Thought Leadership for Lawyers: Yes, You Should Give Away Your Best Ideas for Free

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...one of the best ways to generate new business opportunities is to share your best ideas for free.

The purpose of creating thought-leadership content is to provide answers, make sense of complex information, and chart a future course for a reader, viewer, or listener. By consistently generating high-quality content, and publishing it to the right audiences, a lawyer will generate awareness, build trust, and develop new business opportunities.

Many lawyers don’t realize these benefits, however, because they’re concerned about giving their ideas away. When they do create thought-leadership content, they hold back. Their concerns are rooted in a belief that their insights will be used, independently, by a prospective client or a competitor, and thus their efforts will not be remunerative. This belief is understandable, but mistaken.

In most cases, prospective clients aren’t searching for solutions to complex legal challenges in order to implement a solution themselves. They’re seeking clarity in order to assess what they’re faced with, and identify the right expert to help guide them forward.

A lawyer’s stock-in-trade is providing knowledge in exchange for a fee. It may seem counterintuitive, but the one of the best ways to generate new business opportunities is to share your best ideas for free.

Thought-Leadership Content is Your Proxy

A very small number of the world’s greatest chefs, such as Grant Achatz who runs Chicago’s famed Alinea restaurant, can offer a single, unalterable tasting menu for an astronomical price and pack the house. For the top chefs, their reputations precede them. They’ve earned such high levels of trust that people will accept what they’re serving, and pay handsomely for it, sight unseen. For the other 99.9% of restaurateurs out there, offering a menu of options, with explanations of ingredients and cooking techniques, is required to attract customers. People want to know what they’re getting.

The same principles apply when marketing and selling legal counsel, as well as every other category of product or service. Those at the top, with long track records of success in delivering high-quality outcomes for customers and clients, have rabid fans who will buy whatever is on offer. People camp out in front of Apple stores before new product releases. John Grisham’s new books always hit the New York Times bestseller list. Fortune 500 companies turn to McKinsey when it really matters. Skadden’s legendary Joe Flom was reportedly put on retainer by clients for the express purpose of ensuring that he and his team could not oppose them.

Few lawyers, however, have such market power. Except for those at the top echelons, who have fought hard for their sterling reputations over many years, more is required—more and better thought-leadership content.

...buyers are doing their due diligence in digital domains.

The importance of thought-leadership content for marketing legal services is underscored by changes in the ways consumers are searching for and evaluating lawyers. More than ever, buyers are doing their due diligence in digital domains.

According to Gartner research, buyers of sophisticated professional services get 57% of the way through a buying decision before inviting a service provider into the conversation. They go online, evaluate and winnow down their options, and make decisions based on signals of expertise amid the noise. As a result, lawyers are often unaware they are even under consideration for new engagements.

These trends, of course, are only accelerating as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. More assessments are being made well before a lawyer gets the opportunity to “win it in the room” (increasingly, a Zoom Meeting room). You may be great in the room, but to get there in the first place you must make a really strong impression in the digital marketplace of ideas.

Your website or LinkedIn bio is not enough—not nearly enough—to make you visible to prospective clients online. Thought-leadership content is what speaks for you when you can’t be there to speak for yourself. It serves as your proxy, providing others the opportunity to assess your ability to help them overcome their legal challenges. You need to be visible, from Google to social media to relevant niche platforms, where your audience is searching for answers.

In today’s world, your content, spread across the expanse of the Internet, serves as a digital breadcrumb trail for those you hope to serve. Ideally, your online body of work will provoke interest in what you have to say, build trust in your ability to address specific problems, and lead your audience to conclude that you’re the right expert for the job. By helping others to envision the solution, you will be well positioned for the engagement to guide them forward.

Put it All on the Table

Unless you’ve already established a top reputation, you can’t hold back in your thought-leadership content if you hope to make an impact. Merely offering a taste won’t satisfy your audience when there are others serving up a full meal. You need to put it all—the issue, the analysis, and the solution—on the table. Prospective clients won’t trust that the solution is within reach, nor that you’re the right person to help them achieve their desired outcome, unless you address what they really want to know.

If you’re feeling resistance because you’re afraid you’re divulging too much of the answer, that means you’re likely on the right track. Keep in mind that at least some of your competitors, who may also be feeling the same resistance, will push forward in spite of it. As a result, their thought-leadership content, and therefore themselves, will generate more awareness and engender more trust.

To get in the right mindset when you sit down to write or record content, envision that you’re sitting down for lunch with a prospective client. This client is representative of your “ideal client”—a decision maker at a company in an industry you specialize in serving. You’ve worked with similar clients in the past, seen similar situations to the one the client is facing, and thus you’re more capable of issue spotting and pattern matching than many other lawyers who lack your specific experience. To impress the client, and secure an engagement, you’ll need to provide an “aha” moment to distinguish yourself and make your expertise seem less interchangeable from that of other lawyers.

As we previously discussed, fewer meetings of this variety will be happening over lunch in the future. In fact, they will increasingly be happening asynchronously through digital channels. As a lawyer, you must say your piece through the content you create. Prospective clients will then decide when and how to engage in the conversation you started, on their terms and on their timetables.

The odds are that you wouldn’t tell a client over lunch that you have the solution to their problem, but that you will only reveal the solution once you’ve been hired. Accordingly, if you want to generate a return on investment from your time spent creating thought-leadership content, don’t hold back. Thought-leadership marketing is not a game of “three-card Monte.” It should be an open and transparent process that helps clarify solutions and positions you as a trusted advisor. By consistently showing up in front of your target audience and generously sharing your thought leadership, you’ll be rewarded.

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Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading digital marketing agency for law, consulting, and accounting firms. He specializes in helping law firms build engaging websites and digital marketing strategies through creative design and storytelling. Jay is author of the recently released book The Essential Associate: Step Up, Stand Out, and Rise to the Top as a Young Lawyer. In 2016, his first book, One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice, was published. Jay is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, and previously he was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner.

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