Case Study - Identifying and Targeting Potential Clients

How Small Law Firms Should Identify Ideal Clients and Target Audience

If you are running a small law firm, knowing and identifying who your clients are–or who your clients should be–is absolutely essential. Your marketing and advertising efforts will always amount to hard-earned money poured down the drain if you don’t realize that your audience is as important as your message.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to argue that knowledge of client demographics and geographic location is unimportant to the success of a business’s marketing plan. However, these demographics, geography and audience statistics are even more complicated and important for law firms who advertise, considering the following:

Your Audience/Clients May Be Random – But Not Always

Many practice areas, like that of personal injury law, have a difficult time identifying and determining who the client could be, as clients are unpredictable or slightly less than random. After all, what determines who will be involved in a car accident? For example, compare the predictability of identifying personal injury clients with wills and estates clients.

In personal injury, the best predictor of who will be involved in an accident is a statistical split between the inexperienced driver, who is new to driving, and the professional driver, who spends all day on the road. On the other hand, wills and estates clients statistically should be anyone who possesses any modicum of wealth or assets that they wish to protect. Naturally, I understand that this is not always the case or even remotely practical for advertising purposes. As such, it is important to understand where your clients come from, or what would make a person become a potential client, before you begin looking at advertising.

Most Lawyers Live in the Dark Ages

Most law firms have only just begun to explore how to practice law in the 21st century’s tech savvy world of mobile devices and LTE wireless networks. Moreover, many law firms are impressed by the product offerings of legal tech companies that offer the most basic practice management systems.

Additionally, it’s unfortunately rare for small law firms to gather, keep and track analytics related to their advertising and ROI. Forget, for a moment, the fact that Google Analytics, launched over a decade ago, can provide power analytical data about who visited your site, what pages they went to, how long they remained… all for free. It’s my opinion that lawyers and law firms need to spend as much time as they can afford on developing a genuine understanding of what data, analytics, and a good old fashioned excel spreadsheet–if nothing else–can provide.

Law Firms Advertise Themselves Rather Than Their Services

Law firms, more than any other type of business, are guilty of advertising the lawyers in the practice and their achievements rather than advertising the services and how those services may benefit a potential client. This is one of the main reasons why my law firm’s website (Wallace Pierce Law) is practically brand-free. Our focus is on providing the visitor or potential client with as much information as possible about their problem and how to solve that problem.

It’s hard to imagine a law firm attempting to advertise without spending as much time on identifying their intended audience as they do on the message itself. If you are anything like I am, you want to maximize your advertising budget and efforts. In my opinion, a sure-fire way to do this is to focus on developing a complete and thorough understanding of who your clients are, where they are from, where they like to vacation, where they shop, and what they do for fun (amongst other things). While the discussion in this post has been very theoretical so far, lets transition to applying these principles to a real life examples…

From Theory to Practice

Imagine a criminal lawyer who focuses his practice on defending Simple Possession cases in Durham County, North Carolina and wants to become his county’s ‘dankest’ defense attorney. Where should this lawyer start? Well, the journey to becoming the county’s ‘Best Blunt Barrister’ should begin with understanding and identifying the potential client.

As an exercise in proving that this practice actually works, I have sent SLAP’s trusty intern to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (NC AOC) to gather this information for analysis. For those of you planning on becoming ‘left-handed cigarette’ litigators, I hope this is helpful. The NC AOC was kind enough to provide us with a detailed list of every person who has been charged with Simple Possession of Marijuana Up to ½ Ounce (hereinafter “Possession”) for the last 12 months in Durham County, North Carolina. This information was painfully imported to Excel for the purposes of this blog.

More than just a list of what has been charged and when, the NC AOC keeps a detailed inventory that aims to specifically identify who exactly has been charged. After all, it wouldn’t do to have people getting mixed up when accusing individuals of possessing marijuana! And the who has been charged part of the question is effectively the heart of our endeavor here.

Important Note: This data is a collection of what is gathered by the state of North Carolina’s AOC system. This post is not intended to discuss or explore any socioeconomic or racial disparity in the law. This is a blog post discussing advertising concepts for lawyers. I am underqualified and ill-equipped to discuss why this data exists. However, I would highly recommend you read Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner as well as the Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, both of which are fantastic books written to challenge conventional approaches to how we look at all manner of problems.

So with our NC AOC data for all Simple Possession cases in Durham County, North Carolina for the last 12 months, I was able to determine some interesting conclusions about the target audience of any criminal defense lawyer wanting to handle these types of cases. Here is a bit of what I found within the data:

Race as a Factor

The data set and information received from the NC AOC clearly shows that Black Americans are being charged for crimes at a significantly higher rate than any other ethnic group. Our data set for Possession charges in Durham County, North Carolina shows this fact very clearly. Moreover, when the number of charges for Possession by Black Americans in Durham County, North Carolina is compared against the general population, we can see an interesting and disturbing picture of crime in Durham County.

Percent By Race

According to the NC AOC dataset, it does not appear that Possession charges (or the clients needing or seeking representation) are very random or racially diverse. As such, the data (mind you, that this data is directly from the NC AOC) clearly shows that 79.5 % of all Possession charges in Durham County, North Carolina are against Black Americans compared to the almost 12.7% of White Americans for the same charge and location. More interestingly, White Americans make up approximately 51% of the Durham County population. Statistics for the City of Durham were used for this analysis, as county-wide data could not be located.

Clearly, the data weighs heavily against Black Americans. Given the higher likelihood of charges against this group, your advertising messages and efforts should be focused on reaching and defending Black Americans.

After identifying that 79.5% of all potential clients are Black Americans, it would make sense to explore what advertising researchers know about advertising to clearly identified demographic groups.

Gender Advertising

By returning to the data set and information received from the NC AOC, we were able to determine that only 15.9 % of all Possession charges are against women, leaving 84.1% of all Possession charges to be laid against men. Please note that the NC AOC, as near as I can tell, defines gender as Female, Male, and Unknown. Our dataset contains no ‘unknown’ classifications.

Charges By Gender

As a related tangent to the topic of gender specific advertising, while preparing some advertising for another project, I stumbled upon a really interesting Neilson report titled, “The Female/Male Digital Divide.” The report was rather instrumental in solidifying some previously absent concepts related to how women and men behave differently towards advertising mediums and methods.

Regardless, the full Nielson report suggests and explores how more women use social media for “how to, information and self-help” than men. While the terms “how to, information, and self-help” don’t necessarily scream ‘legal advice or law,’ I would be hesitant to hedge my advertising efforts and money in a simple social media advertising campaign considering that only 15.9 % of all Possession charges are against women and men are less likely to turn to social media for “how to, information and self-help.”

It is important to note that this data fails to show that the analysis is only for a small sliver of information compared to what you should be using and reviewing when you undertake creating your advertising strategy. With each advertising idea, consider where your clients are, who they are and what they do each day, week and month. Consider closing your blinds, lying back and becoming your client for a few minutes.

As such, the NC AOC data so far clearly shows that Black American men are by far the most likely to be charged with Possession and make up the largest market segment of Possession charges in Durham County, North Carolina and should therefore be the focus of advertising for the would be “Possession Practitioner.” But let’s not forget to look at other factors beyond race and gender, such as age.

Age as a Factor

To be completely honest, after reviewing and considering the data for some time, I realized that I had omitted age of the individual as a factor. And wow! I extracted the data and placed it into a great little chart.

Charges By Age

Imagine for a moment that our hypothetical lawyer decided to launch a direct mail campaign for Simple Possession cases in Durham County. Considering the data presented above, there is a significantly higher likelihood that the recipients of “advertisements for legal services” are Black American men between 18 and 25 years old.

Charges By Age Group

Stop and think what this may mean! Where do they live? Who do they live with? Do they still live at home? College? Could you eliminate college students using the data? Can you use college entrance statistics coupled with zip codes to predict whether a letter recipient is likely off at college? Could you use US Census Bureau data, Durham Public School data and NC AOC data to accurately predict which defendants, based on the NC AOC’s data, would likely still live at home based on their age?

If there is the slightest possibility that you could use your data or any other data available to improve your advertising, you should seriously considering doing so. Additionally, once you have developed a working advertising theory, don’t be scared to gather the results and tweak the plan.

The best policy for perfecting your advertising is called “A/B testing” and can be used to compare a working advertising plan against a baseline-advertising plan. The idea is to test something measurable, gather the results, analyze the results and determine whether Plan A was better than Plan B. We’ll discuss this more in another article!

To date, we have determined that the majority of those likely to be charged with Possession (thereby making up the gross majority of the potential client pool) are (i) Black Americans, (ii) males, and (iii) between 18 and 25 years old. However, there remains an important missing piece to the puzzle, and we need to find it before we can claim to have a good understanding of our target audience; location, location, location!

Location – Hyper Local Approach

The data provided by the NC AOC was more than just a list of names, races, and genders; the data set also provides geographic information about where the Defendant lived at the time they were charged with Possession in Durham County, North Carolina. The address information in each case is gathered for the purpose of initiating legal proceedings and ensuring compliance with the court date.

This data is possibly the most interesting. With the use of Google Maps, we have mapped the location of each defendant for the purpose of analyzing their geographic location. The results, reproduced below, are compelling and makes clear that a vast majority of the individuals charged are within four (4) miles of the county courthouse. Seriously, check it out! The Durham County Courthouse is located at 510 South Dillard Street, Durham, North Carolina 27701.

As I reviewed the data and the map, I was rather shocked to see how hyper-localized these individuals were. Considering the lack of geographic diversity amongst the individuals within this group, it is hard to imagine any advertising strategy that doesn’t involve approaching these individuals through local workshops, community outreach or EDDM for brand recognition. Even better, rent a loudspeaker for the weekend and shout your message from the roof tops- everyone is practically within shouting distance.

Niche Markets

I must admit that I enjoy writing articles for SLAP NC. But sometimes I have to make sure that the articles don’t get too lengthy or out of hand. I feel that it is important to point out that the data set used in this analysis is small. If we had used a larger data set or picked a different criminal offense, I would have spent more time and energy discussing how there is a market opportunity in niche market advertising.

With that in mind, some of the best marketing strategies I have seen refuse to focus on trying to reach as many people as possible, but instead focus on reaching as few people as possible. A good example that can be drawn from our data set would be two categories of individuals that I noticed:

1) Older Defendants – Older defendants, in my opinion, would be more likely to hire private counsel, and even though they make up a smaller population, there may be a need to consider tailoring an A/B advertising strategy to explore how they may be reached.

While Defendants over the age of 46 make up less than 5.5% of all individuals charged, you have to consider that they may be more responsive to certain types of advertising than other age groups.

2) Out of Town Defendants – The data shows that there are a fair number of out of town defendants within our data set. These individuals will face certain challenges that local defendants would not face.

For example, if you decided to send a direct mail solicitation to the entire group, spouting your availability and open door policy, you may be missing those out of town defendants completely. Maybe the defendants who will have to travel back to Durham to face the proverbial music are more interested in your willingness to communicate via skype or the technology you have to ensure that they are informed about each step in the process since they can’t come to your door very easily.

Timing is Everything!

Finally, lets discuss timing your advertising campaign. Consider when your clients are most likely to need you. Most conventional wisdom suggests that wills and estates lawyers deal with clients who are retired. However, there has been a rush of small law firms that have seen the benefit of focusing on much younger clients. In my mind, older clients who are retired may already have a will. But younger clients, maybe clients who have just had their first child or are starting to shop for life insurance for the first time, are prime candidates for understanding the importance of a well drafted will. Nothing says, “you’re getting old” like shopping for life insurance for the first time.

However, in our present hypothetical, I wondered whether Possession charges were seasonal. After all, the personal injury market has clear seasons in which more accidents occur. To determine whether our data set would reveal any interesting timing trends, I extracted the data related to when the individuals were charged. I have included a chart below for your examination.

Charges Per Month

The data seems to clearly show that July and August are the months that result in the most charges for Possession being filed. It may do well to consider the surrounding months as viable advertising territory as well. After all, very few advertising campaigns are so potent and powerful that the client/consumer hears the message only once and takes the desired action.

It is worth mentioning that many years ago, when I first began practicing law, I was able to calculate that the average length of time it takes for a traffic ticket client to respond to my direct mail solicitation was approximately 17 days. I remember wondering about the significance of that 17-day window. While I haven’t handled a criminal matter in close to 4 years, I do regret not exploring how the average response time collates to the other demographic information available.


I hope that after reading and exploring this information that you see that every small law firm should strive to identify who its potential clients are and who the potential clients should be. As I said before and as I am sure that you will hear me say again, your marketing and advertising efforts will always amount to your hard-earned money being poured down the drain if you don’t try to correctly identify your audience.


Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success. Anyone who has ever met Jared will tell you h

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