The Impossible Task of Marketing a Criminal Law Firm.
Over the weekend I went to the Whitewater micro brewery in Beachburg, Ontario. While enjoying some fine ale with friends, I was impressed with the velocity in popularity that this small company possessed. After a few “Farmer’s Daughter” pints, I started thinking of my own company and practice and wondered why despite our endless efforts, we are still not able to grow our brand to the magnitude or recognition that this small company has done in a matter of months. From a marketer’s viewpoint, we have done it all: having our clients acquitted in everything from theft to first-degree murder (Results), obtaining special accreditations, further education (Quality), being an active member of the criminal bar (Participation and Networking), treating our clients very well (Customer Appreciation), and having a strong social medial presence and marketing strategies (Active Marketing).
It has taken me all this time to reach a point where I have a couple of associates and a small support staff, while businesses like Whitewater had at least a half dozen people running around serving as many drinks as they could pour and sending out as many kegs to bars they can make. Then I had a blonde ale epiphany: there is virtually nothing harder to market then the services of a criminal defence lawyer. We are every marketers worst nightmare. Why?
We are the product that no one wants.
We are not cheeseburgers, beer, sunny vacations, flatscreen TVs, or the latest animated movie. For that matter, we aren’t even kale salad, shampoo, public transit, or the latest romantic comedy. We are the product that no one wants and very few in society need. Those that do need us, have little appreciation of that. Even with toilet paper, you need to buy it but you understand why its necessary. Generally speaking, products are tangible and immediate. You walk out of a store with something in your hand when you exchange money. Even for those intangible things, like booking flights or going to a museum, there is something to look forward to or an experience to savour. All we can offer is a hope that things don’t turn more disastrous for the customer. We are the last thing that people want to pay for, which is offset only by the suffering we may be able to stop. Which brings me to the next point.
The cost-benefit analysis of making a purchase is often asking what is worse: pay money or go to jail.
It is a strange purchase indeed, when one is assessing whether to buy a product, or simply go to jail. That is often the cost-benefit analysis our potential clients go through in their mind. Sometimes it is not a matter of choice as many people cannot afford legal services. It is nonetheless an assessment some who can afford a lawyer make when deciding on whether they wish to retain a lawyer and before they pay money for a product that cannot even guarantee you than in many instances: what is better, going to jail or paying these fees? I would imagine that this sort of decision flow-chart would be difficult for any marketer to execute.
An over abundance of defence lawyers and limited supply of crime.
Ask any lawyer what drove them to get into law school, and rarely will you hear dreams of corporate mergers, contracts, real estate transactions, or drafting wills. Many will answer with the intent of litigating in a courtroom and fighting for rights and other ideals is what set the wheels in motion. As a result, many come out of law school wishing to become defence lawyers because it is the sort of material that television shows are made of. In truth, it is very exciting and still drives many of us today despite the challenges we face. However, this also means that there are far to many defence lawyers for a very small amount of prosecuted criminality.
Criminal law is also a very easy, inexpensive, and quick way to practice law. Unlike other areas that need large amount of overhead or special business relationships, a criminal lawyer could literally practice out of their car and coffee shops as the majority of their time is spent in court. This reality of practicing criminal law attracts the best and worst of lawyers. The spectrum of competence in criminal law is profound and yet difficult for clients to recognize. If someone says they know how to do a murder case competently, how would someone in custody know one way or another? Conversely, trying to do a merger of two major corporations cannot be done at the local diner or courthouse. This over-abundance of lawyers makes criminal law a highly competitive market with an under supply of clientele.
Lack of understanding of our service.
It’s a difficult task to sell a product that no one understands. Very few people, even other lawyers, have a true appreciation of what we do as criminal defence counsel. I can’t tell you the amount of times a potential client has told me that someone told them they don’t need a lawyer for whatever it is they are charged with. Invariably, this “advice” comes from someone who either 1) has no idea what they are talking about and perhaps is motivated by the accused not spending money, or 2) is an interested parties in the outcome – like a police officer who is releasing them from the scene. Often, the person who is giving advice on the “need” has a very limited understanding of the legal predicament the accused person is in. They often also have very little appreciation of the effects a conviction (sentence aside) will have upon that individual’s life and their specific circumstances.
Defence lawyers do much more than aggressively cross-examine people into tears. In fact, this is a very small part of our practice, if ever. A large part of our work includes:
- Amending restrictive bail conditions;
- Ensuring that people are released from custody while they await trial;
- Negotiating better positions on sentence or complete withdraws;
- Ensuring that people have a complete understanding of the process and what happens along the way;
- Reduction of fear and the unknown;
- Providing advice on ramifications that convictions will have upon employment or immigration;
- Researching and discovering obscure legal issues that would be impossible to know without proper training and experience that may determine the outcome of a case;
- Counselling clients and act as a sounding board through a very difficult time;
- Investigating and gathering evidence;
- Ensuring that compromises are not made unnecessarily and that the State is held to the highest burden to prove allegations against an individual;
…and of course, cross-examining people to tears.
It’s an expensive product to sell when many accused people are of limited means.
A lot of crime, particularly those driven by drug abuse, are a product of poverty. Many people charged with crime do not have the means to hire a criminal defence lawyer even if they wanted to. This is frustrated further by anemic legal aid systems that very few governments have any interest in supplementing further. As moderate as lawyers may offer their legal services, some of the individuals we are effectively “marketing” to, do not have enough money to go out to lunch, let along purchase a defence.
A poorly delivered service is easy to spot in plastic surgery, not so in criminal law.
As mentioned, very few people have an understanding of what we do. They also have very little appreciation of the differences in lawyers. Everyone knows why it’s better to get plastic surgery in New York over Tijuana, but that valuation is not so widely known in criminal justice. This is even more so in understanding whether the end product (like an acquittal, plea bargain, or withdraw) is a good value for the amount paid. Many have the (erroneous) view that the result would have been the same without the assistance of the lawyer. Many feel that regardless of the efforts of the lawyer, the result would have been the same despite the opposite being true. We face the impossible expectation of clients: “I was found not-guilty because I was innocent, the lawyer did nothing” or “I was found guilty, the lawyer did nothing”. Either way, we have an unhappy customer who has paid for navigating the pain of the criminal justice system.
On sentencing issues, very few have an understanding of what an appropriate or lenient sentence is. If I were to say: you will receive “a conditional discharge with no conviction” for threatening your spouse, some might think that is a good deal. However, I might say it isn’t. It is only the experienced lawyer who really knows whether this is true or not – the client has no reference point. If a doctor messes up your face in plastic surgery, everyone knows; a criminal lawyer on the other hand might move mountains and perform a miracle of litigation resulting in an acquittal only to get a “meh” from the client. How does one market something that has an immeasurable value to the customer?
People don’t like to talk about their criminal charges, and therefore are very unlikely to refer anyone.
This conversation is easy to imagine: “Hey John, I just had a great beer from Whitewater Brewery. You have to try it.” Now compare that to the likelihood of this conversation: “Hey John, I was just charged with sexually assaulting someone on the bus. My lawyer was great and got me off. You should call him if you are ever charged…” People do not refer us because we are a product that people don’t want to talk about and never want to think about again once its over. We are everyone’s dirty little secret. I can’t tell you how many people have told me “I hope I never see you again” as they leave my office.
The best product we can deliver is a terrible experience…imagine that as a travel agent.
The best product we can deliver is awful. At best, its months of anxiety, significant legal fees, and an acquittal or withdraw. The best case scenario is still much worse that where the client started. The only thing we can offset this by is the comparison of how much worse it can get (jail, more fees, criminal record, etc.) Our clients do not walk out with bags of groceries, new technology, jovial spirits, or a positive outlook on life; no, we offer no more than the status quo of a person’s life before being charged sprinkled with legal costs. Our best product is most persons’ worst nightmare.