Modern Law Ain’t Modern Art

Technology freed art to transcend itself.  After photography took on the job of realistic imagery, art was free to explore new forms of expression.  New ways of visualizing things.  New things to visualize.  Using technique or color or shape to fire the viewer’s neurons in new and unexpected ways.  Art evolved, for a time, to a place where art itself was no longer the point.  The greatest artist could be one who created no art, but only his persona.  As James Salter put it, “an artist freed from the demands of craft, an artist of concepts, generosity; his work is the creation of the legend of himself.  So long as he is provided with even a single follower he can believe in the sanctity of his design.”

A fair number of lawyers seem to think the same way about the law — that the technology of the internet has allowed us to transcend experience and craft, and create a superior facsimile online.  Success comes not from hard work done well, but from connecting with people online.  Reputation comes not from the results earned for one’s clients, but from the number of Twitter followers one has.  Praise yourself online often enough, and get enough other similar artistes to praise you, and you too can be great.

Just so you know, it doesn’t work that way.  Other lawyers aren’t going to refer their next big codefendant to you based on your Klout score, but on whether you’ve got the real-life skills and experience to do the job well.  Clients who retained you based on your self-puffery aren’t going to recommend you to others once they find out (and they will) that you were out of your league.  Lawyer referrals and client references are the two biggest sources of new business you’ll ever have.  If you’re investing all your time on building a killer online presence and maximizing your social media, you might want to reconsider.  A better investment of your time would be gaining some real-life experience.

That’s not as much of a Catch-22 as it sounds.  How are you going to get experience without first getting clients?  The preferred method is to work for someone for a while, first.  Get hired as an associate in a real law firm that already has real clients.  Work for them, get a lot of experience, and tada.  If you are going it alone (a fine decision if done right), you can still get experience by offering your services “of counsel” to other lawyers, or getting on an indigent panel, or getting on your bar association’s referral panel.  Helping out other lawyers is great, because you’ll get exposure to a lot of different kinds of clients and cases, and you’ll have an experienced lawyer to learn from.  Not just the nuts and bolts of the representation, but also the ins and outs of practicing law.  “Of counsel” work doesn’t pay as much as market rates — the lawyer who hired you is probably not going to pay you the same rate he’s billing you out at — but it can certainly pay the bills.  A lower fee for greater experience is a great trade.

And that’s not to say that an online presence isn’t important.  The kinds of clients who used to look to the Yellow Pages for a lawyer (rarely the kind that pay well, of course) are now going to the net to find representation.  Referring lawyers and existing clients will check your site to reassure themselves about you.  But what’s important about your online presence is not that you have one, or how many followers you have, or how many like-minded people commented on your last blog post.  What’s important about your online presence is not quantity, but quality.  If you’re going to write something, make it good.

If you write a blog, it’s definitely going to be at least skimmed by a referring lawyer, to see whether you know what you’re talking about.  Self-congratulation, canned language and other content free of legal thought is actually going to hurt you.  If what you write resonates with potential clients who actually read law blogs (most people don’t, by the way), it might inspire one or two to call you.

Your online presence is important, but it’s nowhere near as important as real-life work for real-life clients.  Your work is not “creating the legend of yourself,” but earning — earning — a reputation as a lawyer clients can trust to do the job right and protect them well.

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