October 23, 2012

Plaintiffs' Lawyers Adapt to a Changing Environment

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How Do You Get Inspired?



Trends Report

By Robert W. Denney

Practice hasn’t exactly been a bed of roses for many plaintiffs’ lawyers the past couple of years. The big issue, of course, has been tort reform in many states. In addition, having the U.S. president adopt tort reform as almost a personal crusade hasn’t helped the public’s perception of plaintiffs’ lawyers, either.

There are also other factors making life less than ideal for personal injury lawyers. One is the stigma many people still attach to television advertising by PI firms—although some of these ads are extremely creative and professional. Even for firms whose ads are viewed positively, there’s another challenge: the continually rising cost of TV advertising. Some of the smaller firms that had made it their principal marketing activity in the past can’t afford it anymore.

But now there are signs that these embattled attorneys are fighting back by adopting different strategies.

A Bigger Agenda Behind an Ad Campaign

One of the most interesting new approaches comes from Kline & Specter, a well-known plaintiffs’ firm in Philadelphia. The firm recently launched a series of TV ads that are designed not only to attract clients, but also to improve the image of trial lawyers. These ads show the firm’s lawyers hard at work—of course. But they also preach the virtues of the firm and how it has worked to improve public safety. An example is how one of the ads asserts that SEPTA, the local transportation company, improved safety operations and procedures after losing a $51 million verdict (to Kline & Specter lawyers) when a 7-year-old boy’s foot was torn off by a subway escalator.

Name partner Shanin Specter says the firm is not hurting for business and that the ads are meant to appeal not to potential clients, but rather to community leaders. “Trial lawyers,” he goes on to say, “need to work on our image because we are not highly regarded and we rarely defend ourselves. So firms like ours need to talk about what we’ve done to protect the safety of consumers.”

The ads were produced by a consultant who has produced ads for Specter’s father, U.S. Senator Arlen Specter. (In a bit of irony, the same consultant has also produced ads for President Bush.)

A Shifting Emphasis

Another challenge involves the Yellow Pages. Various studies have reported that when they look for where to purchase goods and services—including legal services—consumers aren’t referring to the Yellow Pages as often as they used to. But there may be an interesting outcome, at least for some firms. “This decline in people’s use of the Yellow Pages has actually helped us,” says the managing partner of a plaintiffs’ firm in New Jersey. “It has made us put more emphasis on our Web site and how to attract people to it.”

Other plaintiffs’ firms, including some large ones, have gone back to one of the age-old forms of marketing by becoming much more active in their communities and by sponsoring, or even holding, major community events. These firms are also requiring each of their lawyers to join—and become active in—local social service organizations. A few firms are even “lending” some of their lawyers to provide pro bono services for nonprofit entities. And some of these firms take this a step further on the Web by devoting as much of their sites to their “good works” as they do to discussing their successful verdicts and settlements.

In a few suburban and rural areas, plaintiffs’ firms have expanded their community involvement even further by offering to local organizations the use of the firm’s conference rooms for their meetings. Some even go as far as to provide free coffee and sodas for the organizations’ meetings. The only requirement is that the meetings be held in the evening, after the firm’s working hours. Yes, it’s another age-old marketing strategy, borrowed from general practice firms.

While individual firms have been changing to new and different strategies, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America is making a few changes itself. As of a date that has not yet been determined, it will change its name to the American Association for Justice. At that time it will also launch a campaign that, according to ATLA, “will focus on the civil justice system.”

There’s an old adage, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Maybe that’s what we are seeing here.