Leading through Adversity: Michael Mogill + Legal Marketing Expert, Harlan Schillinger

Crisp Founder and CEO Michael Mogill sits down with legal marketing expert Harlan Schillinger to discuss what law firm owners need to be doing during this chaotic and uncertain period.

Harlan has four decades of experience in legal advertising, dating back to when he was the first to produce and market television advertising for the legal industry in the late ’70s.

His work with countless law firms has given him a unique perspective, and he brings that to a unique situation in the COVID-19 outbreak.

Michael and Harlan’s discussion ranges from what firms can be doing even with zero revenue, to where law firm owners need to be focusing their attention, and what approaches won’t just solve problems today, but set them up for success when the virus situation has passed.

You can read a full transcript of Michael and Harlan’s discussion below.


Harlan:

Hey Michael, how are you today?

Michael:

I’m well, Harlan. Well, that is kind of an interesting thing to ask people right now because I look outside and the world seems to be crumbling.

Harlan:

Go ahead and ask me how I am.

Michael:

How are you?

Harlan:

I am doing my very best to be completely optimistic. We have to lead by example with attitude and a positive nature. The truth is, my stomach is churning, my heart is beating a little bit more. Good thing I’m in good shape and healthy, but I’m scared. I do believe that this will resolve itself very quickly, maybe in the next two to three to four weeks. We’re all in this boat together.

I’m talking to people I work with, and the solid advice that I’m giving is now is the time to let your clients know that you are here. You got to pick up the phone and say, “Hey, we are here.” Have your staff, legal assistants, pick up the phone and say, “Your case is safe. We are safe. You are safe.”

You have to reassure people and don’t take it for granted. Treat people the way you want to be treated, because who you are now will define who you are when this ends.

The upside of this is that the business that is coming into firms is coming in through referral. When somebody’s in an accident, “Who should I call? Are they open? What should I do?”

If you’re looking for a footing in the marketplace, do the right thing. Treat people the way you want to be treated.

Another thing I’m requesting my lawyers to do is read the contract that they signed when they became a lawyer. I’ve never met a lawyer who read the contract since they signed it. In one paragraph it’ll tell you exactly how you need to treat your clients.

You signed a contract. Live up to the agreement.

Michael:

It’s been over 30 years that you’ve been working with some of the most successful law firms across the nation and you’ve weathered all sorts of periods — periods of immense success, periods where the economy tanked. You were supporting law firms in 2008 when we had that recession and have been in periods of adversity before.

What did you find that the most successful firms did when things got really tough?

Harlan:

They connected with their clients.

It’s very easy to say, “Let’s double down and let’s stay on course. Let’s spend money on advertising now and let’s brand to make sure we have the right message.”

You make market gains in a down economy because your acquisition cost is the least because your competitors are spending the least. 

You have people that have serious cash flow issues. What’s going to happen? Working remotely is not as efficient as having an office. We are all going to be affected by this. You’ve got to reach out to your clients.

It is time to humanize yourself right now, and that’s who’s going to win.

Michael:

I agree.

What would you say to the person? There’s a lot of fear and almost paralysis that we’ve noticed amongst business owners because what pulls people back is when they think about what they’re experiencing today, and start making all sorts of predictions about how bad it will be tomorrow and in the future. They are looking at cutting costs, layoffs, and all these things that they start to lose sight of the long-term vision.

Harlan:

They’re reacting and it’s good business sense to have a contingency plan — to know where you stand, know where your cash reserves are. Cash is king.

One of the most significant things you can do right now is get on your phone and start recording videos.

Michael:

The thing we’re doing.

Harlan:

This costs us nothing to do other than our time, which is valuable.

Do your part as a business owner to assure the people you do business with and assure the community that you care — but mean it.

Michael:

I think that’s where there’s a tremendous opportunity.

I look at these as defining moments because one of the videos that I did earlier, shared transparently about the impact this has had on me and our company, and how painful it has been. We’re taking hits. That is difficult when you are addressing a team of 70 people and they’re all concerned.

When someone’s speaking very optimistically or proactively, it doesn’t mean that they themselves are not scared, that they’re not feeling pain.

You’re using this as an opportunity to lead and step up, and that’s where I find if you can be proactive, you can be intentional. That’s the side that I’d rather be on than hunkered down in some underground bunker, just accepting my fate.

People remember how leaders responded during this time.

What are your thoughts?

Harlan:

There’s no question about it. You didn’t think that MacArthur wasn’t scared when he had to press the button? Or Eisenhower on D-Day? They were scared to death. I’m scared but I have to act in a most responsible way. It’s my responsibility as a leader in this world and this community of legal advertisers, to set an example, to give advice.

That’s what stepping up is about. Stepping up is holding your children’s hands. It’s holding your friend’s hands and giving honest advice.

Michael:

One of the things that I had a conversation about recently and that I’m cautioning other business owners against, especially this difficult time, that we don’t destroy each other. We are seeing people make panic decisions where they’re letting go of people that have been with them for years. All those people have team members and people that have helped them achieve success over the years.

I made a public commitment — and this is an expensive check to write because I also don’t know what the future holds — that we were not going to lay off our team members and that we were not going to cut our vendors and partners that have helped us to get to where we are today. We’re going to figure it out, how to help one another and support each other through this.

I understand people experiencing challenges of cash flow. I understand that side of it because I experienced it myself as well. But I remove that as an option of cutting those that help us to get to where we are, and I refuse to put them on the unemployment line.

Harlan:

That’s a bit of character right there.

People are getting cut left and right. Let’s say it ends in three months or two months or one month, what’s left? Can you rebuild that quickly with the people that help you build?

This is going to be one of the most significant things that have happened to us in the 21st century.

You’re building a team and worked so hard to build a team. How do you keep them together?

You’ve got a lot of angry people that are out there that just lost their job abruptly, and they’re pissed.

Michael:

I understand that every situation is different. 

I believe as a leader, it is your duty to take care of your team, your clients, your family. That’s probably the reason you become an entrepreneur, to bet on yourself and these people look to you right now for clarity and confidence and support.

To be in self-preservation mode while you cut all these people and then drive into your multimillion-dollar home at the end of the night, to me, I don’t agree with it. I don’t believe that those are the best leaders.

Harlan:

I don’t agree with it either. Think about how many talented people will be available to employ when this is over. The thing we have to avoid is tunnel vision and anger because that’s going to freeze you.

We have to step up. Talking about it and doing it are two different things.

Michael:

I was talking to Russ the other night and one of the things he shared — and this is someone who’s been through all sorts of things. He believed that right now more than ever, branding and that authentic heartfelt messaging is the way to strengthen relationships with clients and community. He said that we should pull all ambulance-chasing TV ads and replace them with focusing on giving to the community, being there to support people.

You can be a beacon of hope in your community, and people will remember you for it.

They may not have a case for you today, they may not be injured, they may not have a need — but they’ll remember how your firm was behaving and how you were addressing your community later, once this passes.

Harlan:

Brand is what people think of you when you’re out of the room.

We’ve just got to practice good skills. The strong thinkers will survive.

Michael:

John Morgan has a saying: “It’s either you’re growing or dying.” I agree with this because there’s not an in-between.  Meaning when you start cutting everything, pulling back things, that type of mindset of I’m going to retract, as opposed to I’m going to push forward. 

Harlan:

We have to move forward. There is no middle ground. You have to move forward, and in the worst-case scenario, where you’re looking after your cash and your cash flow has ceased. What can you do? You can get on your iPhone or your Android, and make a video, and put it on your website. You can do something. You can pick up the phone and call people.

That’s a proactive approach, and don’t take light of that.

The best case that’s ever going to walk into your office is through referral. You know that. There are very few people in the world that book as much television time as I did. I am telling you that that is the best case that’s going to walk into your office. Now is the time to fan that base. You can do a lot of things with pure energy.

Michael:

What would you believe right now someone should not do? What would be a huge mistake for firm owners right now?

Harlan:

I would say, turn off the news and stop filling your head with all the garbage that is going on right now.

I respectfully will tell you that there’s a lot of good information, but block it out right now and put your head down and get on the phone and call your clients. You can sit around and play games on Facebook, and you can find every excuse not to call a client. You can come up with anything. Get to work. Do your job.

Michael:

Agree 100% — and it’s interesting because it also depends what type of community you’re in, the people you’re surrounding yourself, because if all you’re hearing is doom and gloom you’re missing a lot of the firms that we hear from every single day that are adapting well right now. Next month could be a great month because they’re drastically changing what they’re doing. They sat down with their team and they adjusted.

The messaging needs to be different. How we support our clients needs to be different. 

Harlan:

People change because they’re in pain. That’s really the most significant reason they change. You and I are telling people what to do. You’re working on your business, not in your business. This is exactly what we’re doing right now.

Michael:

Control what you can control. We can’t control what tomorrow holds or what the following week holds or what the policy changes going on in government are.

You can control how you approach your clients and your team and your law firm and your business.

Harlan:

Turn the TV off and focus on what’s in front of you. 

Michael:

The final thing I wanted to ask you about. The importance of managing yourself right now and how we respond, because we’re taking on a tremendous amount of stress and uncertainty. I’m not sleeping well, I freely admit it. But I have never been more committed in the gym, to my meditation, to journaling, all these different things because I’ve got to stay on track. What about yourself?

Harlan:

I woke up energetic. I can’t wait to get on the phone. I started booking my appointments this morning at 7:30, where I usually start it about 8:30 because I have some private time and get my business. I don’t want to be in this situation. I am scared. I’m 70 years old and I don’t know where my next thing is going to be tomorrow, but I do know where I am today.

I’ll leave you with: get to work. There are plenty of things that you can do. Stop complaining. Stop looking at the news. Get on the phone with your clients and treat them the way you want to be treated.

Michael:

I found that when you’re proactive and you support another person, and then another person and another person, you start to gain this momentum. You feel like what you’re doing is making a positive contribution. And by nature, you’re moving things forward.

Harlan:

That’s karma, and karma will win.

Michael:

Awesome. Harlan, thank you. Thank you so much for your time and for doing this. 

Harlan:

My pleasure. I’ll speak to you soon. Thank you.


If you agree or disagree with anything we’ve discussed above, Michael Mogill want to know about it. You can text him personally at 404-531-7691.


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