This question came up in the Maximum Lawyer Facebook group the other day. If you're subscribed to our weekly tips, you'll recognize the story. I've been dwelling on it, so I figured I write a bit more here.
I see this question all of the time. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of lousy law firm SEO and PPC work going around. But it's not all agencies (more on that later). I won't rehash all of my thoughts about how to hire a law firm SEO company, but I wanted to pick at the issue of getting referrals and recommendations.
First, let me clearly state, that asking people you know, like, and trust for referrals is a good starting point. Assuming, of course, the person doesn't have any incentive to make the referral.
WARNING: I know lawyers who get paid to make referrals to internet marketing companies and they don't disclose.
But still, asking other people for recommendations is generally a good way to begin the selection process. However, who you ask matters. So, here are a few suggestions:
Don't ask competitors. I don't care how long you've known them, their interests aren't aligned with your interests.
Ask other lawyers. SEO and PPC for law firms is different from other verticals. Sure, there are some overlapping principles, but if you're looking to maximize the chances of hiring an expert, look at folks with experience in legal.
Ask lawyers as similarly situated as you. If you're a personal injury lawyer in Chicago, a referral from a divorce lawyer in Monowi, Nebraska probably shouldn't carry a lot of weight. Get referrals from lawyers who have practices similar to yours in geographic locations similar to yours, at least with respect to population (but internet sophistication too).
Ask whether they have any incentive to make the referral. Are they participating in a referral program with their current SEO / PPC agency? If they are and they fail to tell you, FTC time.
Ask specifically what services they are being provided. Just because the company built them a website doesn't mean that company will do a great job leading SEO and managing PPC campaigns for your law firm.
Ask them specifically why they're making the referral. General statements like, "We've been happy with them," really don't help. Ask them about specific business metrics that have improved (i.e. grew qualified potential clients by X% from organic search).
But even if you're exceptionally careful about how you solicit referrals and recommendations, you really ought to view them with some skepticism. In my experience, they tend not to be be very reliable. Even when the referrer has the best intentions, a lot of times, they're making the referral because they "like" the people at the company. Or they've "been with them a long time." Those aren't really strong indicators of performance.
Focus on business metric forecasts. Most agencies will push back against this. That's because it's hard. Especially with respect to SEO. Nonetheless, if they're not willing to have a conversation about meaningful business metrics for your firm, they're probably not worth considering.
Demand transparency. If anyone claims proprietary this or that, game over. At a minimum, you should own your accounts, data, content, and content management system (just use WordPress). Further, you should demand full transparency and approval of everything they intend to do on your behalf. And you should get that in writing. If you pay them, and they do something that violates your Rules of Professional Conduct, you could be on the hook. Again, if they're hiding something during the discovery phase, don't waste your time. You're going to get taken advantage of.
Read the agreement. Yes, this needs to be said. In over 10 years of doing this, I can't count the number of lawyers who contact us that didn't understand what was in their current providers agreement. Pay particular attention to terms around length, termination, and ownership. Those are the places they'll get you.
I also wanted to take a moment to discuss the tangentially related topic of choosing between DIY, hiring in-house, and working with law firm SEO / PPC agencies.
Let's first acknowledge my bias. I am the founder of a Digital Legal Marketing agency. That should make you extremely suspicious and skeptical about any advice I give on this topic. So, take it or leave it.
With that out of the way, here are a few thoughts.
First, I have absolutely no clue whether you should do SEO and PPC yourself. I can tell you that in competitive practice areas and locations, if your objective is command a leading share of voice, it's extremely unlikely that you'll have success on your own. In fact, if you're a brave lawyer who has been doing it themselves and is willing to share, feel free to message me or respond in the comments. I think everyone would benefit from hearing from you.
Second, unless you're willing to really invest some time and money in learning how this stuff works, don't waste your time pretending. It's not as easy as, "create great content," and "open a Google Ads account." That's what Google would love for you to believe. Remember, they don't care whether you get a return on ad spend. They only care about getting more clicks.
Third, with respect to hiring in-house, again, I have no clue what's right for you. However, if your client development plan includes a significant contribution from the internet, you should strongly consider it. In my view, the hard part of hiring in-house is finding "t-shaped" enough folks with experience in digital legal marketing. Sure, there a tons of digital marketers. And yes, there seems to be no shortage of legal marketers. But true digital legal marketers with "t-shaped" experience that they can demonstrate to you? That's pretty rare. Nonetheless, our most successful clients tend to have someone internal dedicated to marketing. Sometimes that's a lawyer. Sometimes it's a dedicated marketing person. But someone inside the firm should hold some accountability.
Finally, the agency conversation. Again, I'm biased. Again, I have no idea what's right for you. But the issue with agencies is less about "agencies as a concept," and more about who can you trust? Ironically, that same issue exists with respect to how you learn (DIY) and who you hire (in-house). But I digress.
The good news is that most agencies should be willing to at least explore whether or not they're a good fit without charging you anything. The other good news is that there are plenty of lawyers having success without investing in an agency, hiring a digital marketer, or really even doing much on their own. You really don't need the internet to be successful (but it sure can help).
In my experience, the true benefits of working with agencies relate to diversity of skills and talent, and cost. Yes, on a skill to skill basis, agencies tend to be less expensive than in-house resources. In fact, of the law firms I know that have built in-house teams with skills comparable to what we offer at our agency, they're paying around ten times in salaries than they would be if they worked with a modestly priced agency. And here's the thing, a lot of firms with in-house teams still hire us because they want the most cutting-edge strategies and tactics. Admittedly, they do more of the basic blocking and tackling execution in-house.
Alright, that's all I've got for now. Hopefully this helps guide you down the path of making a more informed digital legal marketing decision. As always, if you have specific questions or feedback, feel free to comment below. Not comfortable asking publicly, feel free to contact me.
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