Virtual Criminal Practice Is Pandemic Proof


This innovative criminal firm has found success in DIY packages, Facebook groups, a newsletter, social networking, and most important, SEO.

Justie Nicol took the pandemic shutdown in the spring of 2020 in stride.

She and Jenn Gersch, her partner in a Colorado criminal defense practice, along with their two legal assistants and a paralegal, were already working mostly from their respective homes scattered across the northeastern part of the state. As a banner at the top of their website boasts, “We are 100% virtual, all the time, and have always offered video conferencing.”

While other lawyers were fumbling around with Zoom for the first time, having no office to go to was no problem for Nicol and her team. “We use that as a selling point with clients,” says Nicol. “We tell them you don’t have to come to us, we will come to you.”

With her typical caseload of low-level misdemeanors, meetings in the courthouse hallway are often the only in-person contact she needs with clients. But she has arrangements with colleagues around the state to borrow office space when necessary, or she will rent an office by the hour through the LiquidSpace coworking service at a convenient location. “We explain that the reason we are doing that is because we are keeping our overhead low to be able to charge you less,” she says. It’s an effective message. “You can almost hear the lightbulb turn on for these clients.”

By the summer of 2020, their virtual practice, two years after its launch, was doing well enough–pandemic or not–that Nicol and Gersch were ready to take on a third partner, and branch out. Brandi Petterson, a family lawyer, joined the firm, which was rechristened Nicol Gersch Petterson in July. With no brick and mortar office tying them down, the three attorneys can credibly claim, on their website and Facebook page, that they cover “most of Colorado” including “all major metro areas,” the Interstate 70 corridor through the mountains and the rural eastern plains.

“Most attorneys think the clients will come to them. We’ve never had a business built on that model,” says Nicol. Nicol Gersch Petterson is a “client-centered practice,” with an approach to customer service more akin to that of Netflix or Uber than a typical law firm.

New DIY Offerings

In the latest incarnation of that philosophy, they have begun offering a set of do-it-yourself packages, which include some coaching and assistance with paperwork, for those who need less than full representation. Few if any other attorneys offer unbundled legal services in criminal cases, Nicol says.

As the firm’s website declares, “We are innovators who use technology to make legal help for our clients affordable…. We’ve been known to use #NotYourAverageLawyers hashtag on social media.”

The virtual office model is not right for everyone. “If our clients can’t figure out a scanner and electronic banking, then they are not a good fit for our firm,” Nicol says. “A big part of it is saying no to clients, which as lawyers we are raised and taught not to do. But not everybody is a good fit.”

Screening for Free Consultations, DIY Packages

Nicol says she is usually able to determine whether a client needs full representation early in the free 30-minute consultation that, as a caption in all-caps at the top of the homepage proclaims, NGP offers prospective clients. Nicol says the potentially time-consuming offer is worth it, though she doesn’t talk with just anyone. “By the time they get scheduled for a consult with me, they have already gone through a pretty robust screening process,” Nicol says. A receptionist who takes phone inquiries screens cases for practice areas, type of case, and location. A detailed online intake questionnaire filters out others.

Among those she ends up talking to, quite a few don’t need full representation. “I am the attorney who will tell them, you will spend more with me than the case is worth. You can handle this on your own,” says Nicol. The DIY packages are an option for them. “I can tell who they are in the first 10 minutes on the phone, and I’ll switch gears from our sales pitch for full retainer to, ‘I think our DIY option may be a better fit for you.’” Since the DIY packages were rolled out, she says, “we’ve converted quite a few leads, and have gotten paid for things that we’d normally have given away for free.”

Nicol Gersch Petterson offers four different “DIY packages,” ranging from a “traffic package” for $350, which includes a 10-minute consultation and one hour of case work, up to a “large DIY package” for $1,400, with up four hours of casework in a criminal case and a how-to instructional call.

Whether the free initial consultation leads to clients or not, Nicol says it is well worth the goodwill it builds. “We’ve gotten good reviews from people we’ve just talked to on the phone for 30 minutes,” Nicol says. “And we’ve gotten clients who were referred by people who had a consultation but didn’t retain us.”

All in on Search Engine Optimization

Nicol, who had a solo criminal law practice before she joined forces with Gersch, has narrowed her marketing efforts over the years. These days, she does “minimal” paid advertising on Facebook, having found that participating in Facebook groups is more effective. “We don’t do print advertising,” she adds. She tried lead services but found them to be “a waste of time.” The leads they generated were “people who were just tire kicking and wanting free legal advice.”

She maintains a minimal presence on LinkedIn. “People sometimes find me there, but I get spam all the time,” she says. Nicol accepts friend requests on LinkedIn only from other professionals, “but 90% of the time they just want to sell to me.”

Summing up the firm’s marketing strategy these days, Nicol says, “For the most part it’s search engine optimization and climbing up on Google. I would say 70 to 80 percent of our leads come from online Google searches.”

Nicol got by with a homemade website during her years of solo practice. Since partnering up, she has “invested heavily” in websites, most recently by hiring a web designer specializing in law. Nicol Gersch Petterson has a Google My Business account to boost its visibility in local listings, and Nicol pays a law school classmate who went into legal marketing for help in generating a steady stream of new, search-engine optimized content.

The payoff wasn’t immediately apparent. “It took us about eight months to build up a pretty high return on that investment,” she says. “That can be hard because it is quite an investment, but you have to be patient.”

Staying Top of Mind Via Email

Nicol Gersch Petterson uses Clio Grow client intake and management software to maintain its growing email lists, and to manage a drip marketing campaign. Those who sign on as clients receive a succession of informational emails starting with “meet the team” and “how we are different” messages to others detailing the next steps in resolving their case.

“That’s also where we can throw in our ebooks,” says Nicol, referring to the primers on timely legal topics that she and Gersch have written, including several on the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system. They are offered free of charge to all who sign up and submit a request.

The firm also disseminates a monthly email newsletter, which now includes content concerning both criminal and family law. What it does not include is exhortations to “call an attorney now!” an approach that “doesn’t work,” Nicol says. The purpose of the newsletter is to keep NGP “top of mind” over the long term with clients, former clients, colleagues in the bar, and above all referral sources. The newsletter draws “tons of emails” from other attorneys, “so much so that I’ve actually added a ‘for-colleagues’ section,” Nicole says.

An Array of Ways to Network

Cultivating referral networks has always been a key part of her approach to building her law practice, though how she has gone about doing that has changed over the years. “When I first started out on my own, I did every networking event I could for like a year,” Nicol says. Some efforts have been more productive than others, but over time, the outreach has “paid off tenfold.”

Nicol has long been active in the state bar’s solo and small firm section, serving on the executive council for several years. She is also a founding member of a woman-owned law firms group called Colorado WOLF, which has “grown into one of the biggest and most successful bar groups” in the state, and a source for referrals, says Nicol. “We have a Facebook page where people will say, I need a defense attorney who does this or that.”

Nicol says her partner Jenn Gersch has found clients on Nextdoor and her local Word of Mouth Facebook group. Neighborhood networking sites best known as places to find recommendations on plumbers and housecleaners, they sometimes carry postings from people looking for attorneys. “We don’t do a lot of ambulance chasing but if somebody is asking for help on one of those sites, we will tell them we offer a free 30-minute consultation.” While that has led to clients for Gersch, “I’m on the Word of Mouth group in my city and I get nothing,” says Nicol. “Sometimes it’s just hit or miss on networking groups.”

Nicol is an active participant in online discussions about innovations in law practice on forums including Lawyerist, Maximum Lawyer, and Lawyer Forward, as well as on Twitter. “I have found Twitter to be really, really good for colleague engagement,” she says. Through tweets about innovations, such as the do-it-yourself packages that her firm is offering, “I’ve been able to plug into some really big movers and shakers on Twitter, and they’re amplifying the messages that I am sending. And I am learning from the messages that others are posting, so there is give and take.”

Connections she has made on Twitter have led to guest appearances on podcasts including LAWsome. The audience for the tweets and the podcasts about innovations in the practice of law isn’t likely to include many, if any, prospective clients. But Nicol says the engagement has raised her profile online. “The audience is other lawyers but it boosts your followers, and if people actually click on through to your website and read the blog, it boosts your SEO,” says Nicol. And in marketing her law practice, SEO is “everything.”


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