How Bob Weed grew his bankruptcy practice, even after Google chopped his search traffic in half

In this episode of Bankruptcy Law Success, I interview Bob Weed, a bankruptcy attorney in Northern Virginia who happens to have been my client for the last year.

Some of the highlights in this interview include:

  • How he used paid ads to more-than-replace half his organic leads, after Google chopped his organic search traffic in half
  • How those paid ads — and a few marketing tweaks — helped him grow in a bankruptcy market that’s “been going down, down, down, down, down”
  • The exact change he made that increased his retainers by a third, without spending a single penny more
  • And a whole bunch more, including how to “warm up” potential clients from the Internet so they’re as “hot” as a referral lead

You can listen to the episode by clicking the “play” button in the audio player above, or read a full transcript below.

You can also subscribe to get an email when we release new episodes of the Bankruptcy Law Success podcast.

Bob Hiler: Hi, this is Bob Hiler of the Bankruptcy Law Success podcast, where we introduce you to successful bankruptcy lawyers, as well as powerful ideas that can transform your bankruptcy practice. Today, I’m talking with Bob Weed, a bankruptcy attorney in Northern Virginia who also happens to have been a client of mine for the last year. Bob, welcome to the podcast.

Bob Weed: Thank you, Bob. Glad to be here.

Bob Hiler: Bob, can you believe that we’ve been working together for over a year now?

Bob Weed: Well, it’s been a learning experience for me the whole time.

Bob Hiler: You know, I looked at your LinkedIn before we started this episode and I realized that you’ve been at the Bankruptcy Law Office of Robert Weed for almost 25 years now.

Bob Weed: Right.

Bob Hiler: I feel like I know you for the last 25 years, but what happened between law school and you starting the Bankruptcy Law Office of Robert Weed? How did you get started in bankruptcy?

Bob Weed: Well, my first career was in Republican political consulting. I was state chairman of the College Republican Federation of Virginia, out of my last year at Washington and Lee and my first year at UVA Law, and Republican political stuff was the thing I was interested in. I went to law school when there wasn’t any political work going on to fill the time and never during that period really ever intended to practice law.

Bob Hiler: So what were you thinking that you would use your law school degree for?

Bob Weed: Yeah. Well, I was interested in going to law school. I just wasn’t interested particularly in being a lawyer. It was just something that people were interested in politics and government, that it made sense as a degree for that purpose…

Bob Hiler: And then, how did you get into the world of bankruptcy?

Bob Weed: Well, I… Actually, during a short period right after I got out of law school — I did one year at the University of Virginia, and as I just said, my law school career was frequently interrupted — I ended up graduating from University of Maryland and practiced law with a small law firm, one of the pioneers in legal advertising in Baltimore. And they made me their bankruptcy guy because I had gotten the best grade in the class in bankruptcy law. Now, the bankruptcy law that was taught in law school was the high dollar stuff, was corporate reorganizations and that kind of thing, which has essentially no overlap with either the bankruptcy law that that firm did or the law that I do now, which is consumer bankruptcy law. But with that as my credential and since they didn’t have anybody, I became the bankruptcy lawyer for that firm and I’ve been a bankruptcy expert ever since.

Bob Hiler: Yeah. Did you live in Baltimore back in the day?

Bob Weed: Yeah, as I mentioned, I did one year of law school at the University of Virginia and then got sidetracked into political stuff. And then, when I wanted to go back, that was how I ended up in Baltimore for that time period.

Bob Hiler: OK. So what made you set up your own shingle in 1993?

Bob Weed: Yeah. I mean, in politics — although politics then is different than politics today, I think — but you’re trying to hurt the other guy in a really personal way, and I was exhausted with that. I also think I was part of that wave… I did mostly Southern stuff. I was part of that wave that converted the “Solid South” from Democratic to Republican, and I was considered a really mean guy, starting because at least in my own view, we told the truth.

And by the time I got out of it, being mean seemed much more to involve lying and I didn’t really want to be good at that, which is a bridge back into bankruptcy law, which was certainly true then — less true since 2005, not that we lie — but bankruptcy law before the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform really said good things about America. I mean, it said that we are a nation of second chances and that if you come in and put your cards on the table, your debts are going to be cleared and you can get on with your life. It really was… The 1978 Bankruptcy Law really appealed to the important strand in America, I think, of a fair break for the underdog and second chances at being in a place where the average guy — if you get knocked down — can get back up. And so I was interested in bankruptcy law for that reason.

Secondly, I thought that bankruptcy law lent itself to advertising, since people are more likely to brag about their divorce lawyer than their bankruptcy lawyer. And having had a first career in politics, I knew that I knew more about advertising than most lawyers did, and so I thought it would be an area that I could get into and build up a practice in a hurry.

Bob Hiler: Absolutely. So you’re in Baltimore, did you move to Northern Virginia to start your practice so you wouldn’t compete with your old firm, or what was the thought process?

Bob Weed: No, no, no. My Maryland time was temporary. Virginia’s really been my home.

Bob Hiler: Oh, okay. You told me that you got your first few bankruptcy clients by sending some direct mail. Can you talk about your experience with direct mail, maybe on the political side, and how that evolved?

Bob Weed: Yeah. I had different associations but I was involved with Karl Rove in several different ways over the years and Karl’s political specialty was direct mail. And so I was never a direct mail guy but for a political generalist, I knew a lot about direct mail. And so when I was trying to get first going, I sent one of my staff over to the Fairfax County Courthouse and we would manually pull out the files of people who were being sued by the credit card companies in Fairfax County and we sent them a letter, talked to them about bankruptcy. And that was very successful getting me going.

The second medium that I used at that point — because everybody was dependent on the Yellow Pages which only came out once a year — the second medium was a free newspaper around here and may have been in other places called “The Thrifty Nickel,” which was a free paper, mostly with what they called small classified ads. It was the kind of paper that people — well, we thought — lonely people would pick up in a coffee shop or a local restaurant. And there was nothing else to do and flip through it and those people were relatively good prospects for bankruptcy, too. It was very successful, and actually, some of my clients referred to it as that bankruptcy lawyer newspaper because there were so many bankruptcy lawyer ads in it.

Bob Hiler: That’s funny. Yeah, I’ve got to say, I love direct mail. That’s actually how we met. You responded to a piece of direct mail that I had sent you.

Bob Weed: Well, that’s right. And that direct mail piece and also the… Who would have thought print advertising had come back? But the Internet really has… Everything that you need to know about print advertising has come back with what you need to know to advertise successfully on Google. And I immediately knew that you knew a whole lot more about that kind of thing than I did. And again, for a political generalist, I was OK on that. For a lawyer, I knew a lot about advertising.

Bob Hiler: So before we ever worked together, I know you rode the bankruptcy boom during the mortgage meltdown, the Great Recession.

Bob Weed: Right.

Bob Hiler: So we’ve never talked about this, but did you end up working your fingers to the bone for a couple of years there?

Bob Weed: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, I’m an usher at my church and at that time, we had a Saturday night service. I was the head usher on the Saturday night service. The church was growing rapidly enough that they slammed in a service on Saturday night and I would be in the office handling appointments all day on Saturday and leave rushing at 5:30 in order to get to the church by 6:30 for the 7:00 service, and did that for years.

Bob Hiler: Wow. Did you sleep at all? How did you survive?

Bob Weed: Well, yeah, we managed to handle it OK but it was… I worked on Saturdays because there was a need.

Bob Hiler: Yeah, totally. You know, one of the things that I’ve been really impressed by — I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this — but you’re so hands-on with every client. Why is that so important to you? How did you realize that that was an important thing?

Bob Weed: Well, you know, it’s supposed to be part of being a lawyer. Some legal ethics requirements — which besides being requirements are in fact sort of right — is that there’s supposed to be a relationship of trust between the client and the lawyer. And you can’t do that unless the client and the lawyer actually talk things over at sufficient length that both understand where the other one is coming from and agree together on a plan of action that makes sense. I mean, that’s what lawyers are supposed to do.

Bob Hiler: Yeah, but… I mean, I think it’s fair to say that you go above the legal requirements. I mean, I’ve been very impressed by how hands on you are and I was wondering if that was just your upbringing or something happened that made you just become more hands on, or what that was about.

Bob Weed: Yeah. I think a lot of that is my attitude, although the second thing that’s shaped this a lot… In Northern Virginia, I’m in a very high income and a very high cost of living area in an otherwise low income, low cost of living state, OK? Not as bad as it once was when I first got into Virginia politics when we were barely ahead of Alabama and Mississippi on various things, but still. The rest of the state is low and so under the Bankruptcy Reform, the income eligibilities statewide, the cut offs on the means test are much lower than they are (say) in Maryland, right across the river here.

Bob Hiler: Oh, that’s a great point.

Bob Weed: And so I’m dealing with a high percentage of people who are barely (or not) making enough to live in this area, but who are over the median income. And figuring out how to qualify those people for Chapter 7 bankruptcy — or maybe more that could be delegated to my staff than I do — but that really depends… I mean, you really need a lot of analytical power to that job or you can’t get it done.

Bob Hiler: That’s interesting. That might be one of the reasons that you don’t really see bankruptcy mills so much in Northern Virginia because you just can’t do it, like you said. You do see them in Southern Virginia and the southern states but that’s fascinating.

Bob Weed: And if people do end up in 13… Again, unless you really worked it… I mean, 13s fail most of the time almost everywhere but particularly here, unless you’ve really tried to get people to budget their expenses accurately, you’re going to put them in 13s that they can’t possibly do. Now, to some extent, it’s unavoidable but again, you want to — as far as possible — take the time to understand really where the money is going in a way that you can present it to the court but to maybe make the Chapter 13 feasible or get them approved for a Chapter 7.

Bob Hiler: So Bob, you’re one of the few bankruptcy attorneys that regularly writes blog posts. I actually clicked back and you’ve been blogging since 2010, which is pretty amazing. I’ve never asked you this, but what inspired you to start blogging?

Bob Weed: Well, I think that blogging is important for SEO and that’s part of the reason. The other is, although there are only a few pages, but… I try to have a blog on everything that I tell my different clients over and over, or that on every topic that many or most clients need some detail on — besides telling them — I send them to the blog page so they can read it. They have it in front of them and they can refer back to that, they don’t have to remember what I said. So it answers their questions.

Then, also, to some extent, it’s important to protect yourself. You know what you told people because they hear it in writing.

Bob Hiler: That’s a good point.

Bob Weed: Some of that time, it’s also fun. So when I blogged on the Supreme Court decision where Justice Sotomayor, who used to be a criminal defense lawyer, said that it’s illegal to tell people to go out and buy a car but it’s legal to tell them that it’s legal for them to go out and buy a car. I ended that blog post with, “And you didn’t read it here,” which is ironic since I have it posted out for all the world to read. But I like writing and I like to be clear and sometimes, I like to have a little fun on what I write, too.

Bob Hiler: I think you’ve got a lot of traffic from those blog post. One of the things that we discussed is — right before we started working together — in September 2016, Google changed the way that it ranks bankruptcy lawyers so that the distance between the searcher and your office became the number one factor. So your Google traffic fell roughly in half. We didn’t even realize it right away but that was pretty shocking to see.

Bob Weed: Well, one of… The way I’m set up — which I did originally when my main advertising medium was the phone Yellow Pages — was, I have four locations in Northern Virginia so nobody’s (almost nobody) hardly, any of the population of this whole division is more than 20 miles from one of my locations. A lot of people are within 20 miles of two of them.

So the other thing that fell off about that same time — which I’ve thought was more important than you do — is I use as a rating service, Customer Lobby. And I’m now up close to 700 five-star reviews at Customer Lobby. But for a long time period, my Customer Lobby stars would show up on all the blog posts. So if a blog post came up, it would show the five stars that represented then 500 Customer Lobby 5-star reviews. And Google changed the weight or whatever that they put on Customer Lobby and those stars went away. And I think that was a big hit.

Bob Hiler: No. I mean, just to be clear, I absolutely think that’s a big hit, too.

Bob Weed: Yeah, yeah.

Bob Hiler: So we kind of started with… We started working together in October-November of 2016 right after that September hit. We’ve worked on a bunch of marketing projects together. I thought we might chat about some of them.

Bob Weed: Sure.

Bob Hiler: Okay. So the main thing I do for you is I run your Google AdWords campaign and I help you generate an average of 100 leads a month between 75-125 at a cost of around $35 a lead. So I don’t want to lead the witness here, but what effect have these leads had on your bankruptcy retainers? How’s that worked out for you?

Bob Weed: Well, I’m… Bankruptcy lawyers everywhere in the country know that bankruptcy is falling, and they’re falling again in my service area worse than almost anywhere. We’ve got… I think the unemployment rate in Northern Virginia is 2% and although, again, the cost of living here is high. So bankruptcies, it’s been going down, down, down, down, down and we’ve been able to sustain the volume that we had before you came to us and we’ve crept back up a little bit.

I think in some of the additional changes that we’ve made more recently that we’re moving back up a little more but in the face of a really terrible market situation, we’ve stayed afloat and we’re gaining a little bit of ground.

Bob Hiler: Yeah.

Bob Weed: And again, go back to what I just said, we offset the loss that we took when Google took away the stars.

Bob Hiler: Absolutely. So I think you were just alluding to the “quick form” product that we just did.

Bob Weed: Yes.

Bob Hiler: That was one of our most effective side projects that we’ve done. And just to lay it out for the audience, what we did is immediately after a prospect contacts Bob Weed’s law office, we asked them to fill out a short “quick form” right away. And then, once they fill that out, we schedule a free 20-minute phone consultation with the lawyer, Bob Weed, right after they do that. So how’s that been, Bob?

Bob Weed: Yeah. Let me give you some history on that. I mean, under the old bankruptcy law, everybody’s first appointment was with me and they would… We knew that less than 50% of the people who made an initial appointment came in. And I went over our forms, the information that we needed in order to get them approved with them and send them away to come back with the rest of it. But everybody saw me on the front end. And with a combination of bankruptcy reform and getting used to what we needed to get people approved under the 2005 law and then almost immediately after that as volumes started to pick up, we had the housing crisis. And so I pulled away that people had to fill in a lot of information and meet with the paralegal first and then come in to see me.

And we did that for two reasons: one, to have enough information in front of us that I could talk intelligently and second, on the front-end of the crisis, our clients were high functioning people. They were real estate flippers. They were real estate agents. They were people who worked in title companies. They were investors. They were high functioning people who’d gotten hit by a turn in the market but who continued to be high functioning. And we could require them to be high functioning in order to get to our system and they did it. And those were great customers. As we’ve now come through…

We’re in what economists call full employment most everywhere, although wages still aren’t going up very much and “Help wanted” signs everywhere here. So the people we are seeing are mostly driven by medical problems or marriage break ups, which in a lot of cases are medically driven, or severe depression or otherwise lower functioning people. And of course, we’re seeing them at a low functioning point in their lives because they’re not necessarily always low functioning people.

But I stuck with that model, the model that was based on the high functioning people way too long and you persuaded me to get out of it, which I probably should have done several years ago.

But now, I do talk to everybody on the front-end not the way I used to when we took them through the whole thing but enough to assure them that they don’t need to be afraid and that we’re going to be able to help them. And that’s showing every sign of leading into an upturn here where in the holiday period slowdown, which I’m sure most bankruptcy lawyers are familiar with, too. But again, we’re doing much better than we did these months a year ago. And then I think we’re going to see a big upturn when we go into the new year.

Bob Hiler: Yeah, I’m excited about that. So what percentage of your prospects actually pick up the phone when you call them for their scheduled phone consultation?

Bob Weed: Oh, it’s nine out of ten.

Bob Hiler: Really? It’s still that high?

Bob Weed: It’s nine out of ten. Yeah, I have only a very small number of the people who don’t pick up.

Bob Hiler: Awesome.

Bob Weed: Yeah, it really is.

Bob Hiler: And you’re still doing that, the 20-minute phone consultation? Is 20 minutes enough to kind of do the call?

Bob Weed: Yeah, I do a 20-minute phone consultation. And then it probably takes — in many cases — it takes me a full 10 minutes to type up a follow up memo where I summarize for them and of course for myself what it is we talked about. So it takes a full half hour. We set them half an hour apart and it takes the full half hour. I’m scrambling to stay up with it.

Bob Hiler: OK. But after people talk to you, do you find that they’re more eager to fill out your long form?

Bob Weed: Yes. I mean, they say they’re going to get right on it. They seemed to be getting right on it. You know, we’re still early in this and of course, we have introduced an additional step in our sales funnel.

Bob Hiler: Yes, that’s true.

Bob Weed: So the percentage response needs to jump out in order to make up for the fact that we’ve introduced another step. It seems to be but we need to be watching it through the end of the year and the end of January before we can be confident that this is working a lot better.

Bob Hiler: It’s still early. We’ve only been doing this for almost two months.

Bob Weed: Right.

Bob Hiler: I’ve ran some preliminary numbers and it looks like you’re getting about a third more qualified leads. So those are people that you’ve spoken to and have filled out the long form. So that’s really exciting.

Bob Weed: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah, that’s a big number.

Bob Hiler: The other thing that the data really seems to show is that now you’re warming up prospects with a phone consultation very early in the process. And so it seems like they’re more excited so they take much less time to become a retained client than if you didn’t warm them up. So is that your sense as well? That’s what the numbers seem to be saying.

Bob Weed: Yeah, I’m definitely seeing that on a lot of people. Yesterday, I had a drop-in who became a retained client. I had a guy who’s in a blue collar occupation being paid fairly well for that kind of thing. So he must be good at what he does, working at a warehouse. But he came in with a family member — I think his sister – and he just dropped in. He said, “You know, I know I’m supposed to have done this form, and I’m not sure I could figure it out but we want to get going.” And so as a backup, I gave him the old manual form, you know, printed out the form that you fill in with a pencil. And I had a hole in my schedule at 3 o’clock and he and his sister came back with everything they were supposed to have at 3 o’clock. And my initial retainer payment $700, so…

Bob Hiler: Oh, wow.

Bob Weed: He wanted to get on it. He wanted to get on it and I knew that he was — for whatever reason — having a little trouble with the Internet version of the form but… So he came, just barged in. “What can we do to move this along?”

Bob Hiler: Well, that’s great. But I think one of the things that can happen is that Bob Weed is a very established lawyer in Northern Virginia and he is getting referrals. So when you’re in a situation where you’re getting lots of referrals, where someone has told that prospect, “Bob Weed is amazing. He’s the best bankruptcy lawyer in the world.” Those people are kind of more eager to fill out a long form.

But when you get a lead over the Internet, you really need to kind of warn them up and so that’s why I really like this 20-minute phone consultation and then you send them a memo. I think that’s really powerful because it really warms up the Internet lead and makes them more like a referral lead. Is that something you’re seeing, as well?

Bob Weed: Yeah, that makes sense to me and I’ve been doing this for two months. I’m trying to adjust a little bit. It’s easy. Well, I need to watch out for making people too comfortable. If you say, “You don’t need to be scared. We can fix this problem. It’s going to be fine.” You don’t want to overemphasize that part of it and get people to say, “Whew, I’m going to be in good hands. This is fine and I’ll get to it Thursday next week after I walk the dog or whatever.” And they don’t get to it.

So I need to strike the right tone and so I’m saying, “It’s going to be fine. But at the same time, you put this off too long and these problems are only going to get worse. So let’s see if we can get right on it.”

Bob Hiler: Well, that takes us to your long 37-page form that used to be a PDF form. And then one of the harder projects that we did together was convert that into an electronic web form that people could fill out on their mobile phones. That was a lot of work. It seemed to have long term benefits but I don’t know. Do you have any thoughts on that on that project?

Bob Weed: Well, I mean, the great thing about it is we now know when people have opened the form. And also, when they submit it, one of my people takes a look at it, and if they submit it and they’ve only answered the first third and then they just clicked it on through, we’re not tying ourselves up with a paralegal appointment for somebody who really hasn’t taken it seriously yet. We could say, “Yup, you did great on the first third but we’ll give you an appointment when you come back and fill in the rest of it, too.”

A problem we used to have that we now don’t — besides the people who make an appointment and don’t come in — are the people who say, “Yup, I know what I’m supposed to bring. I’ve got everything.” And then they come in with nothing filled in at all. And I’m sure bankruptcy lawyers are familiar with that problem, too. And having an electronic form so we can see what they’ve filled in before we make an appointment, we get rid of that problem.

Bob Hiler: Well, I think you also… You kind of skimmed over this but this idea of, like, when prospects ghost you for an appointment, a common reason is that they’re embarrassed that they didn’t fill out your long form because it’s 37 pages and then…

Bob Weed: Right.

Bob Hiler: So then they don’t show up for the appointment and then they’re embarrassed and they can never kind of talk to you again or they feel that way.

Bob Weed: Right.

Bob Hiler: And when leads can be so valuable, that’s a very expensive kind of hole in your sales funnel, so I think actually canceling… I know your administrative assistant cancels appointments for people if they haven’t fill out the form. But I actually think that that improves — it’s counter-intuitive — but that’s actually improving the number of appointments where people show up because people aren’t embarrassed and ghosting you. Is that…

Bob Weed: Right. Right. And if we set an expectation, this is, “We’re taking this seriously and you take it seriously.” I mean, if we let them know that they need to take it seriously, it lets them know that we’re taking it seriously. Yeah, I mean, people are embarrassed enough to be thinking about bankruptcy. I try to reassure them that they shouldn’t be but people are embarrassed enough. And then if they’re on top of that embarrassed that they haven’t followed through on a commitment that they’ve made, then it’s not just that when they start over with somebody else, they just don’t start over.

Bob Hiler: I also think it’s a big benefit, the electronic form — and we use Cognito Forms — but that electronic form can actually be filled out on a mobile phone instead of a PDF form. It looks small. I don’t even know if you can fill out a PDF form on a phone but it seems like it’s a lot easier.

Bob Weed: Yes. Yes.

Bob Hiler: OK. Well, so we’re winding up here. You know, we’ve been working together for a year now. You’re my favorite client in that you try some of the crazy ideas. You try every crazy idea. Well, not every crazy idea but almost every crazy idea. What advice would you give to another bankruptcy lawyer about their online marketing given what you’ve learned over the last year of us working together?

Bob Weed: Well, I’ve said several times that having come out of a political background, I knew a lot more about advertising than most people who come to the law. But what I’ve needed and what I have with you, is a guy who knows a whole lot more than me. And lawyers who are trying to manage their own advertising campaign are not going to do it very well. But at the same time, there are a lot of people out there who charge a high fee and who are not particularly good. So you need to rely… You need to find somebody who’s really good at it, and you need to rely on. But also stay involved.

Bob Hiler: Yeah, just for the record, like, I don’t tell you what to do. We talk about every change in an ad or every change in a landing page or adding a new keyword and…

Bob Weed: Yeah. I don’t attempt to micromanage you because you’re better than I am but I do need to know what’s going on and I often have valuable insights that I contribute.

Bob Hiler: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I feel there’s a good give-and-take. So I’m very happy about that.

Bob Weed: Yeah.

Bob Hiler: OK. Well, I know you’re slammed with appointments these days so thanks for taking the time, Bob, to hop on the phone here.

Bob Weed: All right. Well, thank you for having me. I hope that this is helpful to colleagues around the country.

Bob Hiler: OK, awesome. Thanks a lot, Bob.

Bob Weed: OK, thank you. Bye bye.