Revenge of the lawyers
3 March 2003
Personal injury lawyers have realised that joining together to launch aggressive marketing campaigns is the only way to compete with the claims management companies. But as Jon Robins reports, not everyone is so optimistic
As the film rolls, two prospective clients subject a lawyer to a rather menacing cross-examination. The camera cuts sha-rply between this intimidating pair of inquisitors and the inscrutable face of our hero. Ive had an accident. Am I entitled to compensation? asks one. Do I have to pay anything up front? The lawyer responds both times in the negative. He is plugged into a lie detector and the needle does not budge.
The questions keep coming, but still the lawyer does not miss a beat.
Do I have to sign a loan agreement?
Will I receive 100 per cent of the compensation payment?
The polygraph needle remains unmoved. Injury Lawyers 4U makes sure all our people give honest, professional advice on your personal injury claims, intones the voiceover. In case you havent got the message yet, the banner across the screen reads: No Loans, No Credit, No Catch. The End.
If you havent seen this cinematic masterpiece, dont worry there is plenty of time to catch it on prime time terrestrial channels, as well as numerous satellite stations over the next 12 months. Injury Lawyers 4U (IL4U) is the brainchild of that pioneer in the post-Access to Justice world, Manchester law firm Amelans and it is the largest television advertising campaign of its kind ever run by lawyers.
It seems that the personal injury (PI) profession has chosen this moment to hit back at the claims companies, which over the last few years have taken the market away from independent lawyers. Another solicitor-led initiative, the Legal Marketing Fund (LMF), launches an assault this month on another front. Daily advertisements will be taken out in either the Daily Mirror or The Sun inviting readers to contact the member firms every day for the next couple of months.
There are a lot of other organisations out there who promise and then dont deliver, but not this one, says Amelans partner Martin Cockx of IL4U. What this scheme is all about is ensuring that, first, the client gets 100 per cent of the
damages, and also they get a proper professional service from qualified lawyers.
Its not a claims handling service, nor is it a claims management company, nor a case of the oppositions insurer trying to minimise the claims, the lawyer continues. Its a collection of independent solicitors who enable the client to have a good, professional service.
Members include leading Manchester firms Donns, Leigh Day & Co and Pannone & Partners, as well as Irvings in Liverpool and Howe & Co in West London. In total, there are 26 firms involved in the scheme.
The LMF also boasts an impressive list of members, from market leaders such as Irwin Mitchell to strong regional players, including Southampton firm Moore & Blatch and Lupton Fawcett in Leeds. Bob Gordon, the former director of insurance provider Greystoke Legal Services, and Alan Cockburn of Oldham firm Megson Ponsonby, are the brains behind the LMF. The times right for specialist PI lawyers to join together, pool part of their marketing budgets and advertise directly to the public, Gordon reckons.
It was through the use of aggressive marketing that the claims companies made the inroad into the traditional PI market, and now the lawyers believe that they can use the same approach to steal it back again.
The one thing that Claims Direct did prove was that TV advertising does work, and if you get the right mix and the right audience it will generate the work, comments Cockx.
But what model to use? IL4U is not letting on how much money is in their war chest other than to say that it is absolutely huge. Any lead goes straight from the call centre to the member firms by email and work is allocated by a rota system. The member firm contacts the client within the hour unless the call is after 5pm, in which case the call is dealt with the following morning.
Cockx explains that the initiative is strictly a marketing venture and that the firms will operate as per normal behind the IL4U name. Theres no element of control here at all, he says. Its purely a funnel for claims to come into. The claims are then distributed and, after that point, Injury Lawyers 4U has nothing to do with the claims.
The LMF is a slightly different beast and the exact nature of the business model is still officially under wraps. The limited
companys first board meeting was only
last week, but Gordon stresses that it is not,
and will never be, a claims management company (CMC). The LMF has worked closely with the Law Society to ensure that its system complies fully with both the spirit and the letter of the referral code. It is a not-for-profit company and acts simply as a holder of the marketing pool.
LMF members are paying £2,000 a month into the new company, which will hold the proceeds in a ring-fenced account. In addition to this, there is a monthly administration charge of £250. A freephone number will connect callers to a call centre, which will be operated by Bob Gordon Litigation Associates (BGLA), and calls will be vetted before being passed on to members on a
A requirement of the scheme is that all cases are insured through BGLA and that they will provide, in the words of BGLA, highly competitive after-the-event (ATE) insurance and disbursement funding. One critic of the BGLA scheme dismisses it as another way of flogging his insurance product. But Gordon says: We arent going to tie ourselves up-front to any provider. Well have detailed discussions with all the providers involved.
At the end of last year, The Lawyer reported on the rise of PI regional networks of law firms and their attempt to wrest back control of local markets from the claims companies (The Lawyer, 25 November 2002). For example, 11 Kent firms launched their own marketing group, Kent Accident Link, last month, and more recently 14 Blackpool-based firms have joined up to create the Fylde Solicitors Consortium (FSC). Were saying that were local solicitor firms; there are no middle men and no referral fees, Stephens & Son partner Jacqueline Shicluna said at the time. We wanted the public to know that there is a difference and that they dont have to go to the claims companies. The same message applies nationally.
At the time, there was scepticism about how advertisements on local radio stations and in the Yellow Pages would dint the public consciousness compared with the inexhaustible resources available to the claims companies. The same concern applies to the new, bigger schemes.
Jeff Zindani, the founding member of online PI service Forum Law and a former Russell Jones & Walker partner, is as damning of this grouping of law firms as he was of the limp-wristed approach to the crisis that has beset the profession.
Its a bit like smaller greengrocers getting together to take on the likes of
Wal-Mart, he says of the new initiatives. You have this cottage industry of small firms and they simply havent got the ability to sustain the sort of marketing costs for more than, say, two months.
Under the IL4U model, its creators stress that the firms are simply independent entities brought under the umbrella for marketing purposes. But Zindani believes the fact that there is no infrastructure is a weakness when compared with the claims companies, which oversee the whole process from beginning to end. His view is that lawyers should learn from how the claims companies have provided a service that consumers actually want.
Of course, it is part of the IL4U ethos that there is no such infrastructure. Its entirely up to each firm how they approach client care, says Cockx. Who am I to say to Pannones, You should do it this way or that way?
There have been other non-CMC referral and marketing services. Not least, the Law Society-endorsed Accident Line, which has 360 members which are all tied into using its Accident Line Protect insurance product. In the first year of its relaunch, it spent £3.5m on marketing, including television advertising.
According to marketing director Golda Aheto-Cudjoe, it was not the most effective way of putting their message across. We prefer to go through a more targeted method rather than advertising to the masses, which costs a huge lot, and this is only a niche market at the end of the day, she comments. The company now opts for an educational route, aiming its message at the Citizens Advice Bureau, law centres and local libraries, mainly through PR.
But how can that approach compete with the blanket television advertising of the likes of The Accident Group (TAG) or Claims Direct?
Well, one of those two has already gone down because they couldnt sustain it, Aheto-Cudjoe responds. TV advertising is a great method for creating brand awareness, which they did very well at, but they also created brand awareness to the point where that brand was synonymous with compensation culture. And so they did themselves a great disservice.
Accident Line also sought to take the moral high ground by restyling itself as The Ethical Option. The bywords of the new Accident Line are justice and proper compensation not terms associated with every claims management company, an August 2000 press release stated. But as Aheto-Cudjoe reflects, the industry has been tainted and brand awareness almost has a counter-effect, because in the publics eye it just backfired.
Kerry Underwood, senior partner of Underwoods, is not convinced that the latest marketing strategies are going to make much of an impact. Almost three years ago he launched a £350,000 prime-time television campaign hitting that most important of advertising slots the Coronation Street break. It ran for six months and was expected to show to 1.86 million people. He now calls the campaign successful, but very expensive, and one that has to be sustained. He believes a united approach could be a strategic error. What we did, we did for ourselves and we branded our own firm. When groups of law firms gather together, there are never enough common threads to pull together and they have to be all things to all people, he says. What is it that theyre doing thats any different to TAG?
Nevertheless, many in the profession (if not the majority now) see these lawyer collectives as the way forward. So what do the participating firms hope to achieve?
Its all about one thing, replies Simon McCrum, marketing partner at Pannones, who has been involved on the IL4U panel. And thats how the public go about bringing a claim. Joe Public still doesnt like going into a solicitors office The message really is, Trust me, Im a lawyer. It is a somewhat tarnished message, he admits.
We arent going to storm the castle and suddenly win hands down, McCrum continues. All the lawyers have agreed is that none of us will let down the message we give out, and weve committed to do right by every client. As the IL4U advertisement makes abundantly clear, much emphasis is placed upon protecting clients damages.
Jonathan Winston is a sole practitioner at JMW Solicitors in Leeds who has signed up to the LMF. What appealed to him about the scheme? The most important thing for me was that it was ethically sound, he replies, adding that compliance with the Law Society referral code was a decisive factor in him signing up. As a sole practitioner, if Im going to invest quite a lot of money I really dont want there to be any problems with recovery or conditional fee agreements, he adds. He hopes to generate 12 new cases a month (not the kind of rubbish that the claims companies send to us), which he believes represents good value for his £2,000 investment. Im convinced that its a good scheme, he says. Its a lot of money for a practice like mine, and Im prepared to put my money where my mouth is.
McCrum is struck by how the profession has joined forces to take on the common enemy. For decades, lawyers have been in brutal competition with each other, he notes. Its been bizarre to be in a room of competing lawyers and for there to be such a spirit of cooperation.