The Law Firm That Operates Like an Ad Agency

How Nonstop TV Buyer Sokolove Law Used Direct-Response Pitches to Build a Legal Empire

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Ever hear of Jim Sokolove? Let's rephrase that: How could you not? In the saturated rotation of lawyers advertising on TV, his personal-injury spots are a fixture in America's daytime living rooms, where one of his ads is seen about once every minute.

Jim Sokolove
Jim Sokolove
But what's surprising about Mr. Sokolove isn't that his commercials air frequently in the midday hours to reach the at-home masses, earning him the stigma -- deserved or not -- of ambulance-chasing opportunist. It's that his team litigates virtually none of the personal-injury cases the commercials bring to its door. Instead, the firm, Sokolove Law, operates almost strictly as an operator's call board, plugging prospective clients into any one of its hundreds of national affiliates and collecting a contingency fee upon its referrals' verdicts.

"We're acting as an [ad] agency, but we're very much a law firm -- only much more profitable," said Michael Skoler, CEO of Sokolove Law.

How profitable, the privately held company isn't saying. But last year, the Boston-based operation fielded close to 300,000 calls from would-be clients. Mr. Skoler, however, rejected the notion that Sokolove runs a case mill, instead describing its business model as a kind of aggregation hub complete with a staff of "intake experts" and a complete process of vetting referrals and the firms to which they're outsourced.

Unprecedented ad spending
That model has resulted in the Sokolove machine churning out more advertising than any other attorney or law-related service in the country, standing out in a category that collectively spent some $486.3 million in measured media last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence, up 12.1% in these recessionary times. Last year alone, Sokolove spent an unprecedented $20 million on marketing, about twice as much as its closest competitor, up nearly seven-fold from the $3 million it committed in 2004, Mr. Skoler said. He estimated the group's total ad spending this year will increase 25%, halfway to its eventual goal of $50 million annually. The firm estimates that one of its commercials plays every minute in one medium or another.

Sokolove Chief Marketing Officer Anders Ekman described the company's approach as one of business-to-business relationships and affiliate cultivation; it has more than 400 affiliates to date. A brand overhaul, he said, is the natural next step. "Everyone knows who we are," he said. "We just need a little more context."

To that end, Sokolove's new campaign, created in-house, incorporates direct mail, business-to-business initiatives, ramped-up print exposure in law trades, and more TV and radio spots. There are no plans for out-of-home efforts, Mr. Ekman said, because of the measurability limitations. The firm also buys its own media.

Mr. Ekman said Sokolove Law is experimenting with new media and digital products but so far has shied away from social networks. Even so, Sokolove Law manages 30-odd web properties and case forums ranging from individual-injury sounding boards to caregiver communities, which registered a collective 490,000 unique visitors in the past 12 months and 1.3 million page views overall.

Grand ambitions
For years the firm was known as the Law Offices of James Sokolove but now calls itself simply Sokolove Law. Its new mantra, "Sokolove means success," seems to reflect the firm's conversion from legal service to business service, and warms up the industry to Mr. Skoler's grand aspiration: to make Sokolove Law the first publically traded law firm in the country. "We're trying to do for law what H&R Block did for tax preparation," he said. "We're trying to be seen as 'America's law firm.'"

"You can take a look at us and ask if this is the leader in law advertising or a law firm who just knows a lot about advertising," Mr. Sokolove said. "We're very closely allied with mass marketing. ... I would like to think that we've brought to the profession a lot of innovation to the idea of running a firm as a business."

Jeff Scalzi, marketing director for another Boston-based firm, Foley Hoag, and former president of the Legal Marketing Association's New England chapter, said, "Sokolove is often looked to as being an immediate front-runner of legal advertising."

In recent informal polling of peers at similar firms, Mr. Scalzi said, ad spending "runs the gamut of anywhere from 15% to 25%" of total marketing budgets and is typically handled by separate creative agencies. Foley Hoag, which develops some of its marketing in-house, works with Right Hat, a local shop, for creative and AMP, Boston, for media buying. Mr. Scalzi called Sokolove's exclusively in-house marketing "interesting."

To be sure, Mr. Sokolove speaks more like the captain of a Fortune 500 company than a public defender. "The goal is to go to 500 affiliates and $50 million [in advertising]," he said. "Those are very tangible goals."

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