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After Referrals, It’s Recon Time: How Small Business Clients Scout Lawyers

By Katherine Hollar Barnard

Use the intel from a new Firesign survey to make the most of small business referrals.

businessman looking through binoculars to ressearch small business referrals

When small businesses need a lawyer, a new study shows the conventional wisdom is true: If confronting a new legal problem, 63% of small business owners will ask colleagues or friends for a referral, and another 31% will ask another lawyer.

It’s what happens next that merits attention.

According to a new survey by marketing agency Firesign, referrals may be the go-to way to find a lawyer, but a considerable amount of research happens afterward:

  • More than half of small business owners and leaders (54%) will search the lawyer’s name on Google or Bing; 44% will search the lawyer’s firm.
  • Nearly one-third will look for reviews of the lawyer on platforms like Avvo.
  • Social hygiene counts too: A not-insignificant amount, 18%, review the lawyer’s social media profiles.

Are you ready for this scrutiny?

Small Business Referrals, Big Opportunity

First, a quick primer on the legal needs of small business — a demographic that tends to be overlooked between consumers and corporate behemoths. These companies incur an average of 13 legal problems annually, according to research from Kingston University. Given that there are 33 million small businesses in the U.S., that yields 429 million potential legal matters every year.

According to the Kingston University report, common problems include:

  • Contracts – 37.5%
  • Tax – 22%
  • Employment –14.5 %
  • Intellectual property – 8.8%
  • Real estate – 7.5%
  • Regulation – 4.5%

Within these companies — whether startups, family businesses or generally closely held enterprises — legal issues have a more personal effect: 16% percent of respondents in the Kingston University survey said that legal problems led to stress-related illness. Another 5% said they felt ill physically, 4% had a mental health issue, and 20% felt any combination thereof.

Given these heightened personal stakes, it’s not surprising these clients don’t make moves on referrals alone; they seek confirmation of their prospective lawyers’ credibility and capability.

Getting Ready for Referrals

Again, referrals are the primary tool your small business clients will use to find you. In the Firesign survey, the next-highest response, “searching for the relevant subject matter,” was used by just 9%.

In post-referral due diligence, small business clients place the most trust in the lawyer biography (92%), followed by online reviews (83%) and law firm content (72%).

With this survey intel in mind, take these four steps to ensure you are positioned to make the most of your small business referrals.

1. Update Your Website Biography

This is your most trusted marketing piece and likely the most-frequented section of your website. This is where your prospects will turn to validate a referral: to see your experience, to see your style, to see if you can be trusted to handle an issue that threatens their livelihood and legacy. Is your biography current, authentic, relevant and focused?

2. Review Your Search Results

Your small business referrals are searching for you specifically, not “employment lawyer,” so this isn’t about competing for keywords. Your goal is to ensure that you make the right first impression on the first page of Google or Bing.

Start by searching for your name. Most likely, two of the top hits will be your lawyer biography and your LinkedIn page. The good news: This is high-ranking real estate that is completely within your control. If you’ve already updated your bio, turn your attention to LinkedIn, checking to make sure it too is current, authentic and relevant — and offers simple, prominent ways to get in touch with you.

Other frequent “page one” items can include rankings with organizations like Super Lawyers, reviews on Avvo and the like, and press coverage. If your top 10 results don’t paint a picture of professionalism and competence, consider a long-term online reputation management strategy.

3. Assess Your Reviews

If you’re new to ratings, focus your firepower on Avvo since it is purpose-built for the legal profession. Claim your profile, provide your photo and biography, and confirm your areas of practice. From there, start to build out your positive reviews; this Attorney at Work article provides helpful tips.

4. Consider Your Online Content

The Firesign survey showed that for small business prospects, the role of content shifts throughout their buying journey. Before a legal incident occurs, less than half, 37%, will browse law firm content. After, law firm content is cited as helpful by nearly double that amount.

This is such an important takeaway. Small business clients are not looking to law firm content to keep them updated on legal issues generally; they don’t have time for that. Instead, they are looking to it to help them with lawyer selection. To make the most of your referrals, start writing content meant to convert, not broadly educate — content that shows you’ve handled exactly this kind of problem before. While certainly every matter is different, this could include frequently asked questions, case studies, a breakdown of key steps, or “what to expect” articles.

For more information on how small business clients scout, select and engage with their lawyers and law firms, download Firesign’s report, “From Referrals to Recon: How Small Businesses Hire Lawyers,” here.

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Katherine Hollar Barnard Katherine Hollar Barnard

Katherine (Katie) Hollar Barnard is the managing partner of Firesign | Enlightened Legal Marketing, a marketing communications agency that focuses on law firms and legal services providers. A former Big Law CMO, she advises law firms and legal service providers on brand identity, marketing communications and more. Follow Katie on LinkedIn.

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