Kredible founder Brad Shepard says big-firm marketing officers tell him he's “either brilliant or crazy.”
Kredible founder Brad Shepard says big-firm marketing officers tell him he’s “either brilliant or crazy.” (John Disney/Daily Report)

An Atlanta tech start-up, Kredible, is challenging the notions that big firm lawyers won’t market themselves online and can’t win business from online relationships.

The company has developed software to help lawyers establish an effective online persona through LinkedIn that uses research on the eye movements of in-house counsel as they view lawyers’ profiles and other data.

Kredible’s founder, Brad Shepard, said marketing officers at large firms have told him that he is “either brilliant or crazy.” Even though lawyers have stopped faxing, adopted email and developed websites, they are reluctant to use LinkedIn to market themselves online.

A management consultant by training, Shepard learned that firsthand two years ago, when he was invited to coach Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton’s partners on improving their LinkedIn profiles at their annual retreat. Plenty of the lawyers weren’t convinced they needed to be using social media to develop business, he said. Others were sold on the idea but didn’t know how to go about it.

Lawyers “are behind in using technology but they are very fact-based,” Shepard said, so he did some research.

He asked nearly 100 in-house counsel and CEOs in surveys and interviews how they decide what outside counsel to hire. He’s learned they seek recommendations from trusted sources for lawyers with experience in their type of matter. The vast majority—97 percent—said they researched lawyers online, using Google searches, looking at firm bios and LinkedIn profiles.

Shepard enlisted professors at Georgia Tech’s Human-Computer Interaction program to track 25 in-house lawyers’ eye-movement while they looked at the LinkedIn profiles of outside counsel candidates.

“In-house lawyers will say they choose a firm based on its prestige and where a lawyer went to law school. But what their eyes are doing is seeing what the attorney looks like and what connections they have in common,” he said.

The eye-tracking research revealed that in-house counsel looked first at the photo, then the summary of the lawyer’s expertise, and then at the headline just below the name.

A profile with no photo “killed a candidate’s credibility, but no one would say that,” Shepard said. Another basic mistake lawyers make is listing their title and firm in the headline—”partner at Acme & Acme,” for example—instead of an area of expertise, such as intellectual property law. Shepard said they should use keywords for their specialty in the headline: “You can’t be a generalist online. There is too much noise out there.”

Consultants offering LinkedIn training have been around for several years, but Shepard’s vision was larger. He took a hiatus from his business consulting firm, Innovar Collective, and spent a year on research. That led to a software product, Lift, that scores a LinkedIn profile based on 37 elements and instructs the lawyer, field-by-field, how to improve it. Kredible staff assist when needed.

The next phase, Engage, aims to make it faster and easier for lawyers to interact on LinkedIn. For instance, it provides a curated database of legal articles in different practice areas that lawyers can share quickly.

The idea is to craft a persona that will get noticed online by in-house hirers.

Shepard is targeting the Am Law 150—the nation’s top-grossing and largest firms—for the service, charging firms $350 to $550 per lawyer annually, depending on how many enroll, he said.

Online marketing is here

Shepard’s biggest obstacle—and opportunity—is that most lawyers don’t like marketing their services and they are even less likely to do it online.

“The whole world is on LinkedIn, and we know we have to participate, but it’s uncomfortable,” said Pete Barlow, a New York partner at Smith Gambrell & Russell who participated in the firm’s pilot program with Kredible. “The online world is challenging for lawyers. We’re so used to pressing the flesh.”

Barlow, who handles commercial aviation transactions, said he does a lot of marketing—but all face to face. “I have lots of lunches and dinners and meetings. I make real, personal contact with clients and prospects, the way lawyers historically get business,” he said.

He said Kredible allowed him to markedly improve the rudimentary LinkedIn profile he created a few years ago to keep in touch with business contacts. At the time, he never thought businesspeople would use LinkedIn to choose a lawyer.

Barlow doesn’t think general counsel will discover him through LinkedIn, but he does think those already aware of him will check out his profile. “For lawyers, it ultimately comes down to that first real meeting. But if you don’t have that LinkedIn profile, it could count against you,” he said.

Keith Townsend, an Atlanta partner at King & Spalding, used Kredible on his own initiative after hearing of it through a business coach. Townsend, who handles capital markets transactions, said he was not using social media, but he knew investment bankers were likely to check him out through an online search or with their LinkedIn apps instead of viewing his firm bio.

Kredible, Townsend said, focused his “very basic profile” with key words that describe his IPO experience. His summary specifies that he’s helped clients raise $17 billion in the capital markets in 15 years of practice and is written in a direct, first-person style. “I wanted to make sure it was going to get noticed,” he said.

Three months later, Townsend said, he’s noticed that investment bankers he’s pitched have viewed him on LinkedIn—and in several instances he’s won the business. He doesn’t know that his LinkedIn profile specifically landed him work, he said, but that was not the aim. “This isn’t the be-all and end-all. It’s a piece of a larger puzzle,” he said, in marketing his services.

Townsend said Kredible’s cost is “a drop in the bucket—a few billable hours”—if a stronger online presence helps him get hired for an IPO that generates work for his firm.

The paradox Shepard must overcome is that large law firms do not want to be the first to do something new—but they don’t want to get left behind either. “The interesting thing about lawyers is we are slow to adopt new things, but then we are like lemmings,” Barlow said.

As an incentive, Shepard has decided that Kredible will work with only 50 Am Law 150 firms to give them a competitive advantage. He said 15 of those firms have signed up and another 10 are testing the product. He declined to name the firms, citing contractual agreements.

Marketing officers at three firms in Atlanta that have tested Kredible— Kilpatrick Townsend, Smith Gambrell and Burr & Forman—said they are happy with the profile makeovers via Lift. They were less sure about subscribing long-term to promote attorney engagement because of doubts that the lawyers will do it.

Each firm tested Kredible on a pilot group of 20 to 30 lawyers, ranging from junior associates to senior partners. Some were LinkedIn power users, and others were neophytes without a profile.

“The pilot feedback has been very good,” said Kilpatrick’s chief marketing officer, Brian Colucci. Now he is deciding how many of Kilpatrick’s roughly 600 lawyers to enroll.

The firm does not want to spend money on Kredible for lawyers who aren’t interested, he explained. “You have to remember, LinkedIn is a personal platform. It’s not like a piece of software for legal research—there is a voluntary aspect.”

Kredible could bolster the firm’s brand online if sufficient lawyers use it, Colucci said. “We want people to have good profiles that tell a consistent story and leverage firm resources by linking back to articles and things on our website.”

All of the marketing officers said Linked­In is an important marketing tool, and they want their lawyers to use it. That can be an uphill battle. “There are definitely some lawyers who’ve embraced social media, but they are few and far between,” said Susan Longo, Burr & Forman’s CMO.???Longo views Kredible as a useful tool to persuade lawyers to use LinkedIn. “It’s giving us ammunition for getting them to pay attention to the impact LinkedIn can have,” she said. The firm’s managing partner, Lee Thuston, who was not on LinkedIn, drove from Birmingham to Atlanta to check out Kredible and create a profile, she added.

Burr is now testing the Engage phase, which helps lawyers actively participate on Linked­In, Longo said. The firm has not decided how many lawyers to enroll in Kredible, she said, but the cost per lawyer is “a pretty small monetary investment for each lawyer to be more effective on Linked­In.”

Lee Watts, Smith Gambrell’s director of marketing and business development, said she’s gotten good feedback on the Kredible profile makeover. “I think everyone could use a Lift,” she said.

Watts said one junior partner is using the Engage tool to rebrand himself as a product liability lawyer. He had never used Linked­In, she said, and he loves seeing his Kredible score go up as he beefs up his online persona.

“For him, it’s perfect,” she said. “He’s studying the analytics and sharing lots of content.”

But other lawyers are not interested in using LinkedIn so actively, Watts said, so she is still determining the best long-term approach.

Alston & Bird’s director of business development, Tiffany Zeigler, also considers LinkedIn important for marketing—so important that her department has re-launched LinkedIn training internally after reviewing Alston lawyers’ profiles. A lot of lawyers created profiles a few years ago, she said, but they’ve languished. The marketing department graded them on basics, such as a photo and an updated bio, she said. “The overall score was dismal.”

Zeigler checked out the Kredible demo, but she said it was in beta mode and had not been adopted by many firms. Instead an Alston marketing and technology manager is giving LinkedIn presentations and coaching lawyers individually.

Once Zeigler finds out how willing Alston lawyers are to participate in Linked­In, she said, she may offer Kredible to the motivated ones.

One advantage of Kredible, Zeigler added, is that its profile-scoring feature could spur lawyers to get more active on LinkedIn. “No one wants to have a bad score—especially lawyers.”