Posted by Martin Gregory of Legal Futures Associate Lateral Law 
I have just read LawyerLocator’s white paper entitled “The Future of Small Law Firms” (see story ).
Some of its findings are, perhaps, rather surprising and somewhat out of kilter with other research and empirical evidence. For example, according to their consumer poll, only 1% of people use search engines to choose a lawyer (75% less than those apparently using a telephone directory!). Compare this to the 26% revealed by a Solicitors Regulation Authority survey in 2008. My own experience suggests that this latter figure is much more accurate and, as the paper readily accepts, is a trend which can only be expected to grow. The other main sources of work are recommendations from family and friends (28% and 24% respectively) and having local offices (22%).
As part of the poll, respondents were also asked to identify the three qualities that are most important when choosing a lawyer. The results are:
60% Specialist knowledge of the legal issues involved
60% Approachable and able to explain the issues involved
29% Ease of getting in touch
28% Proximity to where they live or work
23% Knows my personal history
11% Good local knowledge
I have argued previously that legal knowledge is more or less a given. If, say, you advertise family law services, the vast majority of clients will, rightly or wrongly, assume that both the firm and the individual fee-earner are specialists in that particular field. If they were aware of negative comments made by former/existing clients, they probably would not have approached the firm/fee-earner in the first place.
Proximity and local knowledge are also matters of fact. The offices are either near the potential client or they are not and it should follow that the firm knows about its surroundings.
Looking at the remaining factors, coupled with where the work actually comes from, the lessons small firms can learn from the paper are (in no particular order, especially given the results):
1. Friends and family will only recommend your services if you at least meet, and hopefully exceed, their expectations. This involves clearly defining at the outset of each case the exact extent of the retainer. In other words, what work you will do and not do. Likewise with your service standards or client charter. For example, will you return telephone calls the same day, e-mails the following day and letters within two days? You must then do the job you promised and comply with any self-imposed deadlines.
Finally, at the end of the matter, you should gather honest feedback on the client’s experience. Positive comments can form the basis of testimonials to garner the trust of potential new clients. Negative responses can be used to improve your services and hopefully avoid a repetition.
2. Satisfied clients should be retained. It is obviously much easier and cheaper to generate new business from such clients than prospects. Before, during and/or after the retainer, offer them another, possibly associated, service, at a special discounted price. Would they be interested in an annual “legal policy”. Tell them in a newsletter about changes in the law, what this means for them, what they need to do and how you can help. Similarly, you may have taken on a new fee-earner or opened a new department. A former client may be moving house, but if they do not think you deal with conveyancing, they may not contact you.
3. Service standards/a client charter also reassure clients that you will be accessible. Make it as easy as possible by utilising e-mail, text messages, tweets etc. Invest in your website, allowing interaction. Consider an online case-tracking system, available 24/7. Stagger staff so that calls are answered outside normal opening hours and do not close for lunch. Visit clients at home or at work. What about working Saturday morning or diverting calls to mobiles when the office is closed?
4. Communicate in plain English and provide a friendly, yet professional, service. Ensure that your reception area is welcoming. For some, visiting a lawyer is feared as much as going to the dentist!
5. Be transparent regarding costs. Fix/cap fees wherever possible or be imaginative, relating costs to the value of a commercial transaction, for example.
6. Use search engine optimisation/search engine marketing to ensure that your website appears on the first page of local Internet searches. Google Places is also a free tool to promote your firm, as are social media, blogs and advertorials and articles in local newspapers.
7. Differentiate yourself from other local firms. Why should clients choose your firm over the competition? If self-serve document sites are an issue, does the client know that they may have no comeback if the standard document lets them down? Such unregulated sites are littered with disclaimers and cannot offer clients the protection afforded by professional indemnity insurance and the compensation fund, or even legal professional privilege. Isn’t it worth paying that little bit extra to get the job done properly?
Above all, give the client the service that THEY want at a price THEY are willing to pay. If this is achieved, you will be well on the way to becoming that person’s “local lawyer”, something that 70% of respondents in the poll feel they do not have.