It only took three weeks for the personal injury law mass mailers to find Tricia Nell after she was in a car accident with an uninsured motorist.
“They didn’t even have the correct information [about the accident],” said Nell, a former district attorney and special prosecutor, who recently served as president of the Brown County Bar Association.
“I thought, ‘Well, obviously this is a form letter, so I’m not so trusting of you,’” she said. “My thought is, if you are a good attorney that I would find you through some sort of recommendation. I would look on the website and do a search and look at the qualifications. I might have even looked in the phone book, if I wasn’t so savvy with the computer. And I would ask family and friends.
“… But I can tell you right off the bat, that I would not have hired any of those attorneys.”
But because ethics rules prohibit direct solicitation, other than through advertising or in the cases of family, friends and/or former clients, how should a personal injury attorney approach clients without alienating them?
How soon is too soon? And how do you know when you’ve crossed over into ambulance-chaser territory?
“It certainly is a fine line,” said Shane Laughton Brabazon, owner and managing attorney of Brabazon Law Office LLC in Green Bay.
Most of Brabazon’s practice focuses on criminal cases, particularly drunken driving charges. But about 30 percent of his work deals with personal injury. For much of his 20-year practice, he said, he’s wrestled with the value of mass mailings.
“There certainly is some goodwill that is created by direct mail marketing,” Brabazon said. “It’s getting name recognition out there, and it’s getting information out there for people who are looking for information.”
But he said he knows there are drawbacks.
“Some people are overwhelmed by the mailings,” Brabazon said. “Those letters can be constant reminders of the accident and what occurred and the emotions of it. And you don’t want to cross that line where it becomes distasteful or predatory.
“But, generally, I think the good that comes from these letters outweighs the drawbacks.”
It’s part of the reason Brabazon said he still relies on mass mailings, although he has given up using them for personal-injury cases; an area in which he said he felt he couldn’t compete or, even worse, ran the risk of looking foolish by comparison.
“Some of the larger firms were almost creating books that were extremely expensive to produce,” he said. “I’m sure [those were] $5 or $10 pamphlets.”
So, after three years of sending out letters to potential personal-injury plaintiffs, he gave up on the mailers five years ago.
“I think there are more economical and less intrusive ways to market your law firm than direct marketing,” Brabazon said. “But there is still a place for it. It’s not going to go away. If it didn’t work for the people who are doing it – lawyers are business people, too – they wouldn’t do it. But I don’t know if it’s going to work for the smaller practitioners to keep up with the Joneses.”
The Joneses don’t include personal injury powerhouse Habush Habush & Rottier SC. One of the largest personal injury firms in Wisconsin, Habush has opted out of mass mailing.
“We’ve taken a pretty hard stance against that,” said Jake Reis, a personal injury attorney with the Habush office in Appleton. “Our firm doesn’t believe in direct mailing. It’s an invasion of their privacy, I think. And, based on the reputation of our firm, we don’t need to comb through accident reports and send out direct mailings.”
Admittedly, Habush has the luxury of taking the high road, since about half of all their personal injury clients are referrals. And the other half, Reis said, contact the firm themselves.
But, even if it didn’t work that way, Reis said he thinks the firm would be philosophically opposed to mailings.
“It hurts our profession,” Reis said. “I’ve known people who got into accidents and got 20 or 30 of these mailings. It doesn’t reflect well.”
In fact, he said, “I’d like to see them get rid of direct mail solicitation of clients in personal injury cases. I think that would help everybody, because you wouldn’t have all these people out there getting all these mailings who are disgusted. Those people end up in your jury pool.”
So, if ethics rules prevent most direct solicitation, but waiting to reach out to a potential client means you might lose them, what’s to be done?
“The biggest way that I receive my clients is through social media,” said Nell, who practices personal injury and criminal defense law.
That includes her website, a blog, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn pages for herself and her firm.
“And I do keep a phone book ad,” she said, “because I think personal injury clients still go to the phonebook.”
She’s also gotten her name and face on TV by providing legal analysis.
“Anytime TV asks me to do a spot, I do it,” Nell said, “because if the public sees you as a lawyer out there able to speak on a subject, their face is someone they will think of to call.”
“I think most people don’t look to their mailboxes for answers,” he said. “They look to websites and people who have been in similar situations.”
Brabazon and Nell advised others to be careful in timing their contact with potential clients. Acting too quickly can come off as icky and insensitive, both said, but waiting too long might mean losing evidence.
“It’s a fine line,” Brabazon said. “Things can happen very fast after an accident. You can have the insurance company calling you quicker than any attorney.”
Still, to preserve evidence, Nell advised acting sooner rather than later.
“I’m always so worried about losing evidence,” said Nell, who estimated that about 40 percent of her practice involves personal injury cases. “If it’s a serious case especially, I just don’t feel like you can necessarily always wait. Because, and this is a hard thing to say, but you don’t always know that a thorough accident investigation is being done.”
But be sure to be professional in your approach, Brabazon stressed.
“You can’t please everybody; you do the best that you can. But you have to be professional,” he said. “I have seen those mailings that [say], ‘This is a call to action! You must act now!’ It really is in-your-face-type marketing, and I don’t think that’s good for our profession. It starts to become a little distasteful when you turn it into so much of a time-share sales approach.”
That’s why, if he’s going to send a mailer, Brabazon said he relies on the informational approach.
“We say, ‘Hey, you have rights. You need to be aware of those rights. If you have questions, please give us a call. But please don’t do something that will limit our ability to do our job, if you do decide to hire us.’” he said.
“That is going to help these individuals, and hopefully it’s going to generate some business.”