“Word of mouth is great, but there are over 45,000 attorneys in our state. How do you stand out in that crowd? I came to realize that marketing is absolutely essential.”
Karen Koehler, one of the leading personal injury trial lawyers in the state of Washington, has a law blog that is unusually personal in tone, beginning with its trademarked name, The Velvet Hammer. Mixed in with trial tips and stories about her paralyzed clients are pictures of her lounging around the house with her three teen-aged daughters and updates on the family dog.
Some of the senior partners at her Seattle law firm, Stritmatter Kessler Whelan, are put off by the blog, she says. But it has been repeatedly ranked as one of the top law blogs in the nation. It has also helped distinguish her in a crowded field of attorneys. She insists her approach also benefits the legal profession as a whole, which could stand some humanizing, in her opinion. In the four years since she launched it, Koehler’s blog, which occupies an out-of-the-way corner of the firm’s web site, may also have helped warm her partners up to some other innovative marketing initiatives, which are aimed mostly at other attorneys. Taken together, the marketing steps that Stritmatter Kessler Whelan has taken — with a push from Koehler — have helped cement the 10-attorney firm’s reputation as one of the best in the state for complex, high-value personal injury and wrongful death cases.
The Benefits of Personal Blogging
Koehler, a past president of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, says she was initially reluctant to do any sort of marketing of her law practice. “The thought of it just made me ill,” she says. “I felt that it was beneath me, and I thought I wouldn’t be good at it. What happened, of course, is that I wanted good cases. But they don’t just fall from trees. You have to figure out how to get them. Word of mouth is great, but there are over 45,000 attorneys in our state. How do you stand out in that crowd? I came to realize that marketing is absolutely essential.”
Her personal blog, which adopted the name bestowed on her by adversaries she charmed before trouncing, is one step she has taken which has certainly helped her make a name for herself. It has been ranked by the ABA as one of the nation’s top hundred law blogs for three years running.
Koehler says she started the blog shortly after her term as president of the trial lawyers association ended. “We had survived some big legislative challenges, such as a proposed cap on damages. That campaign was exhausting, and it resulted in a lot of negative anti-lawyer TV advertising and attacks on lawyers in general. I left that presidency thinking that I wanted to do something that shows that lawyers are people, too. That is the theme of my blog, and kind of my whole way of being, which is very integrated,” she says. In other words, she doesn’t separate being human from being a lawyer, either in life or in her law blog, Koehler explains.
Marketing experts told her that if she wanted to have a successful law blog, she would have to “find a specialized niche and stick with it,” she says. “My blog is exactly the opposite of that. Basically, I write about whatever I want when I want to.” That includes tales from the home front, movie reviews that she posts on a Pinterest site linked to her blog, and lots of personal photographs posted on her blog, on Facebook and on Instagram. She also has a Twitter account that she uses to send tweets to her followers about everything from “stuff I do with my kids” to barbs about opposing counsel in cases she is handling. “I am pretty well known for my rants,” she says. “For example, if I am in a deposition, I might tweet about things that the other side is doing that drive me crazy.”
The blog and her other social media activities aren’t a hit with everyone, she concedes. “Some of the older partners in my firm, one of them in particular, don’t like it,” Koehler says. “He thinks it is too folksy. But my clients love it.”
Building Relationships with Other Lawyers
Most of the firm’s other marketing efforts, in contrast, are strictly professional, and are aimed specifically at other lawyers. That makes sense for That makes sense for Stritmatter Kessler Whelan because the firm specializes in big cases with the potential for seven-figure verdicts or settlements. big cases with the potential for seven-figure verdicts or settlements. “Many of our cases – in fact, over 50 percent of them — come from other lawyers,” Koehler says. “So we market ourselves by building relationships with referring lawyers.”
The firm maintains a listing in the AVVO directory, and has occasionally paid for an enhanced listing. But that has primarily generated small cases that the firm doesn’t keep. The firm has gotten much more mileage out of The firm maintains a listing in the AVVO directory, and has occasionally paid for an enhanced listing. But that has primarily generated small cases that the firm doesn’t keep. The firm has gotten much more mileage out of print ads that run in State Bar and trial lawyer publications, and are repurposed on the firm’s web site. “Our ads are very, very gold standard. They are tasteful and elegant,” Koehler says. “They are never about the law firm. They are about our clients and their stories. They typically have a quote associated with the case, for instance, about how people who have been wronged have helped change the law, or about how people are challenging society to do better. For example, an ad about a nursing home case had a quote about how a civilization is judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members.”
While those ads help build brand recognition for Stritmatter Kessler Whelan within the Washington state trial bar, the firm and its attorneys have found other ways to more directly connect with other lawyers: by sharing the firm’s expertise. “My philosophy is that you give in order to get,” says Koehler. One way she does that is through frequent presentations at bar conference. That requires a lot of preparation and writing. And since she limits her appearances at local events, so that her Seattle colleagues don’t get tired of hearing her, it also requires a lot of travel to out-of-town events. But the effort has paid off.
“My appearances before trial bar organizations and the other regular bar associations are probably the way that I get most of my referrals,” she says. “People have heard me speak and they remembered that I am from Seattle. And if they have a case that is going to involve Seattle, they call me.”
Booklets Replaced Firm Newsletter
Stitmatter Kessler Whelan readily adopted another of Koehler’s marketing ideas, which she proposed as a replacement for the standard law firm newsletter. “People don’t read newsletters. They are like spam,” she says. “I put them right in the trash. So three or four years ago I came up with another idea. I said we are a firm that has some really great lawyers in it and we have a lot of information.” She suggested that the firm could win goodwill by spreading that knowledge around with a series of booklets on legal topics.
Her partners ultimately agreed. Since then, the firm has produced booklets on topics ranging from highway design and medical malpractice to subrogation and cross examination. “The booklets don’t include any sort of plea for cases to be referred to us,” Koehler says. “We wanted to provide a resource just to build relationships.” Some of her partners at first wondered why they should share their expertise free of charge with competitors. “They grew up in the world of Sun Tzu and his book, The Art of War, which says basically, you must give away nothing. So their thought was, ‘Oh my God, Karen, you’re giving it away. My thought was, are you kidding me? The information is nothing. It is what you are doing with it that counts.”
Koehler, who wrote a booklet on voir dire, says the service has proved to be one of the most effective steps the firm has taken to make connections with referring attorneys. When her booklet was ready for distribution, she recalls, “I went on the trial lawyers’ listserv and said, ‘Hey, I wrote this book. Do you want a copy?’ Several thousand people have said yes, and have asked to be on our mailing list. When do people ever ask to get your newsletters these days? Never.”
Superlawyers Listings Impress Clients
Koehler says the firm has made one exception to the policy against advertising in consumer publications. “Once or twice, we have run an ad in the Superlawyers edition of the local city magazine. We have put an ad in there because typically, some of us are top Superlawyers,” says Koehler, who was recently named as one of the top 10 Superlawyers in Washington State.
Attorneys recognize that the Superlawyers listing is “a bit of a popularity contest,” says Koehler, which explains the dearth of women and minorities on the “top Superlawyers” lists. “I went back and looked, and there have been only two other top 10 superlawyers who are women in 13 years, and the general counsel of Microsoft was one of them. I think that’s ridiculous.”
She’s not ungrateful to have made the top 10 list, though she’s not the only lawyer who takes it with a grain of salt. “But it does mean something to consumers, and so it has a place” in a firm’s marketing campaign, Koehler says. “I was in Portland just the other day meeting with a family, and their lawyer immediately pulled out the list showing me as one of the top 10 Superlawyers. That might not resonate with attorneys, but it clearly meant something to them.”
Bringing Senior Partners on Board
Koehler played a leading role in her firm in devising innovative marketing strategies. She has also been the firm’s most prolific blogger by far. But she has recently gotten some competition. “We actually added a new member who has started blogging,” says Koehler, “and he does the same thing I have done,” using the medium to personalize himself. “He calls himself The Lion and he writes a lot.”
Some of the older attorneys in the firm, meanwhile, “probably have no idea” what their younger, blogging partners are up to. “Several of my partners are in their 70s. They are considered some of the best lawyers in the state, but they were lawyers when it was illegal to market, and they don’t want to be smeared by the thought of being ‘marketed,’” Koehler says. “They may periodically go crazy about what I am doing, but I don’t care. If they don’t like it, they can say so and then move on to the next subject. They know that I get a lot of cases and that I have good relationships with a lot of people.”
They will most likely never learn to love her personal style of blogging and her heavy social media presence. But as for some of the more straight-laced approaches to making a name for the firm, Koehler says, “they have really come around. We have developed a really nice marketing program for our law firm.