Book written by K. William Gibson
Book review by Kenneth Vercammen, Esq.
This book is intended for the practitioner who wants to develop a more general practice into one specializing in Personal Injury Law, or who already has a Personal Injury practice and would like to build that practice.
The book begins by stating that starting a Personal Injury Practice is not for the fainthearted. The difference is money. In other types of practices, the lawyer takes in a case, often getting a retainer to cover future fees, does the client's work; and then sends a bill for the time spent and gets paid. In a Personal Injury practice, the lawyer takes in a case; spends his or her time and money getting the case ready for settlement or trial; and then gets paid in a year or two, if everything goes well.
Starting a Personal Injury Practice has been made even harder by the insurance and business lobby's unrelenting assault against injury victims and trial lawyers.
However, nowhere in the practice of law is there more opportunity to help those who are truly in need, who have been wronged through no fault of their own, and who are not going to get any relief without a lawyer who is willing to fight for their rights. Nowhere in the practice of law is there more of a David versus Goliath scenario than a working man or woman or retired person or child doing battle with a gigantic insurance company or corporation.
Setting Up the Practice: Lawyers who fail to build a successful personal injury practice often point to poor case selection, mismanagement of personnel, and poor use of time and money. There are four cornerstones to a sound foundation:
(1) A commitment to work hard to make your practice succeed
(2) The ability to manage your time, money, and people
(3) Adequate capital
(4) The desire to do the right thing for your clients
The author discusses the advantages versus the disadvantages of a partnership. The main financial advantages of a partnership are that there are two people to bring in resources and generate fees and to share the expenses. Solos who often share office space can get feedback and advice from other lawyers, but the advice of someone who has a direct stake in the decision is probably more sound than someone who has no interest in the decision.
Choosing the right partner is important. On a personal level, he or she should be truthful, ethical, considerate of other people, compassionate, slow to anger, and unselfish. He or she should be someone you like and respect and whose company you enjoy. On a professional level, look for qualities such as good work ethic, diligence, thoroughness, a willingness to fight for clients, and the ability to present a case effectively. If you want to have a small, easygoing practice, you should avoid someone who wants to build an empire. If you want to expand into neighboring communities and advertise on television, you will not want a partner who prefers a low-profile practice. Your partner should have the same financial objectives as you.
The author explains that a business plan is only one part of an overall practice development plan, but a vital part. The book also provides details on a marketing plan to include:
- goals (e.g. establish a personal injury practice emphasizing automobile accident claims);
- strategies (e.g. develop name familiarity in the metropolitan area by opening offices in surrounding suburbs); and
- tactics (e.g. advertise on area television stations and in the Yellow Pages).
The author instructs on the importance of writing a business plan: Before opening the office doors, you must secure suitable financing. To do so, you will need a good business plan. Your business plan should include these six elements:
(1) A description of the kinds of services you intend to offer
(2) A statement of the location(s) where you plan to offer your services
(3) A description of your target market (i.e. who will use your services)
(4) A projection of anticipated revenue and operating expenses
(5) A statement of personal resources that you intend to commit to financing the practice
(6) Statements detailing your personal net worth (i.e. assets - including bank account balances, stock holdings, value of home, car, and other personal property, etc. - and liabilities - including amounts owed on credit cards, student loans, etc.)
Planning for Market Trends: Your financial planning should address any anticipated changes in the market as a result of legislation or other factors. Many state legislatures have implemented some form of tort reform or legal reform that impairs the ability of individuals in those states to bring actions for personal injuries. Such legislative changes, if implemented in your jurisdiction, could wreak havoc on your financial planning and should be anticipated.
If your goal is to build a high volume practice, geography will be an important consideration in choosing the location of your office. Prospective clients may not be willing to drive a long distance to get to your office when there are other lawyers whose offices are close to their homes or work. Many people do not like to go "into the city", especially in large cities.
Multiple offices: In considering whether to have multiple offices, client convenience will be the most important issue. Supporting multiple full-service offices is an expensive and labor-intensive undertaking. A less costly alternative is for a lawyer to open a branch office but handle all the paperwork at the main office. Many lawyers who use the main office - branch office approach locate their branch office in an executive suite with office space, reception, coffee, photocopies, and related services provided.
The book has many suggestions on Marketing strategies; You want to communicate with the following groups:
- People who have been injured in the past and have not resolved their claims
- People who may become injured in the future
- Friends and family of those people who have been injured and who may recommend a lawyer to the injured person
- Professionals who come in contact with injured persons and who may be in a position to recommend a lawyer
- Lawyers who do not handle Personal Injury cases and who may be in a position to recommend a lawyer who handles such cases
- Lawyers who handle Personal Injury cases but who want to bring in another lawyer to help with a particular case
Business Cards: In many cases, people will put your card away and forget who you are. When they find your card later on, will it tell them who you are and what you do? Does it say, "Attorney-at-Law" or does it say, "Personal Injury Lawyer: Handling auto accidents, medical malpractice, products liability, and workers' compensation cases"? Which card tells your story most effectively? It is common for clients who have two accident claims in a short time to use a different lawyer for the second claim because they forgot the name of their first lawyer.
The book provides suggestions on the preparation of brochures. Marketing involves communication, and brochures are an effective way to communicate your availability. A brochure is just one more way to remind prospective clients that you are there to help them when they need you.
Your brochure needs to speak for you and answer the client's questions. Potential clients want to know whether you will take their case on a contingency basis. Once you have produced your brochure, you want to distribute it as widely as possible. Start with your current and former clients. If you don't have any current or former clients, send your brochure to friends and relatives, business associates, fraternity or sorority members, church members, preschool parents, etc. Former clients will welcome a personal letter from you, with your brochure and business card enclosed, reminding them that you haven't forgotten them and that you are available to help them with their legal problems if the need should ever arise. Invite them to call for a free consultation if they have a problem. Let them know that you are available and accessible. Don't be timid about asking them to refer their friends and family to you. You will find that most people take pride in referring others to their lawyer. Without the brochure or any follow-up on your part, it won't be long before your former clients no longer think of you as their lawyer. Worse yet, they often forget the name of their former lawyer entirely and start over with someone new when they next need a lawyer.
Newsletters are also examined in this book. Many lawyers use newsletters to keep in touch with clients. The information in the newsletters may relate strictly to insurance and personal injury topics, or may be more general in nature. Newsletters are an excellent vehicle to advise clients and others on tort reform issues. Other suggestions include participating in bar association activities as an effective way to get to know other lawyers and to get name recognition in the legal community. Lawyers usually get a great deal of satisfaction from participating on bar committees, and it is something that you may have a professional obligation to do, but it is not generally an effective tool in building a personal injury practice.
According to the author, Mr. Gibson, the best way to achieve that reputation is having success in the courtroom or settling some high profile cases. In addition, you can achieve a reputation as a PI lawyer by being active in bar activities that involve issues important to other PI lawyers. Here are some ways that you can get involved:
- Join the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) and your state trial lawyers' association and become involved in their sections and committees
- Join the litigation or personal injury sections of your state and local bar associations
- Join the American Bar Association
- Attend conventions and meetings of those organizations and volunteer to organize future meetings
- Volunteer to edit or write for a newsletter featuring issues of interest to personal injury lawyers
- Volunteer to organize or speak at future CLE programs
The Internet: The author advises you may want to include copies of articles that you have written for professional publications, articles that have been written about you, and, of course, articles that have been written about your successes in the courtroom. Whatever you choose to include on your Internet site, it is important to change the information on your home page regularly. People will get bored with your home page if it is nothing more than an on-line resume.
Referrals: Referrals are the best way to get new clients - and the least expensive. As a personal injury lawyer, you should get to know other lawyers and give them a reason to refer PI cases to you. You can begin that relationship by referring non-PI cases to other lawyers encouraging them to reciprocate. Try not to refer clients to lawyers who also handle personal injury cases because they will never have any cases to refer to you. When you do refer a client to another lawyer, call the lawyer directly and tell him or her that you are referring a client. Explain that you only handle personal injury cases and that you are helping a client find a lawyer to help with another matter. Find out if that lawyer handles PI cases and, if not, ask the lawyer to consider referring such cases to you. If your jurisdiction allows referral fees, discuss that issue as well.
Your Road Map/Marketing Plan: According to author, Bill Gibson, it is critically important to have a marketing plan in place before you embark on setting up a personal injury practice. You cannot reach your destination without a road may and the marketing plan is your road map. Your marketing plan must include goals so that you know where to aim your marketing efforts. It must include strategies designed to help you reach your goal, and it must include marketing tactics that help to advance your marketing strategies. Many lawyers implement tactics without regard to whether or not those tactics are part of the overall plan and often find that their efforts are wasted. If you need help in designing and implementing your marketing plan, don't hesitate to get it.
The New Client: When the new client calls you or comes into your office, all they really want to know is whether you will help them. In advising them at that first meeting, your job is simply to do the following:
(1) Answer their questions.
(2) Tell them whether you can help them.
(3) Do what you say you will do.
If you know at the first meeting that you can't help the client or don't want to take the case, tell the person so. Clients will be less disappointed if you are direct with them than if you get their hopes up and later decline to take the case.
Some lawyers don't meet with clients unless it is absolutely necessary, such as before a deposition or other court proceeding. This is a dangerous way to practice law. Take the time to meet your clients before you accept their cases. Give them a chance to talk with you and to ask you questions. It is only fair that you give them that courtesy.
Getting All the Facts: It is natural for clients to put their best foot forward when meeting with a personal injury lawyer. You should expect that when they tell you about the accident or their stay at the hospital or their injury from that defective product, that they will want to give you mostly "good news" - that is, news that will make their case sound good and will make you want to help them. However, in your quest to get all the facts, you will want to ask them a few questions and find out who actually ran the red light and caused the accident. You will want to find out about those other accidents in which the client suffered a back injury. In addition, if you are the second or third lawyer that the client has consulted about this case, you will want to find out what facts caused the other lawyers to turn it down. With each successive lawyer, the client will naturally improve the "sales pitch" to avoid another turndown. Be sure to use a new client intake form. It is far easier to turn down new clients during that first meeting after obtaining the facts than after you have accepted the case. So get everything you need to help you decide. The book contains interview and other useful forms.
The Confidential Client Questionnaire: New clients should be made to understand that once they make a claim for injuries, their lives become an open book. Most people do not welcome this invasion of their privacy, but you can reassure clients that you will be in a better position to protect their privacy if you have all the information in advance instead of first hearing about it during a deposition or, worst of all, at trial. A great benefit of a Client Questionnaire is that it allows you to gauge the degree of cooperation that you can expect from your client.
As every lawyer who has tried a case knows, the client who is actively involved in the case and cooperates with you in developing the case has a better chance of getting a good result than the client who is uninvolved and passive. Many people are willing to "give their case" to a lawyer, thinking they won't have to do anything more. They should understand that the time they will spend filling out the questionnaire will be far less than they will have to spend preparing for and attending depositions, undergoing medical examinations by insurance company doctors, and preparing for and attending the trial.
Discussing the Client's Objectives: The best way to begin the discussion of objectives with your client is simply to ask what the client's objectives are - and then listen carefully. You may be surprised at what you learn. Not all clients have the same objectives, and any client's objectives may change during the case.
Keeping Personal Injury Clients Happy: Most people have no idea what is in store for them when they file a claim or a lawsuit for personal injuries. They have never had to deal with the endless delays and postponements that are part of any lawsuit. They have never had to undergo medical examinations by insurance company-paid doctors. They have never had their lives become subject to intense scrutiny by claims adjusters. They have never had their depositions taken by skeptical and unrelenting defense lawyers.
Personal injury clients may become unhappy more easily than other people because of the fact that they have been injured. They may be off work and losing income; they may be facing surgery; or they may have already had surgery but found it hasn't helped. They may become unhappy because no one takes their injuries seriously. Often their injuries result in serious financial difficulties, which, in turn, put a strain on their personal relationships. Make sure the client is aware that you are on their side. Clients also become unhappy when their lawyer won't meet with them in person to discuss their case. Even though they don't "need an appointment", it may be a good idea to meet with them anyway.
The author provides details on how to keep clients happy: You can keep clients happy by following these five rules:
(1) Don't make promises that you can't keep.
(2) Don't treat your clients any differently than you would want to be treated.
(3) Work hard for your clients.
(4) Tell your clients how hard you are working for them.
(5) Communicate with them regularly.
Clients often have no idea what is going on with their case, and if you don't tell them they will never find out. Worse yet, they assume that nothing is going on because they have not heard from you. An effective way to let clients know what you are doing for them is to call them and tell them. Tell them what has happened since you last spoke together. Tell them what you are doing now and what you plan to do in the future. While you are taking the time to talk with them, get an update on their medical and employment situation so you can document the file for future reference. The client will appreciate your efforts and you will generate some important goodwill.
The next major chapter is Managing the Workload: Case Management. Before you start spending (or perhaps borrowing) money to finance a big case, you need to have some idea of what the case is worth so that you can weigh the risks against the potential rewards for your client. You should consider the following case evaluation methods:
(1) Case evaluation clinics sponsored by local bar groups or trial lawyer groups
(2) Evaluation by a trial consultant
(3) Private case evaluation performed for a fee by another lawyer
(4) Focus groups
Litigation Action Plan with Timetables: A litigation action plan should contain three elements:
(1) Investigation plan
(2) Discovery plan
(3) Trial/arbitration plan
Every case has some facts that are either disputed or are not completely agreed on. Do not assume that liability is not an issue until the other side concedes in writing that it admits liability.
The Discovery Plan: The discovery plan should be divided into two phases: (1) responding to the other side's discovery requests and (2) preparing your own.
The Trial/Arbitration Plan: Preparation for the opening statement and closing argument should not be left until the last minute. The truly spontaneous and unrehearsed arguments often sound disjointed and confusing.
Author Bill Gibson has carefully constructed this "How to" manual highlighting all the tactics, technology, and practical tools necessary for a profitable practice, plus a CD-ROM of forms. In addition, the Appendix contains sample forms, such as "A Marketing Plan", "Initial Client Interview", and sample letters in a Personal Injury Practice.
I am an experienced personal injury attorney myself and lecture to my State Bar on this topic. This book is helpful for myself and other experienced attorneys. It is not just for attorneys looking to start a personal injury practice. It can be purchased by contacting the American Bar Association Order Fulfillment Department at 1-800-285-2221 or online at http://www.ababooks.org. The regular price is $64.95, but if you are a Law Practice Management member, the price is $54.95.