New business is as important in the legal world as it is in any other industry. And just as in many other businesses, the rules of marketing legal services have changed drastically. We check the forecast for rain with some of the city’s top attorneys.
Written by Alex Watson
Leon Ashford, a trial lawyer for 42 years, has been the managing partner at the large plaintiff law firm Hare Wynn since 1996. And he has a proven record of winning multimillion dollar jury verdicts and settlements in litigation involving catastrophic personal injuries, wrongful death, and complex business disputes.
And despite extraordinary firm and personal successes, he is still nagged by the question that troubles all business people: Where is the next client coming from?
“We had the lion’s share of the plaintiff practice back in the 1970s,” Ashford says. “Everybody needed a trial lawyer in a substantial case. Most of the cases were tried. A substantial lawsuit, at the time a six figure or low seven-figure case, needed a law firm that could finance the case, get the case to the courthouse, try the case, and pay a reasonable referral fee to the lawyer or law firm that referred the case. That business came into a firm like Hare Wynn and we maintained a competitive edge due to the quality of the lawyers who existed here.
“That was pretty much true through the decades of the 1980s, ’90s and right up into the early 2000s. What has really changed over the years is that the ability to generate business by word of mouth, the opportunity of going to church or Sunday school and having somebody recommend you and you’d get a case, does not exist much anymore.”
In the early 2000s, Ashford and Hare Wynn looked at the television advertising market and chose to hold back. “What we did not know was that Mr. Shunnarah and others would get into it as heavily as they were going to, or that it would be as successful as it has been,” Ashford says.
Even so, Ashford says, there are a lot of ways in 2017 to get business in the door, outside of advertising.
“The traditional method of being a really fine law firm with great trial lawyers and the ability to finance major litigation still has its place. We still have plenty of business. We are still going to get hired in substantial lawsuits. We are in three states now in part to compete for the business we did not get in Alabama. We have offices in Arkansas and Kentucky as well as Alabama—four offices in three states, Little Rock, Fayetteville, Lexington and Birmingham,” he says.
Before the rise of television advertising, there was Jere Beasley’s law firm in Montgomery, which Ashford says grew “through a marketing and media effort of annual law seminars that is unparalleled in our state’s history.” Those seminars built relationships which built referrals, Ashford says.
For Hare Wynn, strategically adding offices in other states has proven to be a successful plan for growth, leading to the development of major cases in new areas. “What any plaintiff firm has to do to survive is to decide whether you can continue to do things the way you used to. We realized that we simply could not do that. So we went to Arkansas and began to do nursing home cases there, and that developed into an opportunity to represent thousands of farmers in a genetically modified commodity case. We teamed up with lawyers in that case who live in other states and began doing MDL (multi-district litigation) work where our lawyers can participate with a group of eight or 10 lawyers and handle thousands and thousands of cases that get aggregated for treatment in one courthouse,” Ashford says.
“Those relationships can’t exist for us unless we decide to go to Arkansas. If we are still here in Birmingham trying to make the phone ring or get the next case and do whatever we can do to be the good lawyers we are, we are not going to get that opportunity. So I know that networking works, working with good lawyers on other cases works. It is substantial litigation with the world’s best law firms and lawyers and the largest corporations in the world.
“There are a number of ways these days to get and attract business and we believe that if we keep our footprint exactly the way it was when we all came into the firm, if we have the best trial lawyers, if we have the best brief writer, if we have the best group of young lawyers that we can put together and be the kind of law firm that can handle almost any kind of case large or small, then we think that works,” he says.
Working in the marketing arena requires a dedication of resources. “All of the metrics and aspects of digital marketing, television marketing, and personal outreach these days requires someone coming in every day and looking at it and dealing with it. So we have made that commitment.”
Business is cyclical, Ashford says, and since 2008 and 2009 “civil filings are way down. I know that plaintiff law firms are not growing the way they used to. Defense insurance and litigation firms are clearly not growing the way they have in the past.”
The objectives remain: How to get the word out, how to make the proverbial phone ring.
“The lawyers on television today are spending around a million dollars a month in Birmingham, I think. There is a business model with those firms that simply does not exist on these three floors of the Massey Building (Hare Wynn’s building downtown),” says Ashford. “(We) are not warehousing thousands of small car wreck cases and fall-down cases and the other things that Shunnarah and those guys compete for every day. We are not set up to do that. They have large groups of people who aggregate those claims and get them in and out the door in a matter of months. That is just not us. We are still trial lawyers. We are going to settle most of the cases because we prepare them to be tried. But the business model you see on television these days is very different from what we are looking to do. The message we really want to get out there is that we are different, but how do we attract clients and business with that message?”
Ashford is happy to ask the question and to be searching for the answers. “How do you make it rain? We have lawyers in our firm who have always been able to attract business, but that is not just an individual thing any more. You might have two or three lawyers who can get more than they can handle, but for a firm that has 18 or 20 lawyers in three states you need some method to create the volume of business to give people enough to work on.
“We are really happy with where we are today. I was standing in the room the other night with all of our lawyers at a firm dinner and thinking what a good place we are in.”
Being good at what you do is a rainmaking strategy all its own, and one that Bradley attorneys Robert Maddox and Brian O’Dell employ in building their financial services litigation and regulatory practice. The pair has practiced together for more than 15 years and now primarily provide regulatory compliance advice, as well as help their clients navigate the examination and enforcement process.
Their practice grew out of Birmingham’s healthy financial sector of a few years back, when four of the biggest banks in the nation were headquartered here. “So there was a wealth of legal work here in the city,” says Maddox. “Those clients utilized us across the country. We knew their business and they knew us. They didn’t have a problem putting us in a major metro area, a Chicago, New York, Kansas City or Dallas. Because not only did we know their business but based on economies of scale our rates were a great benefit for the work they were getting. That evolution continued over time.”
The pair’s practice continued to grow up until the financial crisis of 2008, and after that accelerated. “When that came we were not only their litigation counsel but their enforcement counsel as well. As the crisis continued, more and more regulations were implemented. We started dealing with the new regulatory regime. We were fortunate to be at the vanguard of that,” Maddox says.
“About 10 years ago we had 15 people working with us. Now we have nearly 100, a sizeable increase. We pull lawyers from different spaces for various matters. It is very beneficial to have those kind of resources available,” says O’Dell.
The business has grown at least partially from being in the right place at the right time with the right expertise. “One way to grow client relationships is to make sure you understand your clients’ needs and provide them with excellent client service and guidance that helps them meet their business goals,” says O’Dell.
“It is personal marketing, but if you enjoy what you do it is not work,” Maddox says. “We do a lot of bet-the-company work and there is a lot of stress in that, because you realize what you are doing has an impact on thousands of employees. But when you realize you have a great firm behind you it makes it a lot easier. It is nice to work in an environment where you can get up in the morning and focus on your clients.
“We know them on a personal level, transcending the professional. We have relationships that have lasted more than a decade. As our clients move to new companies they take us with them. The one thing that we routinely hear is that when they have a problem, they feel we take ownership of the problem with them,” Maddox says.
“How do you make rain is something lawyers have really struggled with over the years. I began practicing law in 1993. In those days it was embarrassing for lawyers to talk about marketing. The belief was that if you have to market yourself, you must not be any good. Because there is so much business out there, anyone with any kind of reputation stays busy and does not have to do anything. That really started to change in the mid-1990s.
“That’s been a cultural shift. But we are still all fighting over the same clients. There are only two ways to get a client if you do defense or corporate work, and that is to form one or steal one. All of the big companies already have lawyers and that is true of most local businesses, as well. So how do you persuade them to work with you? Persuading someone to enter into a legal relationship with you is really a personal thing. It is not something that lends itself to cold calls,” Simpson says.
He believes in building relationships with people by being active in the community, being involved in a charity or hobby. “You get highly involved in these things and people see you and get to know you. Inevitably a conversation will emerge. And that is where I have grown my business. If you act like you are marketing, people are going to turn it off. It has to be very natural, they have to like you and see that you are competent, and then they come to you,” Simpson says. “You are not going to talk someone into have a long-term legal relationship if there is not already a relationship there.”
A good friend of Simpson’s is the managing partner. “After the crash, they were having a difficult time. So they did some research to see why some partners were good at bringing in business and others were not. So they brought in some psychologists to do personality testing. And they figured out there are basically three personality types in a service firm,” Simpson says.
“Everyone knows that person who has 500 friends, is well liked and knows everyone. That is the person who you want out there getting business. They don’t have a lot of deep relationships, they just know a lot of people. Then there is the person who has four or five really deep relationships. Once you get the client, that is who you put them with. Somebody who can really bond with the client and make them feel like family. Then you have the people who don’t want to do any of that, they are just really good technical people. Those are the people you surround the other people with, to make sure the job gets done right. They employed that tactic and their business really sky-rocketed,” he says.
Relationships are key to the legal business of Andy Campbell, principal of Campbell Guin, a business litigation firm.
“It is an old-fashioned town in terms of lawyers and legal practice. In larger metropolitan areas, lawyers get business based on specialties. Birmingham is more old-fashioned in the sense that it is more personality driven. You have lawyers who know of your reputation or they know you,” says Campbell.
“Our practice is driven in that fashion. We are a boutique firm. In both our Tuscaloosa and Birmingham offices we have found that relationships develop on a personal basis over the years and they continue on in that basis. Most of the lawyers I work with on referrals, those relationships have lasted 20 or 25 years.”
Campbell sees a Birmingham legal community dominated by boutique firms in certain niches and multi-state regionals. “The days of a 100-lawyer firm solely practicing in the state of Alabama (are dwindling). Where did Maynard Cooper open their last office? New York. Where did they open the one before that? San Francisco. Where did Bradley open their last office? Houston. They are going to Houston, hiring an energy guy, and they are going to build a firm around him.
“You are seeing that model because economies are varied across the country and there is strength in diversity. It is analogous to what the banks did,” Campbell says.
For Campbell, success in making it rain for his firm centers on running it as an entrepreneurial business. “We need to be on the cutting edge in terms of technology and talent acquisition and compete with larger firms on economical pricing to clients.”
Referrals are the key component to business growth for the practice of Howard Neiswender of Sirote & Permutt, PC, and those referrals require consistent, high-level networking.
“These days it is even more important than it was when I started back in 1983. Back then you could do good work and build a reputation and work would come to you. These days people pretty much assume you can get the work done. So you have to be out in the market. You have to be visible and you have to be really proactive about going after the work. You can’t just sit back and wait for the phone to ring. I guess I have found the best way to create work is through referrals. My practice is working with high net worth individuals and their other advisors. I basically work with individuals almost like a family member. Someone who is a sounding board and gets invited to the family barbecues and things like that,” Neiswender says.
“There has to be almost immediate trust. One of the things you have to be known for is being trustworthy. Competency is almost assumed, but trustworthiness is not always the case. You build that by working with others that work in the same market that you do. I get a lot of work from financial advisors, high net worth life insurance agents, certified public accountants that work with high net worth individuals. We basically put together a team that works in a very collaborative fashion.”
Neiswender defines high net worth as $25 million and up. “It is a very small fraternity/sorority to a large extent. Once you work with one family they talk among themselves and talk with others in their same peer group. Your name gets bounced around and you start getting referrals,” he says.
Neiswender provides comprehensive wealth planning for individuals and business owners. Representative work includes the use of innovative tax planning strategies and working with business owners to coordinate their business planning and their personal planning. He also works with U.S. and foreign individuals and businesses in all areas of international planning.
“The nice thing about it is that I am no longer limited by geography. When I started we didn’t have cell phones or the internet. I remember our first fax machine and how excited we got about that. Now I can and do work around the world. It is merely my choice to live here in Birmingham. I could live anywhere I want to, but I just like the lifestyle here and I have a firm that provides me the resources I need,” he says.
Neiswender sees himself as a bespoke tailor. “Everything I do is customized to the situation. I practice in a very holistic manner. A lot of what I do is educational, family communication. We work on a lot of things because so much of this is emotionally driven and not necessarily logically driven. There are a lot of behavioral science aspects to it.”
Whether by referral, paid advertising, social media or networking, attorneys are using all the tools and searching for new ones to make it rain.