Marketing tips for dirt lawyers

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bookLast week, this blog discussed technology and marketing issues, and I warned readers to expect more on those topics. I read another great book! This one, The Power of a System, by John H. Fisher, a medical malpractice lawyer, is basically about how to build a successful plaintiff’s practice. Why, you ask, should a real estate lawyer care?

A real estate lawyer should care because Mr. Fisher included some great marketing tips for real estate lawyers. He believes, for example, in identifying the “ideal client” and marketing relentlessly to that person. Here is his quote about the “ideal client” of a real estate lawyer:

“If you are a real estate lawyer, are your ideal clients the homeowners buying a new house? No! The homeowners will use your services one time for a fee of $750, and you will likely never hear from them again…You will be broke by the time the homeowners need you again. The ideal clients for a real estate lawyer are real estate agents who refer a steady stream of new homeowners. The goal is not to make money on a single transaction. Rather, your goal should be to develop relationships with your ideal client that will generate new clients and a steady stream of income for the rest of your career. The lifetime value of your ideal client is far greater than the value of a single transaction.”

This makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Real estate lawyers in South Carolina should devote their marketing dollars and time to courting the individuals who are in a position to send them business. In addition to real estate agents, local lenders and builders are prime targets. Analyze your market, your community, and determine who will be in a position to direct business to your practice. Call those individuals your “ideal clients” and go after them!

Mr. Fisher has developed three simple marketing tools that he says will make all the difference in a law practice:

  1. Create an information-powerhouse website that provides killer content on a daily basis;
  2. Publish a monthly newsletter targeted to your ideal client;
  3. Host regular seminars and workshops that provide valuable content to your ideal client.

As to the information-powerhouse website, you will need assistance.  There are experts who can assist you with setting up the website as well as providing content. You will, of course, have to comply with the Rules of Professional Responsibility, so you cannot let your website expert work alone. Stay tuned for later blogs about websites.

As to the monthly newsletter, Mr. Fisher was very specific. He believes newsletters are “marketing gold”, but they must be written by the attorney to show personality as well as expertise, and they must be mailed consistently on a monthly basis. He believes that mass-mailing pieces will not do the job.

He said he is always thinking and taking notes about possible articles. (I get this idea because I am always thinking about blog ideas.) He said, with collecting ideas all month, he is able to devote only two hours per month to actually writing. He writes a main article or two on law related topics. Then he answers a legal question or two. After that, he throws in a brief article about his marketing events (“What’s John up to?”). And he adds a goofy picture or two of him and his kids to humanize himself.

He hires a graphic designer to make the newsletter “pretty” and uses a “fulfillment provider” for printing and mailing.

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He wants his newsletter to be so good that his ideal clients (the lawyers who refer medical malpractice plaintiffs to him) will save them and post them on their bulletin boards. Can you write a newsletter that good to promote your practice? I believe you can!

As to event marketing, Mr. Fisher says events should be educational, informational and fun and they should give away secrets! He has seminars for lawyers (his referral partners) to explain his systems, how he treats his clients, etc. He says to promote the heck out of these events to your ideal clients. Mail invitations. Follow with postcards, emails and handwritten notes. He recommends using testimonials from others who have attended successful events. Keep building momentum. Obtain sponsors and vendors to assist. Make sure the events are fun! And then follow them with handwritten notes.

Our office is in the business of consulting with real estate lawyers on marketing and other issues. We can help!  And here’s a further warning about more of these topics in future blogs.

Happy marketing!

Use technology and make more money!

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Grow your business, dirt lawyers!

This blog is supposed to be about South Carolina dirt law, but I saw this great article entitled “Twelve Steps to a Profitable Law Practice” that I thought would benefit most South Carolina dirt lawyers. The author is Ernest Svenson (also known as “Ernie the Attorney” if you are interested in Googling his interesting blogs about technology, marketing and other topics vital for law firms but often overlooked by busy lawyers).

Mr. Svenson is the founder of Law Firm Autopilot, the stated mission of which is to help small firm lawyers transform their practices to improve their quality of life. Check out Law Firm Autopilot’s online courses and coaching services here.

technology money

The article is adapted from a chapter in a book I’m reading, The Secrets to Marketing and Automating Your Law Practice: A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating Systems, Getting Clients and Becoming a Legal Rainmaker by David M. Pitton (Practice Panther, 2018). You can download a free copy of the book at the end of the article linked above. This book is good. Chapter 1, entitled “The Ultimate Checklist for Starting Your Own Firm” blew my mind with its very specific, detailed advice about the technology a lawyer establishing a new practice needs. Most of what the author advised was extremely practical and extremely economical because he understands the financial pressures of a new practice. Example:  design a logo for only $99!

Why am I bothering Dirt Law readers with this topic? I know most of you are not thinking about opening your own practices. I’m troubling you with this because I believe marketing and technology may be two of the most vital components required to maintain healthy and growing practices in 2018. Real estate practitioners are always competing and are always trying to stay ahead of the quickly changing technology landscape. The lawyers who master technology and marketing are the lawyers who will thrive in the future.

Mr. Svenson does not suggest that you must master technology yourself. He believes in hiring experts to push the buttons for you. He says, “If you can follow a clear ‘process roadmap’—such as the rules of civil procedure—then you are capable of radically improving your practice with common technology, most of which you already own.” He believes that digitizing will allow you to simplify your practice and lower your overhead. He believes automation will exponentially increase efficiencies and result in cost savings. And he believes that you can learn to work virtually from anywhere with an internet connection.

Many of you know our staff was displaced in 2012 when our office building was involved in a fire. Thankfully, no one got hurt, and much of our furniture and equipment was eventually saved, despite the layer of soot that settled on everything. But we were displaced for a whole year! We rented a small suite in an executive space downtown, but most of us worked remotely (from home) for an entire year. And we didn’t miss a beat. As far as we were able to tell, we didn’t lose a dollar. The day after the fire, several of us were camped out in my kitchen at home disbursing funds for a large commercial transaction. If I was not a believer in being “paperless” before that catastrophe, I definitely am today. I call myself the poster child for business continuity.

(By the way, I am working in said kitchen as I write. I recently hired a new lawyer despite not having space for him, so I displaced myself instead of our new underwriter until we are able to move to a larger space later this year. Again, I am not missing a beat!)

This article says, “If you want to streamline your practice and reduce clutter and chaos, you need to stop managing information in paper form. Digital information is cheaper to store, easier to transmit, and can be automated more easily.”

And, of course, the author points out, and I want to emphasize, that the more we rely on digital information and automation, the more we have to pay attention to security. There are experts that are available to help with this issue. Use them!

Don’t be surprised if you see more blogs from me on related topics in the future. I’m on a roll, trying to read everything on these topics I can, so that my office and I will be in a position to assist our attorney agents as they grow and thrive. Grow and thrive with us!

SC Supreme Court holds email provides sufficient written notice

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….for at least one purpose

This blog is about dirt, but from time to time, dirt lawyers should review the rules our brother and sister litigators follow. Why? Sometimes those rules bleed over into our world, and sometimes, unfortunately, the transactions we handle are subject to litigation. And in this “ever changing world in which we live in”*, we should pay particular attention to changing rules involving technology. This is one of those changes.

The South Carolina Supreme Court held on February 28 that an email that provides written notice of entry of an order or judgment, if sent from the court, an attorney or record, or a party, triggers the time to serve a notice of appeal under Rule 203(b)(1) of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules (SCACR)*.  And the Court held that this is such a novel question of law that its holding applies only prospectively, and not to the case at hand.

Here’s the background. On December 15, 2014, the master-in-equity denied the foreclosure defendants’ petition for an order of appraisal. That same day, the master’s administrative assistant emailed a signed and stamped copy of the order and Form 4 to the bank and the defendants. Three days later, the defendants received a copy of both documents in the mail.

Believing the time to appeal began on the day they received the documents in the mail, the defendants served notice of appeal on January 15, 2015, which was thirty-one days after the email and twenty-eight days after they received the documents in the mail.

The Court of Appeals held that the email triggered the time to serve notice of appeal. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the petitioners did not dispute that the email constituted written notice of entry of the order or judgment. But they argued that the time to serve notice of an intent to appeal is only triggered when written notice is received by mail or hand delivery according to Rule 5 of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP). The Supreme Court held that the SCRCP do not apply to appellate procedure.

The Supreme Court examined Rule 203(b)(1), SCACR, which requires that a notice of appeal must be served within thirty days after receiving written notice of entry of the order or judgment and held that there is no requirement of service. All that is required, according to the Court, is that the parties receive notice. Further, there is nothing in the appellate court rules suggesting that the manner in which a party may receive notice is limited to the methods used to effectuate service.

Got it, dirt lawyers?  It’s technical, but this holding suggests that our Court is gradually accepting the technology we use every day as sufficient for notice purposes. One lesson for us is that we should be careful what we say in our emails as we handle our transactional practices! Another lesson for us is that we should all check our spam and junk email files to make sure we receive all communications that may create responsibility or liability for us.

*…with sincere apologies to Sir Paul McCartney.

**Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. v. Fallon Properties South Carolina, LLC, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27773, February 28, 2018.

SC dirt lawyers sued for email funds diversion by a third-party criminal

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This is the first suit of this type I’ve seen. I’m confident it won’t be the last!

A dirt lawyer friend sent a copy to me of a hot-off-presses lawsuit filed in a circuit court in South Carolina against a closing law firm because the purchaser’s $50,000 in closing funds were diverted by a third-party criminal posing in an email exchange as the transaction’s real estate agent. My friend said he sent the case for my information. I think he sent it so I wouldn’t sleep!

Here are the facts as recited in the complaint. The names are being changed to protect all parties.

Paul and Penny Purchaser signed an Attorney Preference Form on March 28, 2017, selecting Ready and Able, LLC as their legal counsel for the purchase of a residential home and the closing of a purchase money mortgage with Remedy Mortgage, LLC.

On April 10, Paul and Penny Purchaser received Ready and Able, LLC’s “Purchaser’s Information Sheet” which required Paul and Penny to pay all closing funds over $500 to Ready and Able, LLC by wire transfer. The complaint states that these were silent as to the security of wire transfers, the security of private information to be conveyed between the purchasers and the law firm, and the security or lack of security of the use of email for closing information.

Also on April 10, Penny Purchaser telephoned the law firm and spoke with paralegal, Candy Competent, providing her with the purchasers’ Social Security numbers. The complaint states that Ms. Competent accepted the information and provided no wiring information or warnings.

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The complaint states that on April 14, Paul Purchaser received what purported and reasonably appeared to be an email from Regina Realtor, their real estate agent for the transaction, asking Mr. and Mrs. Purchaser to wire closing funds in the amount of $48,490.31 that day so that the closing scheduled for April 21 would not be delayed. Penny Purchaser replied to the email requesting wiring instructions. An attachment purporting to be wiring instructions for Ready and Able, LLC. was sent via reply email.  The complaint states that the wiring instructions reasonably appeared to be the correct wiring instructions for the law firm and appeared to be printed on law firm letterhead. This email exchange was actually with a third-party criminal.

Later on April 14, Penny Purchaser telephoned Candy Competent and requested the amount needed to close. Ms. Competent discussed the amount needed to close despite the fact, according to the complaint, that she knew or should have known that the law firm had not sent wiring instructions to the purchasers or the real estate agent.

On April 17, Ms. Competent sent an email to Mrs. Purchaser advising her to add $550 to the funds due to close to cover a survey bill that came in on April 14. No mention was made of wiring instructions in that email. The email also did not discuss the fact that the law firm had not yet provided an amount to close to the purchasers or to the real estate agent. Mrs. Purchaser wired $49,015.31 using the wiring instructions provided by the third-party criminal.

On April 21, Paul and Penny Purchaser learned for the first time that the wiring instructions were the work of a criminal third party, who received the funds and has failed to return the funds.

The complaint states two causes of action, negligence and legal malpractice, and lists the following breaches of duty committed by the law firm:

  • Requiring the plaintiffs to use wire closing funds to defendant, without counseling the plaintiffs about the methods by which the secure delivery of such funds could be compromised;
  • Failing to counsel the plaintiffs about the risks and insecurity of email communications, particularly of private, sensitive, or financial closing information; and
  • Failing to be alerted by the circumstances of Mrs. Purchaser’s telephone call on April 14, and therefore to warn her that no communication had been sent by the law firm.

Is this, in fact, negligence or legal malpractice?  We will have to wait to see.  Would the processes established by your law firm for the protection of your clients’ funds prevent this type of crime? That is the question of the day. Please discuss among yourselves!

Blogging in the holiday spirit

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Be excellent to each other!

Bill and Ted christmas

The purpose of this blog is to, in a very small way, assist South Carolina real estate lawyers in their constant quest to stay out of trouble. And there are so many ways we can get ourselves into trouble!  Trust accounting, cyber-security, legislative changes, case law changes and rule revisions are just a few examples. But I’m in the holiday spirit, and it occurred to me that one of the easiest ways to get into trouble is to simply fail to be nice.

Some lawyers had developed such terrible habits of failing to be courteous to each other and to opposing parties that our Supreme Court added a “Civility Oath” in 2003, which reads:  “To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications…”  New lawyers now take this oath when they are sworn in, and the rest of us had to attend seminars or functions that included the new oath as a component. We have all now pledged to be civil.

South Carolina lawyers have been disciplined for being uncivil and unprofessional. One lawyer wrote a letter questioning whether the officials of a municipality had brains and souls. He was suspended for 90 days and required to complete the Bar’s legal ethics and professionalism program. Another lawyer was suspended for 90 days for slapping an opposing party during a deposition.

The Office of Disciplinary Counsel has requested a sanction for bringing the profession into disrepute through a blog. Because the lawyer didn’t identify himself as a lawyer in his blog, the Supreme Court said the profession was not harmed. (I promise to be careful!)

Some authorities on the subject of attorney civility have speculated that technology and social media have exacerbated this problem. It’s easy to be rude while hiding behind a computer screen. Another factor has been the economy. When young lawyers are forced to hang out shingles without the careful mentorship of seasoned lawyers, they often fail to obtain the requisite training on how lawyers should behave.

Litigation lawyers are in the business of fighting for a living, so they often walk a tight rope between vigorously representing their clients and mowing over their opponents in an uncivil manner. I remember, however, attending a trial early in my career to witness two excellent, seasoned, respected Columbia lawyers attempt to out-polite each other. It was an impressive display of civility and effective representation that has remained vividly in my memory for many years. If we were all as civil as those two litigators were, no civility oath would have been necessary.

Unlike trial lawyers, transactional lawyers are in the business of providing solutions, solving problems, arriving at consensus and properly documenting all of the above. Transactional lawyers should, in theory, have fewer problems getting along with each other than trial lawyers have. That is definitely not always the case.

Sitting here in Columbia and listening to title problems from lawyers across South Carolina all day long, the lawyers in our office hear fights between real estate lawyers on a routine basis. It seems to us that an inability to communicate civilly can have a direct dollar impact on business through lost time and productivity.

Books and articles on business ethics stress the value of being nice. I believe that being nice is particularly valuable to transactional lawyers. Being nice can, for example, go a long way toward keeping a lawyer from being sued.

I was taught as a young lawyer to be courteous to the most annoying real estate agents and the most exasperating clients. We should all own up to and fix our mistakes, even when fixing a mistake requires writing a check. Our written and oral communications should demonstrate that we are not only effective lawyers, but also courteous, caring, sympathetic individuals. Being a meticulous and effective lawyer is the best method to eliminate being a defendant in litigation, but being nice is probably the second best method.

I am now stepping off of my soap box and wishing each of you happy holidays and a healthy, happy and prosperous 2018!