148. John Phillips, Phillips and Hunt — Fight for What Matters: Reverence in Practice and Earned Media

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A steward of justice, John Phillips has changed the way that companies and governments operate. He is verified on three social media channels, secured a $495 Million Dollar verdict, won countless awards, and even beaten the president in trial. But John measures success not in accolades, but in the reverence he earns from those he loves. Once “best lawyer in America” John and his firm Phillips and Hunt have represented celebrities and athletes – but spend most of their time helping the injured get justice.

Today, we discuss jury selection and how to tell a winning story. Why representing high-profile clients should not come with the requisite of kevlar vests. How earned media and traditional media have bolstered his nationwide presence. And how an empath can change the world for the better.

What’s In This Episode

  • Who is John Phillips?
  • How to identify and eliminate prejudice during jury selection.
  • His perspective on physical safety and why he shouldn’t have to wear a kevlar suit.
  • How he came to help rewrite legislation after the Amahad Abury case.
  • What role has earned media played in securing such high-profile cases?
  • Why is networking so important?
  • How does he leverage traditional marketing in a way that is true to his personality?

Transcript

John Phillips:

It’s the custom service that helps you stand out. And it’s the referrals that’s kept us going.

Chris Dreyer:

No matter how much your firm grows, always improve the client experience.

John Phillips:

And so it’s been this crazy ride but I think people would tell you, I treat Joe Exotic like I treat Erin Joynt, like I treat Omarosa, I treat all the names you haven’t heard of because we want people to really feel like they’ve got justice by every definition.

Chris Dreyer:

You’re listening to Personal Injury Mastermind where we give you the tools you need to take your personal injury practice to the next level. John Phillips, one of the youngest board certified civil trial lawyers in the state of Florida has changed the way companies and governments operate. Once named the best lawyer in America, John and his firm, Phillips & Hunt, have represented celebrities and athletes but spent most of their time helping the injured get justice. He’s a steward of justice, verified on three social media channels. He has secured a $495 million verdict, won countless awards and has even beaten the president. But none of those achievements fulfill his ultimate goal. Instead, John seeks a life of reverence. I’m your host, Chris Dreyer, founder and CEO of Rankings.io. We help elite personal injury attorneys dominate first page rankings with search engine optimization. Being at the forefront of marketing is all about understanding people. So let’s get to know our guest. Here’s John Phillips with Phillips & Hunt.

John Phillips:

My mother used to tell stories about my grandfather, my great-grandfather. So they were both lawyers but they predeceased me. I’d hear these stories of great reverence and I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. The child me read To Kill a Mockingbird and discovered Atticus Finch. And to me that was my grandfather and my great-grandfather because he was like a personification of them.

Chris Dreyer:

So you already had this path, kind of, in mind.

John Phillips:

Well, and it’s gotten even weirder in the past year or two because I’ve started jotting down memoirs because you represent Omarosa versus Trump or Joe Exotic. And I’ve told that story about my mother so many times that it was just recently that I looked up my great-grandfather and there’s an article from like 1934 from The Clarion, Mississippi, Ledger and it was one of the best articles I’ve ever read about any lawyer and how he was a hundred percent manly man and you needed to vote for him for judge. It let me know my mom wasn’t bluffing.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah, we build this up in our mind and then when you get to read it and you’re like, “Oh, that is validation.”

John Phillips:

Because it was romanticized and I was a child and so there’s no way that I would’ve expected this guy, 1934, he was better at earned media in some ways than I am when I have all the tools of the trade. He had front page articles talk about how great he was. You don’t get to land that very often.

Chris Dreyer:

That’s incredible. That’s incredible. One of the key principles you list on your website is passion, which comes through so clearly. You also say that to make sure that your client’s story is told the right way with justice in mind, we know how important a story is. It’s easy to just say, “Tell a good story.” For you, what makes a story good to you?

John Phillips:

We tell so many different kinds of stories. One side’s always had power, one side doesn’t. And so when a parent loses a child and there’s a story there about how that happened, that gets you. When there’s one side that has tremendous power and can weaponize litigation, that gets you. I was asked at a speech a couple weeks ago, they introduced me and they talk about the 7, 8, 9 figure verdicts and somebody said, “Well, with a $495 million jury verdict, do the numbers matter? Do you still want to go achieve verdicts?” And I say, “No, I don’t because it’s never been about the number. That’s the jury’s effort for a job well done.” But it’s about telling the story. And if you tell the story right, you’re going to win tremendously more than you lose because you’ve got the right clients and you’ve got the right set of facts. And at the end of the day, that’s how I define myself first probably, is an empathic storyteller.

Chris Dreyer:

That’s exactly where my mind was going, John, was empathy. One of the things that you speak a lot about too is you have to have people that are receptive to the story too. So you talk about prejudice in regards to the jury selection. How do you identify and eliminate prejudice when in the court? Or I would imagine it’s not just immediately transparent. So how do you approach that?

John Phillips:

It’s hard. And now you have so many different sources, whether it’s the internet or social media or TV telling people to generally hide their prejudices. There’s people now that want to get on juries to politically weaponize them. And those can be harder to spot, especially in federal court where you don’t get to do as much of the voir dire, the judge does it all, or there’s a lot more judges that have been appointed by both sides with more of an agenda. But the Federalist Society judges tend to, they’ve been raised where political affiliation or viewpoints matter. Right now you have Trump being suing in a civil court because of his criminal case and people are interpreting that judge’s politics and it’s just changed a lot. And when you have more activist judges and activist jurors, it’s a landmine and it’s tough. I mean you can go try a trip and fall case or a DUI and people aren’t going to tremendously care. It’s not as polarizing. There’s going to be people that don’t like lawsuits.
There’s going to be people that think if you got a DUI, you should do all the time and people on the opposite side. Those are more reasonable chess matches. But the bigger the case, the bigger the political issues, the harder it is to find a fair jury. I’ve lost one case in my life twice. I didn’t think I could possibly do it a second time, but I’ve lost it twice. And it’s a Federal Civil Rights case against a sheriff’s office. There’s nothing more polarizing than suing the police because it’s at one point they’re heroes, they truly are, but at one point they can do wrong too. And there’s this code that exists there unlike any other profession.

Chris Dreyer:

You know, you have a very powerful TEDx talk and you’ve got this line that you say you remove your kevlar lined suit. And we don’t need to live in a world where we need civil rights lawyers with bulletproof jackets. So what is your perspective on personal safety?

John Phillips:

So I represent a young man who was best friends in the world since they were wee tall with YNW Melly, the rapper, real name’s, Jamell Demons and Jamell has been charged with murdering two of his friends in a car. And that case more than any other case, I represent the victim in a civil case, a wrongful death case. And for whatever reason, I constantly get confused as being the one prosecuting Melly because my face is associated with it. And I’ve gotten more death threats from that case than probably any other case combined. And I try to reason with some people sometimes. And so it’s like, “Hey, you do understand that that’s the state of Florida that’s prosecuting him.” I’ll tag the FBI in a tweet. And oftentimes people be like, “Look, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry.” And it’s like, “No, you just threatened my life. Words mean something.
And from the very first time of representing Jordan Davis as a white attorney and somebody saying, and I reference it in my TED talk, having to go home to my wife and saying, “Well, I read a tweet that says lawyers like me need to have money under the bed in case our kid goes missing.” Or “I’m not going to make it through the end of trial.” It’s the expression of the frog in the water pot. And as they turn the temperature up, the frog doesn’t know it and the frog just boils. Well, I think my life, in the last 10 years, has created that scenario in some way. And I don’t see it cavalierly, it’s horrible. I’ve got more security around me of when I’m out in certain places, I’m a little bit mindful, more than a little bit mindful of where I’m going. But I can’t let fear win. I have a concealed weapons permit. I’ll admittedly say I almost never carry, because I don’t trust myself to make that decision of what lives to take as an impact. I don’t think I pray for my enemies.

Chris Dreyer:

Thank you for doing that. It takes courage. And fortunately you’ve had some great wins in court and you’re even helping rewrite laws. So following the Ahmaud Arbery tragedy, you assisted in rewriting citizen arrest statutes. So how did you find yourself in that position and what’s a process that look like?

John Phillips:

Yeah, Georgia State Congressman, who was the sponsor of the law called and said, “I made a mistake, we’ve got to fix this law.” But legislators that aren’t lawyers don’t understand the consequences of missing verbiage or too much verbiage. And I explained from a practical standpoint as a wrongful death lawyer where this law had problems and he actually ran it up the flag pole and diversion that I helped write was approved. And it’s neat, never what I have expected. But right now in Florida and in most states, the law that says for fleeing and alluding police. So one of the issues in the country right now are African Americans and women driving to a lit place before they pull over. So you got blue lights, you’re caught speeding. Like “Let me get to a lit place.” And one of our clients was held at gunpoint for speeding and it made the news recently and the fleeing in eluding law doesn’t have that caveat in it.
And so we had another guy who, he had burnout taillights and he drove 1000 feet home and he was charged with fleeing and alluding and African American gentleman. And it’s like, “Well, obviously, we need another line to make there be some objective reasonableness to that. That’s where lawyers that aren’t just trying to get the settlement or get the verdict, but say, “Look, we have this problem. Let’s see if we can tweak the law. And then all of a sudden officers are discouraged because the law says you can’t from charging somebody with fleeing and alluding or escalating because we’re enforcing yes, going towards light is safer for the officer and safer for the person. So why wouldn’t that be a caveat we all agree to, because it’s not in any of the laws.

Chris Dreyer:

John explains how he’s come to work with so many high profile cases that truly make an impact. It’s not what you might expect.

John Phillips:

Let’s go back to 2011 when I’m fired by the largest personal injury firm in the country after a year and a half coming from doing insurance defense, which is the opposite sort of what I do now. Went to the world’s largest injury firm, did that for a year and a half, got fired and I’m like, “Oh, what do I do now?” And I started my own firm and instead of being in between the news with a commercial, being on the news and the concept of earned media and being the local expert for TV news and Facebook, when Facebook would actually show businesses across the platform more. And Twitter and at the time there was this whole thing, Google+ and I was reading what you had to say and everybody thought Google+ would take off. And it was trying to maximize and be the best at each individual sphere and YouTube and putting stuff on YouTube and content rich and learning what SEO and SEM is. And honing in on marketing and branding and building this kind of image that was inside me.
Some would say it was genetically coming whether I liked it or not but you got to get out there and work it. And Erin Joynt, one of my clients got ran over while sunbathing and we went to the Today Show and told her story and then Jordan Davis got shot and killed and that made some media and then it builds. I was a snowball going downhill and Omarosa was, I met on a panel related to Jordan Davis. She was on one TV box, I was on the other one and we started talking about how her, I believe brother, had been murdered. And so it’s been this crazy ride. But I think people would tell you, I treat Joe Exotic like I treat Erin Joynt, like I treat Omarosa, like I treat all the names you haven’t heard of because we want people to really feel like they’ve got justice by every definition. There’s a book called Blue Ocean Strategy and the book is fantastic. Do you know it?

Chris Dreyer:

Oh, yeah.

John Phillips:

Okay. But the concept like just boiling down the basic concept is you got competition for car accident in the legal field. Like the red ocean is blood, it’s car wrecks and it’s DUIs and it’s so competition specific. There’s not many people that get celebrity representation as attorneys. It’s the custom service that helps you stand out and it’s the referrals that that’s kept us going. My two largest settlement, we just settled my motorcycle wreck for 5 million bucks and that case came as a friend of a friend, who became a friend and I knew him long before he ever met the bad end of a truck. And as soon as I found out one of my friends had been injured, I’m on it and everybody gets that treatment.

Chris Dreyer:

Most marketings on a linear equation, more inputs get more outputs. The referrals are not. They’re nonlinear, they’re exponential. So you do good work, you have the great experience, then you get these amazing referrals. And I heard someone recently talk about the largest settlements are typically from, or largest cases are typically from referrals.

John Phillips:

But it’s not even traditional. Like Joe Exotic actually came from me getting the wrongful death call on Carole Baskin’s husband, Don Lewis. And he saw that work and that’s all in Tiger King, season two if you want to see that craziness. But like all Omarosa ties back to a conversation that I had on a panel with Jordan Davis and Jordan Davis put me in front of the NAACP National Conference which generated reputationally other cases. And look, I don’t know if I’m an introvert or an extrovert. I have the hallmarks of an empathic, empathetic introvert because I like to be alone. I like my circle’s small, I don’t love being in public but something changed when I realized this was my blue ocean. I’ve got this skillset, I’ve got to go confront my fears. I still don’t like speaking in large groups, but I will. You can conquer that. And I didn’t analyze all this stuff until I was marketing and branding and trying to figure out why I am who I am.
But I knew I cried a lot. When I was in a certain room. I would feel other people’s feelings and I just figured I was teased about that a lot growing up. And so I knew that I was emotional as a human being and wore my heart on my sleeve, it’s kind of the nice way to put it. But I didn’t know what that meant. And then Adiyiah said, “It’s because you’re an empath.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” Well, I didn’t know this was a thing that you could actually diagnose. Same thing for high functioning anxiety. And I’ve got both. Yay. It works because of my profession but it’s my normal. It also filled a gap in a profession that is so much all about money to actually make it all about people. It has led to nicer shoes.

Chris Dreyer:

Despite nationwide recognition from earned media, when it comes to putting his image on billboards, John has reservations.

John Phillips:

We put up seven billboards in town. I’ve resisted billboards my entire career but our family law division and our criminal defense division needed more cases. And I said, “All right.” And my marketing person said, we have an internal person said, “Hey, let’s put your face up there. People know you from TV news, they know you from documentaries and all that, Tiger King.” I was like, “No, our number’s 444 4444. Let’s just do the number. Let’s do a number four with the finger sticking over the billboard.” And that’s what we went with because I just didn’t want to drive by and see my face. It creates this unnatural ego and then my kids are seeing it and they see it enough, but it’s kind of managing branding while being human. The testimonial aspect is something that I’ve got some that were done by normal clients. The concept of actually having celebrity clients. I don’t like leveraging relationships. I represent several of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but you would know it.

Chris Dreyer:

And just on the billboard topic, when did you do that? Have you seen an impact from those?

John Phillips:

We did them years ago and it was part of our splash into a new market, Brunswick, Georgia. And we did get calls and we knew because of the geography of it because they were centered outside of our main office, that they worked almost too well. Because then all of a sudden I was staffing an office that I really didn’t want to fully staff. But this time around we have gotten calls, we always ask, “Where’d you see us?” But for me because I’m on the news, I’m on the billboard, they’ll say the last thing they saw. And it’s interesting, since Erin Joynt, I’ve represented five other women run over while sunbathing. And they didn’t find that on the website, they found it on news sites because they were searching for this happen. And lo and behold, guess who was quoted? Me.
And it’s this whole other thing that I almost hate to tell people because nobody’s doing it. It’s maintaining a consistent relationship with our news media, but the billboards… Because the main thing that I wanted to market was our phone number. 444 4444 you’re not going to forget. We have had messages left overnight. We have a 24 hour call service but we’ve gotten messages the next morning from people in prison that just said, I get one phone call and I knew to dial 444 4444. Call me, find me in the morning. And that markets itself.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah, no, if Paul is listening, he’s probably getting a kick out of this. The number king. Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I’ll tell you, I personally, I like the repeaters, the 4444 better than the vanity. Back in the day before mobile device. I would do the whole letters. We’re looking for ease and convenience. So I like the repeaters. I’m a big fan of it. Here I am saying that though. John and I own my own vanity number two. So…

John Phillips:

I mean, I have (800) LITIGATE that we use national and I have (904) JUSTICE that we’re going to set up for texting, that somebody just emailed me. But somebody just emailed me and said, “Hey, do you want (904) JUSTICE?” I said, “How much?” And they gave me a number and I said, “No, but that’s not a bad number.” And gave them a number back and they said, “We want to work with you. Okay.” I was like, “Well, that’s a steal.” But I own, gosh, I think 10 sets of 444 4444. So, I mean, I’ve bought from everybody. The first set I bought off eBay, crazily enough. There’s just somebody that-

Chris Dreyer:

Unreal.

John Phillips:

(904) 444 4444 on eBay. And I negotiated, bought it. The second one was 912 in Georgia and it was a little lady that passed away. She had it for this church that she ran that wasn’t really a church or something. I can’t remember the story. But we went to her family and asked if we could have it and they said, “Sure.”

Chris Dreyer:

And I’m near St. Louis and we got Schultz Myers over here. 314 444 4444. Yeah, so it’s memorable. Here I am. I’m repeating it right here. John, this has been such an amazing conversation and I just applaud, first of all, your courage and everything you’re doing. And I think your strategy is really unique in terms of the earned media and what you’re doing. What’s next for Phillips & Hunt?

John Phillips:

When I started and it was me and my assistant in an office that was owned by a church. We rented office by office in month by month. And so now we have 1, 2, 3 and a half floors of a building Downtown Jacksonville and space in New York City and space in Georgia. I can’t guess it. So to go back to the original story about my mother’s reverence to her father. My career has been defined by chasing reverence because my mother admired these men so much and what they did that she instilled something in me to constantly chase after that.
For Hallmark, you want to say, is going to make me have reverence. I’ve tried to objectively achieve it. But in doing so, I realized none of that will make me have reverence. My reverence is decided by my three children and their three children and people that I’ve never met. What matters. And if I think that’s defined by a jury verdict number, I’m wrong. It’s about what we give while we’re here. And so I’m not going to be playing golf, I’m going to be finding time to spend with my kids and that is how you achieve reverence just like that’s how I learned it. And so there you go. And I can’t, I’m not going to limit that and I’m not going to try to define that. It’s been a crazy ride the last 10 years especially. And we’re going to keep fighting for people.

Chris Dreyer:

Look for blue oceans like earned media and market in a way that is both authentic to you and your practice. Invest in your network. You never know how one connection can increase the visibility of the work you do. I’d like to thank John Phillips from Phillips & Hunt for sharing a story with us and I hope you gained some valuable insights from the conversation. You’ve been listening to Personal Injury Mastermind. I’m Chris Dreyer. If you’d like this episode, leave us a review. We’d love to hear from our listeners. I’ll catch you on next week’s PIMM with another incredible guest and all the strategies you need to master personal injury marketing.

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