Lawyers are Skeptical. Does Your Marketing Help or Hurt?

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A recent study uncovered a number of ways marketing can increase skepticism, and this should be of particular interest to those of us in the legal industry.

Skepticism, of course, is a hallmark of the lawyer personality: After analyzing hundreds of lawyers, psychologist Larry Richard reported that skepticism is the dominant personality trait of the profession. Lawyers average around the 90th percentile for skepticism; the general public is at the 50th percentile.

While high skepticism is critical to many areas of practice (due diligence, depositions and more), Richard reports that lawyers may not shift out of this gear in other facets of life: “…the skeptical litigator may be well suited for adversarial encounters, but this same litigator will maintain the skeptical stance in partnership meetings, while mentoring younger lawyers, or in heading up a committee, despite the fact that these situations may all be performed more effectively in a climate of trust, acceptance and collaboration.”

In the context of marketing, this skepticism can affect any number of scenarios:

  • A general counsel’s evaluation of an RFP or law firm pitch.
  • A litigator’s search for local counsel.
  • A lawyer’s validation of a referral.
  • A law firm’s evaluation of a legal tech solution.

The list goes on.

If you do business with lawyers in any capacity, it’s imperative to acknowledge their inherent skepticism and build smart legal marketing that counters it. And the findings of new University of Oregon research can help us do just that.

The study aimed to look at what happened when a person recognized they were being persuaded – namely, how that realization affected their evaluation of and willingness to buy a product or service. It explored a number of tactics:

Persuasive Speech

Participants were shown a visual with a character describing “a soap that smells good and is gentle on your hands.” A second visual added the text, “You HAVE to buy it.”

After the addition of that sentence, skepticism increased, lowering both the favorability ratings of the product and purchase intentions.


In another experiment, test subjects were shown the same ad text with three different visual presentations. One had no visuals; one had an outline of a girl on a bicycle; one had an added “quote bubble” with persuasive words being spoken by the girl.

When the participants recognized they were being “sold,” even by a two-dimensional illustration, their defenses went up: They reported lower purchase intentions and willingness to pay for the product.

Price Detail

In a third experiment, 200 adults were shown an ad for a “limited time offer” to get seven packets of seed butter for free…except for a shipping cost of $10.99. Half of the participants saw the full price information on one page; the other half saw the shipping cost details on a second page.

Those who saw the full explanation had little skepticism. But the “low transparency” group that had to refer to a second page became more skeptical, with lower affinity, purchase intentions and willingness to pay.

What This Means for You

Whether it’s soap or seed butter or securities law, no one likes to feel sold. Instinctively, our guard goes up when we feel we’re being strongarmed; given their inherent skepticism, lawyers generally may have a lower tolerance and a stronger defensive response. (According to Richard, the second-most prevalent personality trait in lawyers is autonomy, which can amplify this effect: As he writes, “it’s common for lawyers to resist being managed, to bridle at being told what to do, and to prize their independence.” In other words, don’t tell me what kind of soap to buy.)

Consider these lessons both in your one-to-many communications (e.g., your website) and in your one-to-one communications (e.g., your referrals, your proposals, your presentations).

Persuasive Speech: Make your case with evidence, not editorializing. In pitches, lead with a declarative statement, such as “Wayne & Kent is the ideal solution for this litigation for three primary reasons,” then make your case with facts: number of similar cases handled, key accomplishments, familiarity with venue/judge, et cetera.

On your website, present the four types of legal marketing evidence. Design your calls to action to empower the reader, not boss them around: “Learn more” is less likely to trigger skepticism than “Engage us today.”

Spokesperson: While you may not have cheesy TV commercials with a celebrity endorser, you have a number of active spokespeople: your referral sources. Help your referral sources share, not sell: “Elle Woods has handled many cases just like this one, check out her bio” is far less likely to trip skepticism wires than “Elle Woods is amazing, and you simply must use her!”

Consider this when it comes to testimonials, too, if you use them: Encourage clients to share their stories and sentiments, but avoid anything that borders on urging. Tip: If it contains the word “you,” cut it out. (You must use them, you cannot find any better law firm, et cetera.)

Price Detail: Do not make your prospective client work too hard to figure out the actual bottom-line numbers. The allure of a deal will morph into skepticism if the price is obfuscated or overly complex. If you are presenting hourly rates, provide a reasonable estimate for how long the project will take. If you are presenting an alternative fee arrangement that includes a success fee or bonus, show the maximum cost the client could incur, and spell out the components or conditions.

Again, no one likes to be sold. But lawyer or not, humans respond to individuals and organizations that respect our intelligence; show empathy to our situation; and empower us to make informed choices with examples and evidence.

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