When I started practicing law in 1983, we were using IBM typewriters that had those golf balls with letters and symbols all over them. If you wanted to change the style of your script, you’d change golf balls. They were noisy machines, but they served their purpose, and you could get a decent looking document out of them. When three or four of those babies were humming at the same time, it was like they were printing money for us. Then one night a few years later, somebody broke into the office through a back window. All of the typewriters were gone. We were aghast. We were out of business.
Enter the word processor
One of the guys in the office recommended one of our best business decisions. We all agreed and chipped in about $1,500 each. What we got were three computers without modems, three huge CRT screens, three keyboards, three printers and three surge protectors. The office got so quiet, you could hear yourself think. Sometime around 1992 or 1993, we upgraded again. That was the birth of the internet in our little law firm. None of us guys had any idea of how drastically it would impact our careers.
Marketing today’s law firms
Try doing an internet search on marketing law firms before the internet. You’ll finally get a hit after six pages, and it was written by a non-attorney about half my age who really only advised that a lawyer’s involvement in public service might generate increased sources of revenue. Now it seems that marketing a law firm is all about web design, internet marketing and SEO.
Knowing who you’re dealing with
In 1990, a classic United Airlines television commercial ran where the CEO of a company advised staff that their company got fired by an old client of over 20 years. He said the client felt as if “he didn’t know us anymore.” Business had become impersonal. It was done over the phone, by a fax and then maybe another fax. That was before the internet. Now we can video conference. We can even take the deposition of a witness from a continent away over the internet, but something remains lost. That’s the element of a live breathing human being that you shake hands with and sit across a desk or table from while discussing an accident case and making mutual assessments of each other. That’s how we three lawyers did things. It’s the old fashioned way, and here’s how we got people into the office.
Before the internet, lawyer advertising ordinarily came in the form of newspaper ads or the phone book’s Yellow Pages. We paid over $700 per month for our quarter of a page ad. Some lawyers were into the thousands with their full page ads. Ours ultimately paid for itself tenfold when it generated a wrongful death case. We continued to run that ad for a few years until we were so busy from other sources of work that we really didn’t need it anymore.
All of us learned quickly that one good accident case could be worth 30 DUI defense cases, so accidents were what we wanted to focus on. We weren’t going to hang around emergency rooms, so we became the only type of lawyers that doctors like. We started doing collections for them. After awhile, we started getting some nice referrals from those doctors. We were able to phase out of collections in a couple of years.
A young lawyer has to keep the doors of the office open somehow while paying the bills around the house too, so we started out taking a lot of work that we didn’t really want to do. It takes considerable time to actively cultivate a specialized law practice. People aren’t going to just drop the lawyers they’ve been working with for years and go with you after you’ve passed the bar exam. Early on, somebody steered me toward a taxi cab company that had some issues. I spoke with the owner and traveled to his business location for a meeting. I learned that it wasn’t just one taxi company. He had about 50 Yellow Taxis, 30 Checker Taxis and 20 Black and White Taxis along with some small charter buses. Loaded business card holders were glued onto the back of every front seat of every taxi, and of course, drivers who were involved in accidents became clients too. That marketing tool worked for over 20 years until the client sold the company.
Waiters and waitresses
Leaving a business card on a restaurant table along with a nice tip got some nice work. A personable lawyer who tips well gets remembered. Wait staff soon learns your name, your favorite dishes and what you like to drink. I started getting calls and questions. If I couldn’t help them, I knew somebody who could. If somebody got hurt, I was the first person they’d call. One of the guys in the office picked up a nice $97,000 fee on an accident case from exactly that. Any day you make $97,000 is a pretty good day.
Some lawyers just don’t go to court. That real estate lawyer who closed on your home for you might not have been in a courtroom in years. Most corporate lawyers don’t go to court either. Divorce lawyers go to court, but most don’t do accident work, the same as most accident lawyers don’t do divorce work. The real estate lawyer, corporate lawyer and divorce lawyer all know people who get hurt though. Fee spitting between lawyers is generally permitted. The referring lawyer picks up 25 percent or 33 percent of a total one-third contingency fee on a case. One divorce lawyer that I know had a client that called her because her current husband fell at work. The divorce lawyer called another friend. What her client hadn’t told her was that her husband fell from the 6th floor of a building. The case settled for $13 million. Nice pay for a phone call. Lawyers are generally pleased to refer cases to their colleagues so long as no conflict of interest arises, and the referral fee is fully disclosed to the client. Clients like referrals because they’re getting somebody who is highly recommended. Lawyers like them because they discretely keep the wheels of income turning.
Employee benefits plans
As part of its employee compensation plan, the largest employer in our county offered its employees a free 30 minute legal consultation with a local attorney. I didn’t want the divorce and family law calls, so in the areas of practice form in my contract with the administrator of the legal plan, I checked only accidents and personal injury. That generated about six good cases a year. A good personal injury lawyer can live well on six good cases a year. The last case that I did through that plan settled for $182,000. It didn’t cost me a penny to work with that plan either.
The foreign language factor
Little did I know that when I had to take two years of either French or Spanish in college, I’d be speaking Spanish on a daily basis in a law office. Many lawyers have a Spanish speaking secretary in the office, but not many lawyers speak Spanish with any level of fluency. Hispanics were very comfortable with the white abogado who could break down the nuts and bolts of American personal injury law in their native tongue. Aside from being hungry and ambitious, the ability to speak Spanish in any setting was the best marketing tool I had. The top Hispanic accident case that I picked up went for $1.2 million.
I left practice for an early retirement. I’m far more interested in diving and underwater photography now. I don’t even own a phone book. Anything I need in that context is on the internet. I don’t even know if lawyers advertise in phone books anymore. I haven’t looked inside of one in at least five years. Things have changed though. A lawyer can now get retained on an injury case through teleconferencing and email. It’s entirely possible for the attorney to conclude that case without ever meeting the client in person. They don’t even get a chance to know each other. They’re just images on a screen. That seems to detract from the oldest form of marketing. That’s word of mouth in the local community. I practiced a mile south of the hospital I was born in and a mile east of the home I grew up in. I made a nice living the old fashioned way in that town.
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