The Business of Personal Injury Law Practice

 
The Most Effective, Least Expensive
Way to Market Your Practice:
Part II
 
by
William L. Speizman
 
[Note: In this column, I refer to “you,” but what I say about “you” also
applies to your partners, if you have them, and the members of your staff.]
In my August column, I explained why word-of-mouth marketing is the most effective, least expensive way to market your law firm.
I discussed the four advantages of client referred cases and the three benefits of word-of-mouth marketing programs. I also presented a case study demonstrating the efficacy of word-of-mouth marketing in personal injury practices. The subject of that case study was a two partner law firm which relied exclusively on word-of-mouth marketing and signed up seven, million dollar cases in its first nine years. Those cases generated approximately $5,430,000.00 in fees. All seven cases had been secured through referrals and repeat business from current and former clients. Consequently, no attorney referral fees were paid and the partners saved more than $1,000,000.00. Those seven, million dollar cases were in addition to many smaller cases the partners signed up.
The goal of word-of-mouth marketing isn’t getting referrals and repeat business; it’s maximizing them. Attaining that goal requires actively and systematically pursuing referrals and repeat business from your current and former clients.
All successful word-of-mouth marketing programs have two components, the intangible and the tangible. In this column, I’ll discuss their key intangible components and when to address them. In my next column, I’ll discuss their key tangible components and how to implement them.
 
Key Intangible Components
Of Successful Word-Of-Mouth
Marketing Programs
A. What they are.
The first intangible component is the relationships you form with your clients. Strong, positive client relationships are the only bedrock on which you can build a successful word-of-mouth marketing program. Your clients must feel they are being treated with respect, that you and the members of your firm have a genuine concern for their welfare and that you’re doing your utmost to get them the best settlement you can.
The second intangible component is extending your handling of a client’s case into a long term relationship with that client. Clients may not need your services again for five or ten years. They may not have family members or friends who need your services for three or four years. But when those needs arise, you want to have a much better chance of securing those cases than any of your competitors.
Clients come to you thinking you are going to handle their cases. You need to communicate to them that you are not just handling their cases, you are initiating a long-term relationship with them. You can do that by giving them explicit permission to think of you as their personal injury attorney and letting them know that you’ll be there for them whenever they, their family members or friends get injured.
The vast majority of personal injury clients don’t know attorneys socially. It’s very scary for them when legal problems arise, because they have to deal with them on their own. Without you, they are in the same situation as someone lacking health insurance when he or she gets sick.
By giving your clients permission to think of you as their personal injury attorney now and in the future, you provide them with a psychological sense of comfort and safety. It’s similar to the feeling people without health insurance experience when they land a job with health care benefits.
In sum, the first necessary condition for a successful word-of-mouth marketing program is intangible. It is the formation of strong, positive long-term relationships with your clients.
B. When to establish those relationships.
Each time you interact with a client (face-to-face, by telephone or in writing), you’re not only doing legal work; you’re in the midst of an opportunity to market your law firm. You can use those opportunities to advance the development of solid, long-term relationships with your clients. However, in order to take advantage of those opportunities, you need to constantly remind yourself that every interaction with clients serves two purposes, a legal function and a marketing function.
Interactions with your clients take place during each of the three phases of your work on their cases: signing them up, working on their files and presenting their checks. Here’s what you can do in each phase to form strong, positive, long-term client relationships.
Phase 1: Signing up clients.
Whenever possible, you should do a sign up yourself. When it’s not possible, you should do a walk through and say hello to the client while a staff member is signing him or her up. If even a walk through is not possible, you should call your new client and introduce yourself. In all three cases, you should follow up with a letter, signed by you, thanking your new client for choosing your law firm and stating, “Remember, I’m in your corner from now on. I want you to think of me as your personal injury attorney. Whenever you a family member or friend get injured, call me. I will be there for you.” This statement conveys the message that your new clients have not just brought you their cases, they have initiated long-term relationships with you. This letter should be the only thing in the envelope.
At the sign up, you should go beyond simply obtaining relevant case information and getting your retainer agreement signed. If you limit yourself to a “just the facts” approach, “date of accident”, “name of other driver”, “time of day”, “weather”, etc., you’ll come across as cold and distant, the nemeses of strong, positive, personal relationships.
The way to warm things up, and demonstrate concern for your clients’ well-being, is to address their emotions. This doesn’t mean you need to become a psychotherapist or new age guru. Simply asking your clients, “How are you feeling?” and taking a moment or two to hear them out will do the job.
If your new client appears angry or frightened, acknowledge those feelings, “I can tell you’re angry. I’d feel the same way if it had happened to me.” and give them a moment to respond. Or, “I know this is all pretty scary for you, but we are going to do everything we can to make sure you have nothing to worry about.”
By addressing your clients’ emotions, you communicate concern for their well-being.
As the sign up concludes, thank your clients for choosing your law firm. Then add, “I’m in your corner. From now on, I want you to think of me as your personal injury attorney. If you a family member or friend get injured, call me, and I will be there for you.” Again, this statement conveys the message that your new client has not just brought you a case, they have initiated a long-term relationship with you.
Phase 2: Working on files
a. Always answer clients’ telephone calls or return them as soon as possible, with one exception.
Some clients take a disproportionate amount of staff time by calling and calling and calling about the status of their cases. You should set up a system which permits staff members to bring frequent-flier callers to your attention. You should create PITA (pain in the neck) reporting forms and give some to each of your secretaries, paralegals and case managers. The form allows them to record a client’s name and case number and the reason for submission of the form. When a staff member identifies a high maintenance client (or one that’s abusive), he or she fills out a PITA form and gives it to you. You then review the client’s file and decide whether it is more profitable to keep the client or let him or her go. (You should also place in the balance the effect that retention of a disruptive client will have on staff moral.)
b. Over the years, one of the things I’ve observed is that personal injury practices are very labor intensive, sometimes hellishly so. Many days, there isn’t time during a status call to ask the caller how he or she or a family member is doing. And there’s certainly no time to call clients just to ask, “How are you feeling?” Yet little touches like these mean a great deal and can bond clients strongly to your practice.
You should remind yourself to make a very brief personal inquiry about your clients’ well-being whenever you speak or correspond with them.
There is additional way to introduce a personal touch into your work with your clients. I call it the Night Caller program. This cannot be used in a lot of law firms, but if it can be in yours, you should implement it.
You may know someone who is right for this job who has never worked for your law firm. More likely, you may have a former staff member, who left to be at home with her young children, whom you can hire as your Night Caller.
You should get a computer for your Night Caller, load it with your case management software and provide online access to your server. Several evenings a week, your Night Caller calls clients and says, “I’m Jill Benson. Attorney Johnston asked me to call and see how you’re doing.” Then, she listens for a moment or two to their answers.
The Night Caller program leaves clients with the feeling you’d have if the manager of your favorite restaurant sent over a complimentary bottle of very good wine the next time you dined there.
The Night Caller program can also serve a legal function. The staff members who are responsible for files prior to demand may have trouble contacting a client during normal business hours. They can email your Night Caller and ask her to call the client in the evening and get the information they need. Conversely, a client receiving a night call may have a question or some important information they have not communicated to your law firm. The Night Caller can  email either to the staff member handling that file.
Phase 3: Handing out checks
You should hand checks to your clients yourself, if at all possible.
Meeting with your clients and handing them their checks is the single most important marketing interaction you can have with them. The amount may be less than they wanted or expected, but the ramifications of that fact should have been dealt with before the check was cut or the appointment set for disbursement.
Handing out the check should be a celebratory time. You’ve done your job and your client is getting money. But it is also your last opportunity to reinforce the strong, positive relationship you have formed with your client and project it into the future. You should repeat what you said to the client at the sign up, “I’m in your corner. From now on, I want you to think of me as your personal injury attorney. If you a family member or friend get injured, call me, and I will be there for you.”
To summarize, I’ve reviewed the two key intangible components of successful word-of-mouth marketing programs: forming strong, positive relationships with clients while you have the chance and extending your handling of a client’s case into a long-term relationship with that client. I’ve also laid out ways to achieve those objectives.
 
Conclusion
All this talk of relationships might seem light, airy and probably inconsequential. It’s none of those. But as Theodore Levitt, marketing guru from the Harvard Business School states, relationships with clients must be “tangiblized”. They must be brought down to earth and concretized with the hardware of a word-of-mouth marketing program. I’ll discuss how to do that in my December column when I conclude my review of word-of-mouth marketing.
 
Copyright 2008 William L. Speizman
All Rights Reserved