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Skillful marketing needed to make lemon law cases profitable

There was a time when lawyers practicing in a consumer-driven field such as motor vehicle lemon laws could put up a basic website for a few hundred bucks and maybe throw in a well-placed billboard or radio ad for good measure. But building a practice in this field has become far more complicated – and competitive – than it looks.

Philadelphia’s David Gorberg was a relative latecomer when he jumped into the lemon law area in the late 1990s after practicing personal injury law in his father’s firm. Nearby, the firm of Kimmel & Silverman had already been in the game since 1991 and had established a solid reputation as a consumer-oriented firm.

But Gorberg smelled an opening when he handled a case for a client against an extended warranty company that refused to pay for a faulty transmission. Gorberg no longer remembers the make of the car but he remembers winning the case and figuring there were others like it. A look at Kimmel & Silverman’s billboards was enough to convince him that he was right.

Most lemon law clients simply want their car replaced. Only in rare cases are there damages beyond that, according to Gorberg and other lemon law lawyers around the country. So turning a profit requires a lot of cases and that means heavy advertising.

Gorberg took out substantial loans and used his computer skills to bolster his marketing efforts. He built his own website and stocked it with as much information as he could on Pennsylvania’s lemon law.

“The billboards were very expensive – you’re talking in the thousands of dollars per month,” he said. “There was a period of time where whatever money was coming in was going out. But I went from a couple of cases to, in a year or two, having a substantial volume.”

Gorberg now picks up scores of new cases each month, a volume made possible because the vast majority of the cases are settled.

Although this eases the litigation burden, one thing remains certain: The days when a lemon law lawyer with an advertising budget can set up shop without much forethought are gone.

Internet Driving

For lemon law lawyers, any marketing campaign has to include a significant Internet component. But the dynamics of Internet marketing change almost as quickly as you can click through a couple of dozen Web pages.

“A year ago you could set up doorway websites and have your site geared around a single keyword,” said Andrew Hazen, an attorney and founder of Prime Visibility Inc., an Internet marketing firm based in Bethpage, N.Y. “That’s not true any longer.”

Gorberg made a wise decision starting out. He stocked his website with as much material as possible, knowing that depth of content was one of the criteria popular search engines such as Yahoo – and now Google – base ranking decisions upon. His site describes how to create a paper trail in case your car turns out to be a lemon; explains federal laws such as the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, which applies to all warranteed products; explains pertinent laws in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; and includes a lengthy list of answers to frequently asked questions. There is also a prodigious list of links to attorneys in other states who handle lemon law cases.

But these days broad content is just the beginning of an effective marketing campaign. You also have to get your website seen amidst the deluge of information on the Web.

Gorberg’s rivals at Kimmel & Silverman might take credit for leading the charge to change Pennsylvania law to extend lemon law coverage to leased vehicles, but type the words “lemon law” into Yahoo and Gorberg’s is the very first site – anywhere in the country – that appears on your screen. By contrast, California’s marketing-heavy Law Offices of William R. McGee comes in 19th. If Google-ing is your preferred method, Gorberg comes up a still-impressive third – just ahead of, you guessed it, Kimmel & Silverman.

But that’s only when users perform what is called a “natural search” – the results that appear on the center of the screen when you type search words into Google. Off to the right is set of “sponsored sites” – where Gorberg also appears – that are driven by a completely different set of rules. Basically, highest placement goes to the highest bidder.

This “per-click” advertising is a relatively new phenomenon in which lawyers bid on how much they are willing to pay the search engine for each hit they get on their listing in this right-hand column. They bid on search words such as “lemon law” – for example the lawyer who offers to pay $5 a hit is listed first, a lawyer who bids $4 a hit is listed second, etc. Some attorneys increase their competitive edge by bidding on several search words.

Gorberg wouldn’t discuss how much he pays, but Andrew Hazen said Gorberg is paying in the area of $5 a click to be the top selection in that category. Lawyers with the second, third, fourth, and fifth ranked listing are paying in the $4 range. But the sixth bidder is paying less than a dollar per click on overture.com, a bidding site that feeds into search engines Yahoo, MSN, and Lycos among others. That means the fifth bidder is paying several dollars per click more than they have to, said Hazen.

“The guy who is bidding $4.50 could be bidding 57 cents (just above the next lowest bid of 56 cents) and get the same thing,” said Hazen. “You’ve got to manage your bid gaps.”

This is especially important given that overture.com suggests that for best visibility, marketers such as Gorberg bid on more than 20 different keywords.

Getting a high ranking in conventional searches is even more complex. Both the quality of your site content and the length of time you have had a Web presence factor into your website’s ranking on conventional searches.

But it is also possible to boost your profile short term, according to Hazen.

“I have a client who knew a case they handled was going to be on 60 Minutes and they wanted to be No. 1 on the search engines,” he said. “You can’t make that happen naturally in a week but we started bidding on all the related keywords so that when people did their searching they were right on top of all the search engines.”

Internet consultants such as Hazen get paid big money to help lawyers raise their ‘net visibility, a game that has gotten increasingly more complex – and competitive. Lemon law lawyers sometimes use multiple sites to drive more business to their main site. That’s the case for the Law Offices of William R. McGee, based in San Diego. McGee’s office also runs a second site at www.californialemonlaw.info. The site is chock full of helpful consumer information about California’s lemon law. It also has several links and advertisements that take users back to McGee’s firm.

Such links are helpful for consumers but they are also designed to boost visibility on Google and Yahoo, which take such cross-referencing into consideration when doing site rankings, Hazen said. But those search engines have also become increasingly more sophisticated. Hazen said they can now identify duplicate content on multiple sites, a factor that depresses rankings, or even identify when similar sites are hosted by the same computer system.

All of this costs Gorberg and other lawyers a lot of money.

“It’s gotten to the point where the costs of Internet advertising have exceeded the cost of traditional advertising,” Gorberg said. “But because I’ve been online for so long, my site has maintained its visibility.”

Intense Competition

Gorberg is clearly wise to many of the tricks. His site has an enormous list of links to other lemon law lawyers around the country. Those lawyers, in some cases, also have links back to his site. A helpful service for consumers who have found their way to an attorney who doesn’t work in their state? Sure, but because links are another factor in the search engine’s ranking algorithm, they also serve to boost visibility.

With all that competition, website rankings have become serious business. Gorberg’s website won an award from Law Office Computing Magazine. But a review of his site in another contest led Gorberg to threaten legal action, which prompted the contest sponsor to pull the review of his site from the Internet.

The competition to gain positive recognition is enormous, according to the contest sponsor, Micah Buchdahl, an attorney and Internet marketing consultant at www.internetmarketingattorney.com. This year Buchdahl added a ranking for small- and mid-sized firms to his annual ranking of legal websites.

“I literally get contacted by thousands of small firms promoting their websites,” Buchdahl said. “[Gorberg] would send me faxes and scanned images of some of the awards he’s won; he would just keep contacting me with this stuff. He’s probably the most aggressive self-promoter that I’ve ever had contact me.”

In the end, Buchdahl gave a citation to Gorberg’s archrival, Kimmel & Silverman.

Gorberg’s review was also favorable – “lots of info,” “excellent contact pages.” But Gorberg took issue with a remark in the short review that mentioned Kimmel & Silverman’s site. He also was bothered by a cheap pun on the phrase “lemon law lawyers” that was clearly not directed at Gorberg’s firm. He expressed his displeasure with a letter demanding that the review be taken down and holding Buchdahl responsible for “any and all damages” to his firm if he failed to do so.

Gorberg refused to comment on the dispute other than to say, “Both parties recognized there was an issue and we were able to amicably resolve the matter.”

Imitation And Innovation

Pennsylvania is one of 16 states that require lawyers’ fees in lemon law cases to be paid by the manufacturer, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety. Another 16 states allow that as an option, while most other states have no statutes regarding attorney fees.

States that don’t have a manufacturer-pays provision create a disincentive to bringing lemon law suits since the monetary awards are usually limited to the manufacturer’s cost of repurchasing the car.

With so little money to be made in each case, the competition can be intense to obtain enough cases to make the work profitable. Gorberg flies banner advertising up and down the New Jersey shoreline in the summer. When Kimmel & Silverman opened an office in Pittsburgh last year, Gorberg quickly announced that he was doing the same thing.

“We’re not competing with him,” said Craig Thor Kimmel, a principal in the firm and a former part-time car mechanic. “He’s trying to imitate us.”

Not surprisingly, Gorberg disagrees.

“We both use billboards and the Internet but the identities of the firms are clearly different,” he said. “When you’re talking lemon law there are going to be similarities with every other firm in the country. But I think it’s quite clear our approaches are different.”

Yes and no.

Kimmel & Silverman won a citation from an advertising supplement in Philadelphia magazine as being among Pennsylvania’s “superlawyers,” as did Gorberg. They put out matching press releases to tout the achievement, even though more than 1,000 other Pennsylvania lawyers could claim the same thing. Then they paid for brief, flattering profiles of their firms in the supplement, at a cost of $17,000, according to Kimmel & Silverman’s spokesman, Michael Sacks.

Efficiency Key To Profitability

With costs like those, it’s important to streamline the process once the customers are in the door. So Gorberg asks potential clients to fill out an online questionnaire to help him see if the cases would be covered by either the lemon law or the Magnusson-Moss Act. Case details, including information from a more in-depth intake form, are entered into TimeMatters business management software so that all case files are uniformly structured.

“I’m trying to make it an assembly line,” said Gorberg. “I’m not so concerned about applying a uniform approach in the beginning. But once the case review is done, we need to have these files in such a way that they are all uniform and we are able to approach them all in the same way. You have to do that in a volume practice.”

Paralegals, support staff and attorneys all take a team approach to the cases. One paralegal oversees the intake process, while another handles processing of the claims and a third handles the job of closing them out.

With the intense focus on marketing and volume, the question inevitably comes: Where is there more work? Kimmel & Silverman answered that question by adding offices in Maryland and Delaware. But Gorberg said he’s happy just where he is.

“As a small firm you have to be careful about overextending yourself,” he said. “I’ve made a determination that I want to focus on Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I feel comfortable doing that and there is enough work for me to make a living. To be expanding into other states requires a great deal of resources.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the features editor at: bibelle@lawyersweekly.com.