Curious? What does a banana have to do with solo practitioners building their practice?
Well, I had a similar reaction some years ago in a different context.
At the time, in addition to my NY law practice, I was editor of Trusts & Estates magazine, a well-known periodical with a storied history. When I took over the helm of T&E, the overwhelming readership was comprised of bank trust and investment officers. During my tenure, I more-than-doubled the readership to include more attorneys, as well as beefing the roster of CPAs, investment advisers, advanced life underwriters, and charitable giving specialists–all members of the so-called estate planning team.
At the time, it was evident that the trust officers were generally a staid group. With a few notable exceptions, they were uncomfortable with marketing their product, generally satisfied with referrals from other professionals, or walk-ins. Indeed, at conferences, many adopted the “Early to bed, early to rise” philosophy, not conducive to the back-and-forth of business-building.
During this period, I wrestled with the quandary, even publishing some pieces zeroing in on marketing, with little apparent effect. Following through, I scheduled lunch with Mel, an up-and-coming executive at a leading market research company, and brought up the subject. And bingo! “Funny you should ask,” he said. At the time, he was deeply involved in research viz. the banking industry, also serendipitously zeroing in on the trust department segment. The problem: When he queried consumers on who they would contact viz. setting up an estate plan or in dealing with estate or trust administration issues, the bank trust department came in last–by a big margin! And bingo, he brought up “Chiquita.” And I jumped in.
Mel’s theory: According to well-documented research at the time, when consumers buy bananas, most invariably they lean toward the Chiquita brand. Why? After all, with a nod to Gertrude Stein, “A banana is a banana, is a banana.” True. Nevertheless, United Brands cornered the banana market, utilizing all kinds of recognition techniques.
I immediately asked him, “Can you adapt your research findings for the T&E audience?” His response: “I thought you would never ask.” And so, “Is Trust Marketing Ready for Chiquita Banana?” was born. Over the next two months, we jointly worked on the manuscript.
All the while, I was mulling the T&E cover which would feature the article. Consulting with our art department, we came up with the idea of a four-color photo depicting a partially-peeled banana skin, with the Chiquita sticker displayed, facing out toward the reader. We then would stuff a dollar bill in side, part-way. The background would be stark-white with the title in a striking red under the T&E logo. Leaving nothing to chance, I called the corporate office of United Brands, then in Boston, explained the project and asked if they wanted to get involved. “You bet,” said the spokesman. A week later, I flew up to Boston for the photo shoot. (Beforehand, I had to obtain approval from the Secret Service to replicate a portion of the dollar bill. They said ok, pending a review of the final art–which they approved.) During the shoot, I had the privilege of meeting Eli Black, UB chairman, who heard about the project, and stopped by.
Bottom line, the cover was dynamic; more important, the message was loud-and-clear to the trust industry to get its act together. Upon publication, in addition to a score of great reviews, we received dozens of letters and 50-or-60 phone calls, one from a bank trust department. senior vice president in Beverly Hills, who wrote. “Thank you so much! You have pointed the way to the Promised Land.” Well, a good number of trust departments “got it,” with great results. Others just went about their merry way, some relying on blue-blood relationships, going back decades which, eventually, would dry up and–indeed–did. Still others proved the maxims, “Old habits die hard” or “You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make him drink”.
Interesting story, you say. But what does this have to do with the solo practice? In my view, in one way or another, everything! As noted previously–and even to this day–when consumers think of bananas, the Chiquita brand comes to mind for many.
Solo practitioners, in the quest for new business, want prospective clients to think of them in a similar way. “Yes, when I need a corporate attorney to help me set up my business, Joe Blow comes to mind.” Or we’ve come into some money via an inheritance. I’d like help in setting up our affairs in the best possible way, with tax consequences in mind.” Cousin Bruce said he was pleased with Sally Fuller in a similar situation. I’ll get in touch.” Or, “we’re being sued for copyright infringement, and the case will likely go to trial. I need an IP specialist with courtroom experience as well as IT know-how. There’s a lot of money involved. I need a specialist. What about John Smith? I recall he was interviewed in the business section of the local paper. Or, I need a Jack-of-all trades, a general practitioner who can help in a number of ways, personal and business. Who can I call on?
You got the picture! Like the trust officer passively keeping an eye out for walk-in business, don’t wait for the phone to ring. Be proactive. As I have mentioned in other posts, you won’t do much business sitting in the office. Get out there: Be active in your state and local bar association. Relationships are forged, leading to referrals, at these meetings. And seek out the leaders; as I learned, they are often all-too-willing to help. Moreover, get involved in local organizations, such as your Homeowners Association or community groups. And in addition to pro bono, serving as a volunteer could be right up your alley. And don’t forget about alumni activities of your undergraduate and law school alma maters. Pick your spots, and make them count.
In this day-and-age, law, like medicine, is increasingly specialized. You obviously can have a solo practice dealing with a specialty, such as those listed above or, perhaps, environmental law, bankruptcy, marital practice, etc.-the list goes on. Perhaps an LL.M. is in the cards. (NYU Law has the premier tax program; other schools specialize in other areas.) If this option isn’t in the cards, for financial and/or other reasons, pick a subject in which you are interested, prepare a manuscript and send it to one or more prestigious publications in the field. Perhaps, one of them will pick it up. And, in some instances, a well-crafted ad will get the word out.
In this regard, I had an early interest in estates and trusts. I picked the “Common Disaster” and sent the manuscript to the Estate Planners Quarterly, a prestigious publication. It was accepted and, upon publication, it received glowing reviews in a number of outlets. I then wrote four or five other pieces (for which I got paid), combining my legal credentials with an interest in “Plain Language” to reach lay audiences. It also led to a role in a publication of the authoritative work, “Recovery for Wrongful Death,” and a stint at a leading aviation negligence law firm. All other partners were former pilots. During this time, I penned a booklet, “You’re Worth More than You Think,” zeroing in on human life value in monetary terms. Life insurance companies were big buyers for obvious reasons.
In conclusion, keep Chiquita in mind when prospective clients seek legal help, with the goal of placing you on their minds. Is solo practice ready for Chiquita Banana? With a marketing/new business orientation, you betcha! Good luck!
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.