How Jonathan Ginsberg built his bankruptcy practice using every marketing technique you’ve heard of (and some you haven’t)
Some of the highlights in this interview include:
● How a friend’s secret phone call referrals got him started in bankruptcy
● Why you should avoid advertising on morning “drive time” radio (and when you should advertise instead)
● How you can turn worker’s comp into a good referral source for bankruptcy cases (and disability cases, too)
● The real reason people file for bankruptcy (it’s not “to get rid of your debt”)
● Why you should consider diversifying to other practice areas, and a resource that can help you do just that
● What makes Social Security Disability a good practice area, as well as the secret key to getting claims approved
● What he learned attending expensive seminars on student loans, and the big problem he discovered about student loans as a practice area
● The #1 mistake lawyers make when trying to generate leads with Google AdWords
● The weird “angle” he took with a direct mail sales letter that actually worked
● And a whole lot more!
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.
Full Transcript of Interview:
Bob: 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 will transform your bankruptcy practice. Today, I’m talking to Jonathan Ginsberg, who’s a practicing attorney who wears two hats. For over 20 years, he’s been at Ginsberg Law Offices where his practice focuses on personal bankruptcy and Social Security Disability claims, and for the past 12 years he’s also run Rent My Brain, an Internet marketing consultancy targeting lawyers. Jonathan, welcome to the podcast.
Jonathan: Thank you for having me. Looking forward to speaking with you.
In your law practice, you now focus on personal bankruptcy and Social Security Disability, but right before we started recording this podcast you told me a funny story of how you got started in bankruptcy. I thought that maybe you could tell that story to the audience.
Jonathan: Sure. Well, basically, I’ve been practicing bankruptcy really close to 30 years now. It’s even longer than I’d like to think but it’s been going on since probably the early 90s, late 80s, early 90s. How I got involved in it is kind of a strange situation. I was working in a small firm. I had a partner and we were doing personal injury, workers comp, kind of just a general practice, and every third Friday, I was getting phone calls for bankruptcy.
And I had no idea why, because I had never done bankruptcy work and knew nothing about it. But every third Friday… This went on for five or six months, I was getting phone calls and not just one or two. I was getting six, seven, eight phone calls asking about bankruptcy, and I kept turning it down because I didn’t know anything about it.
Finally, after a couple of months, I said to my partner at the time, “You know, there is a market out here for this.” So I started doing it and kind of learned a little bit about it. It turned out… Later on, I found out that a friend of mine that I went to law school with had been working for one of the volume bankruptcy practices in town and he was not very happy with his boss because he wasn’t making enough money or there was some issue they had had. So he was the attorney of the day every third Friday doing intake. So he basically would tell anybody who called, and this is a fairly large firm, did a lot of advertising, “We don’t do bankruptcy anymore. Call Jonathan Ginsberg.”
Lo and behold, I was getting these phone calls every third Friday and that’s kind of what jump-started my bankruptcy practice. Then, because I had enough volume there, I was able to take a few cases. I kind of struggled my way through. Found a mentor. I literally would go down to court and watch. That’s how I learned it. I made friends with some of the trustees and some of the paralegals from creditor firms and then bought the program which was very very rough at the time but I figured it out. My first few, I think were nothing to be very proud of but once you do… With bankruptcy, I think once you’ve done 10 or 15, you know about 80 percent of what you should know and then this just kind of took on from there.
Bob: When you say “bought the program,” what is that referring to?
Jonathan: The preparation program. I bought the… It was the… Now, I use something called Best Case. At that time, it was a program that was put out by a company out of Minnesota and they had a separate program, one for Chapter 7, one for Chapter 13 and it would generate the forms. Of course, back then it was maybe 20, 25 pages of forms and a lot of it was kind of manual. You’d have to kind of fill in. Now, it’s much more automated. It’s a hundred pages, but once I bought the preparation program, it really helped you understand kind of what the process is. So anybody I think who’s starting bankruptcy would be wise to look at some of the different programs out there so they can prepare the petitions. You don’t want to do it manually, certainly.
Jonathan: Nowadays, with the Chapter 13 plans being a lot more complicated, you really need a program to do it. In some ways, it kind of keeps people out of the practice, which is not a bad thing, because I think folks who dabble in bankruptcy, those are all gone because if you’re going to spend $1,200 on a program, you can’t really dabble in it. But back when I started, there were a lot of general practitioners who’d do one bankruptcy a year, two bankruptcies a year and they could afford to do it, but I think those days are kind of over.
Bob: Well, first, a question about your buddy who was sending over all those calls…
Bob: He was doing this, so he was friends enough with you that he could do this, but he wasn’t friends enough to give you a call and tell you what he was doing?
Jonathan: Yes. No, it was really strange. I mean, this is a guy that, again, I went to law school with. Nice guy I still, every once in a while run into him, but we were not particularly great friends. We were just… You know, we knew each other. He happened to be in Atlanta, I was in Atlanta, and I guess he heard… I don’t know because he must have somehow thought I did bankruptcy or just decided he was going to do it, but literally he started sending stuff over and I had no clue why. He never called me, never said anything at all. I only found out later on when I ran into him someplace. He said, “Are you getting those bankruptcy leads I’m sending over?” I’m here… “You’re the one to blame for this.”
Bob: Oh, that’s good.
Jonathan: Yes. That’s just… I think a lot of lawyers, they get into practice areas and there’s really no rhyme or reason. I mean, my daughter is finishing up law school this year and she’s trying to decide what to do. I said, “You know, it’ll choose you, in some ways. It’s not going to be you’re going to choose it, it’ll choose you.” Sure enough, that’s how it works. That’s how it works in terms of building a practice up.
We actually built up from a very small practice. We were doing, you know, 10 or 15 every couple of months and then it got to the point where we were doing a hundred cases a month. We were the fourth largest bankruptcy firm in Georgia at one point and just doing a hundred cases a month, and we had two or three lawyers and there were five or six staff. We were really churning out the petitions and, of course with bankruptcy, the problem is that it’s not a very high-margin practice area. So you’ve got to really really watch for your money and watch the numbers.
At that time, after doing that for a while, I realized I was churning a lot of money but I wasn’t taking very much home, so I kind of scaled it back a little bit and kind of got us to the point where it was a little more profitable. We were making money out of it. It was not just about volume because bankruptcy can take a lot of resources. It’s a lot of work, and of course in Chapter 13, you’re basically getting paid a flat fee for five years worth of work. When I started, literally, it was, I think, $750 for a Chapter 13 for five years of work and that’s not a whole lot of money but, yeah, it was something that, at that time, it was pretty easy to grow because there was so much of a demand for it.
Bob: So how did you do that? You went from five, six phone calls that your friends sent over for free to 100 cases a month…
Bob: Can you help me bridge the gap? How did you get there?
Jonathan: Well, basically, this is again pre-Internet, so the first thing was we used Yellow Pages, which I don’t think work anymore but at that time we bought… It’s kind of… We held our breath and bought a double truck ad in the Yellow Pages so we had a big two-page ad. This was probably about a year or so and after we had kind of an idea what we were doing, I bought the Yellow Page ad and that really helped quite a bit. Then we went on radio.
Bob: Wait, just stop for a moment…
Bob: Just to get a sense. A lot of younger attorneys in particular don’t know how much of an investment that was.
Jonathan: Oh yeah.
Bob: I’m sure the amount that you wrote down on that check is forever burned into your brain.
Jonathan: Oh yeah.
Bob: Can you share what you paid?
Jonathan: It was about $2,500 a month, and this is back in 1991, ‘92. So this is a long time ago and we’re spending 25, 28 hundred dollars a month. Of course, there’s no guarantees. If it doesn’t work, you know, you’re still obligated to pay it, so it’s quite a leap of faith to do that and it was… Believe me, every time… You know, the first couple of months we were writing the check, it was, “Wow, this is really quite an investment.” But it did work at that time.
Bob: How long did it work for?
Jonathan: Well, I think the Yellow Pages worked, probably, for a couple of years. The problem with it is, of course, that the Yellow Page salespeople, with all due respect to them ’cause they’re trying to make a dollar, which I respect, they would go to… They would be… Let’s say, for every one Yellow Page book, there would be 15 or 20 reps and they’d go out and they would tell everybody that “you’ll be on the first page,” and with the Yellow Pages, you really need to be on the first page.
My last name is G. My partner’s last name was G. So we were, you know, right in the middle. The first year, we actually got our first or second page in the Attorney’s section in the book and we got our first page and we were actually doing quite well. The second year, we were back on page 20, 25. It didn’t do nearly as well so… Of course, we had enough coming in that it didn’t make that much of a difference but Yellow Page kind of ran its course after just a couple of years. That was also at a time when the Yellow Page business became deregulated and so instead of having just one book, you had two, three, four. Then all of a sudden, you have ten Yellow Page books and it really starts to split the market to the point where you really couldn’t justify spending that kind of money because it was just… First of all, we weren’t going to be in the first group of ads, and the second thing was: there were so many other books that it started to really become less effective. So I think we did the Yellow Pages for maybe two or three years and then just decided this wasn’t going to work. Then at that point, we moved to radio, which kind of really built this.
Bob: OK, great. Can you tell me a little bit about that, how you built it on radio?
Jonathan: Yeah. Well, basically, the radio… You know, at that time, we looked at doing TV, and we felt that TV was just not really hitting the right market because with bankruptcy, you want people who are employed. And you also want to be able to target people at a certain age. So we started looking at radio. We did… It was radio.
You’ve got stations that really skewed towards, let’s say, women. You have stations that skewed more towards an urban market. You have stations that skew more country so we could try different ones. Of course, if it didn’t work, we could cut it off so that was a positive. Basically with the radio…
Again, same sort of thing as with the Yellow Pages, you’ve got to really watch your money. We hired an agency. Our agency, basically, put together some very fancy ads that sounded really really good, but again they were charging us a 15 percent override on all the spend that we were doing with the stations and the ads really weren’t working all that well. Sixty-second ads, it was getting some traffic but I said to myself, “You know, I don’t necessarily need to pay these people to do this.”
So we terminated that agreement. I actually recorded my own ad and I did two 30-second ads. I did one for bankruptcy and one for personal injury. It was just basically me talking. I wrote the ad and I had a couple of friends and so forth look at it. Basically, we were doing two 30-second ads on these different stations and that really worked pretty well that people responded to it. I didn’t have to pay the 15 percent override. I was able to negotiate a pretty good deal with the radio station where they were treating us as an agency. I think we created an agency for that purpose.
The lesson is, basically, that, you know, if you use vendors and they can be very helpful but you have to really make sure you’re getting value. Because in my experience, at least, with the radio, the agency we were using was charging a lot of money. They generated the ad, which, again, they produced. It sounded really good. They would come up with a schedule and, again, we were spending that much money, maybe two or three thousand dollars a month and they ran the schedule and they just ran the same schedule. So after five or six months of that, I’m thinking, “Well, you know, what are we paying them for?”
So I just did my own. We eventually got to the point where we were dropping probably $10,000 a month. Again, this is probably in the mid 90s on radio, and bankruptcy is very cyclical in that… There will be times when bankruptcy is really hot. There will be times when bankruptcy is not so hot. So when it was hot, it was really rolling. When it was not so hot, we were spending $10,000 a month and not doing much business at all.
So, it’s just something you got to be very nimble when you’re doing advertising, whether it’s TV or radio. You have to be very very nimble because you can spend a lot of money very quickly and not see much result. So we tracked everything, which I think is really important for any kind of marketing. You got to track it all, where it’s coming from and make sure that you’re getting your ROI because otherwise, you can spend a lot of money and not get very much.
Bob: So how did you track that? Did you use special phone numbers for each ad?
Jonathan: Well, for the radio, we did not. Then again, now I think it would be easier to do it that way. What we did is, we had pieces of paper, we called them green sheets, and they were green and every call… They were all numbered. So every call that came in, we would track to see where it came from and whether it turned in anything and you could put them on the spreadsheet and you could figure out, “OK, the radio generated, you know, 45 leads this week or this month and it turned into 14 cases or whatever it was.” And you could figure out your cost per dollar spent.
At a certain point… I don’t remember the exact numbers but at a certain level, it was profitable and at a certain level, it was not. So if you start to see that ROI drop, then you had to adjust your schedule. Try a different station.
You know, the other thing that I found with radio and this, again, is going back a ways, but at one point we were advertising on an urban contemporary station that catered mostly African-American and it was a very… It worked really really well. A second station came on board or came online that was catered to that same market and they were… Their cost of advertising was about a tenth, literally, from the big station. That number one station we were on was the largest station in Atlanta for that market and they were charging a fortune. We started… We then found this other station. We tried it. We found out that there was a lot of people who were listening to both stations. They had them on both buttons on the radio, two buttons on the radio. So we were getting, I’d say, about 90 percent the result at about a tenth of the price.
Jonathan: And that worked really really well for quite a while ’til out of the blue, that station went out of business because the Nielsens or whatever they were using to track it was not showing they were getting the market, but we knew they were getting the market and we sponsored… I think the Atlanta Hawks had a deal with them. We sponsored a… Like, one of the Hawks players was… We had a report. We sponsored that. We sponsored the traffic. We sponsored, you know, all kind of shows all day long. We ran all day long and it went… Again, it was, instead of spending $10,000, I think we were spending maybe $2-3,000 or even less than that for just ads that $20, $30 an ad and just spending like crazy anything we could get and it was just working great.
So that was a really great period of time where the ads really worked. And again, it just boiled down to having to really be aware what the market was about, not necessarily trusting what anybody told you, but just having to look at the numbers and letting the numbers tell you what was going on. If you do that, then that kind of advertising can work. At least, it did at that time.
Bob: Absolutely. I’m a marketing guy so when you say that you’re really defining your customer avatar then trying to find cost efficient ways of reaching them, that’s music to my ears.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Absolutely. Then we tried… After that… You know, the station went out of business and we tried some different stations.
We actually found, for example, that country stations did not work well for bankruptcy. At least this is in the mid-90s. The folks who listened there were tend to define bankruptcy morally wrong. I would get mail from people. Literally, letters like, “How dare you suggest bankruptcy. It’s un-American.” So we found that market did not work very well.
Other markets did but again, radio was really nice because you can segment and, like I said, we had to really test different ones. We tried TV and literally, I was the talent on the TV station. You know, I would appear. We filmed it and everything and again it worked OK but it just got very very expensive to do TV. And the big problem was, the only place you could run would be the morning shows, you know, the Jerry Springer and those type of shows where you had people that were not working and that doesn’t really work so well for bankruptcy. So that kind of didn’t really work all that well.
Bob: On that note for radio, how was drive time? Was it too expensive?
Jonathan: Drive time’s very expensive. We typically did better in the afternoon drive. It was a little bit less money and tended to get the same results. Then again, you got people that were working. So we would do a lot of… You could buy, at that time… I haven’t bought radio in years but you could buy segments where depending on how specific you want it to be. So we can say, “I want, you know, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.” and they would choose what you would get. You could do that.
I think with radio when you… You know, in the block, in other words, a radio station will sell a block of ads and there may be six or seven ads in a break. So if you’re number one, you’re going to do better than if you’re number six. So part of what we would pay for would be, “I want to be the first or second ad in the break,” and we would do better. But you have to really watch it because if you didn’t, they would put you in the number six block all the time.
But we thought afternoon drive did pretty well. Usually, afternoons did better than morning and I tried the morning drive. That was real expensive, but, you know, if you could get it, it was great but it was just very very expensive, most expensive radio time to get. Afternoons and afternoon drive did, generally, pretty well on the radio.
Bob: So on the radio side, when did things wind down for you? Was that when that second urban contemporary station went out of business?
Jonathan: Yeah, I think when they went out of business and we tried some different other radio stations and at that point Atlanta was getting really hot with radio and the prices just got outrageous. You know, the numbers just didn’t work.
Bob: That was the late 90s or…
Jonathan: Late 90s, yeah. It was just a real high watermark for radio and we were seeing what we were spending $100. $150 was kind of our max. It was… Now, $250, $300 a pop. That’s a lot of money.
Given the margins with bankruptcy, it just did not make a lot of sense so we kind of transitioned out of that. Around that time, my firm that I had been at was kind of going through a dissolution. So I was on my own at that point.
I was kind of starting over in the late 90s and so I wasn’t really advertising very much. It was pretty much word-of-mouth. I was doing mostly with Social Security at that point anyway and then did not get back into advertising or marketing much for bankruptcy until about 2004, 2005 when I started putting out websites. There was a gap for about four or five years where I wasn’t really marketing for it. It was just kind of word-of-mouth. I had a big client base so I was getting some leads but I really couldn’t even handle it because I was so busy just trying to get my new practice set up.
Bob: Let’s talk about the Social Security Disability side. That’s a natural segue…
Bob: How did you start getting into that?
Jonathan: Well, again, it was… You know, it sort of chose me. I mean, we were doing at this… My old firm, we were doing a good bit of worker’s comp and personal injury and people would come in and say, “I’m applying for Social Security Disability and can you help me?”
My rule of thumb: if I’m turning somebody down four or five times, we’re turning people down four or five times and I’m getting enough calls, it’s worth taking a look at it. So I would say this is probably mid to late 90s, probably mid 90s more so than late 90s. I started getting more inquiries about it.
I actually hired a paralegal who said that she had run a practice for another law firm. Turns out she really didn’t know what she was doing. And then you know… I remember one Saturday walking in her office and just seeing it was a disaster. You know, just unopened letters and things like that.
I realized I needed to really be involved in that and just started looking at it and it took me a while to figure out what to do.
Jonathan: The story I always tell was, I had a hearing in front of a judge and I was always very prepared but probably not with the right information. The judge, after the hearing said, “Will you stick around for a minute?” He said, “I can see you’re prepared, you’re working hard, but you’re focusing on the wrong thing.” So he kind of walked me through what the focus needed to be and that kind of opened my eyes to what Social Security was about.
Once I understood what I was trying to get, then it started to make a lot more sense. The focus on Social Security, by the way, is focusing on somebody’s work capacity or problems with work capacity, not about the medical problems. The example I always give is you could have your 4 herniated discs and you could have two knee replacements and be completely psychotic, but if you can work, you’re not disabled. So it’s got to be something that leaves you unable to work.
So once I kind of focused on that, it started to make a lot more sense and then it started to build that up a little bit. Then that was, kind of, a practice area that’s really kind of sustained me ever since.
Bob: You know, you mentioned worker’s comp as a natural referral source for Social Security Disability. I could also see how a lot of folks who file for bankruptcy would be interested in Social Security Disability, and vice versa.
Jonathan: Yeah. It can be. I mean, bankruptcy… The big difference is, with Social Security, you have to have people that are not working; and bankruptcy, believe it or not, I’m sure your audience knows, you’ve got to be working. You need to have people that have something to lose.
There were people that were filing for Social Security that fell behind in their bills because they couldn’t work. Of course, a lot of those people are judgment proof so it wasn’t necessary to need to put them in bankruptcy. But, yes, there was some of that.
With comp, it was more. Yeah, there was more Social Security falling from that because these are people that had serious injuries at work. I had been out of work for a long time, maybe had a settlement. The settlement could pretty much be protected or exempted in bankruptcy, and they wanted just to get rid of it because, really, you know, what drives bankruptcy is not debt, bankruptcy is driven by a desire for peace of mind.
I think that’s something that, again, if you do bankruptcy or your listeners do bankruptcy, you know that people are really focused on the stress of getting these phone calls, not knowing what to do. That’s really what drives bankruptcy. One of the messages that I always used in radio and on TV was not about “Get rid of your debt.” Everybody talks about that. I was talking about, “Get your peace of mind back.” That really was what drove the bankruptcy.
Bob: Yeah, I do marketing consulting for AdWords, and something that gets a very high response rate is, “Stop creditor phone calls.”
Bob: It gets a higher response rate than “eliminate debt.”
Jonathan: Yep, absolutely because if you’re looking, what’s the pain? The pain is stress, and one of the things that I did, in fact, when we were on the radio… I didn’t even talk about this but, just briefly, I’ll say that I wasn’t really asking people to call me for bankruptcy. I was saying, “Call me and I’ll send you this guidebook, this little thing I’ve written about how to eliminate stress, how to deal with debt, how to recover from bankruptcy.” And so, people were… It was a lead generation tool. People were calling about that, and that was something that I think really drove a lot of response because it was really low pressure, giving them something for free and that really tended to move the needle.
Bob: How did you publish that book? Was it just photocopied or…
Jonathan: Self-published. I just had my copier and we printed it, and it was called The Consumer’s Guide to Credit Bankruptcy. I’ve worked with a marketing consultant back in the early 90s and it was his brainchild. It was a really good idea. Basically, it was just mostly a bullet point list where we would just identify the pain points and how I could solve those pain points. That’s what we did. So it was really more of a lead generation tool. I think, in some ways, it was sort of a precursor to what the Internet does now, where you could offer a lot of information. But it was something you would literally mail out but people would get it.
We used magnets. That was another thing we did. “My attorneys are,” you know, and our firm name and our phone number. We would hear cases from people when they buy a refrigerator. Literally, they buy secondhand refrigerator. My magnet was on there, they’d call me.
So, yeah, you had just to be a little creative with that sort of stuff, but that’s what is… I think it was really about, you know, as you talked about with your AdWords, you have to identify the pain points, what are people focused on? It’s not about the debt, they don’t care about the debt. They care about what keeps them up at night. That’s what you want, to crawl in their head. It’s actually, what’s keeping you up at night and the phone calls and the letters and the threat of repossession, the threat of foreclosure and the horror stories… That’s really what drove the calls.
Bob: So it sounds like you have a nice sales funnel there. Do you still send out that book?
Jonathan: No, I don’t. I put it on the website. Basically, what… This should give you a brief overview of the web. Around 2003-2004, was, I think, when the Internet started to become a little more viable as a commercial tool, and at that point, nobody was doing it. It was just… It was a very… Nobody knew anything about it. I think a lot of people were very skeptical. The people, at that time, that owned law firms were mostly a bit older. They were in their 40s and 50s and they were just not going to go on the internet.
I kind of liked technical stuff so I just said, “You know what, let’s see if we can figure it out.” Then I hired a company to do a website for me. They did an OK job, but I looked at the program they used and I said “I can do that.” So I bought the program. It was called NetObjects Fusion, which is still around but I don’t use it anymore. Built a website with that and then put it out there, and once you do one, it just wasn’t that hard.
So I started putting out websites and, I’d say, by 2006-2007, I had not just one website. At that point, I kind of made a decision, instead of having one website, I’m going to have multiple websites; one for bankruptcy, one for Social Security, one for worker’s comp, one for PI. I was, basically, you know… There’s an old saying, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Well, I was… I control that land. I had… There was no competition, so all my websites were number one. For all these terms and so, it was just rolling in and everything; comp, personal injury, bankruptcy.
It was a really great time and it just really kind of coincided with the change in the bankruptcy law where we were literally getting unsolicited questionnaires. I mean, coming in by the dozen. I mean, we were filing cases. I mean, I was working seven days a week, hiring people just to get… Because the law was about to change and everybody was afraid they were going to file, so it was a really really hot time. I think it was 2005. I believe, 2005. I can’t even remember now.
Bob: Yeah, 2006 was the last year, and the volume was twice that of even 2007 and we were leading into the bubble bursting in the housing markets so…
Jonathan: Yep, yep, yep. So that’s that… That’s when the web was really rolling. There was probably about a five or six-year head start I had when nobody was doing it, and a lot of the big publishers were selling cookie cutter sites with their own directories and they just weren’t working. You know, I could publish as much as I wanted. You know, I could change it whenever I wanted and I did, and I had more content and better content, too. Most of my competitors were: “We protect your rights. We fight for you.” What does that mean? It means nothing.
Bob: “We are a debt relief agency. We file under the bankruptcy code.”
Jonathan: Right. It was all this nonsense. It didn’t say, “I went to this great school.” Nobody cared, but when I was saying, “This is how to stop a foreclosure. This is how to stop a repossession. This is how the law works. This is what to expect at your 341 hearing.” You know, all that content, so I had 50-60 pages of content and people were eating it up because it was so unique.
Until this day, I mean, that’s sort of my motto so I just believe in giving a lot of good content and I change it a lot. Now, I do a lot of video, but at that time, it was just written content. Yeah, that’s what’s always worked for me. It’s just giving a lot of good information and explaining it to your target market how you’re going to solve their problem, and you can really convince them and they start to know you and trust you because you’re giving away so much.
Because, you know, bankruptcy is… I’m sure your listeners know, you can’t do it on your own. It’s just… There’s so many different picayune rules. You can’t do it on your own, you have to have a lawyer to do it. So, you know, part of the the key with success in bankruptcy marketing is to convince your market that you know what you’re doing.
You can advise them and you’re going to tell them the truth that if it’s not appropriate for a bankruptcy, you’re going to tell them that. I remember I used to tell… You know, every phone call, I would talk to people, I’d say, “First thing I’m going to tell you is, don’t file bankruptcy unless you absolutely have to because it’s not a good thing for your credit.” And people would appreciate that because it was the honest truth, and that’s what I would tell them. If my cousin called, I would tell him that. You know, if a good friend called, I would tell them that. And that’s what I would tell my client, it really tends to work.
Bob: One of the things that actually really impressed me about your bankruptcy site was that you don’t ask potential clients to fill out, you know, that huge 50-page form that you need in order to put into your software program…
Bob: To prep the filing. Instead, you have them fill out a two-page form. So that you get just enough information so that you can give them good advice when you meet with them.
Jonathan: Exactly. Well, I think, that if you do bankruptcy work for even a small amount of time, you can tell pretty quickly what the problem is and what the solution is. Again, nobody… I would have too many people that would say, “OK, I’ll fill it out.” And they wouldn’t fill it out.
Nobody wants to fill out a 50-page form, so doing a two-page or a three-page form where you get enough information, you could see they’ve got a house that they’re behind in. So, boom, that tells you it’s probably going to be a Chapter 13. They’ve got mostly credit card debts and unemployed, that’s probably a Chapter 7. You can deduce from two pages mostly what you need to know, and even if you don’t, you have something to start the conversation with.
And, I can tell in about 10 minutes what they need to do if anything, but, yeah, the two-page form is something that, I think, people appreciate and that’s something that I recommend the folks do because it’s helped, it just saves a lot of time and you’ll have more people willing to fill it out.
Bob: I mean, yes. I’m absolutely with you. In fact, I think it’s genius. That’s why I want to highlight it, but the thing that particularly impressed me is that you must evolved your way towards a two- page form.
Bob: Can you maybe talk a little bit about… I mean, did you track what percentage of leads would actually fill out your 50-page form versus your two-page form, and how that transformed your practice?
Jonathan: Well, again, after the big rush of bankruptcy when the law is about to change, I had my… It was probably a 30-page form which I had evolved over time to make it easier to fill out and it was, people weren’t filling it out, or they would fill out the first three or four pages and they would say, “You know, I’ll give you the rest for later.”
I remember, just you know, I was probably in the shower, where I do my best thinking, it just occurred to me like, “You know, this just makes sense to do. This is something a lot more simple because I don’t need that much information.” You know, you do this for long, you know what to do. So I literally… It was just a little bit of inspiration or whatever, I just said, “Can we try a two-page form?”
Then, you know, I got a much much higher response rate from that. I don’t have the numbers anymore but, I mean, it was certainly, I’d say, for every 30-page form, I was getting ten two-page forms.
Jonathan: So it was a pretty significant difference, and it was pretty obvious to me very quickly that that’s the way to go. I think that, nowadays, with online, you can have people do stuff online. People like to fill out forms. They don’t have a problem filling out the form. They’ll give you a lot of personal information but you don’t want to make it like homework because nobody wants to do the homework, and they don’t know you, they don’t know anything about you, they don’t know if this is even something they want to do.
I find that if they filled out the two-page form, you get enough information, you can have an intelligent conversation with them, you can predict, for the most part, what they’re going to need. Then when you talk to them, at that point, you can say, “OK, now, let’s do the whole process. Here’s what I need. Here’s the page of my site where everything you need to know… Here’s a link to credit counseling. Here’s a link to get your credit report.”
And, you know, it takes a little time to do it but at least they’ve invested enough. They’ve invested either their 10 minutes to do the form and then the 30-minute phone call. Now, it’s a lot easier to say, “Now, invest two or three or five hours with me to get the rest of the paperwork in.” So that’s the logic.
Bob: That’s great. I want to drill down on that because you said, “30-minute phone call.” Do you kind of version it so that after they filled out your two-page form, they talk to you on the phone for 30 minutes versus coming in?
Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, it was 30 minutes, as a general. I mean, it could be less. But, yeah, I think that… I pretty much always felt like my clients need us to do something. They need to have a little bit of an investment, and, again, filling out a two-page form, if they’re not willing to do that and that sort of stuff, they’re not really serious about this.
And, there are people, clearly, that are very concerned about privacy or so many things that… I tell them, “Fax it to me, don’t email. Fax it.” That way, it’s a little more secure.
I find it, for the most part, if they’re willing to do two pages, I can get on the phone with them. That’s where you do your… You know, they start to know and trust you because you’re giving them good information. I’m not pushy at all. I can always tell people, “Don’t do this.” And after the phone call, they start talking and they’ll tell you what they need.
If you’re good on the phone and you’re able to listen to people but also know how to get them off a tangent… I think one of the things that bankruptcy lawyers know is that people will start to tell you their life story.
Jonathan: You have to be polite and be able to say, “Let me get off that. Let’s focus on the issue at hand. If you’ve got a two-page form, let’s talk about your mortgage. Let’s talk about your car. Let’s talk about your credit card debt.” And, you know, there’s a little bit of counseling involved where people want to unburden themselves and explain why they got in trouble, which is OK. But, I would say, “You know, I can talk to you for 30 minutes.” And I got to the point even where if it got beyond 30 minutes, I’d say, “We’ve been on the phone for 30 minutes. I’m more than happy to sit down with you and discuss this further but, you know, I have to get paid for my time. And so, if you want to more, then I may have to charge you.”
Jonathan: You know, some people would say that’s… Most people have no problem with that ’cause it’ll apply to your underlying case, but some would say, “You know, well I don’t… I’m not ready to do it.” That would tell me they’re not ready to go. A lot of those people would end up calling back.
So, you know, you have to be prepared to say, “My time is valuable. I’m selling my time just like how I would a furniture store. I’m selling that couch or that chair and not let people take advantage of me.” There are going to be a percentage of people that are looking for free information, and you can figure it out pretty quickly. But, I think, if you’re sincere and you listen to what folks are talking about and you answer their questions and give them good advice, then it can go a long way to getting people to really know, like, and trust you, and then they’ll come in.
Bob: So when they come in… Before they come in for their in-person consult… Do you offer an in-person consultation?
Jonathan: I do. I do, and I pretty much always want them to fill out the form ahead of time.
Bob: The 30-page form this time?
Jonathan: The 30-page form, or it can be… Or they can do the first 10 pages of it and their credit reports, that’s fine, too. Again, you know, bankruptcy clients, with all due respect to the folks filing bankruptcy, and these are honest, good, hardworking people that just fall on difficult time, but in many cases, they’re professional procrastinators. The reason they’re filing bankruptcy is they’ve waited too late or they’ve made a bad decision, and sometimes they don’t want to pull the trigger on it.
So, you have to be able to weed out the people that are just trying to get a lot of free information, and they’re shopping for price. So at some point, you’ve got to say, “Look, you’ve got to fill out this form. I can’t give you good advice unless you give me the raw information I need.” So I can’t.
If they don’t want to fill out the form, they’re saying to me, “I’m not prepared to invest my time with you.” You know, then I’m not prepared to invest my time with them. So, yeah, you have to, I think, be able to say to people… This is one of the hardest things about practicing law, in general. You’ve got to be able to say, “No.” You’ve got to be able to say, “This is going to cost money because, yeah, there are…”
In every city, and Atlanta has them, there are the high volume guys, the bankruptcy mill firms, that do, you know, 100, 200, 300 cases a month and they’ll take anything. And you get what you pay for, and you’ve got to be prepared to say, “I’m not going to be that. You know, I’m going to charge a little bit more because you’re going to get… You know, you get me on the phone and then you get me at the hearing and you’re not going to… This is not…”
I always give an example. With the high volume guys, some bankruptcies are fine, but you go to court and you have lawyers that look like they got out of the law school last week saying, “Is Mr. Jones in the courtroom? Mr. Smith?” And they spend five minutes with them before the 341, and they’re zooming off to another one. Well, if that’s what you want, you pay a little bit less. If you want… You know, if you want somebody who’s done it for 30 years, who’s seen it all, you pay a little bit more, and you can’t be embarrassed or afraid to say that.
Jonathan: And I think that’s important to keep in mind.
Bob: I interviewed a bankruptcy attorney recently who said that every time he goes to court or a trustee meeting, someone who’s filing for bankruptcy will walk up to him and say, “Are you my attorney?” Does that happen to you?
Jonathan: Yep. Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s happened to me quite a bit. So, yeah, it’s something that happens a good bit. And, of course, I have to say, “Who are you looking for?” I can easily point him out to the right person. But, yeah… I mean, my clients know me because they’ve met me and we’ve talked and we’ve had a long conversation and they’ve seen me typically on video, and so they know me. And I greet them by name and that’s… You know, you see other debtors there looking around saying, “Why is my lawyer doing that?” Or, “Why is my lawyer not here?”
And, they’re, in fact, in Atlanta and I suspect this is true to other big markets. There are lawyers, and all they do is contract work, they just do 341 hearings. So there’ll be a lawyer who… And, look, you know, there are times when if you have a schedule conflict, you may need to use one of those, which is OK. I mean, I have another attorney in the office that we can cover for each other, but, you know, if your only interaction with the law firm is, you go, you’ve met with a paralegal, spoken to a lawyer for five minutes, you get to court and there’s a contract lawyer you’ve never met before who knows nothing about you or your case, and they’re calling for you, that’s not going to give you a lot of confidence.
And, if you want referrals from your client-base, then you have to, you know, instill the confidence in your clients.
Bob: So, Jonathan, you’ve mentioned defining a process for your Social Security Disability practice. I also saw online that you’re a big fan of E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber.
Jonathan: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Bob: I’m a huge fan as well. He talks a lot about transforming your business so that you stop working IN the business by doing the work and you focus on working ON the business. I can see when… You know, when you’re working on your marketing, you’re working ON the business – rather than IN the business.
Bob: Can you talk a little bit about how this approach has shaped your practice? Because to me, Michael Gerber’s work has influenced you deeply, but that’s just…
Jonathan: Yep, absolutely. I think he’s brilliant and it really resonated with me because you can spend a lot of time, and he calls it “being a technician,” where you can be the greatest bankruptcy lawyer in the world or disability or whatever. But it doesn’t make a difference if you’re not generating any business.
So I, literally, spend half my day marketing. I get up in the morning, I work out and then I come home and I spend… It’s usually about one o’clock working on adding web content, doing videos, responding to comments from my videos, which is some big deal, I publish on Avvo, I publish on wherever I can publish. You know, I’ll do guest posts with people, always happy to do those. But just getting the word out because you constantly have to have new stuff coming out because the search engines like that. Yeah, that’s really what I spend my time doing.
I have another attorney in the office, very very intelligent young woman who… We’ve worked together for many years, and she does, probably, more day-to-day than I do, at this point. But she wants to focus on doing the bankruptcy work and so I keep my hand in it and do a few cases but she does more of it now at this point. So, yeah, I’m generating the business and she’s doing the day-to-day because bankruptcy can be very time-consuming.
And, like I said, for me, I think, my best highest investment value is marketing, it’s generating new content, new videos, new audios, all different ways to reach out to people and reaching them in many different platforms as you possibly can because that’s what Gerber talks about and he’s absolutely right. You got to work ON your business, not just in it.
Bob: Now, for me, Michael Gerber spoke to me because I was the workaholic technician that was doing 100 hours a week. I kind of hit a breaking point and then… I don’t recall how I found the book. I bought the book a number of years ago but then I read it and I said, “Wow, this is what I have to do for the rest of my life.” Was that a similar thing for you or…
Jonathan: Well, yeah, I think I heard of it originally… I was, probably, at a marketing conference, and I tried to go to those at least every other year if not every year. I’d also seen a fellow named Robert Cialdini speak, and you may be familiar with him.
Bob: From Influence.
Jonathan: He wrote the book Influence, which is another must-have book, and it just really opened my eyes because I’d never really understood the whole marketing concept. Then, of course, I started reading about Dan Kennedy and some of his things and then just really started to get more involved in learning about marketing. But, you know, Influence really brought to a science about how to influence people in an ethical way. Of course, Michael Gerber talks about the process and so learning about these marketing techniques and applying them to law, not a lot of people do it and not a lot of lawyers do it.
I think lawyers prefer to just write a check and say, “OK, you take care of this for me.” But you gotta… Can’t really do that. You’ve got to just get involved and you got to think about what the message you’re sending is. But I think I heard about the book at a conference. I got it, and, I think, there’s other books like it that are kind of more specific to law. But, yeah, I think that’s a real real classic, and I try to reread it periodically. Influence, again, a great great book and things like that have been very very useful. But, yeah, I think it’s…
You know, I just made a decision. I don’t want to just turn away. Honestly, I’m at the point, now, where I’m… I’m 56 years old. You know, I made a vow to myself when I’m 50 years old, I don’t want to be churning out Chapter 7 cases and just waiting for the next one to show up. So, you know, that was sort of my goal, and, like, “OK, I’ve got to find something else that I can do that, you know, where I can still make money from this and provide a good service and so just focused on sending the message out.”
Bob: So we touched on this before, but bankruptcy filing volume is down about half from its peak in 2010.
Bob: So filings have gone down. You’ve been able to manage that. Have you been able to manage that because of your other practice with Social Security Disability?
Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah, well, I get it. For me, I made a decision, once the numbers got below a certain point, I wasn’t going to buy advertising anymore just because the numbers didn’t work. So everything I’m getting now is pretty much organic. But, yeah, I mean, basically… I think bankruptcy…
My feeling is that the recovery… We have this big housing crash at 2008, 2009. The recovery has really benefited folks that are college educated, white collar folks. The people that really are the bankruptcy market, those are folks that are making $50-$60-$70,000 a year. You know, those people have not really benefited from the “recovery.” You also find that the lenders out there, whether they’d be a credit card lenders or mortgage lenders, car lenders, they’re not loaning to those people. So the issues that got people in trouble that would drive them to file a bankruptcy… There’s no debt out there. There’s not a lot of credit card debt.
That’s started to change. I’m starting to see, last year or so, the amount of credit card debt has really started to rise. You’re seeing student loan debt being a big problem and we can talk about that. There’s not a lot of great bankruptcy options for that, but it does does interfere with household budgets. So we’re starting to see people getting in trouble again.
I think underwriting standards are beginning to loosen up because, again, human nature is what it is. Lenders, credit card companies, they’re greedy. They want to make money so they want to loan to whoever is going to be… They want to push the envelope. They wanted to loan to people that are maybe a little more marginal, because that’s where they’re going to make their money.
My guess is, over the next two or three years, we’re going to start to see bankruptcy creep back up because some of the factors and foreclosures, repossessions, credit card debt, it’s going to get out of control again. Human nature does not change, and I’ve been through a number of these cycles and it’s happening again.
Bob: Yep. I mean, I’m in my 40s but I remember the dot-com bust and then… That recovery was slow. Then there’s the housing bubble. Who knows what the next one is but…
Jonathan: Right. Well, I remember post-911. I mean, you know, that basically… It really, you know…
Bob: Yeah, I remember that, too. Yeah, I worked on Wall Street then, so I remember.
Jonathan: Oh yeah. It was… I mean, there’s always going to be something that’s going to drive that. Like I said, the last four or five years, I think there’s actually been… There’s been… Certainly, people have been more aware of the danger of debt. So you had less of it, and I think that underwriting standards have been very very tight. That’s starting to loosen. So I suspect that the cycle is going to hit pretty hard the next two or three years. It would be my guess.
Bob: If you were a lawyer just practicing bankruptcy…
Bob: We’ve talked about the credit cycle and how it can lead to boom and bust times. Would you recommend increasing revenue or just diversifying your practice by adding other lines?
Jonathan: Yeah, I would diversify because I think bankruptcy is just too cyclical. I think that it’s, you know, also… Quite frankly, one of the issues in the bankruptcy is that it’s expensive. I mean, you know, now that there’s more liability on lawyers and that the petitions are longer… You know, when I started out, I was charging $500 for a Chapter 7 and a $750 for a 13. Now, it’s in the $1,500 range for a Chapter 7, this is before filing fees, and maybe $4,000, $4,500 for a Chapter 13, not up front but it’s still a lot of money. So, you know, there is definitely some downward pressure on fees. There’s volume guys or people that are willing to take less. So, again, you’ve got to be careful not to make this a loss leader.
But I think bankruptcy has a place. It’s a good practice area because it’s always going to be there, but absolutely diversified. Find something else. You know, whether… I know a lot of people to domestic relations, some do criminal, some do, you know, like me, Social Security. PI is always an evergreen practice area, but I think it’s wise to have two or three different practice areas because you just cannot assume that bankruptcy is going to always pay the bills. There are times when it will, but you’ve got to be careful because, you know, I’ve seen it go from really rock and rolling into almost nothing in almost overnight. That’s one of the downsides to bankruptcy.
Bob: Well, one of the upsides of bankruptcy is that it’s so counter-cyclical that it can counterweight another practice area so…
Jonathan: Can do, and, again, my feeling is that bankruptcy works best as a practice area when times are actually improving. Because you have people that are optimistic. They overspend. They over leverage.
When people are unemployed and they’re really putting, playing everything close to the vest, those people don’t file bankruptcy because they’re really really careful. What drives bankruptcy is somebody’s having a good year, they have a lot of overtime and they spend based on that overtime. Well, it doesn’t happen next year? So if things are improving, that’s what drives bankruptcy and, like I said, this past recovery has really not benefited the bankruptcy market so much. That’s why those folks have not overspent to the point where they need to file bankruptcy. But I think that we’ll see more credit be extended and we’ll see what happens. I think that it’s going to boom again.
Bob: I also saw that you’re the Social Security Disability practice instructor at Solo Practice University, which I hadn’t heard of.
Bob: Can you tell us a little bit about that, and what inspired you to do that?
Jonathan: Yeah, it’s online. I just simply am an instructor there. There’s a woman named Susan Cartier Liebel who owns it and she is an attorney. I think she is up in the Northeast, I’m not sure, in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, very very nice woman and she put this together.
Basically, she saw a need for lawyers that were brand new. And, of course, a lot of lawyers coming out of school can’t find jobs, because there’s not a lot of jobs out there, or lawyers who have been in practice for awhile that were being laid off or having a transition having to become solos and without really intending to do so. So she’s like, I think she said to herself, “I think that there is a market for lawyers that need to learn the nuts and bolts of how to do this, and not about the theory, because theory you can learn anyplace, but law practice is about doing.”
So she found people that had been in practice for awhile that were willing to do this. I don’t get paid for it, but it’s just a way to kind of give back a little bit and tell folks how I do it. I do it in Social Security, about how to set up a practice, what to look for, how to choose the right cases, how to develop them, some of the tricks of the trade, doing hearings and things like that. There are people who do the same thing. I’m not sure who’s doing the bankruptcy. She wanted me to do the bankruptcy one, but I just couldn’t, I don’t have the bandwidth for it. But there is literally anything and everything you could imagine for that and I think it’s… I’m not sure how she charged, whether it’s monthly or one time but it’s a for-profit entity.
Jonathan: But it’s a very very, I think, useful tool for people entering solo practice.
Bob: If a bankruptcy attorney wanted to diversify a little bit and check out Social Security Disability, that’s one resource they could check out.
Jonathan: Right. Or they… Right, they could do that. They could learn about domestic. They can learn about criminal. It also gives you somebody to call because I think one of the things that as a solo, especially if you’re brand new or just been practicing four, five years, is having somebody to call. What do I do? How do I do this? It can be really really valuable and this can be hard sometimes to find somebody in your locale because they don’t want to educate their competitors. I think that networking is really important and you’ll find people that are willing to mentor you or answer questions and then that can be a very valuable resource.
Bob: Now, we’ve touched on student loan debt several times. It’s obviously exploded…
Bob: At the same time, the number of legal options to eliminate student loans is pretty limited…
Bob: So my first question on this topic is, what percentage of potential bankruptcy clients with student loan problems are you able to help?
Jonathan: Very good question. I think that I went in… I got myself educated. I went to a couple of seminars about student loan debt and the thought was that there was a market for people that needed assistance filling out the income-based repayment forms and then filling out — this is for federal loans — and filling out some of the renewals for these income-based repayment forms. Then there’s also a market for people with private student loans that needed to either pursue Fair Debt Collection Practices Act against them or somehow litigate.
I have not found that to be a viable practice area. That’s just me. There may be others who have, but I’ve just not seen that in particular as a practice area.
But in bankruptcy, what student loans do is it eats up budgets. So there are people that come to see me that have this huge amount of student loan debt where they have a house payment that’s going essentially to student loan debt. And so we can put them into bankruptcy either to Chapter 7 to get rid of everything else so they can allocate all the remaining resources to student loan debt, which is one theory, or they can go into Chapter 13 where they can set the payment at some number. It doesn’t eliminate the student loans. It doesn’t even reduce the balance all that much, but it gives them a four or five-year breather where they can deal with their other debt and maybe get themselves in a position where they’ve got more income coming in where they can deal with the student loan. So in some cases, a Chapter 13 can simply be just buying time with student loans.
But I would say, the bankruptcy clients I see, easily half or more, have some student loan debt. And so we have to address it in some way. But it can either make bankruptcy more complicated or it can dictate what we’re going to do.
Bob: Now, some of these people with large student loan balances, they have these five-year payment plans that you just described and they still have a relatively high student balance at the end of that five years. Is there anything a bankruptcy lawyer can do in that situation?
Jonathan: Well, I mean, the only thing that I tell people, again, is, “This will give you a chance to kind of generate more income. You can do another Chapter 13.” I mean, there’s one theory out there of just filing repetitive Chapter 13 as to keep buying time to delay the inevitable. So you get to a point where you’re in retirement and you have no income and then try to do something there.
There’s also some thought that at some point, Congress will change the law and make private student loan debt dischargeable in bankruptcy. You know, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon but that certainly could happen.
Obviously, if it’s federal student loan debt, they can do an income-based repayment plan.
So those are the things. It’s not really a great solution, in all honesty. I mean, there’s not a lot you can do with it but buy time. But, again, for a lot of folks, that’s what they need. They just want the time. They want to eliminate the stress of having the wolf at the door and they want to be able to just deal with their other stuff and then we’ll deal with bankruptcy later. That, to me… That’s a little disconcerting because that’s not solving a problem, that’s just pushing it down the road. But depending on someone’s station in life, you know, they’d rather allocate their resources to putting their kids through college or, you know, saving for retirement. Then they’ll just deal with the student loan debt down the road.
Bob: It’s just a travesty, in the sense that bankruptcy is a promise to give fresh starts to people who are in financial troubles and student loan is just… It’s this giant loophole.
Jonathan: Well, look, I think that bankruptcy, as the law was changed — and even some of the tweaks ever since — bankruptcy used to be a fairly complete form of relief. And I think there’s all these different, like the old man of the sea, little bites out of it. This is not dischargeable. This, you can’t do
It’s got to the point where, in some ways, bankruptcy has really become a tool to buy time. And obviously, you can… I remember, years ago, I had a Chapter 7… A trustee tells me, “We don’t like Chapter 7s. We want to push people into Chapter 13.” Well, Chapter 13, they also — the trustees in 13 — demand every penny. But, yet, you can’t put money aside for emergencies. So I think a third of Chapter 13s work.
So I’ve gotten a little cynical about it. I can put someone in chapter 7, that’s what I’m going to do. 13s, in some ways, I don’t expect them to work. They do, it’s a bonus but I mean, Chapter 13s are really difficult to make work because, you know, what’s the odd that somebody going to have five years of steady income with no emergencies? It’s just not going to happen. So, there’s a little bit about buying time, and I think that’s kind of what you have to look at it.
Again, we didn’t make the laws, attorneys. We just have to try to make it work for our clients, and if that’s the best use of Chapter 13 for our clients, then that’s what you do.
Bob: Absolutely. I’m not holding my breath, though, for Congress to pass any legislation, let alone…
Jonathan: No, I’m not either. But who knows? Who knows? We just never never know. But I’m not holding my breath either.
Bob: As a society, we’ve got these trillions of dollars now or some huge number that blows my mind every time I see it…
Jonathan: Right, it’s unimaginable.
Bob: It just seems like we have to deal with it. I, personally, know someone that… I know several people that have gone off the grid to hide from their student loans.
Jonathan: Oh, yeah.
Bob: So I don’t really see how that benefits society.
Jonathan: No, it doesn’t, and, I think, that at the end of the day… I mean student… You can… I don’t want to get on my soapbox, but I mean, part of the problem is that the Department of Education makes these loans so freely available. If you think about it, how many 17-year-olds do you know that really understand the implications of signing this piece of paper that’s going to put them in debt for a hundred thousand dollars with interest accruing? They don’t, and yet… But that’s what the system does. So it’s kind of a screwed up system, and, obviously, I try to tell my friends and… I’m at the point, I’ve got a lot of friends who have kids that are entering college and so forth and whenever I have a chance to tell them, “Don’t take out private student loans.” I think I call them the tool of the devil, the spawn of the devil, private student loans. “They’re awful. Don’t do that. You’re much better off going to an inexpensive state school and not racking up these student loan debts because what are you supposed to…”
I mean, I’ve talked to people… Oh, my kid wants to be either a public school teacher or some sort of public service type of thing, which, again, for public student loans. There are government student loans that can be… There’s some forgiveness there. They want to be a social worker but they want to go to a private school. That’s gonna be $35,000 a year. Well, how is a social worker going to pay that back? Well, they can’t. But it’s very hard for parents to say to their kid, you know, “Sorry, you can’t go to this school.”
Bob: Yeah, particularly, after they’ve visited the campus on a beautiful spring day…
Jonathan: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s tough. But, you know, purely as an investment, you got to make a good choice and, many times, going to a public school can be a much better choice or even a two-year college for a couple of years and then you get your education as inexpensively as possible but avoid those student loans. They are just going to kill you. They’ll eat you up. They really will.
Bob: So I want to ask about Rent My Brain, your Internet marketing consultancy focused on lawyers. But before we do, I want to ask whether you’ve tried any paid online advertising methods. We’ve obviously talked to TV and radio and the Yellow Pages. Have you tried AdWords, Google Adwords?
Jonathan: I have. I’ve tried AdWords. In my experience, and I mean for bankruptcy, I have not been able to find the right ROI. And, again, I just did it myself because I just wanted to see what was going to happen. With Social Security, I didn’t really find the ROI so much. Worker’s Comp, it does work. Again, it’s expensive.
We work with a consultant and, you know, if you have a good consultant and I know that’s what you do, then a good consultant can really make AdWords work. It’s very very difficult to make work on your own. I think you’ve got to have somebody who watches it, who does A-B split tests, who really tracks it all. But you have to make sure you keep your ROI front and center because it will… Yeah, it’s real easy to eat up a lot of money very quickly. But my experiences then with Social Security and bankruptcy, the ROI is not high enough that I’ve been able to do. Comp, it is, but we got to watch it.
Bob: What are your goals in terms of cost per lead for those different practice areas, if you feel comfortable sharing?
Jonathan: Well, I mean… Yeah, I would say with Social Security, the fee that we get is basically capped at $6,000, 25% up to $6,000. So if you spend more than $200 or $300 on a lead or on a client, that’s a lot of money. On a lead, it’s going to be more than that, but you’ve got to be really careful about spending. You can’t spend a $1,000 or $1,500 for a client if you’re gonna only generate $6,000 three years from now.
With bankruptcy, if you average 7s and 13s, you’re going to end up in the $3,500 range for a fee, which, again, is not always going to be upfront. So, again, I think your cost per lead is going to have to be, I’m guessing, a couple, you know, $150.
Bob: Your cost per lead?
Jonathan: Well, cost per client. Not per lead, per client.
Bob: Ok, all right.
Jonathan: Your cost per client. So your lead’s going to be, obviously, different but your cost per client, if you get too much higher than that, you start to really eat up your… Because, obviously, there’s a conversion factor, you’re not going to convert everybody who comes through. So, yeah, that’s kind of my rule of thumb, that $150-$200 per client pay per click seems to work.
Bob: OK. What does that translate into a… On average, and you’re not to give your own numbers, maybe, kind of, what do you think the industry numbers are? How many leads do you need to get a bankruptcy client?
Jonathan: Bankruptcy, I’ve generally found that if I’m getting leads from Pay Per Click — I can’t really say for Pay Per Click, since I haven’t done it that much — I’m thinking that if you can do one out of five, if you can do a 20 percent conversion, you’re doing pretty good. Social Security is probably more like a 10% conversion because you’ve got to be so much more selective. But I think bankruptcy, if you can do 20%-25% conversion on your leads, you’re doing really really good. Obviously, if you can do more than that, it’s even better but that’s kind of, I think, a rule of thumb that I would probably follow.
Bob: The one on a five, that would mean that you need to target around $30 per lead on the bankruptcy side in order to be cost-effective?
Jonathan: Yeah, I think so. I mean, again, I think that you have to see what the numbers are but that sounds about right. That sounds about right because, I guess, if you look… If you put it on a spreadsheet… Again, figuring I’m just using $4,500 for Chapter 13 and assuming there’s going to be a deterioration — you’re not going to get all of that because not every case is going to go to $4500 — and Chapter 7 being about $1,500. At least, for me, I’m figuring $3,250 is what my realization for bankruptcy is going to be month over month. And, obviously, you know, a 13 is gonna take a little longer. But if you do it over the course of the year: $3,250, $3,500 something like that.
So you’ve got to make your ads work with that kind of a fee, and that’s not a lot of money because you can easily spend three or four times that in AdWords if you’re not careful.
Jonathan: You’ve got to be real real selective. That’s another thing with bankruptcy, as I’m sure your audience knows, it can be very easy to take everything who walks in the door but you can also take in some nightmare cases. I don’t want cases where somebody’s filed three bankruptcies in the past. That’s going to be a lot more work. I don’t want cases where they’ve been to four other lawyers they’re bad mouthing. I don’t want cases where they got 15 rental properties.
You have to be selective in choosing the cases where you like the clients and you feel you can help them and they’re reasonable people.
Bob: So a $150 based off of $3,250, that’s 4.6 percent. Is that how you got to $150 as your cost per client? Something like around 5%?
Jonathan: Yes, probably. I mean, again, I wanted… You probably know more about the numbers when it comes to AdWords with bankruptcy but the little that I did, I just know that my numbers were not… It was costing me too much money per client. You know, what I’m getting in… It’s costing me $500 or $600 a client and I’m making $3,500. You know, over time, it was just too expensive. Obviously, when you get… You also have to factor in…
That’s just the cost of the AdWords. But you also have to factor in, if you’re going for a professional doing it for you, that’s going to be a cost and that could really raise your cost up. So you can’t spend $1,000 to make $3,000 hopefully, over time. To me, that’s just… It’s just too much money. So that’s been my experience. I would not be the one to ask about AdWords for bankruptcy. I would refer to you. You know more about that than me but I just… I think you have to just really watch your ROI and watch your numbers.
Bob: Yeah, absolutely. Well, just to put it out there for the audience, it is about $30, $35, $40 depending on your area and how much competition there is. Atlanta is actually… I’ve seen a lot of competition in Atlanta.
Jonathan: Oh, yeah.
Bob: So I could see it being a competitive market. But I think the numbers can work. It, obviously, depends on the area and how large an area you serve. Direct mail, that’s something that a lot of people have tried. Have you tried it?
Jonathan: I’ve tried it with no success. And, again, I just did it on my own. I’m sure there are people that do it well. I just have not had any success with it. Part of it is that, I think, it’s hard to get good… You have to know where to get the lists, which I don’t. I bought a couple lists over the years and did it. I just found that there was… People would come in and they would bring me… They got 10 letters. So, I think, the same, at least in Atlanta, the same people that are… They’re all getting hit. The ones with the foreclosures and the repossessions, they’re getting 10 letters.
Actually, I take it back, the one time I did it that it did work is I put on my letter, I’ll never forget this, “I want to tell you why… How I got your name.” And I had people call me up saying, “I really appreciate you telling me ’cause I’m getting all these letters. I don’t know why my name is out there.” Because they thought their identity has been stolen or whatever and I said, “I got your name from a list. There are a lot of lawyers and other investors who are buying these lists. I want you to know — and I hope you don’t take it personally — but because you are somebody that fits my profile, I thought I can help, I’m writing you.” But I think if you do direct mail, do it a little bit different. Something like that could certainly be very valuable.
Bob: Did you try that on your law firm letterhead or…
Jonathan: I did. Well, again, in Georgia, you have to have… It’s got to be very clearly marked that it’s a legal advertisement and so forth. I probably did it. We just did it in-house. I think, if you have a printing house or somebody that can do it without your having to do all the envelope stuffing and so forth, it might work if you do it over time. It’s just something that I just thought that there were other things I could do that would be better. And the other thing is, I think that we are going after a market that is getting the same messages from 10 other people. You start to get the tire kickers and the price shoppers.
Jonathan: And that was not really what I was looking for. So people that are getting sued that haven’t done anything, you got to wonder why they haven’t done anything. So I want to get them a little bit earlier in the process. I guess, that’s why I have never done much with direct mail but I would welcome the opportunity to learn why I’m wrong because anything that works, I’m prepared to do.
Bob: Yeah. Moving on to things that work, I’d like to ask you about Rent My Brain, because it sounds like you’re helping lawyers with their Internet marketing using techniques that you’ve learned that work in your own practice. Is that fair to say?
Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, I’ve done a little… It’s something that’s sort of an off and on type of thing. I will get calls from people. They either see a website or see a video and they sort of say, “What are you doing?” And I just felt like, if I’m gonna advise them, then I want to be compensated for it. So over the years, I’ve picked up, let’s say, contracts from various lawyers.
At one point, I was doing websites. So there are a couple of high volume law firms elsewhere in the country that wanted me to do their websites, which I did. They paid me quite nicely for that, which was kind of fun, which is nice. But now, it’s more of a… I, probably, don’t do that much of it anymore. There are other few people that I’m doing a little work with but for the most part, it’s out there. If somebody wants to call me, I’m not actively looking for it. I’ve got, right now, a couple of clients that are not lawyers, just some small companies, that had some issues with their website and I’ll fix it for them.
A lot of times, it’s just a matter of, I call it, triage. Yeah, I got one, right now, I’m working on where they had a developer that, basically, left them high and dry and there’s no site up there. So I, basically, got the site back up and running and that sort of thing. I do that but, yeah, if somebody calls and they want to talk about videos, I do a lot of that. They want to talk about theories or concepts for doing websites, they can buy an hour of my time or buy more than that. I just think that…
I think, as an attorney, it’s really easy to want to write a check. I think that can be a mistake. I think you can… Especially if you’re a little hungry and you want to do a little bit more yourself, you can save a lot of money and you get a much better source of content.
One thing I will say for certain… This is something that I’ve learned over and over and over. Very very difficult to get non-lawyers to write good content for law firms because what you end up getting is people that are not lawyers who’ve never been in a courtroom and they’re trying to write about bankruptcy which is very technical. They’re trying to write about Social Security and they’ve never seen inside of a hearing room. So you get a lot of what I call “water is wet” content. You know, “We fight for your rights.” And, you know, “We make sure that…” Well, they don’t… That doesn’t mean anything. But if you tell, “This is how you win a case involving PTSD. Here’s the theory of disability you’re under, or here is… You have… This is what you do if your car is repossessed in Georgia, how to get it back.” That people want… That, they want to listen to, they want to read.
But if you have a non-lawyer writing it, it can be very difficult to get good quality content. So I encourage people, if we’re talking about bankruptcy, I would say, “If you’re going to do it, write your own content. Getting it up on the Internet is easy part.” There’s a lot of places… You can get a website done almost for nothing but the content needs to be coming in that lawyer’s voice. That makes a big big difference because people respond.
And, you know, the old marketing thing, “You want people to know, like and trust you.” You want them to feel like, “OK, this is somebody I… that I really trust and I like, and they are going to be an advocate for me.” They’re not hiring a law firm. They’re hiring you. They’re hiring Jonathan Ginsberg. They want me. And that’s what you want them to feel. So right from the start, that’s what I would say.
Bob: Yeah. The only thing I would add to that is, also, that with the law, in particular with lawyers, there’s a big intimidation factor, so it’s not just “know, like and trust.” It’s also “know, like, trust and not be so scared,” to break down that barrier of intimidation. I think video is a great way of doing that.
Jonathan: It is a great way. Look… I mean, even playthings like Facebook and there’s…. I’m starting to see some response and results from my Facebook page. Yeah, you want to show a little bit of yourself, a little bit of your personality. You don’t want to be this stiff lawyer.
I know one friend of mine in the bankruptcy world, another attorney. He will do videos. He’ll do it outside at the beach. He’ll do it at a college stadium. It’s just… This is a regular guy. I typically do them in my basement because I have the lighting and the microphones and everything like that. But, yeah, I mean, I’ll talk about mistakes I made or I’ll talk about stuff in just a very homey way. I’m not giving information. I’m selling myself.
And, yeah, absolutely, a video can be a great way to do it on Facebook, put pictures of your vacation. I put pictures. I like to take photographs so I go to… Whenever I go someplace, I go to the zoo and take pictures of animals. I’ll put those up there. I don’t put pictures of my kids up there so much but I’ll put, you know, pictures of myself and when I’m going on vacation or on a beach or something just so that people kind of feel like, “Oh, this is a regular guy, you know, somebody that I like.” You know, that’s a good thing to do.
Bob: I know some attorneys use newsletters and they put things like that in a printed newsletter and send it to their client-base to get referrals. Is this something that you’ve tried?
Jonathan: I have done… The only thing I did with that — I think I mentioned before — I did the Consumer’s Guide to Credit and Bankruptcy which I used to send out. Now I use an autoresponder. So what I try to do is get people on my list where I’ll offer a free guide to… I call it a “survival kit.” And so, it’ll come by email. The bankruptcy one is called the Debt Destroyer Survival Kit or something like that, but they’ll get emails from me. Well, I just give them information. But it’s useful information. It’s very actionable stuff. And I’ll give away letters, drop-dead letters, about how to tell people to, “Leave me alone because I’m judgment proof.” So, yes, stuff like that, I think that that’s important to do.
But I think you can certainly send out newsletters. If you do, I would say, keep them brief and you just… You don’t want to be… Nobody wants to read a 10-page newsletter and they don’t want to learn about the most recent case. They want to know about how they can stop a repossession or how maybe war stories about how you recovered $5,000 for this FDCPA violation, that sort of stuff. And I think bullet points are good.
But, yeah, I think, if you’re going to do a newsletter, you got to just think about how you want to do it and do it yourself. But, you know, there are companies that offer them but I don’t think those are all that good. I think it’s better to do it yourself. But, you know, realize that if you do the mailing, that’s going to be a big project so it probably will be good to get a mailing house to handle the details for you.
Bob: Sure. For the email newsletters, to drill down on that and this is my last question, how many emails are in your email autoresponder sequence?
Jonathan: Depending on the area. You know, I don’t even want to guess. I don’t know. With Social Security, it’s a pretty good size, several thousand. Bankruptcy, not nearly as many, probably…
Bob: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m not asking how many people are on the list. I’m asking how many emails do you send?
Jonathan: Oh, how many… OK. I would say, for Social Security, I think we’re up to about 30. Bankruptcy, I think I’ve got about 15.
Bob: Is that sent three days apart or…
Jonathan: I send out… Typically, I’ll send every other day for the first week or two. Then I go to maybe once every week. I think, with the email newsletters… I think email still works really really well. I think it works better than social media, works better than Twitter, works better… Because people still respond to their emails. You’ve got to have a compelling headline and you’ve got to test different things. But email still works.
I think that you don’t want to send them… If you send it once a month, that’s not enough. I think it’s got to be, probably, weekly, at most, every two weeks and it’s got to be valuable information. Nice thing about most autoresponder companies is you can track your open rate. So you can see, if this one’s getting opened 15% of the time and this is getting opened 50% of time, what works better? Yeah, I think there’s no reason not to have as many… They could always unsubscribe. And you have people that will stay on your list, and once it’s done, it’s done. They’ll be on your list for a year and then they’ll call you. So email is great.
Bob: And then your call to action for the bankruptcy side, if I were to guess, it’s to fill out the two-page form.
Jonathan: Yes or call. I mean, again, some people want to call but most of them I just say, “Fill out the two-page form and, you know, we’ll call you, we’ll have an intelligent conversation.” Like I said, it forces them to commit to a little bit. It forces them to do something and show they’re, you know, willing to give you some information. Then you can be a better lawyer by telling them, by looking at what they’ve sent you and in responding to it.
Bob: Absolutely. Jonathan, I want to thank you for joining us on the podcast today.
Bob: Would you like to give us your contact information or email address if some other bankruptcy attorneys want to reach out to you?
Jonathan: Sure they can just email me. My last name is Ginsberg, G-I-N-S-B-E-R-G at gmail.com, or they can go to my name, jonathanginsberg.com. I’ve got a list of all my sites there, or my law firm website is glolaw.com, one of my sites. But all those have forms on there. Email, just ginsberg [at] gmail is fine. I’m happy to chat with anybody. Always looking for making connections in other jurisdictions and sharing ideas, because I think it’s always valuable for everybody to do that. I think I’ve always been of the belief that a rising tide lifts all ships and I strongly believe that.
Bob: Awesome. Well, that’s a great note to end on. Thank you, Jonathan.
Bob: I’ll see you all on the next episode.