sure that they understand to do it when it’s got some impact, when it’s got some relevance, and when it’s actually news. Usually my number one goal of having a news release done and posted online is to get a journalist to see it, and contact us and get coverage. The number two is to get that additional exposure through SEO and basically search results. A PR Newswire search result comes up higher than a typical law firm page, like a news item on a page.
It’s as long as the firm’s client base is based on locality. That’s the key. For example, I always tell people I’m in New Jersey, but nothing that I do really is related to New Jersey. Being here has no relevance to my business in terms of geographic space. But, there are a lot of practice areas, whether it’s Main Street USA or a particular geographic space. We talked a little bit earlier about geofencing.
If you have a practice and it’s tied to criminal law, for example, aspects of zoning or real estate, or to a locality, then we want to invest in those ads. When you do those searches, you’ll often come up at the top because the search results are often based on locality. So if the locality is relevant, then you really want to invest there. There’s a lot of success, if it matters where you are, that’s what’s sort of the determining factor.
It’s an area where I can tell you in the law education world that there are a million programs we’ve done on responding to online reviews. Lawyers are adversarial by nature. We punch back! That’s just the personalities and many of us. So, when you get attacked in an online review, your inclination is to fight back.
What I tried to do is often compare things to TripAdvisor posts. Somebody posts horrible reviews of your hotel; it just shreds you up and down. Then, the general manager responds, “Sorry to hear that. Feel free to look me up next time you come here, and we’ll make it right.” They don’t respond like that’s not what happened, or I checked into it, and you should have done it this way.
The area where law firms got in a lot of trouble is in violating those rules that I referenced earlier. They’re very specific rules in terms of client confidence. If you’re my client, I’m not allowed to talk about your case. So, even if I’m responding to something where you’ve misstated it, I can violate the rules in terms of confidentiality by responding. That’s where a number of lawyers have gotten in trouble. We often tell people, number one, calm down and don’t respond quickly. Number two, keep it positive if you’re going to respond online at all. Also, understand that you’re not allowed to post sensitive information. If the client revealed some of those confidences in their comments, you’re not allowed to. So you have to be really careful. That’s probably the area of online lawyer marketing that has created the most problems for lawyers.
A bad review can be devastating to any business. I usually recommend to people as I go, take that one bad review and get 20 good ones, right. If you have 100 reviews and three of them are terrible, it doesn’t matter. You have 97 good ones. If you have 3 reviews and 2 of them are terrible, it can have a really negative impact. You got to watch all these reputation management tools. You gotta watch what you say and how you respond because it is really slippery and difficult. It is an area that a number of attorneys have missed up to.
Again, it’s a crazy time for marketers. Yesterday, I was talking to a law marketer of a big firm in New York. She hasn’t seen her lawyers and has been out of her apartment to work for a year and a half. You’re limited to what you can do when you’re not interacting with people, don’t have events, and don’t have a lot of sponsorships. All of these things kind of shifted. We’ve put the vast majority of our efforts into elements of content marketing.
The other area, of course, we’re on zoom now, and a lot of us get tired of being on Zoom all day. There are a lot of conferences and a lot of events that went virtual. They’re finding more and more that people are not interested in tuning in outside of what they have to attend. Many of us are on Zoom for half the day. The last thing we want to do is sign up for an event where we’re on Zoom for another two hours, maybe at the end of the workday. So there’s a shift. There’s kind of pushback on some of those events. I’m not participating, and I’m not sponsoring a lot of these events now because I don’t think people are engaged, and they’ve dropped off. They were into it for a year of virtual, and now you’re switching to a combination, hybrid. I’ve got a lot of law firms that are chomping at the bit to get back out there and network and look for opportunities to do that. I think as soon as people feel it’s safe and healthy, they will do that.
Lawyers are conservative by nature. We’ve erred on the side of not going into offices and not having a balance, and not being out there. It’s a matter of, one is, continuing to focus on online efforts because you don’t have the in-person stuff. That’s really one of the areas. Otherwise, law firms have gotten much better over the couple of decades that I’ve worked in the space, slowly investing more and understanding more. When I think of the budgets that I had in 2005, you will laugh at them today. They were so minuscule. Many of those budgets are 100 times that because people realize the value of online. The beauty of online is that a lot of times, we can trace business directly to an online opportunity. Typical branding, you can’t really trace directly to an ad, but online you can often trace directly. You can look at that ROI.
We also talked about billboards. The other area that’s become extinct is Yellow Pages. Yellow pages money and a lot of the directory money no longer gets spent in those spaces, and they get redirected. That’s why I spent a lot of time trying to redirect the revenue or the budget to the places where I think it’s going to have the greatest impact on the firm.
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