How Matt Herron mastered the “minimum retainer” strategy to build a bankruptcy practice that cares about people

In this episode of Bankruptcy Law Success, I interview Matt Herron of The Debt Doctors at Quatrini Rafferty, a bankruptcy attorney in Pittsburgh.

Some of the highlights in this interview include:

  • Exactly how to retain more clients using the “minimum retainer” strategy he learned from a high-volume bankruptcy firm
  • How to “turn around” clients who want a refund and get them to actually file and clear their debts
  • An ingenious way to “test drive” Chapter 13 clients BEFORE they make you do 15 hours of work and then never make a payment on their plan
  • The one word that he requires prospects to type into Google that helps him avoid having to “sell” prospects
  • The precise search keywords he avoids when advertising on Google AdWords
  • The single business practice he tweaked that lets him make money off of those complex bankruptcy cases that everybody else turns down
  • How merging with a full-service law firm that didn’t do bankruptcies actually increased his bankruptcy referrals
  • 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 with Matt Herron, the managing attorney at The Debt Doctors at Quatrini Rafferty in the Greater Pittsburgh area. Matt, welcome to the podcast.

Matt: Thanks for having me, Bob.

Bob: So I always like to start at the beginning of your career. After you graduated from law school, I saw you spent three years at Legal Helpers, the high-volume consumer bankruptcy firm. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Matt: Sure. In my time at Legal Helpers was where I started to formulate some of my ideas about actually managing a bankruptcy law practice because they were a large firm that practiced nationally. They had offices, when I joined them, in about 11 states. Within a couple of years, they had offices in 49 states. They did some good things, they did some bad things, and I’ve tried to take the best of what I learned there and apply it to my practice.

When I was at Legal Helpers, I had the opportunity to start an office in Philadelphia for them, as well as I was the second attorney in the Pittsburgh office. So it gave me a good basis for managing and running a bankruptcy practice and trying to do things in a systematic manner that helps to do a good job with the client as well as figure out how to get paid and how to find new clients, which I think are the main puzzles you have to work out when you manage this type of practice.

Bob: What lessons do you have to share with us? I mean, it was a high volume firm, so how do you stay on top of things when you have so many filings?

Matt: Well, I think one of the keys that we always had was that they always had a client database, which I think a lot of attorneys use. But what we always tried to do there was to use good technology in order to make sure that you track accurate information that you can pull good reports so that you can figure out where your clients are coming from. You can keep good notes so that when you have a client that’s either a problem or a client that you can add a little personal touch to the practice, because at Legal Helpers we used forms. We had a certain way that you ran the meetings for the initial meeting and consult with the clients.

Really, what made the difference and what separated our good offices from the bad offices were the attorneys when they were able to go off script a little bit and remember, like, “This person’s son or daughter plays hockey, or this person worked at this place before and now they’re transitioning into a new job.” So when you see him the next time, you can say, “Hey, how’s the new job going?”

All those little personal touches are the things that really helped me to build my business. The advertising has been one part, but over time, slowly just doing things with a little bit of a personal touch and some humanity have been the things that I feel has really grown my practice and allowed me to do this for 15 years.

Bob: Yeah. Looking back, you’re starting the Philly office for Legal Helpers, you’re talking about building your reputation and getting referrals. That’s great after a while on the business, but how did you generate the leads to begin with? What were the marketing lessons that you picked up at your first job?

Matt: Well, it’s changed a lot, because I was doing that in 2004 and 2005. At that point, Legal Helpers’ strategy was that they would go into a market and they would get the biggest Yellow Pages ad for any bankruptcy attorney so that they were appearing as the first bankruptcy attorney listed in the Yellow Pages. They would have billboards. They would have, normally, a large TV spend.

This was just, sort of, in the infancy of Google AdWords and we really weren’t paying that much attention to the Internet. But each year that I’ve practiced, we’ve gotten more away from the Yellow Pages and billboards and TV and almost exclusively focus on Google, natural search rankings and social media.

Bob: OK, so you spent your three years at Legal Helpers and then — I was looking online — it seems like you got hired by Campbell and Levine to become the general manager of The Debt Doctors in 2005 to implement a strategy that seemed pretty similar to Legal Helpers. Did I get that right?

Matt: Correct. What I did when I started The Debt Doctors, I had the opportunity to do some things better than Legal Helpers because I think when you start from scratch and are able to take some of the things that we used at Legal Helpers and then apply it in a way that suits your personality and bring your own ideas to the table, I think you can create something better the second time that you do it.

So when I was hired to manage The Debt Doctors in 2005, the partners at Campbell and Levine, they had started just filing consumer bankruptcy cases, and through doing a good job with their clients and getting more complex cases, they grew into a very respected and reputable bankruptcy firm in Pittsburgh as well as nationally and even had some cases internationally. So they had, sort of, gotten away from doing the smaller consumer bankruptcy cases just because of their fee structure.

So their thought was, when the bankruptcy laws changed, that they needed… The attorneys that would be filing volume cases would have to be better attorneys and have a better process because of all the new requirements.

So we started with the new bankruptcy law and what Campbell and Levine and my own touches brought to the process was just a little more of a human touch to the filings. You know, when I worked at Legal Helpers, I think they did a great job and had a great business model, but we worked six days a week from 8:30 till 6:30 every day and then we worked Saturdays from 9 to 2. When I’d started with Legal Helpers, I really didn’t have any specific bankruptcy training and I was meeting with clients in a week or two weeks.

And I felt that what Legal Helpers’ process had lacked was more experienced bankruptcy attorneys and people who knew what they were doing and caring more about their employees and caring more about their clients. So I tried to take some of the good business practices that they used and just treated our employees better, try to treat our clients better, and it’s been a model that’s worked for me.

Bob: Absolutely. How did you get The Debt Doctors off the ground in terms of marketing and getting those first clients?

Matt: Well, we started with a similar strategy to what we had done with the Philadelphia office for Legal Helpers. We had some billboards, eventually, some TV commercials and a little bit of Internet advertising.

We actually took a lot of time in getting our website the way we wanted it. It had a lot of functionality to it when we had started The Debt Doctors because we did see that, sort of, that was the direction that advertising was probably going. We probably overbuilt it for what we were doing at that time because we definitely put more money and resources into the other types of advertising but the website was definitely something that, over time, it was a good move to pay a lot of attention to it and try to provide a lot of good information for clients, because I think our practice is greatly misunderstood.

So my advertising has always been one part bankruptcy advertising, one part financial education, because I think, most people, when they are facing a situation where they could be a potential bankruptcy candidate, they are scared. What their banks and most of the stuff online will tell them will scare them even more. And, a lot of times, they don’t know how to work themselves out of situations. They make mistakes like taking money out of retirement plans to pay credit card debts or getting a home equity loan to pay off credit card debts. If they would come to see me, I could probably protect those assets that are important to their financial future.

So we’ve always tried to provide good information, consistently put stuff out there that’s going to relate to people and make it educational and informative so that — even if you’re not our client — that you might learn something from us and refer somebody to us in the future.

Bob: How do you, kind of, educate someone after the fact, though? Like, how do you educate them after they’ve drawn down their retirement fund to pay a credit card?

Matt: Well, there’s always a point where you start and you just try to make it better from where they are when they come in to see you. If they’ve already done that, then we talk about, “OK, well, let’s try to pare down the budget to this point so that you can start contributing, maybe, to the retirement plan again and start rebuilding that. You know, if the house is too expensive now that you’d took out a second mortgage, well, are there options outside of the house? Is there no equity in the house and we give it up in the bankruptcy, or is there a way that you can sell it, put some cash in your pocket and maybe downsize a little bit?

When somebody comes in, I never know how it’s going to go because there is some choice on the client’s part. However, what I can do is based on my 15 years of experience, try to give them some advice that after a bankruptcy, they’re going to be headed in a direction where their financial future is based on savings and building wealth rather than incurring debts. You know, everybody, normally, has some credit card. You need a little bit of debt to rebuild credit. But sometimes, if I can get people a fresh start, though, they’ll be on a better path and do things smarter the second time. Just like, when I left Legal Helpers and started The Debt Doctors, you do things better if you get more chances to do it and you learn from experience.

Bob: Especially the hard lessons that life teaches you. You learn a lot from those.

Matt: You do. One of the great things about my job that I enjoy is that most of the time, people come to me, where it’s not the best time in their life, but I find it rewarding to try to help them through the process in a dignified manner. It helps them to put that in the past and move forward. I try to do the same thing in my life because I don’t always do everything right, but I learn from my mistakes and constantly try to evolve and I think I’ve done that in my business, personal life and, especially, with advertising.

Bob: I noticed, as I was looking at your staff list online and I saw an office manager but not a ton of paralegals. Is that part of your philosophy, where the attorneys are, kind of, front and center?

Matt: Yeah. I mean, the attorneys in our practice, we do try to do a lot over the years. Like, when I was at Legal Helpers, my best year there, I filed about 600 cases.

Bob: Wow.

Matt: We try to keep our caseload to about 200 a year now and take on better cases and ones that we can handle and make sure that we do a good job rather than just running it through like a numbers mill. And, my practice has been helped a lot because my paralegal, Heather, she joined the practice about a year and a half after I’d started The Debt Doctors and she’s just been incredibly efficient and proficient.

So the model has always been to hire the right people that are very capable and keep them. That’s what I’ve tried to do with her. My associate, Amy, she’s been with me, on and off, for about nine years.

Really, getting the right people to implement the strategy has made the difference, and it’s been difficult because there have been times that I’ve had to let people go that don’t necessarily work in our system. But once you find somebody, you need to try to keep them and having some stability, I think, gives you some credibility. I think, it helps your relationship with your clients because they see that you know what you’re doing.

There’s very little that I have to do as far as managing the firm on a day-to-day basis now because we’ve worked together for such a long time that just we do things automatically, so I think we’re more efficient.

Bob: I’ve found the exact same thing. You can spend a lot of time managing bad people or you can spend very little time managing great people.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: And the trick is to figure out if they care or not. But that’s something that sometimes you have to just work with someone for a while to see if they really care.

Matt: Yeah, I think a lot… When I talk to a lot of young lawyers, that is probably the one thing that I tell them and it doesn’t always register. But the ones that it does register, those are the ones that I want to, maybe, work for me someday.

When you go into bankruptcy court, it’s normally a cattle call and you see a lot of different people practicing bankruptcy law and all types of different cases. And it has always struck me how a lot of attorneys in our practice don’t generally care about their clients. And, if you can do that, you will be at the top of your field. I think, in any area of law practice. It’s just caring and knowing that somebody’s lives are being affected by how well you do your job and taking that seriously.

Bob: I interviewed another attorney recently who told me that every time he goes into court, somebody comes up to him — not his client — and says, “Are you my attorney?” Do you get that a lot, where the lawyers haven’t even met with the customer or with the client they’ve just met?

Matt: Yeah, there are a lot of instances where that happens. It happens every once in a while. No matter how much effort you put into managing your clients, that you might show up at a meeting like that because we have two attorneys in our office. I may have never met the client but I have to go to their meeting of creditors because there are two other clients I did meet with.

But we try to limit that if we can. And, any time, like, if I would prep somebody for a hearing and I knew that the client was going to be there, I would say, “Hey, look, we haven’t met before but I’ll be there. I’m the attorney you’ll be with. Take a look at my bio on the website. You can see a picture of me so you know who to see. And we’ll take some time before the meeting so we make sure we know each other by the time we have to go into court and perform.”

Bob: So one of the really interesting things that you do, and this is very rare, trust me, is that you give an option for clients to hire you for a minimum retainer of $100. So you’re not charging them upfront for everything, and then you also set up these clients with a kind of a layaway plan where they can make regular payments until they can afford to file. So my first question is, how did you come up with that idea? Because it’s very rare and it sounds like a great idea.

Matt: Yeah, it was a concept that I came up with, or that I actually took from Legal Helpers. Legal Helpers had done that for a long time.

It’s really an effective way to help clients figure out how to pay for it because as a bankruptcy attorney, over the years, I started to figure out that, you know, when they come to you, they’re nervous about paying your fees, too. So what you have to do is you have to give them a plan and tell them where it’s going to come from.

A lot of times, where the money comes from for our payment plan is that, when they meet with me, a lot of clients are still paying their credit cards and you say, “Look, you can stop today.” And they might be paying $400 or $500 a month and then they can start referring their creditor calls to us right away, get on a payment plan. We still try not to file until the client’s paid in full. In rare instances where there’s some exigent circumstances, we’ll file for less than the amount. But we try not to do that, at all, if we don’t have to. But sometimes, you have to make a decision that the client’s case might go smoother if we just get this done.

Bob: Sure.

Matt: But, yeah, Legal Helpers, really, that was their model, “Come in. Meet with me. Pay us $100.” And it’s important to get the $100 upfront because, I think, a lot of clients, it takes some time to figure out whether they want to file for bankruptcy or not.

I don’t want to waste my time with people who are going to not follow through with the process. It makes us look bad and, generally, doesn’t give that client a good feeling that we’ve done a good job. So by them making the act of paying us the $100, it says, “Hey, I’m serious about filing for bankruptcy and I want to continue with you.”

And it helps to weed out some clients that might not be serious about the process because I think all of us experience that if we do this sometimes… like when the fees are on layaway, you have clients that pay a couple hundred bucks and then they don’t do anything. Then it’s three years later, and all of a sudden, they’re calling you and they want a refund.

The process works if you can take them through the whole way. If they back out halfway through, it really, probably, jades the result that they feel that they got from having you as their attorney.

Bob: How do you deal with that situation, exactly what you described, they pay a couple hundred dollars and then they “ghost” you and then they leave you a terrible review somewhere online?

Matt: Yeah, and I try to manage that by… I do spend some time with those clients. Normally, what I will talk to them about, “Look, you paid me a couple hundred dollars. You know, how we write our retainer agreement is that we start working on your case right away. We open a file. We start a BestCase file, which is our software that we use to produce our schedules. We oftentimes get some creditor calls. Sometimes, that client calls and has some questions for us.

The way it’s written is that, once you pay us some money, we can keep it if we’ve done some work in your case and we can do an accounting for the refund based on our hourly rates and we put our hourly rates in the contract.” In many cases, they’re going to be disappointed with the refund that they get because you have clients that are in financial distress and sometimes, they’re like, “Oh, I paid that attorney $500. Let me see if I can just get that back.”

Well, you’re not going to be able to just do that because you would come in and essentially waste our time that is valuable and so we have to be compensated for that. A lot of those clients who get into that situation, I say, “Look, you’re not going to have a good feeling about our services if you quit now. But if you move forward, here’s the benefit, you’re going to get a lot more value this way. And if you still want a refund, I’ll process the accounting and we can see whether you’re owed some money back.

In many cases, they don’t get any money back, or if they do, it’s a small amount. If they want to do that, I’m fine with that as long as they make an informed decision.

Bob: Sure.

Matt: Otherwise, we have a lot of clients that stick with us and follow through with the process, and I think they’re much happier, and I think that’s how we limit the negative response to our services.

Bob: I just think also that a lot of people kind of are inclined towards Chapter 13 instead of Chapter 7 just because — even if Chapter 7 will give them a better result because they don’t have assets to protect — but they’re looking to kind of spread out their attorney’s fees over a three to five-year plan and maybe they’re making the wrong decision for them. So, I think, by starting with $100, with a minimum retainer, I think it encourages people to make the decision that’s right for them. But that’s just my speculation…

Matt: Yeah, and I think the $100, that’s always an amount that people just like… I think, it’s palatable for them and it gets the process started.

As my career has progressed, overall, our fees have gone up because they’re getting a more experienced, better attorney.

It’s funny you bring up Chapter 13s because, I think, that’s one of the big evolutions that we’ve made over time is that, we have a very good chapter 13 practice and really, the thing that has helped us to do a much better job and to earn higher fees is just picking the right cases in Chapter 13.

One of the things we used to get The Debt Doctors started was that we would send letters to people that had judgments or they had sheriff sales coming up or foreclosure was just filed. What we found from those cases, we would get clients that would come in, they’d have a sheriff sale in two weeks and they’d pay us $500, we’d put them into Chapter 13 and then they’d never make a payment. Meanwhile, we’d spent 15 hours of time working on that case for $500.

So, over time, we’ve kind of gotten away from that type of marketing and tried to get clients that come in and we have feasible Chapter 13 plans, ones that will work, ones where you can see why they fell behind on their house. Like, they lost their job for a year and now they’re back working and making better income.

We have a lot of cases where the client might have not qualified for a 7 but they have the income to pay something back on their debts and we put them in a 13 to pay back the credit card debt, which… You know, I think that’s one of the things about the bankruptcy process that a lot of regular individuals miss is that, you basically get a five-year zero percent interest loan to pay back your debts in a Chapter 13 and when you have $80 or $100,000 of credit card debt, that’s a huge savings. And some of my best cases and ones that we’re getting the best results and the clients have really great financial futures are the chapter 13s, where we end up paying their creditors back over time and that’s all they need.

If banks or their creditors would do the same, it would be a lot easier and we probably have less bankruptcy filings. But, fortunately, for our practice, they allow us to do it in the bankruptcy.

Bob: Have you checked that over time, the percentage of Chapter 13 filings that go completely to discharge over three to five years?

Matt: At this point, we have a pretty high rate of success. I don’t have an exact number.

Bob: Oh no. I’m not asking for an exact number, just…

Matt: Yeah, it’s gotten better over time. I think, it gets better every year because you get better at weeding out the ones that you don’t think are going to make it. Every once in a while, there’s a few that surprise you that they don’t make it.

But it’s something we’re continually working on, because I really think managing the 13 practice instead of letting it… Because those are the ones that you’re going to spend most of your time in court, most of your time dealing with issues on. Picking the good cases is really one of the keys to making this practice better as far as lifestyle. And I think, overall, becoming more profitable and being able to work with less people.

Bob: So you’re talking, essentially, about making kind of a credit decision for someone that may file a Chapter 13, which makes sense because you’re kind of going into business with them for three to five years.

Matt: And it’s not necessarily a credit decision. We find that the clients that…

There’s gotta be something there. I think when we start charging higher fees in a chapter 13 case, the clients that can afford to pay it are the ones that are probably going to have a successful Chapter 13 plan.

You know, the payment plan process sort of weeds them out, as well, because if you’re not paying your credit cards and you’re supposed to be paying a plan that pays them something and you have trouble making $100 a month payment to me or $200 a month payment to me, you’re probably not going to be successful in your chapter 13 plan. Because what we’re asking to pay is a lot less than what you’ll have to pay in the 13 in order to get a discharge. So you do have a little bit of a trial before the case even starts through the payment plan.

That’s one of the other things of having this payment plan process where you expect a regular payment every month. It helps to create a stream of income for you and it also… You find the clients that are making their best effort and those clients will be the ones who are entitled to a bankruptcy discharge because that is the only thing the bankruptcy code requires is that you’re honest and you make your best effort to pay your debts. If you do that, then, my job will be easy as an attorney.

Bob: Now, I can see how as you get more experience, you would get better with Chapter 13s. Is there anything on the marketing side that you can do that’s worked for you in terms of actually attracting leads that are more able to get through a Chapter 13?

Matt: I found that, once we started focusing more on Internet advertising, that you get clients that are more informed and, normally, have already thought out the process. That way, I get clients that are serious and that understand the process and will follow our direction so that we get a good result.

The other thing I’ve done as far as, like, some of our AdWords and things like that, I like AdWords that actually have the word “bankruptcy” in it because I think, the job is twice as hard when you have a client that comes to you that doesn’t consider bankruptcy seriously. I think that if you actually have to type it into a search, you know they’ve already sort of thought in their mind that maybe that’s an option for me. And it’s a much much easier job because I think, people beat themselves up about filing for bankruptcy, and sometimes they’re just not ready.

I don’t want to have to convince them. I want to be able to tell them, “Look, these are the good things that can happen with a bankruptcy. These are some of the negatives but I think, the good outweighs the bad.” And that’s when I decide that I want them as a client and, hopefully, they want me as an attorney. And so if they’re sort of already thinking “bankruptcy” in their head, probably it’s easier to just sell them on the points that can certainly help them.

Bob: When you’re talking about keywords on Google AdWords that don’t mention the word bankruptcy, are you talking about keywords like foreclosure defense or are you referring…

Matt: Yeah, “foreclosure defense,” “credit card debt,” “debt consolidation.” You find that you get a lot of clicks, especially on AdWords for people that just aren’t ready to come and see a bankruptcy attorney. And, you can see it with the time spent on your page because they’ll click through and then quickly jump off like, “Oh, bankruptcy, that’s not for me.”

Bob: I like, also, putting “bankruptcy” in the “Headline 1” of AdWords.

Matt: Yeah.

Bob: Just not being shy about what you do…

Matt: Yeah. I thought the bankruptcy code, when they changed it in 2005, it was offensive to me that they were making us call ourselves “debt relief agencies.”

I’m a bankruptcy attorney. A lot of people look at that as a bad word, but I don’t think so. And I end up having opportunities to help a lot of people. I find that rewarding beyond the paycheck or running a business in my job that I’m in a practice that actually helps people.

And I don’t think that’s the way that people look at it, and I try with opportunities like this and every time I sit down with a client and anytime I get a chance to talk to somebody, to tell them, “Look, I’m a bankruptcy attorney and this is what I do and I help people.”

My boss at Campbell and Levine, he had a saying. He’s like, “Look, we do resurrections, not funerals.” I always thought that that was an interesting way to look at it because we definitely can do some things that a lot of people didn’t even think was possible.

Bob: Absolutely. So, before the interview, I, actually, went onto Google AdWords. I’ve, actually, seen your ads before, in the past. But I looked today and I didn’t see your ad currently running. Are you currently running Google AdWords?

Matt: Yeah, we are.

I’ve started a second practice, almost, where a lot of the work that I do now, it’s hourly retainers and it focuses more on businesses. That was one of the reasons in joining Quatrini Rafferty. It’s just having some more resources so that I could start billing hourly rather than just taking flat fees and doing the Chapter 13 cases.

In doing that, I found that my best way to get those cases is to market to attorneys, and a lot of that marketing is face-to-face. So we’ve spent a lot more time in marketing face-to-face recently to get that business, and it’s almost like starting a whole second practice with that.

So we sort of piggyback off of Quatrini Rafferty’s advertising — they’re a worker’s comp, Social Security, personal injury firm — and spend less on AdWords for The Debt Doctors. Then, I’m trying to, personally, grow the business practice.

Bob: Yeah, could you tell us, tell the audience, a little bit about your business practice?

Matt: Sure. What I have… You know, my experience of running my business and being able to learn some lessons from business cases in the past, I have certain clients that I help that are in the startup phase as far as structuring debt. I’ve worked with a couple of clients who are personal guarantors on large business. That’s where the business may be in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

I have a lot of small businesses, right now, that I’m dealing with that are having a problem with one or two banks, but the personal guarantors on those debts are the owners of the business. They really aren’t a candidate for bankruptcy, but need to somehow get a better deal with the banks and I bill those cases on an hourly basis.

Occasionally, too, I get a client that comes in that may only have one debt and they’ve got a little bit of money to be able to settle it. It doesn’t really seem worth filing a bankruptcy for, or we need to protect an asset and I work with them on that.

Once I started billing hourly on those cases, you recognize that a lot of the cases that I was taking on a flat fee basis probably should have been hourly cases. By doing that, I’m getting compensated fairly for those cases that might be a little stickier. We do it in some of our bankruptcy cases, as well, if we know we’ve got preference issues to work out, or if we can’t file for a while, we’re going to have to do a lot of work prior to the filing of the bankruptcy case.

Bob: You’re talking about Chapter 11s for businesses?

Matt: Some Chapter 11s. Most of them are a 7 or, in many instances, we end up avoiding a bankruptcy completely in those cases, just by working out something with the banks.

Bob: I was just talking about the hourly billing that’s on the business side of things, not the consumer bankruptcy business, per se.

Matt: Some of the consumer clients that we end up taking on an hourly basis just because I know that some of the results that we’re going to get, we don’t know how long it’s going to take and we don’t know how much work is going to be involved in it. So some of the consumer cases now, I bring them in as hourly cases if it’s just something where, from my experience, I know it’s going to chew a lot of my time.

Bob: Is that like someone that has 15 rental properties and is filing, something like that?

Matt: Yeah, that’s a very common occurrence where we have that happen. You know, portfolios of rental properties take a tremendous amount of time. A lot of times, you have to do some work with mortgages. Sometimes, they don’t fit neatly into a Chapter 13. So, we either try to do a workout or in certain cases, it could turn into an 11.

Bob: So it looks like you have four offices and two attorneys. Is that right?

Matt: Yes. Our main offices are in downtown Pittsburgh and in Greensburg. Quatrini Rafferty’s headquarters is in Greensburg. I normally meet clients out there one to two days a week. I’m in Pittsburgh all the other days of the week.

Technology has made it a little bit easier to find clients a little farther away. Sometimes, I will meet clients at places where we have certain meetings of creditors like in Johnstown, and then I have a friend who has an office in New Castle that I use his office space whenever I have a client that’s maybe a little further away from the city.

When we originally had started The Debt Doctors and when I worked at Legal Helpers, they tried to have some satellite offices where you could reach more people that were outside of Pittsburgh. A lot of people didn’t like to come downtown. For a while, I did pay rent and had office spaces in a couple of different locations.

But after a while, you realize that you don’t need those offices for 30 days a month. You need them here, there every once in a while.

I did look, before I joined Quatrini Rafferty, at potentially going to more of a virtual office where we would partner with somebody like Regus or a place where you could just have an office-sharing relationship because the technology has made it so that I can work 24 hours a day from anywhere, and really, I need a nice professional looking space in order to meet clients one or two days a week. When we joined Quatrini Rafferty, it was great because we ended up getting great office space and we have a lot of support and resources here that help us to have a nice office where clients can come in.

It’s part of the brand that you’re selling, is having some permanency. I’m glad that we didn’t go to the virtual office, and I’m happy that we were able to find a good partner in Quatrini Rafferty.

Bob: One of the things that happened last September of 2016 was that, Google did an algorithm change where the distance between the local office and the customer became the most important factor in terms of ranking in the map packs that appear on Google.

Matt: I was unaware of that.

Bob: So that’s kind of a line in the sand in terms of, before September 2016, having an office in downtown Pittsburgh, if you were the main person in Pittsburgh, you would kind of get everyone in the suburbs for free or at least out to the city limits. It’s a little bit different since then.

So depending on your Google rank, before that, some people saw large changes in their ranking after September 2016. But it sounds like you didn’t notice anything in particular. So maybe it was a wash for you.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, I think so. Honestly, in the last couple of years building the hourly practice, we haven’t spent as much and haven’t put as much thought or resources into the Internet advertising as we had.

That’s one of the good things of having a practice that’s been around for a while and making sure that you have the opportunity to brand yourself over time because you might be able to cut costs by reducing advertising. That’s one of the ways that we have actually been able to survive when bankruptcies have essentially been cut in half.

However, when the numbers pick up, I do think that one of the ways to grow your business is to spend $3,000 to $5,000 a month on AdWords. It’s a great way to advertise because you can find the people that are serious about filing for bankruptcy and have taken the time to look into it so that your job as an attorney can hopefully be easier.

Bob: Again, just for the audience out there, right now, in terms of the cost per lead from Google AdWords, you can expect somewhere in the $30 to $40 range depending on how competitive your local market is. But, obviously, if you’re good at turning those leads into retained clients, that can be very profitable.

Matt: Yeah, it’s been a big emphasis on our part as well. You know, we set up our website so that somebody, when they go on the website, if they want to meet with us or talk to us, they can put their name and their email address or their phone number and just send it off to me.

And we do try to respond as quickly as possible because it’s a competitive business. I think, that’s one of the ways that you can set yourself apart, if you respond very quickly, like, I always have an easy time when they go “oh, that was fast.” When you get it right away and you call them right away, it just makes it easier. The longer that lead sits in my inbox, the longer it takes… I mean, the harder it is going to be for me to retain them.

Bob: I’ve gotten, “Who are you again?” before.

Matt: Yeah. Yeah.

Bob: So I saw online that you bought The Debt Doctors from Campbell and Levine in 2011? Did I get that right?

Matt: Correct. Yep, at that time, I think, I was the only one who was actually working in the practice. My partners had a… They had their own practice that they were managing, and it was successful, and filings had started to shrink. It was enough for me to make a living off of it. It wasn’t enough to split five or six ways.

So, my partners, they just floated the idea to me that, “Maybe you should take this and see what you can do with it.” And, they gave me a very favorable deal in order to do that, and I stayed in their office space for a couple of years and they let me transition out of there and find a new home at Quatrini Rafferty.

It was a very good partnership while it lasted. I still am very close with my partners. It was a great place to work, and I learned a tremendous amount in working with them. I started as a managing attorney there when I was 30 years old, and when you’re 30, you think you know what you’re doing. But having 10 years to experiment with what works and what doesn’t work is a tremendous learning experience and taught me a lot about business and advertising and how to generate clients and how to manage clients and, hopefully, run a good practice that is always evolving.

Bob: So, now, you’ve merged your bankruptcy specialty practice with Quatrini Rafferty. That’s more of a full-service law firm. You talked about building your hourly business practice. Is that what you’re focused on for the next little bit here?

Matt: Yeah, I’m still trying to… You know, we’ve done a good job with the consumer cases. I never want to get out of doing that. However, we try to be as efficient and take good cases and that’s helped our practice.

One of the reasons we’ve been able to also reduce our advertising is, with Quatrini Rafferty, when they represent clients that have a worker’s comp claim, or a social security claim, or a personal injury. Normally, there’s some interruption in income and most people have debts. And so we’re able to find a lot of clients that are clients already of Quatrini Rafferty that can use our services.

In doing that, that was one helpful piece of joining Quatrini Rafferty, is that you have a new group of people to market to that might not be thinking about bankruptcy because a lot of times, I can protect whatever they’re going to receive from their settlement and help them to get rid of some debts and also just give them some general financial advice so that they can manage their reduced income while they wait for a settlement. That’s been an important part of the partnership with Quatrini Rafferty, is that working with them has given me more opportunities without spending more money on advertising.

It’s also been better, too, because we have the resources that if a computer breaks, they can get somebody out to fix it or we can get a new computer. I mean, when you’re really in a small practice, it’s very difficult, and it’s almost like our clients. You know, when you have a thin margin for error, one bad mishap can certainly throw you off track and make it a difficult year, financially, whereas, when you do partner with somebody else, you have some clients that you might not get in front of in other circumstances. You can get them without advertising and you have some more resources and backup if things didn’t go well.

One of the scariest things about starting the hourly practice — and then I’ve also filed a few Fair Credit Reporting Act cases — is that, when I was on my own and there were only three of us, if I got stuck in a case that was sucking all of my time, I couldn’t be out meeting new clients and generating revenue for the practice. And, working for a bigger firm where, every once in a while, if we need a little bit of help, we can get it. That helps us to manage it with a little bit of a smaller staff as well.

I feel fortunate that over the two and a half years that we’ve been with Quatrini Rafferty, we haven’t had to rely on our… We’re able to manage our workflow with the people that we have here, but if we do ever get stuck, I have help in order to manage that.

Bob: Awesome. Well, Matt, if people want to get in touch with you, is, is that the best way to do that?

Matt: Yeah, My email, mmh at thedebtdoctors dot com, is a good way to get in touch with me. Also, if you go to which is Quatrini Rafferty’s website, you can also find out more about our other practice areas there which are: worker’s comp, social security, personal injury.

Bob: Awesome. Well, Matt, thanks so much for joining us today, and thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge.

Matt: Thanks for your time today. It’s been a fun experience.

Bob: Great. Thanks, Matt.

Matt: All right. Take care, Bob. Bye bye.