6 Problems With Marketing White-Collar Defense Work

Sunday, January 25, is the two-year anniversary of my solo practice.

Two years ago, I was a partner at a big firm. I was pretty happy, very well compensated—and looking for more. So I left. Some said it was great. Others probably thought I was crazy but were nice enough not to tell me that (to my face at least–thanks, guys).

I’m in a contemplative mood because (1) it’s the new year, and (2) I have a bet with a friend to do four hours of goal-setting by the end of tomorrow or buy him lunch.

I’ve been pondering how hard it can be to market a white-collar defense practice in the traditional ways.

I handle both civil and criminal work. Civil work is much easier to come by—it could be the nature of my referral network or it could be that it’s simply a lot easier to market that side of my practice.

Criminal work will always be my first love, though. I would like to grow that side of my firm. Most of the ways I market my civil experience do not help meet this goal.

I came up with a list of six traditional marketing methods that are hard to use when you are pitching white-collar work.

  1. Offering to help. You can’t visit a current or prospective client and say “if you ever need this kind of legal advice, please think of me.” By saying that, you are basically telling the person, “if you ever get indicted, give me a call.” I’ve found that it is generally not helpful to suggest to your clients that they may be criminals.
  2. Speaking engagements. You can’t speak to the “target audience.” I’m all for using speaking engagement to talk to actual prospective clients, rather than a bunch of other lawyers. But somehow, there are no conferences for “Future White-Collar Defendants of America.” (Maybe because FWCDA is a terrible-sounding acronym.) There should be such a group: you would have a lot of eager lawyers willing to speak for free.
  3. Repeat clients. Your clients are not repeat clients. We have all heard the adage that most of your work will come from existing clients, not new ones. That’s great, but most white-collar defendants are one-and-done clients. They either learn their lesson or they learn how to hide the wrongdoing much more effectively. Or they go to jail for 10 years.
  4. Bragging about big wins. You can’t brag about all the great work you’ve done in the past. When you have represented a company in litigation, that representation is public and usually the company has no problem with you telling others about the representation (not disclosing confidential information, of course). The goal of white-collar defense work is to avoid indictment and avoid any public knowledge of the government investigation at all. If you do a great job, you keep your client off the docket. But then you can’t tell people that you kept the CFO of Acme Corp. out of hot water.
  5. Cocktail parties. It is nearly impossible to get someone to talk about their legal problems at a cocktail party. If someone you know actually has a criminal problem and you happen to bump into that person at a cocktail party, it’s pretty unlikely that she will spill her guts to you over a canape. I’ve had (too) many conversations at parties about lawsuits over breached contracts but not any about investigations for accounting fraud.
  6. Wins. Wins are hard to come by. Most white-collar lawyers don’t tout their win percentage–except maybe Brendan Sullivan.

All this is not to say that you can’t market a white-collar practice. I do it every day.

I write for and speak to other lawyers who could refer me work. I let people know what I do and tell them that I hope they never get indicted, I just hope their colleagues get indicted (sometimes they laugh at this lame joke). I talk in generalities about my experience in the field and how I have helped my unnamed clients in the past.

I network. And network. And network.

Did I mention that I network?

No one ever said it would be easy. But, heck, it’s still really fun.

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One Response to 6 Problems With Marketing White-Collar Defense Work

  1. Kevin Harden, Jr. says:

    This is a great post.

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