In this episode, Alay Yajnik and Ken Levinson, Founding Partner at Levinson Stefani Injury Lawyers, discuss how his Level 3 niche marketing strategy contributed to his firm’s growth: Ken’s P.I. firm specializes in trucking crashes in Chicago. Alay and Ken also discuss cash flow management for contingency-based law firms. And pizza!
- “You have to pick an area that you’re good at, that you can solve a client’s problem, and differentiate yourself.” – Ken Levinson
- “If I talk to a lawyer here in Chicago…they may know 15 of my competitors really well. But if I speak to 150 lawyers in Maryland, I might be the only personal injury lawyer [in Chicago] they can think of.” – Ken Levinson
- “An expert realizes that dabblers cannot deliver the kind of service that a sophisticated client needs.” – Alay Yajnik
- “If you’re in a practice area with a lot of competition, find a sub-category specialization that’s really fascinating, where there’s opportunity to learn and go deeper.” – Alay Yajnik
Alay Yajnik: Welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage. This podcast is dedicated to helping attorneys earn more money, get better clients and spend more time with family. I’m your host, Alay Yajnik, founder of Law Firm Success Group. Smart business guidance for small law firms begins in 3…2…1….
Alay Yajnik: And it’s my pleasure to welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage Ken Levinson, founding partner of Levinson and Stefani Injury Lawyers. Ken, welcome.
Ken Levinson: Thank you. I sure appreciate you having me on.
Alay Yajnik: Well, I’m delighted to have you on on the program because you have built a successful book of business. First off, I have to ask you, what is your favorite pizza?
Ken Levinson: You know, I shouldn’t say this publicly, but I will. I’m a thin crust fan! In Chicago we love our thick crust, Lou Malnati’s and some of the bigger thick crust Gino’s, but I just like that thin crust New York style. I’m going to probably lose all my clients,
Alay Yajnik: Maybe we won’t put it in the podcast.
Ken Levinson: Oh, you could. We actually, my law partner and I, I think before the pandemic, we got this idea from someone else. We decided we love to eat. We love to spend time together. So we go around local restaurants and we do like a little video. We highlight Chicago restaurant. So it’s on our Facebook. We share it a lot. So we love to eat. So next time you’re in town, we’re taking you to a great meal.
Alay Yajnik: That sounds like a deal. Sounds like a deal. Very cool, man. Well, that was not the answer I expected. I was thinking Giordano’s or Gino’s or even better, something that I’ve never heard before. So that’s awesome.
Ken Levinson: I know I love to think we have some really good, interesting Chicago food and great Italian and great steak houses and every time. Oh, it’s a great food. My wife, our favorite food is Indian food. So we have Indian food in town. This place we love and but there is every type of food you can imagine in Chicago.
Alay Yajnik: I was looking through your background. You left the Illinois Attorney General’s office in 1996. So just by way of introduction, why did you leave and decide to join a firm?
Ken Levinson: Well, I went to the Attorney General’s office because I felt that would be the place where I gained the most hands and experience to be a trial lawyer, and that’s what I want to do. So early on in my career, I was going to court taking depositions. Arguing motions? And after I was there a few years, I really wanted to represent people who needed lawyers. I love my time at the state and representing state agencies and state employees, but I really wanted that connection to help people and individuals who needed a trial lawyer.
Alay Yajnik: And as you were doing that, your focus is on personal injury, right?
Ken Levinson: That’s correct.
Alay Yajnik: And so P.I. is not an easy practice area to to kind of develop from just an economic standpoint. So what were some of the big challenges that you had to overcome as you ventured out and started your own firm to really make that firm into a success?
Ken Levinson: That’s a great question, you might have this dynamic in California, we have it here in Chicago and Illinois, there are some other personal injury firms out there. You might see one or two. You might see a billboard and notice a TV or radio or paid advertising online. So it’s a very competitive space. So we think about how to grow our firm and market and get as many clients that we can help as possible. I mean, we think about it a lot. And I’ve been a lawyer a long time and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. And one of the things I’ve learned and doing things wrong for a long time is you really have to pick an area that you feel you’re good at, that you can solve a client’s problem and different differentiate yourself in your practice. And we’ve tried hard to do that.
Alay Yajnik: That’s great, and so as soon as you left the firm, you join and started your own firm, what are now the areas in which you focus?
Ken Levinson: Well, you might notice if you look at the personal injury law firm website that they will list, generally speaking, every injury and catastrophic event known to man and woman. Yes, dog bites, medical malpractice, work injury, food poisoning, product liability. What we focus on and what we think we’re really good at and have experience doing is truck and auto crash cases. That’s what we focus on. That’s what we concentrate in. And we let our clients make the decision and tell prospective clients, look, you can hire a law firm that knows a lot about a lot of things or maybe try to be a jack of all trades. Or you can look for a firm that’s going to handle a case just like yours and really dig deep and know the area and know the area by writing articles and books and public speaking and leadership positions and recognition and results in your area of law, whether it’s a catastrophic truck or auto crash case. And I think most clients want a trial lawyer on their side who’s got that kind of experience versus someone who can one day handle a dog bite case. The next day, a slip and fall and next day an auto collision. And maybe the lawyer is great doing that. What we do is we focus and concentrate just in our areas of what we think we’re good at and that we handle day in and day out.
Alay Yajnik: That is really interesting. So not only are you focused on on crashes, on collisions, but really specifically on trucking.
Ken Levinson: That’s right, that’s right, and it’s a very complex area, there’s a lot of federal regulations, a lot of specific experts that we hire and use and anything from data with a black box and accident reconstruction to federal regulations and truck driving experts and safety experts and safety directors that we depose. It gets very complex. It’s just not a bigger auto case. These truck cases where a vehicle’s eighty thousand pounds, where a professional driver has to be trained and and careful, much more so than a regular passenger vehicle. And there’s a lot of intricacies that we’ve learned and honed in on. And we’re always learning, always getting better, always thinking about these issues and how to help our clients better. But I don’t think you can necessarily dabble in this type of practice, even if you handle personal injury cases generally, because oftentimes clients and even other lawyers say, well, you’re a personal injury attorney, you can handle any type of tort or injury case. And and I don’t think that’s true. And I don’t think the best lawyers necessarily can do that.
Alay Yajnik: You hit the nail on the head. I think as we become really good at what we do, we realize that if we really want to do our best work, we can’t do it for every kind of case that’s out there. We’ve got to get really, really specific. Stay in our lane and get to be real, true experts of what we do. That’s the definition of an expert. And so an expert realizes that dabblers cannot deliver the kind of service that a sophisticated client needs. And so with with your expertise in this kind of work, who’s a perfect client for you?
Ken Levinson: Well, that’s that’s a great question and to back up a little bit, I think a mature lawyer and law firms realize after experience and really being honest with themselves, that not every client is a perfect fit. Sometimes we want a certain type of case that looks like a wonderful case. We can really help, but it’s not really up our alley and a lot of times I look at a client, I say, “I’m not the best lawyer for you.” And I can point in the right direction. So for us, the ideal client is a family dealing with a tragic truck crash with devastating consequences, where we can get in early in the case, investigate what really happened. Find the truth and ultimately help this family, whether it’s making sure that a widow has enough funds to pay her mortgage, feed her kids so the kids can go to college. If the breadwinner was killed by a dangerous trucking company or a driver on drugs or sleeping not enough and being too tired, a fatigued driver. That’s where we get the most satisfaction. And that’s the type of client we really delve into.
Alay Yajnik: And Ken, how did you decide to focus on these specific kinds of injuries versus, say, motorcycles or something else?
Ken Levinson: Well, we’ve handled some cases, and once I got more involved in the federal regulations and the expertise that the witnesses bring, I really enjoyed it. I really sunk my teeth into the area. I had friends in other states who were doing these type of cases, a friend of mine in Ohio, my colleague, who remains one of the best truck accident lawyers in the country, and he asked me to try a case with him in Arizona at the Sandra Day O’Connor district courthouse in downtown Phoenix. And I really got the bug in these cases and helping families and haven’t looked back since.
Alay Yajnik: I love that. And clearly, the work you do is incredibly meaningful and impactful in your client’s lives. So that is that is terrific. And that’s something that, as I’ve done a lot of these episodes I’m seeing, the best lawyers have a genuine passion for their practice area. And they’re oftentimes one or two levels, if you will, deeper in than a typical attorney. So not just P.I., not just automobile crashes or vehicle crashes, but specifically truck crashes. Right. Something very, very deep and focused where they write a lot. And you’ve done more than your share of that. They’ve tried some really impressive cases and they’ve gotten some great results and built an expertise. So that all that being said, as you mentioned, P.I. is a challenging area from a marketing and business development standpoint because there’s a lot of competition. So having that niche focus no doubt helps a little bit. But how do you break through the noise, all the noise out there that’s P.I. law firm marketing to really attract your perfect client to you?
Ken Levinson: Well, you know, it’s just a constant effort, you can’t rest on your laurels, so to speak, I thought years ago, if I ever made to a certain level cases and clients would just come along, I wouldn’t have to do anything. Couldn’t be further from the truth, Alay. I’m always working it. I’m always doing a lot of things to be ubiquitous, whether it’s on social media, keeping in touch by email. A lot of my referring lawyers, we get most of our work from other lawyers who don’t do what we do or trial lawyers out of state who think of us in Chicagoland, I do everything I can to keep in touch: call, text, my friends, past clients, LinkedIn. I’m active on Facebook and we just really try to stay top of mind and be strategic about it and really focused on what type of case we’re looking for and remind potential referring lawyers and sources of what we do. And like you said, there’s a lot of noise in the market. There’s certainly a lot of trial lawyers, personal injury lawyers that are really talented, smart, caring attorneys in town. We have some of the best trial lawyers in the country here in Chicago, just phenomenal lawyers, a lot of friendly competitors who are just truly good friends. But we do our best to differentiate ourselves with our expertise and turning away clients that just don’t fit the model of who we can best help.
Ken Levinson: And I guess the other thing we’ve been successful at doing is looking at areas where we would sort of stand out. And I’ll give you an example. I know some of your prior guests have talked about building their book of business and clientele by public speaking. And I’ve done a fair amount of speaking in other trial lawyer associations. So yesterday I wound up being the keynote speaker to the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association. And I guarantee if I talk to a lawyer here in Chicago who is a family lawyer or business lawyer, they may know 15 of my competitors really well, one might be their brother in law. But if I speak to one hundred and fifty lawyers in Maryland, I might be the only personal injury lawyer they can think of [in Chicago]. So if they have a potential case for me, I’m the only one they know, perhaps, whereas it’s much more competitive in Chicago to break through. So sometimes find your – there was a book about it – your Blue Ocean strategy where you’re in a much better place to gain business and get clients, it’s just putting yourself in the most successful position, if you will.
Alay Yajnik: This is this is a really cool strategy, Ken, because I have not heard any other attorney on the podcast mention it yet, although it’s something that I do. And I know it’s something that you do and we know some folks that do that too. So let me recap it back, make sure I’ve got it all. The idea behind that is let’s say you’re practicing in Chicago land like you are. People in Chicago know other attorneys who do P.I. in Chicago, that’s just the way it goes. But if you travel and speak or write or network out of the area, so a place like Maryland, for example, or New York or Dallas or wherever it happens to be Seattle, San Francisco, those people in those geographies, especially attorneys in those geographies, may not know a P.I. attorney in Chicago. Until they meet you. And so the next time they get one of those referrals that comes across, which is in that area, you might be the only name that they call. Was that the strategy that you were talking about?
Ken Levinson: I’m sorry I cut you off. I got to tell you, you’re asking me these great questions, Alay!
Alay Yajnik: Go ahead, please!
Ken Levinson: So there is a second step to my method. You’ve got to stay in touch. It’s just not like the old school going to a bar association function, the “cocktail party.” And you meet 50 lawyers, get 50 business cards like Josh talked about your prior podcast. And you throw those business cards away. It’s meeting the lawyers, getting known, and showing your ability how you can help potential clients for them. That’s step one. Step two is keeping in touch, and there’s a lot of innovative ways and creative ways you could think about doing that. And we do email blasts. We’re active on social media platforms. A few of the folks reach out to me yesterday after my Maryland presentation, and we immediately friended them on Facebook. And I’ll put them on our list and keep in touch. If I go to Baltimore for an event, I’ll reach out. We’ll grab dinner. It’s just keeping in touch. Now it’s a much longer-term strategy. You’re not going to cases immediately. A lawyer in L.A. might not have a case for me this month, but eventually it’ll work. And over time, it’s been a fairly successful strategy for us where we probably have twenty five to thirty percent of our significant cases were referred by trial lawyers out of state.
Alay Yajnik: That is really, really cool, and it’s not a surprise either, because you’re also so well differentiated. They don’t know a lot of people that have the expertise and the qualifications that you do that are in Chicago. So it makes a ton of sense. Maybe some advice that we could give the folks who are looking to maybe build that kind of differentiated practices: if you’re in a practice area where you’re feeling that there’s a lot of competition, find sub-category of that, a specialization of it that really grabs you. That’s really fascinating where there’s a lot of opportunity to learn and just learn and go deeper. And if you still feel that there’s competition, go deeper and keep going until you do what Ken has done, which is break into an area where there is a lot of opportunity to become an expert and there are not a lot of attorneys that are in that space at a high level in your geographic area.
Ken Levinson: And you could be very yeah, and we test it and we’re very strategic about how we have grown our firm, how we think about marketing. It’s an old adage where 50 percent of my marketing works, I just don’t know which. So we keep trying different things. And strategically, we think, OK, we’re in Chicago. What type of folks come to Chicago? Like for us, we know our market well. A lot of tourists come to Chicago in the summer, go to a cub game and go to a White Sox game. Come here to see our world famous Chicago Bulls, the Trade Center, or go to Michigan Avenue to shop for the holidays. And if they get hurt here, they might go back to wherever they live. It could be Florida, it could be Michigan, wherever, California. And they’ll call their local lawyer and say, “You know, I was injured. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?” And they’ll say, “I can’t. But I’ve met a lawyer in Chicago who might be of use to you, who might be able to assist.”
Alay Yajnik: And so you’re spending a lot of this time and a lot of money on all of these different marketing platforms. And I suspect you’re really sharp about how you decide whether, you know, someone in the firm is going to actually do this marketing or whether you’re going to pay someone externally to do the marketing. But either way, and Ken just before I continue with this, just to make sure you do your practice is largely contingency fee-based, right?
Ken Levinson: It’s all contingency fees. We don’t win, we don’t get paid.
Alay Yajnik: Yeah. And so that’s my question: if you’re making all these marketing investments for a contingency type of practice, cash flow has got to be really a very interesting situation. So how have you navigated that cash flow crunch?
Ken Levinson: Yeah, that’s always a challenge for contingency fee attorneys, because we have our fixed overhead: salaries and rent and things like that, and then we front all the case expenses for our clients. Our clients don’t pay our our court fees and depositions and experts and that fun stuff. So it’s always a problem with cash flow. So we have to be really conscious of when we get a significant settlement, we can’t just spend it on marketing or take it for ourselves as partners. We have to really plan and make sure. Not that a thing like a year long plague could ever happen and affect cash flow in this country or world.
Alay Yajnik: No, no, never. Never. That would never happen.
Ken Levinson: I mean, I know I’m be a paranoid lawyer. We can never have a year long plague where people couldn’t work or remote. But if that were to happen, Alay, you have to plan for it, be very strategic and talk to your banker and and make sure you spend money as wisely as possible. It sounds obvious, but we really track every marketing dollar and I’m sure most good business folks do. And most law firms track where they’re spending money.
Alay Yajnik: You’d be surpised, Ken.
Ken Levinson: I know. I bet I would. You probably see it all time, right?
Alay Yajnik: I do, but I don’t see it that often in successful personal injury law firms because you guys do a better job than almost any other practice area of managing cash flow because it’s so critical to your success.
Ken Levinson: Yeah, we have to be very careful. You can’t just. Get a fee in a case and think, oh, God, this is great. Oh. Buy a new car or buy this or buy that, you have to think, wait a minute, I have all this overhead. I have cases I have to spend money on to fund and you have to be very, very conscious of it, and even marketing.
Alay Yajnik: And so with that in mind, can one of the instruments that people can use to address cash flow as a line of credit, just curious to get your thoughts on on a line of credit, what you think about that concept.
Ken Levinson: Yeah, as long as you’re careful, I think a line of credit, we have a bank here in town that a lot of plaintiffs attorneys use and I think they’re really wonderful to work with. They help with our loan application process. And as long as you don’t get in trouble, where you have too much debt that you can never get out of. And the interest keeps compounding. And as long as you’re conscious of it and smart about money, I think a line of credit is is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor. I mean, people talk about gambling and lawyers who just risk their money on a case, but I don’t look at it as a gamble. I look at it as a very educated decision making process. We don’t just gamble our money and our clients money in a case. We look at all the facts, what we’ve done in the past with cases. Similarly, all the evidence, what the witnesses are going to say, and we make a really informed decision, as best we can tell, to invest our client’s money and really our firm’s money.
Alay Yajnik: You know, a big focus of this podcast is on law firm growth. And so you’ve done this at a high level for a long time. What advice would you give to attorneys and law firm owners and partners who are interested in growing their book or growing their firm?
Ken Levinson: To me, really think about what you can offer potential clients or referring lawyers, what pain can you solve and just do the best job you can accomplishing that on one hand and the other hand, it’s always been a building trust based, true relationships, not trying to hedge what you can do or pontificate or puff your credentials. It’s about just being completely honest and building caring relationships. And I think doing that over time, doing it the right way and honest, ethical way, I think you’ll grow your firm. And I guess the third piece of advice, if you will, is to make small tests in the market and see what works and what doesn’t work. Don’t plop all your marketing budget on one thing for personal injury lawyers. We see a lot of billboards and TV. I suspect successful firms don’t just say, oh, I have a chunk of money from my marketing budget. I’ll put it all into a billboard campaign or a pay-per-click campaign. I think it’s a wise decision to test what works and if it’s working, keep doing it, maybe double down. If it’s not, figure out why isn’t working. Maybe it’s not a good endeavor, despite the fact that you thought this thing, this marketing campaign will absolutely work, but test it if it doesn’t move on.
Alay Yajnik: As you think about the future, granted, we we are in this unforeseen pandemic, but hopefully we’re on our way out of it. What excites you about Levinson and Stefani, and the future?
Ken Levinson: We’ve done the best we at least think we can in this pandemic era to block out time to improve the firm, our processes, our reports, our case management system, our in-house training to make sure that our structure is this is complete and the best it can possibly be, whether it’s giving a client’s medical records and most effectively, efficiently, whether there’s in-house training on all the things that our lawyers and team do to improve the firm and our processes. And we’ve done a lot of work making sure that we’ve improved. We continue to learn and get better and excited about implementing some of the things we’ve been doing the last year and always learning and improving and getting better. And I feel that you can never have the perfect firm. It’s like playing the perfect basketball game. You never shoot thirty five for thirty five, right. You never hit a thousand in baseball. But to me it’s always about trying to reach perfection even though you’re never going to get there, but always improving. And that just really excites me. And I’m just so optimistic with our team and our lawyers here and the ability to really help clients and their family’s lives forever.
Alay Yajnik: Well, congratulations again on all your success. I love your passion, love your enthusiasm. You guys go about it right. And you have a really, really clear niche that helps a lot of people. The person listening to this podcast wants to reach you. What’s the best way for them to do that?
Ken Levinson: Well, they can email me, email@example.com. They can call my office. I’m pretty easily accessible. Find me on Facebook or LinkedIn connection. But I love meeting new lawyers, the new professionals that I can help for my clients, too, if there’s a need. And that’s how I met you. I’m just really excited about the future and other relationships that we can build and just continue.
Alay Yajnik: Yeah, well, thanks again for your time and thank you so much for being on the Lawyer Business Advantage podcast.
Ken Levinson: Well, thank you so much for having me and all the best with your fantastic podcast.
Alay Yajnik: Thank you. And that is Ken Levinson, founding partner, Levinson and Stefani Injury Lawyers. He is your “go to” attorney if there is a victim of a trucking crash. Thank you so much, Ken.
Alay Yajnik: And that’s a wrap for this episode of the Lawyer Business Advantage podcast. One thing that would really help both us and other new potential listeners is for you to rate this show and leave a comment in iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you tune in to listen. And I want to hear from you. So connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know what you think of this episode. And if you are a solo or an owner of a small law firm and you’re looking to earn more money, attract better clients or reduce your stress, we would love to talk with you to see how we can help request your free law firm assessment by visiting lawfirmsuccessgroup.com. Again, that URL is lawfirmsuccessgroup.com. We look forward to talking with you soon. Thank you for listening. My name is Alay Yajnik. Until next time, remember, you can see freedom. You can embrace happiness. You CAN build your perfect practice.