In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Joan Feldman, co-founder and editor-in-chief at Attorney at Work.
Attorney at Work is an online publication and website for lawyers who want to improve the business and marketing side of their practice. It celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2021, has been listed in ABA Journal’s Blawg Hall of Fame.
Joan is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. She has worked in legal publishing since graduating from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism more than 30 years ago — including as managing editor of the ABA Law Practice magazine for a dozen years.
Gina: I’d be remiss if I didn’t publicly thank Joan and Attorney at Work for being the publisher of my book, Everyday Public Relations for Lawyers, Second Edition. It’s not every day that an author gets to interview her publisher.
What is Attorney at Work and what kind of information do you share?
Attorney at Work is a website and online publication that focuses on helping lawyers build a practice and a life they love. It contains tech tips, marketing and business development advice, the basics of running a law firm, and health and wellness. We were founded by my partner and husband Mark Feldman, Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, and me. We started it about 10 years ago coming out of the big recession because we saw a need for more information that would help small law firms, recent graduates, and solo practitioners build better businesses and learn better business practices, especially how to generate new clients and business. That said, we cover all aspects of practice management from billing to tech. And we have, over the past 10 years, grown close to 200 contributors, including some regular columnists and a few staff writers. We look for experts in whatever that niche would be that can help lawyers learn how to do better in building their practices.
Gina: What’s interesting as a lawyer, communicator, and author, that I find true about lawyers for the most part, is that we don’t have business degrees. Few got MBAs or went to business school. It was more of criminal justice or pre-law or history. One of the things I love about Attorney at Work is it delves into the business of law, which has business development, attorney-client retention and acquisition, and many other topics. Attorney at Work has a wealth of information to help lawyers and legal professionals to navigate the business of law.
What are some of the trends you’re seeing in law firm and legal technology?
Work from home and remote working is a trend that we all saw over the past year that has accelerated cloud computing, which now is a must have. We’ve seen several of the practice management software and billing software people pivot hard to being on the cloud. Also, cybersecurity has always been a big topic, but this past year saw some crazy things.
Lawyers are becoming much savvier about digital marketing. There are some very sophisticated lawyers out there that work with firms on their SEO, their Google My Business accounts, and their thought leadership. We’ve still got people who are learning the basics, so we provide information on that, but it’s a very sophisticated space now.
What topics are you hoping to receive more of this year? What would you like to see contributors writing about? What do you think would be useful to your readers?
I am fascinated by what’s been happening with the space around new business models, whether it’s offering subscription services or moving out to the farm or to a desert Island to run your law practice. There are a lot of women who are doing some amazing things, so advice people can offer on how to set up those business models and what their personal experience has been is a valuable contribution. We always like the “How to: format and practical tips.” Here’s how I did it. Here’s what you can learn from that.
It’s also important to share the mistakes they made along the way. One of our all-time popular articles is an article on 17 things I Wish I Knew as a New Associate by our friend, Jay Harrington. Those types of articles are helpful and they’re a lot of fun.
Gina: There are a few writers like Julie Savarino and Ari Kaplan who provide those prolific, “How to” articles that are well thought out. To anyone interested in writing for Attorney at Work, look at some of those authors, as well as Joan’s articles.
Is it challenging to write and edit for your own publication?
Yes, it is tough writing; it is not as easy as it looks. I’m still in awe of regular contributors who send me great content every month such as Jay Harrington, Sally Schmidt, and Teddy Snyder, each of whom I’ve known forever. And Sally Schmidt is the first president of the Legal Marketing Association.
Gina: Sally is somebody that I look up to greatly and someone who’s an inspiration to me and my legal marketing career. These all are people to emulate. And to understand one of the things I like to tell lawyers is, I’m a member of both the American Bar Association and the Legal Marketing Association. I explain to lawyers that understanding the business of law is different than practicing law. There are great, smart professionals out there, like the ones who write and contribute to Attorney at Work regularly who understand the business. Some may not know how to parse out admissible evidence or cross examine someone, but they know how to run these law firms like companies. That’s something that has changed in my 30 years in the industry. I’m a third-generation lawyer in my family. I can tell you the war stories of talking my dad into getting a fax machine.
Joan: It seems like we’ve gone full circle too, from the 80’s when it was, “Should lawyers type?” “We don’t want to type,” to “You shouldn’t type everything.”
Gina: It’s fascinating when you have been in this industry for so long. A lot of times I tell people who are not in the legal industry, especially in any form of communications like between you and I, that this industry is very different. There are many idiosyncrasies about it, and you must understand those idiosyncrasies to communicate about them.
Joan: You do. And that’s something to remember when you’re pitching articles, especially if you’re working with a public relations agency or content marketing. I can spot an article that’s written by somebody who does not understand the legal profession in about 30 seconds. If you’re working with a communications person who doesn’t have experience in the legal industry, you’d better be very involved in looking over their shoulder and making sure the content they’re putting out there works in the legal industry.
Gina: That has been a pet peeve of mine since day one because there is a disservice being done to law firms and, in particular, solos and small firms who don’t have sophisticated legal marketing departments. They are dealing with content writers and people who are writing blogs that are written like a fifth grader. I respect where you’re coming from with that.
Joan: That goes to pitching trade publications in any industry that you want to be a thought leader in. You should know that industry before you stick your marketing people on pitching.
What tips do you have for anyone who is looking to become a published author with Attorney at Work?
The biggest one is do your homework. You must read what’s being published in those publications or on those blogs, read the writing guidelines, try to have a conversation about what that publication is looking for. I like a pitch by someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to flatter me or convince me how much they’ve read my site, which they always seem to disprove by the stuff they say. Tell me what you’ve looked at on my site and you think these three ideas would fit in or would complement what we’ve already published so that I can come back to you and we can have a conversation about what you might add to that idea or combine ideas. Then, always include why you’re the best person to write that article or what your credentials are. Start with how you can help me. I’m in the business of helping you publish your work on a platform for thought leaders. I want you to look good so that you can be successful, and it’ll make us look good so that we could be more successful together.
What types of pitches do you get that you end up ignoring and why?
Well, the subject lines that say, “I need to be on your site,” or “I will pay you $25 for a link,” or “This is part of a mailing list. Don’t send pitches in a MailChimp. But seriously, the competition for editor’s attention is intense and it’s not just PR agencies or in-house marketers, it’s SEO agencies, content marketing agencies, and a lot of “spammy” players who are just looking to get back links on credible websites. So be yourself, be authentic, do your homework. And it’s okay to follow up many times if you’re offering credible information. If you’re a spammer, leave me alone.
Gina: Our new chief innovation officer, Leslie Richards, came from a digital marketing agency. And one of her observations is that she appreciates working with Furia Rubel on the content side because we don’t try to publish content for the sake of publishing content. There’s always a strategy, an objective, and a specific audience as opposed to SEO for SEO sake. And that’s the challenge between digital agencies. I’m not putting down digital agencies by any means, but it’s the difference between a digital agency writing copy, versus working with a PR agency to write valuable, timely, relevant content of import to a particular audience. I share that for anybody who is looking to pitch any publication, you must have some knowledge. I will tell you before I pitched the book, I went through your site with a fine-tooth comb, and every book you wrote and, fortunately, I had been quoted in some of the books that you had already published. I brought that to your attention so that there was some legitimacy, so people didn’t need to ask, “Who’s this person coming to me to write a book?”
What are some of your pet peeves when it comes to media relations?
Don’t lie to me. You would be amazed at the number of pitches I get from digital marketers, content marketers, who pretend that they work for the law firm or that they are the lawyer. It becomes kind of a game to track these people down because you’ll find sketchy LinkedIn bios, and you’re wondering, why are you lying to me? I respect good digital marketers. I respect content marketers. If you’re representing a lawyer, explain to me why we could work together. If it doesn’t work out, fine, but maybe we’ll do something great together on another project. But if you lie to me, I’m done. I’ve killed articles after spending a lot of time on them when I found out that people have lied to me.
I called a lawyer and asked him about his article, and he had no idea that the marketing agency he had hired was putting content out there, trying to get back links. I’ve had that happen with marketing agencies who didn’t know that their SEO marketers were, for example, scraping our content and putting it on their website. You must pay attention to who you’re hiring and the digital marketing space for our listeners.
How important is it to have relationships with people in law firms and marketing departments in PR agencies?
It’s very important. One of the things I love is finding new voices and new authors and grooming them. That’s an editor’s dream. I will pay attention to new people I don’t know, but it’s a lot more work and I do rely on the PR agency relationships and people I know in the industry, for example, members of the College of Law Practice Management and the ABA Law Practice Division who I’ve worked with for years.
What’s one thing writers should know about working with you and Attorney at Work?
We take making you look good very seriously. That means you will be edited. We run ourselves like a professional publication versus a blog. Sometimes people will get frustrated with me and rightly so, because they don’t get published soon enough, but we have a process. You aren’t going to submit your article and have it published the next week, unless you’re on my regular content schedule.
Gina: As someone who has written for you in the past quite a few times, I welcome feedback. You have said, “I understand where you’re trying to go with this, but perhaps can you look at it this way?” We don’t always know what we cannot see because we are so close to our own work. And there are a lot of publications that don’t do that. I don’t want to write for publications that don’t provide useful feedback.
Joan: And at least run the Grammarly checker. I would never publish without an editor. It’s old school to people, but I think we are reverting to a place where people appreciate it.
Gina: We have a freelancer who is working about 20 hours a week for us just doing proofreading and editing. I know that we live in this citizen journalism world where typos are okay, but they aren’t okay for me. I’m still frustrated with Twitter because sometimes I type too fast on my phone and it does not allow you to edit posts, so instead, you must delete them and start over or live with the typo.
What were some of the topics during 2020 that you enjoyed getting and reading from your contributors?
In the beginning of the pandemic, I enjoyed learning about the new ways people were dealing with it from the Zoom background, which was a funny article about working with Sharon Nelson and John Simek on the Zoom security issues. And people were moving so fast to be able to help people say, “Wait a minute, think about this. Think about the technology you are sending your lawyers home with and whether their Wi-Fi connection is safe, and that all those ethics rules still are enforced.” It seems like the pandemic topics overwhelmed everything.
The irony was that we all believed that by the fall, we’d be moving past the pandemic. Here we are a year later, and we’re still in the same place. The issues are all still with us, but we must move past them and live our lives.
Gina: We do. And one of the things I want to encourage our listeners to do is go to AttorneyAtWork.com and look at the drop downs in each of the areas that have information. There is: wellbeing working from home, personal branding, career ladders, practice skills, business development, rainmaking. There are different topics in the practice of law and the business of law that you write about, as well as all the different types of technology.
Joan: We do a fun column every month where we reach out to the practice management advisors of the state bar associations and ask them to give us their tips on a particular topic. This month, it’s going to be productivity tips. Our readers will get a lot of advice from different voices.
Gina: That’s great. And those topics, the way you have them organized, is so helpful. If you’re a solo law firm or a small law firm, there are information buckets specific to what you need to learn and read. I suggest to our listeners that they check that out.
Do you have any books that you would like to share with us?
I keep Scott Galloway’s The Algebra of Happiness on my bedside. He’s a wicked smart guy and a professor at NYU Stern School of Business and he does a podcast with Recode’s Kara Swisher called Pivot. It is excellent. If you are interested in the technology world of business and the ethics of what is happening in social media, it is a great podcast, and they are funny and smart.
Gina: This is exactly why I like to ask that question because I had not heard of this book, but now, I’ll remember it. I’ll put it on my list along with the podcast.
Do you have any questions for me?
I’m curious from you how the public relations communications field has changed over the past year (indicating 2020 during the pandemic)?
Gina: That’s a big giant question with a simple answer. We went from tons of proactive communications to all reactive crisis communications. And we started out in January of 2020 with a client that had offices in the Pacific Northwest where the pandemic hit the U.S. first and early. We were closing offices before there were state mandates. We had an entire year of doing crisis communications. Once most industries and most corporate executives got a handle on working from home, PPP loans, and all the different things that had to be communicated about started to level a bit around May, and then the civil unrest in the United States hit. That became a whole other level of crisis communication. We had offices in the wake of riots in various cities from Minneapolis and Philadelphia and throughout the country. I was calling managing partners, making sure they were okay.
It was a difficult year from the emotional side of things. And what is interesting is as a crisis communications and PR agency, we were going through those same crises as our clients. I equate it to being a mother and everybody in your household having the flu at the same time; you still must take care of everyone else. I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to do that and to be there for our clients. I will say that our skins are thicker, and our hair is grayer. But we’ve come out of it and we are looking towards the future, working with our clients to become more proactive. Again, we were blessed to have some fantastic law firm clients that are very invested in the future of their business, in keeping their staff, and in having healthy cultures.
We’ve been very lucky to be able to be rather selective about the firms we work with because our cultures must mesh. The reason for that is that you must work with agencies where the culture is what you need it to be and vice versa. We come to it as strategists, as partners, and as advocates. And frankly, I do not tell clients what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to hear as do the members of the team. There are other agencies who will just do what their clients tell them to do. That does not work at our stage of business and the level of strategy clients expect from us. So, Furia Rubel is very selective and we are lucky that way. I adore our clients. I love what we do. They brought us in– I had managing partners calling me literally daily on my cell phone. “What do I do about this? Can you get on a call? This is urgent.” And it’s not terrible to be needed. Especially in these times. And we’ve all weathered the storm, I believe. We’re more prepared for any future storms. And I’m looking forward to getting back to more of the proactive in creative marketing and public relations. It’s fun, what we do, getting a young lawyer to tell their story or share their expertise in a way that’s different than in a courtroom or behind a desk.
It was a different year, and I’m looking forward to a very positive future for our industry. The law firms that chose to pivot and be agile will survive.