Personal Injury Lawyer Advertising Evolves in the Digital Age

Local personal injury lawyers for decades have heavily relied on telephone book advertising to attract clients, running multiple pages of ads and competing for the coveted back cover space. But those days are waning.

“Lawyers are ending the nuclear war in the Yellow Pages,” said personal injury attorney Grant Parsons of the Parsons Law Firm in Traverse City. “Those ads are going away.”

While the Yellow Pages and other business phone directories are still seen as a valuable way to reach potential older clients, personal injury lawyers are shifting their marketing dollars to the digital world.

“Phone books are useless for reaching young people,” said Brace Kern, who handles personal injury cases as a sole practitioner in Traverse City.

Many see their own websites as the most effective way to reaching clients and explaining their firms’ expertise in handling personal injury cases. Their websites often highlight major awards they’ve won for clients through settlements and court verdicts.

Attorneys say advertising the size of those awards is essential because it gives potential clients a sense of a law firm’s ability to execute complex personal injury cases.

“Those data points are important to consumers,” said Tim Smith, a personal injury lawyer at Smith & Johnson in Traverse City. “It comes across as crass to some, but not to the person who has suffered a serious injury.

“This is the single most awful thing that had happened to them,” he continued. “The consumer base has become more sophisticated and does its due diligence before hiring counsel. You get one shot at making this right. They want to know: ‘What’s your track record? Have you done this before?’ ”

Parsons said the size of past awards in personal injury cases often determines which law firm potential plaintiffs will pick to represent them.

“If I remove the number from the case and don’t tell the client how it came out, I think I probably lose the client,” he said.

Some lawyers say that advertising the size of the awards they’ve won from clients has directly led to new business for them.

In 2015, personal injury lawyer Blake Ringsmuth represented a Buckley couple that was seriously injured in an auto accident when a propane tanker truck crossed the centerline of a road into the path of their vehicle.

A Grand Traverse County jury in December 2015 granted Garold and Cynthia Milliron $2.3 million, which the Traverse City Record-Eagle said was the largest award in the 13th Circuit Court in at least 25 years.

“The award generated more work for our firm,” said Ringsmuth, a partner at Ringsmuth Wuori in Traverse City. “It allowed us to set ourselves apart from other law firms. Northern Michigan juries were historically famous for not giving decent-size verdicts in personal injury cases. This case showed that, in fact, they would.”

Local personal injury lawyers engage in other forms of advertising, but question its effectiveness. Smith, for example, casts a wide net for potential clients on local television and radio stations, billboards and social media.

“I feel like a blindfolded man in a boxing match,” he said. “I don’t know what’s working.”

Smith said most potential clients who contact him say they found him through a Google search or other lawyers. But he said he advertises in a variety of media “to keep our name in the forefront of peoples’ minds, if you will.”

George Thompson, a personal injury lawyer who has practiced for 38 years, said he no longer advertises because he doesn’t need to do it.

“We almost entirely live on referrals from other attorneys and past clients,” said Thompson, a partner at Thompson O’Neil in Traverse City.

Thompson said he also stopped posting awards on his website because it was too time consuming. Plus, many of his clients don’t want the publicity.

“A lot of clients don’t want to be on the front page and have their information disseminated,” Thompson said. “It’s not good for them to have people know they have a new reservoir of money.”

Kern, who left a Traverse City law firm to hang out his own shingle nearly three years ago, also said he stopped advertising when he started his new firm and doesn’t post new awards to his website.

“Traverse City is a small enough town that I generally pick up cases through word of mouth,” he said.

Most lawyers contacted for this story said they disdain television advertising, but defend other lawyers’ right to do it. Parsons said he featured himself in television ads a few years ago and found the experience distasteful.

“It made my skin crawl,” he said. “I couldn’t beat those guys.”

“Those guys” are the big Detroit personal injury law firms who spend millions of dollars bombarding the airwaves with ads that boast they don’t back down and win huge awards for injured clients.

Ringsmuth said it generally doesn’t pay for smaller firms to advertise on television against the big Detroit firms, including The Sam Bernstein Law Firm, Goodman Acker and the Law Offices of Lee Steinberg.

“If you’re not one or two in any given media, it’s not an effective use of your money,” he said. “We’re not Sam Bernstein and “Lee Free” (Lee Steinberg’s law firm) and don’t want to be, quite honestly.”

But some local attorneys benefit from advertising by their big-city competitors.

Thompson recalled working on a brief on a Friday night when he got a call from a man who said he had been in the hospital for 10 days “watching ‘that shyster’s’ ads on television.”

The man, who’d been badly injured in a car accident, said he called the TV lawyer, but no one answered the phone. Thompson said he ended up taking the case and won an insurance settlement for the man.

Smith said he occasionally gets case referrals from the Bernstein law firm and other big downstate firms who are contacted by northern Michigan personal injury victims. He said Mark Bernstein, president of the Bernstein firm and who regularly appears in the firm’s ads, is a longtime personal friend.

Lawyer advertising was banned in every state until 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the State Bar of Arizona’s prohibition on attorney advertising violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

Local lawyers say that some of today’s ads are distasteful, leading the public to view personal injury attorneys as ambulance chasers and bottom feeders in the legal profession.

But advertising serves an important purpose, they say. A serious injury in which another party might be at fault is a traumatic experience for people who can face huge medical bills, loss of employment and claim disputes with insurance companies.