Should You Start a (Legal) Podcast?

This article first appeared in the American Bar Association’s Law Practice Magazine in March 2020, but due to the constraints of dead-tree technology it was significantly shorter, so I’m publishing my full draft here.

So you want to start a podcast. Or maybe you heard it’s a good idea and you are wondering if you should take it seriously. Well, let’s consider that.

First of all, should you listen to me? Well, on the one hand, I host The Lawyerist Podcast, and it’s pretty popular, especially among small-firm lawyers. On the other hand, I’m not trying to get clients from my podcast; I’m trying to reach small-firm lawyers who want to build successful, future-oriented law firms. On the other other hand, I’ve talked with plenty of lawyer-podcasters who are trying to get clients from their podcasts. So in this article I’ll draw on what I know about making a podcast lots of people listen to as well as what I’ve learned from lawyers about what it takes to get clients with a podcast.

So should you start a podcast? In order to answer that question, I think you need to answer these:

  1. The audience. Are the people you want to reach (i.e., your potential clients or referral sources) interested in your idea for a podcast?
  2. The topic. What will your podcast be about?
  3. The host(s). Are you someone people want to listen to?
  4. The format. How will you present your topic?
  5. The quality. Are your recordings good enough?
  6. Promotion. How will you get the word out about your podcast?

Let’s take each of those in turn.

The Audience

Before anything else, consider the audience you hope to attract to your podcast. Who do you think will listen to your podcast, subscribe to it, and become a client or a source of referrals? And do those people even listen to podcasts? (For context, according to a 2019 Edison Research survey about a third of the US population listened to a podcast in the past month and about a fifth in the past week, but your target listener demographic may vary.)

If you are trying to reach people who don’t already listen to podcasts, you will probably have a harder time than if you are trying to reach people who already have a podcast habit. That’s because the power of podcasts is in regular listeners, not one-time “samplers.” And since people are not especially likely to stumble across podcasts in search results unless they are specifically looking for a podcast, new listeners are most likely to find your podcast by word of mouth. That might be a recommendation from another podcast or a friend, but they are more likely to take the advice if they already listen to podcasts. Otherwise, first someone has to figure out how to listen to podcasts before they can listen to yours. It’s not a huge learning curve, but it is a barrier to adoption.

Next, consider the kind of podcast your target demographic is interested in listening to and whether there is room for the kind of podcast you want to create. To help you figure this out, try asking your current best clients and referral sources (or the clients or referral sources you hope will listen to your podcast) those questions:”

  1. If they listen to podcasts.
  2. What kind of podcasts they like to listen to.

(If you haven’t already created a profile of your ideal client or referral source, now is a good time to do that. It should help you get a good idea of the kind of person who might be in your target audience.)

Keep their answers in mind as you think about the podcast you want to create.

The Topic

Assuming your target audience listens to podcasts, can you come up with a topic that will interest them and keep them engaged, episode after episode? And specifically, can you come up with a topic they will want to listen to as opposed to a topic they would rather read about?

In thinking about your subject matter, be creative. It’s really hard for me to imagine what kind of glutton for punishment would want to slog through a weekly or monthly lecture about new developments in small business tax law—other than perhaps another small business tax lawyer. But I’m sure there is an audience for celebrity divorce drama viewed through a tax law lens.

Think of your ideal client again. What kinds of interests do your clients generally have in common? Can you find an overlap between those interests and your practice area? In that overlap, can you come up with a concept for a podcast that you think would keep listeners’ interest?

Be skeptical of your own ideas. Test your concepts by asking clients, friends, and family members if they would listen to a weekly podcast about X. You’ll quickly learn whether your idea has potential.

The Host(s)

Look, not everyone makes a good podcast host. Not everyone makes a good trial lawyer, either. In both cases, though, a wide range of approaches can be effective.

When I started a podcast I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to listen to me, but I thought it might work because I had gotten a lot of positive feedback on my presentations at conferences and CLE seminars. So I thought people might be willing to listen to me through their headphones, too (especially if I weren’t the only one talking). I also felt pretty confident I could bring a sense of fun to the often-dry topic of small-firm law practice.

I asked our community what makes a podcast host someone they want to listen to, and here are some of their comments:

Be the guide, not the hero. The best podcast hosts discover something along with the listener.

Jennifer Winegardner

Interactive and clearly informed on the subject or guest … and clear direction and purpose—give us a roadmap of what to expect on the podcast at its beginning, then tell us at the end what we’ve learned.

Gary Noah Savine

Someone who doesn’t talk down to me but has a conversation with me.

Ellen Marie

I think successful podcasts hosts have the “it” factor. They are engaging and conversational and they make you feel like you’re in the room with them and whoever it is they are talking to. Someone who makes it seem like you all have known each other forever.

Shannon Montgomery

When I consider my own favorite podcast hosts, I don’t see a clear pattern. I love 99% Invisible‘s Roman Mars, whose voice is, well, soporific. At the other end of the spectrum, I love the exuberant curiosity of hosts like Every Little Thing‘s Flora Lichtman, Revisionist History‘s Malcolm Gladwell, and Science Vs‘s Wendy Zuckerman. Or Uncivil‘s Chenjerai Kumanyika, whose hip-hop cadences sometimes merge with his narration. In the world of legal podcasts, I enjoy Gen Y Lawyer‘s Nicole Abboud, Building NewLaw‘s Peter Aprile and Natalie Worsfold, and Make No Law‘s Ken White, among others.

If I had to identify a common thread among those hosts (which is difficult since they are all very different), I would say that all of them are enthusiastic about their subject matter and organized in their delivery, whether that means a scripted, edited show or a well-roadmapped interview.

The bottom line is that just about anyone can be a good podcast host if they play to their strengths. And, different hosts appeal to different listeners. There’s no magic formula, as long as you aren’t boring. Nobody starts listening to a podcast hoping to be bored (except the subset of 99% Invisible listeners who apparently count on Roman Mars to help them fall asleep).

The Format

How will you present your podcast? The easiest format—just talking into your microphone—is probably also the least effective. Dan Carlin made the “lecture” format work for Hardcore History, but otherwise it’s pretty hard to listen to just one person for an entire episode.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are highly-produced, scripted podcasts like many of the shows produced by Gimlet Media and Malcolm Gladwell’s Pushkin Industries, but also Ken White’s Make No Law. These podcasts are a lot of work. No matter what, it takes way more time to plan, record, and edit them.

Fortunately, there is lots of room in between. There are variety shows, discussions among hosts, interviews, and more.

When deciding on a format, make sure to consider production time and control over the message. With an interview podcast, for example, it takes time to line up guests, prep them, and come together to record. If you intend to do remote interviews, you’ll also need to contend with different kinds of communication setups on your guests’ end.

Also consider whether you will be the strongest draw for new listeners. Inviting guests onto your podcast is a great way to get people interested in your podcast who might never find it otherwise.

For The Lawyerist Podcast, the discussion/interview format felt natural to me. I have spent years buying coffee, lunch, and cocktails for other lawyers and business leaders and pumping them for information. I decided to bring much the same approach to the podcast. I try to have a loosely organized discussion with my guests in which I try to learn what I can from each of them.

All this may sound like I am pushing the interview/discussion format, but it also has its downsides. For one thing, it’s hard to control your message when you aren’t the central character. You can frame your interviews with an introduction and conclusion you deliver, but in between your guest may not stick to the game plan. It also doesn’t work well to just deliver a question, listen to the answer, and deliver the next question. If you aren’t comfortable on your feet following up your guest’s answers with more questions, it probably isn’t the best format for you. Finally, interviews should be about your guest. Hosts who interrupt their guests with monologues might as well just skip the guests.

Look for a format that complements your topic by listening to similar podcasts to see what seems to work best.

The Quality

On the one hand, it does not take much to produce a decent quality-podcast. A quiet room without echoes and a good USB microphone will do the trick. On the other hand, it does take a lot of time to plan, produce, and edit a decent-quality podcast.

You need to care about how you sound. People will probably listen to your podcast on headphones or in their car, which are intimate listening environments where low-quality audio stands out. You don’t have to have NPR-quality sound, but you should aim for clear audio without distracting background noise.

Several hard-of-hearing lawyers also mentioned the importance of enunciation and volume:

Speaking as someone who has a hearing loss, it’s really important that they enunciate clearly and separate their words.

Karen Robbins

I also have hearing loss and definitely agree—enunciation is important, as is having an even volume between host and guests.

Cheryl Morrison

First, plan to be in a quiet room without echoes. Conference rooms, for example tend to have lots echoes, but a carpeted office usually works just fine. Make sure you can be comfortable. Listeners will be able to hear if your mouth moves away from the receiver or microphone or if you tap your fingers on the table, so you’ll need to sit fairly still throughout the recording session, with your mouth close to the phone’s receiver or your microphone. Arrange not to be interrupted—by coworkers, construction workers next to your window, or whatever. Sometimes you can edit out interruptions, but you can’t always restore the flow of a good conversation.

For a microphone, it’s fine to use a good-quality USB mic like the popular Blue Yeti. I’m not going to get into more details on hardware and software and settings; do your research. And do lots of testing before you try to use your setup in production. (Checklists are your friend!)

Editing is also essential. You’ll want to assemble the pieces of the episode, subtract any constant background noise, and edit out mistakes, awkward silences, coughs, and sneezes. You (or your editor) will have to listen to the entire episode at least once to do this, so plan to spend 2–3 times the duration of the episode on editing. You can learn to edit your own podcasts, but you should consider hiring a professional who can do a better job in less time.

Before we get to the last component of a successful podcast, I’d like to point out that you can take all the components we have covered thus far and do a test run for relatively low cost. You can identify your audience, settle on a topic and format, get a microphone, and record a “pilot” episode. Then you can share it with clients, friends, and family, to see what they think. If you are serious about starting a podcast, it is well worth spending a little money to prove your concept before you spent a ton of time and money producing it for real.

Promotion

Finally, you’ve recorded and uploaded your first episode and there it is, on your website and in iTunes and Google Play! But if that’s all you do, the chances anyone will find it are slim. Most people find podcasts by word of mouth, which means you need to find some listeners for yours who can start recommending it.

At a bare minimum, you should share new episodes to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. And you should consider Pinterest and Instagram, as well. If you have guests on your show, ask them to share their episode with their networks, too. Maybe even provide them with a link, a graphic, and some sample language to make it easy.

Also, put yourself out there as a guest. One of the best ways to get people to listen to your podcast is to be a guest on other podcasts with complementary audiences.

If you put in the work, you should see your download numbers grow—probably in fits and starts, at first, but steadily if you keep at it. Keep at it.

So, Should You Start a Podcast?

If you got this far in this article, I hope you understood several things from it:

  1. Not everyone listens to podcasts or wants to hear you talk about your practice area on a podcast even if they do.
  2. Not every idea for a podcast is a good one.
  3. Not everyone makes for a good podcast host.
  4. It takes a fair amount of time, money, or both, to plan, record, edit, and promote a successful podcast.

In other words, there is no low-hanging fruit here. You can’t just go start a podcast and expect new clients to come calling any more than you can with a blog or a YouTube channel. You’ll need to put in the time and the work and keep at it long enough to see the return on your investment.

That said, if you have a good concept for a podcast, if you turn out to be a good podcast host, if you ensure your podcast will be good quality, if you will promote it, and if you are willing to invest the time and money to see if your podcast can be successful, give it a go!

Published on April 15th, 2020. Last updated April 16th, 2020.