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The Marcus Perspective


By Bruce W. Marcus

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Will You Settle For References? Every so often, in a particular area of a professional practice, somebody gets the bright idea to give samples — to give a half hour of free advice as a way to entice a prospective client to ask for more.

Two questions arise. Is it ethical? Is it good marketing?

The unqualified answer to both is — it depends.

(From the ethical point of view, remember that I am not a lawyer and advice here should be qualified through that screen.)

Lawyers and give free advice all the time. They do it at seminars, in articles, in legal clinics, on television, on commuter train platforms, and now, even online.

Is it ethical to give free advice in the hope of getting a client? Of course. Why else do professionals give so much free advice, (except maybe to soothe one’s own ego. Or as a courtesy to a friend).

How binding is free advice? Now there’s the rub. If a lawyer gives free advice that’s bad, and gets the advisee into hot water, is the lawyer liable? Not our station. We raise it just as a consideration and concern.

The real problem with sampling is not whether to do it, but how to do it. It depends, of course, on the question. For example, if your dinner partner tells you about a problem he’s having with a neighbor, instead of giving advice, you can say that the problem is really more complex than that, or that it’s not your specialty. A tax partner — a former client — used to complain about people asking him for audit advice. You have to have more information to be able to give a valid answer. You might say, “Hmm … you really need a lawyer. Here’s my card. Why don’t you call my office on Monday and we’ll set up an appointment.” No matter your reasons for wanting to answer, if you don’t want to be rude, the operative word is noncommittal.

If you see the questioner as a prospective client, rather than giving advice, ask questions designed to both elicit information and to demonstrate your understanding of the prospect’s need for legal advice. Listen just long enough to be able to demonstrate that you understand the prospect’s problem, to the point where you can say, “We can help you with that. Let’s get together on Monday and discuss it.” Remember, in all selling situation there should be a lot of “you” and less of “we.” Remember, a casual discussion that doesn’t take place in your office or the prospect’s is not an office visit. And always think of two things — the potential risk in giving legal advice to a non-client, and your firm’s objectives, which should always be kept in mind in any selling situation. It’s the difference between merely getting a client and building a practice.

In answering technical legal questions, the trick is to be spare, but jut enough to demonstrate expertise.

Part of the problem is that it’s as inappropriate for someone to solicit gratuitous advice as for you to ask a doctor for medical advice at a social gathering.

Is free advice (assuming a qualified source) worth more than the price of it? Of course. You don’t pay for this blog, do you?

Now for the other question – is it a good marketing tool?

Yes, I think, if it’s a gateway to advice that’s really valuable. If it helps people understand why they really do need a professional — a lawyer — to address the problem in question. If it’s not superficial, and the problem itself isn’t trivial. If it helps define the magnitude of the problem, and to explain why further consultation is necessary (or maybe not necessary, which is also a service). And if it demonstrates both your skill and your trustworthiness. But here, less is more.

This implies, as well, that care is taken not to trivialize serious questions and problems by giving superficial answers.

It should also be realized that one simple action like this doesn’t a marketing program make. It may get clients, but it doesn’t shape a practice that conforms to the objectives that might be the vision of the partnership. It may get clients that are ephemeral, and give the firm a false security in numbers.

Building a sustaining and satisfying practice, on the other hand, requires a different kind of planning. And planning, for the professional firm of the next decade, begins not with the professional, but with the market.

And so the validity of a program of a free half hour depends upon what you want for the firm. If you want to get clients, this may get clients. If you want to build a practice, make sure the kind of clientele you get from this kind of activity builds the kind of practice you want. Getting clients isn’t always the same thing as building a sustaining and satisfying practice.

Either way, do it with your eyes open — knowing why you’re doing it and what you mean to get out of it.

Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (, the author of PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group, 2011, and the co-author of CLIENT AT THE CORE (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) His e-mail address is © 2011 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.


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