80. Mike Papantonio, Levin, Papantonio, & Rafferty Doing Well by Doing Good

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Mike Papantonio is a living legend. His work on mass torts with Levin, Papantonio, Raferty has helped tens of thousands and his media has reached millions more. Hes one of the only living people to be inducted into the National Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame and several of his cases have been made into Netflix documentaries.

We were honored to have the chance to sit down with Mike and pick his brain about his conference, Mass Torts Made Perfect, and how he approaches media.

Transcript

Mike Papantonio

Clarence Darrow, probably one of the greatest lawyers of his time. He hated lawyers.

Chris Dreyer

At its heart, being a personal injury lawyer is about helping people. And sometimes to help people, you have to get creative.

Mike Papantonio

He said, they’re not creative thinkers. They’re afraid to innovate. They don’t read enough. They don’t excel in areas beyond the law. And his point was: We have to do all of that to be sustainable. Now that’s not just sustainable in your practice, but sustainable is an individual that has any kind of cultural impact.

Chris Dreyer

You’re listening to Personal Injury Marketing Mastermind, the show where elite personal injury attorneys and leading edge marketers give you exclusive access to grow strategies for your firm. Mike Papantonio is a progressive legal legend. Through his work in mass torts, he’s gone to toe-to-toe with huge multinational corporations and held them accountable, helping recover billions of dollars for his clients along the way. Throughout his career, he’s found creative ways to expand his reach. He’s hosted radio and television, written fiction and nonfiction, and founded the Mass Torts Made Perfect conference all to increases awareness of corporate misconduct and consumer. I had the pleasure of speaking to Mike about his approach to media, Mass Torts Made Perfect, and what holds lawyers back from meeting their potential? 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 Mike Papantonio, senior partner of Levin, Papantonio, Rafferty, and founder of Mass Torts Made Perfect.

Mike Papantonio

Yeah, I was, um, I wanted to be a foreign correspondent back then. That was a whole Sandinista picture. You, it was a little before your time, but there was a revolution going on. And everybody coming out of university of Florida that wanted to be a journalist and wanted to do foreign correspondent was heading down. Uh, I had a friend that is said, look, before you make any kind of move, why don’t you consider, uh, law school? And it, you know, I guess law school would always been a back of my mind, but, um, they said, I want you to meet somebody. And I went in down and met a really important lawyer this time. It’s probably one of the most important, uh, trial lawyers of his time. He had, he had developed, uh, just a whole string of courtroom techniques that we still use today. His name was Perry Nichols, and he was a he’s actually from Miami, but he had a place. He raised cattle in Arcadia, Florida, which is a small cattle town, down in central Florida. One of the places I lived and I went down and met him. And. You know, after doing that and talking to him, uh, I came away pretty convinced that that was the thing that made me fit me. And just his, one of his points was that, you know, uh, you can, you can have a law degree and still be a journalist. So that was kind of, uh, that was the kind of thing that really moved me towards maybe fitting in that.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah, absolutely. And you, you’ve written a number of books and fiction books and you know, let’s, let’s talk about that. You know, how has the journalism background help you from a marketing and media perspective over your career?

Mike Papantonio

Yeah, it’s been really helpful as you, you know, over the years, that last 20 to 25 years, uh, I’ve been, uh, uh, MSNBC, I’ve been a regular contributor on MSNBC Fox. I was, uh, the liberal commentator on Fox for two, two and a half years, uh, where it would be me and three other folks aren’t dealing with. Right. And then, and then from there, um, just a whole host of different, um, Programs that I’ve been on. Air America was something that was a, it was a liberal talk show program that it had a, it was a network actually at Al Franken. It had me Janeane Garofalo, Rachel Maddow, Chuck D, Steve Earl, uh, Sam Seder, just, just a remarkable. You know, group of folks that were liberal talkers and it lasted, uh, it lasted a couple of years, but more importantly, those folks all ended up going into their area of journalism. Um, you know, of course, Rachel on MSNBC, all these is still very active in politics. All of these folks, Cenk Uyger which you probably know he’s a, the young Turks out in California. So, uh, out of that came people that stayed in their area. Of journalism, it at least in progressive progressive journalism. And then, um, I’ve always thought it’s important that lawyers have some diversity. And, and so I was always a writer. Uh, I started out with a couple of books that really weren’t designed to be books. I used to give speeches about. Um, you know, that landed on the idea of quality of life. How, how important is quality life for, uh, for, uh, a lawyer. Stressed out from every kind of angle. What’s so important about that lawyer finding quality life. And I gave speeches about that and somebody said, one time, well, why don’t you just reduce some of that to a book? And so out of there came a book called in search of Atticus Finch. I think it’s in its fourth or fifth printing right now. They use it in law schools and other places, but that was a product of me sending out questionnaires all over the country to lawyers and finding out what it is that they could do to improve their quality of life. And in the. Something was very obvious lawyers who do one thing, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, and that’s all they do. They don’t have any other horizons. They don’t have any other aspects to their lives are very, very unhappy. Uh, their quality of life usually is not what it should be and their burnout rate is tremendous. So I I’ve always tried to find things that took me away from uniquely the. Practice of law. And I thought, well, you know, we handle cases that are just remarkable cases. You know, we, the tobacco litigation started with this firm. Uh, I think we’ve handled 58 of the largest pharmaceutical cases in the country. Uh, you know, 12 or 13, 14 of the biggest environmental cases. So I said, well, why don’t I take that and put it into a. Into a series of books that matter of fact, one’s coming out in about two months, it’s about human, the human trafficking case that we’re handling. So the, the idea is that most of them, I want to write about themselves. You know, they, they want to do this. Biography stuff in it. It’s ridiculous. I mean, if you look at the numbers, their family reads it, their friends read it maybe, or they tell them that they read it. Right. But they don’t really, they don’t really care. So what I wanted to do is I wanted to tell the story of these very important cases and how, what the impact was socially on these, these very important cases, but I wanted to do with fiction. So I created a character named Nicholas “Deke” Deketomis. And that character just spins all the way through what is now coming up the fourth book. Um, yeah, so I’ve, I didn’t do it only because I had a journalism background. I did it because out of the first time I took a look at what the impact was for, for lawyers and the quality of life. It was very clear to me. You got to have some diversity in your life, you just have to. And so that’s, that’s why I spent so much time and those areas of TV, media, radio, media, written media, and, um, it’s worked out for me.

Chris Dreyer

I love all of that. I just think, you know, when you get in the grind, you, you got to have some, some diversity, you got to be a little uncomfortable and do different types of things to have these experiences. And so, as you know, is the book, is it more, you know, your main character, the protagonist, is it like a hero’s journey of them throughout this like arc?

Mike Papantonio

Um, yeah, he’s, it’s a, it’s a hero that is, um, It it’s, it’s, uh, broken in so many ways. It’s not, uh, there’s no, uh, you know, hero worship about this character. He’s human, uh, he’s, uh, you know, very talented trial lawyer. That’s done a lot of important things, but he’s human nonetheless, and all the characters are human because the trick about fish. Is, you have to have some plausibility, I think sometimes in fiction writing, they create these characters. You go, ah, I don’t really know anybody like that. And so all of the characters, there’s a character in the third book it’s called the yeah. That her name is Janine. Uh, w uh, Ravello is she’s, uh, she’s, uh, a broken character, but you do love her and, and, you know, you come away thinking, wow, you know, look at what she’s accomplishing. And, um, it’s called the. Law and vengeance, and that tells you about her character, Gina Romano, her, her character is just this bizarre character that seems to get things done, but it’s more realistic. It’s kind of a composite of lawyers I’ve met over the years. So that’s fun to me, you know, just kind of jumping into that kind of, yeah.

Chris Dreyer

Mike has been hosting radio and TV for 17 years and has been a legal correspondent on major networks evenly. So I asked Mike his advice for lawyers looking to make media a part of their marketing stream.

Mike Papantonio

Yeah. So here’s, here’s the advice corporate media is dead or dying. Okay. You just have to believe me. It’s it’s people are cutting cables. They, they, the credibility of corporate media is in the tank right now. Right. And so things like you’re doing right now, w w w the things that you talk about in a podcast, people can’t get enough podcasts. They want to hear these peculiar stories. They want to hear what corporate media can’t talk about. I do a show now called “America’s Lawyer”. It shows all over the world. Now, why, why did I choose to in its Russian television? Why did I choose to go there? Well, because. When I was doing media with the corporate media, uh, you know, I worked with, um, Ed Schultz, who was, uh, anchor for a long time and we’d be getting read, tell a story. It might be that Bayer has a product out there. That’s killing women by the hundreds. It might be that DuPont is destroying an entire ecosystem. And we’d be in the, in the, in the close count, it’d be 10, 9, 8. And then at five, they’d say pap got to kill the story, go to con law or something else. And that happens so many times, even with my partner, I, people don’t realize this, but Joe Scarborough used to be my law partner and we helped him get that job with MSNBC. But even when I was with him, the, the corporate. Impact for corporate media, you know, the advertisers had such power. Uh, the corporate media can’t tell a story, Chris, right? Because their advertisers won’t let them, or because their political involvement, they, they are they’re, they’re, uh, tribal about their politics. You know, I’m Republican. I have to tell the Republican side I’m Democrat and I got to tell the Democrat side. People are tired of it. You should see the numbers on it. They are tired of it. So what does this do? It creates an opportunity to come in and do something different. Exactly. Like you’re doing. Let me tell you a quick story. So 20, 20 years ago in Vegas, I was telling lawyers, go home, start get a local TV station by an hour. Do something where you’re creating your own media, do a radio show, create your own media. And then when podcasting came along, create your own media. When internet came along, create your own media. Some folks listen to me and it has really worked out very, very well for them. Here’s the problem, Chris, it’s tough to tell a lawyer to think about something different. They want to grab that same, you know, whatever’s been handed down to them. They just want to embrace that. They’re afraid to say no reject that, or I might accept it, but I want to modify it and make it better. It’s so difficult to get lawyers to do that. You may not know this, but the Clarence Darrow, probably one of the greatest lawyers of his time. He hated lawyers. He was one of the most impressive lawyers of his time. He said, they’re not creative thinkers. They’re afraid to innovate. They don’t read enough. They don’t Excel. They don’t Excel in areas beyond the law. And his point was. We have to do all of that to be sustainable. Now that’s not just sustainable in your practice, but sustainable is an individual that has any kind of cultural impact. You can’t, you can’t cozy up in one little corner and say, okay, I’m going to add one 800 auto, give me a call. You know, you can’t do that. Right. You have to expand the things you think about.

Chris Dreyer

I think that’s a fantastic point. Yeah. One of the things I’ve noticed is individuals that have listened to my podcasts. They have this sense of trust. I’ve already developed this rapport with them. And the other thing is that I really appreciate that. I appreciate about what you’re saying. If you just do what everybody else is doing, you’ll never stand out. But if you do something different or have a different opinion, just by the nature of being different, you automatically stand out.

Mike Papantonio

Yeah. And your, your point, Chris is, uh, this is really going to shock you. This, this is a real big shocker. When I started first writing books, I sent out questionnaires all over the country, 2000 questionnaires and the response was amazing. What they sent back. Uh, and it’s difficult to get people to answer questions, but they didn’t answer these. And then I gave them to accomplished shrinks who were very good at what they do, and they look through it and I said, well, what, what is it? What is it that sometimes holds lawyers back from doing extraordinary things? You know what it is? Fear of rejection. Fear of failure. Uh, and here’s, it here’s the way it was described. They come up in an, they come up in a setting where maybe their president of their high school class and then their president of their fraternity or president or sorority in there, you know, homecoming queen and all they’ve known on their entire life was acceptance, acceptance, and adulation. Okay. All of a sudden they’re put into a setting. To grow. They have to take chances. They have to face rejection that what they’re talking about may be rejected and they’re not good at. They’re not good at it. The ones with thick skin understand that everything about what we do as a lawyer is based on an underpinning of law of average, some things we do, some cases we handle them to be great. We’re not, they’re not all going to be great. Some people are going to tell us, no, I don’t want to go to trial. You know, lawyers think I don’t want to go to trial because a jury may tell me, tell me no. Well, you know, try 10 cases and you’re going to win six. Four are going to tell you no, but you can’t be afraid of rejection. And that holds true day to day for lawyers. They’re afraid to move outside that narrow little comfort zone. Am I doing the same thing that Mary’s doing down the street? Oh, all she’s doing is worker’s comp and automobile. I can’t take on anything beyond that. That is wrong thinking and it is so tough to break through.

Chris Dreyer

Geez. I, I couldn’t agree more. And just by what you said, just, I, I think there’s so many firms that even we work with that, that don’t try a lot of cases. So they’re getting the low ball offers, right? Yeah. If you go, you know those, so you start winning, you’re going to get some better offers for the ones you don’t take the kid to court. And I think about all these individuals that are first in to a particular niche. I know we’re going to talk about mass torts.

Mike Papantonio

You know, we, we had, um, I’m trying to think. Levin, uh, from the nursing home abuse, you know, where he really embraced and went all in there and, and he just, he automatically stood out because he was first in and you love that. Don’t you love that? I mean, here’s this, there’s this guy saying I don’t want to do what everybody on my street is doing. Got damn cars falling out of the sky, crushing people in a call 1-800-AUTOCRANE. Who does that? Who says, yeah, this is, this is my life or, or Levin who says, you know, I can, I can have a better social impact. Okay. I can do really well by doing some good. Okay. And it is, it’s very difficult to get that idea across because that comfort zone, the fear of rejection is there’s always work in there.

Chris Dreyer

In pursuing mass torts, Mike challenges some of the most powerful well-funded companies on the planet asked him how he assesses risks with these big cases and if there’s anything that still makes him anxious?

Mike Papantonio

It massive, massive anxiety, massive risk. You know, I mean, we’re in the middle of opioids right now. My God, you know, when a firm’s spending $50 million to, for an idea, that’s, you know, That’s kind of the risk, but, but we look at everything like a trial as a trial lawyer would look okay. When I look at a project, I’m saying, I’m looking at one right now, I’m looking at Paraquat. Now there’s real problems with Paraquat. You understand the warning on Paraquat is massive. It’s like, you know, everything, except your eyeballs might pop out in your head, might explode. Don’t use this stuff. So it sounds bad, right? The, for the applicators, not from the applicator’s stand, it sounds bad. And then from the, uh, over-spray where people simply, they’re not applicators, but they, there are people out there that might be exposed, but here’s what sometimes people don’t understand. You have to anticipate, you have to be able to visualize what do the documents probably look like for sure. What did they know about the development of Parkinson’s disease and its relationship to these chemicals long before they ever made it known? So at some point there there’s a notion and notion is documents have the ability to drive damages. All right. So I don’t simply look at a project and say, oh God, this is now Paraquat is a great example. I didn’t just jump into Paraquat and say the I’m going to do it. I I’m analyzing it even today. How is the case going to try? I’m always trying to visualize what happens in trial. And if you talk to most trial lawyers, I mean, people who really do try these cases, they’re going to tell you the same thing. They they’re, they project. And they anticipate in, they’re able to look into a project and say, you know what, I’ve been on. Cross-examination it’s going to be a bloodbath. When I have that person on the other side of the table with me, when I start talking about their documents, when I do what we call it, we’ve developed something called an attack document bounce. It’s very specific to what we do. It’s unusual people, you know, but when we say, when I look at it, I’m always saying, how is that going to work in this case? And you know, it could be wrong on Paraquat, you know, we w we’ve. We’ve been wrong one time and you know, and in 21 years, advising at mass torts and that was on Accutane, but understand, we still won. The first three cases, tried an Accutane, 8 million, 4,000,007. You know, we won, we won those cases, but then we had the judge that was a reasonable, just middle middle-end judge. She, she, she moved on and she died ultimately. And we were, uh, w was replaced by. You know, it’s just, this guy was a fruitcake. And so obviously that changes those. That’s something you can’t anticipate. It’s a intervening cost that you just don’t even have to see common. So we’ve been pretty good about calling them.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. And, you know, I love that what you’re saying, because I hear that a lot in sports, you know, there’s a lot of sports analogies where the greatest players, they visualize kind of the outcome and how the game’s going to go. And, you know, these top performers, like, Hey, I already knew that I was going to be successful. And I appreciate that. Y’all a lot of times here, retrospectives, retrospectives, retrospectives, what went right? What went wrong, you know, post-mortems so I think I can really appreciate that. You’re doing. And advanced retrospective, like, yeah.

Mike Papantonio

That’s, that’s a good way to put it. It really is. Yeah. It’s just a, it’s a percentage analysis, isn’t it? And do I have a better, is it a better, is it a better than 60% chance that when I’m in a deposition in a real real well-organized attack deposition that I’m going to rock their world. You see? And that’s the way I look at it.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. Love it, you know, and, and I got a couple more questions. Let’s talk about Mass Torts Made Perfect. You know, I’d love to hear the story about how that got started, you know, was it, Hey, how are we going to get at attention and thought leadership? What are we going to do?

Mike Papantonio

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great story. Yeah. Okay. So a friend of mine, uh, we actually were roommates in, uh, in law school and not in law school, but an undergrad at university of Florida. It was John Morgan who, you know, built more of a single event kind of practice. But he and I, uh, you know, we’ve, we were good friends. And so we were young. I mean, kids, man, just starting to practice law. And I had written a book and. And so what he had this idea is how to build a million dollar practice. I said, sure, John, let’s give it a shot. So we, we start showing up in cities all over the country, uh, Atlanta, maybe we got a hundred people. We go to LA and we got 25. I mean, you never know what you’re going to get. Right. But there’s this big ad. Talk about us, what we’ve done, why they ought to come. And so out of that, Again, John, John was more single event, you know, he does auto in comp and that kind of thing. But I, I wanted, I came from asbestos. I tried as best as cases all over the country. And so I said, well, you know, I kinda want to do. This mass tort thing. And so, um, put together Mass Torts Made Perfect, because I thought in my mind that you had to create energy around this because when we started Chris, you had these characters that weren’t even trial lawyers, they were class action, walkers. All they knew how to do is class action, how they’d never taken a deposition for God’s sakes. You know, they could’ve walked in. If they walked into a courtroom, they’ve tried a case, they’d pass out, but those were the people running. What was kind of, you call it class action, mass torts, kind of a hybrid. And one time in Atlanta, uh, one of them was on the stage guy named Stan Chesler and I had. I had a consortium of lawyers that had sent me a lot of breast implant cases and he was up on stage with his cadre of. You know, class action wonks talking about how he’s gonna settle this. And, and I picked up a mic, I said, Mr. Chesler, you’re not going to do anything with my cases. I’ve got more cases than you have got, I’m going to try my cases and you know what? This is a new day where it comes to class action and mass tort. The right after that is when we started Mass Torts Made Perfect. And it just continued to grow, man. I mean, it just, it was, you know, we wanted to attract lawyers. I mean, real trial lawyers to try and mass tort cases. You know, brief writers, right?

Chris Dreyer

Love it, love it. And, uh, you know, you’ve had some past speakers, you’ve had some entertainers, you’ve had Bill Clinton, Joe Namath, David Blaine, Whoopi Goldberg. You know, who’s one of the most memorable. People that came to a Mass Torts Made Perfect for their performance.

Mike Papantonio

I think it was, unfortunately he didn’t make it there. We did it with mass w two in the last two were Al Pacino, who I interviewed. And, um, Matthew McConaughey. I mean, my God, I mean, you know, sitting there interviewing Al Pacino, this icon. And he wanted to talk. I mean, I think if he have been Vegas, he would have talked for two hours. I had to say, Mr. Pacino, you know, We got to move on. So, so, so there’s a lot of people like that, that we’ve been involved with, you know, on the, on the, uh, on the athletic side, probably Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, what an incredible person, man. We’d be, you know, I, I was, I remember having dinner with him and his knees are in terrible shape, Chris. I mean, he’s always in pain, but people would come up to him and whoever it was, he would stand up and you could see just the pain in his, but he sign anything. They wanted to sign one couple came up and they said, well, one of the people attended the conference. Mr. Namath, would you sing happy birthday to them? My wife. And I’m like, oh my God. So Ellie was ill. I mean, how do you beat that? I mean, the guy that wrote night, you know, the, the survivor of Auschwitz to tells the Holocaust story, we have had every iteration. You know, from Bill Maher, then you jump over to Ellie was L and you know, you’ve got all of these folks that just add quality to that program. And, um, we’ll always do that. You know, we people think, well, these guys must make them. We don’t make money on that. We lose. I think, I think everybody program ends up costing us. In addition to what everybody pays, probably ends up costing us $450,000. I mean, the opening part. The opening party we sent, we typically spend anywhere between 350 and $400,000 for drinks.

Chris Dreyer

That’s incredible. I would say that’s probably the epitome of that loss leader, right?

Mike Papantonio

Yeah, it is. It is. We, we joke about that. What an expensive loss leader, huh? Yeah.

Chris Dreyer

And I, the other thing funny too. You know, if you’re the guy behind, Pacino like, Hey, you go tell him, you go tell him.

Mike Papantonio

That’s right. Exactly. It’s been a fun experience, man. Uh, my daughter is now practicing law with me and she’s going to step into some of that leadership along with Troy Rafferty. Who’s a, I recruited Troy Rafferty practice law with this account. Maybe 20, 25 years ago. And as soon as he, soon as he walked in, man, I said, this is, this is the one, this is, uh, this is somebody who’s going to be there to, to grow this place long after I’m gone to just a remarkable trial lawyer, just a great lawyer all the way around. So, so we’re planning, we’re planning.

Chris Dreyer

That’s incredible. And in on that, our, our final question here, as you know, you know, what’s on, what else is on the horizon for, for Mike Papantonio?

Mike Papantonio

Well, I think my obligation right now is we have so many employees, you know, we’ve got tons of employees at tons of lawyers and employees, paralegal, secretaries. And so there’s a responsibility to those people. Isn’t there. You don’t just say, well, okay, I’m going to, you know, I’m going to go home now. I’ve had a great career. There’s nothing else that I want to do. And so you have to, you have to take that whether you want to or not, and say, I’ve got to stay in this game, you know, I’ve got to make sure that these people have a secure future in what I do matters, the decisions I make matters, uh, the, the trials that I win or lose that matters. So it’s not like you can just, um, when you’re so committed to something for so long, you can’t. You know, throw in the towel and go home. Now you can take, as you may know, I take extended time off. I mean, I’ll jump on my boat and go to the islands or something like that. But I don’t, uh, the, the idea of me saying, yeah, I’m just gonna, I’m want to go home now. It’s not likely.

Chris Dreyer

It’s so clear from talking to Mike that he believes in what he does, having a TV show or starting a conference. Is it about Mike increasing his profile? It’s about broadening his audience so that he can help. If you stopped thinking about marketing as clicks or TV spots and start thinking of it as how you can help the most people, then you can get really creative. And as Mike says, do well by doing good. I’d like to think Mike Papantonio from Levin Papantonio, Rafferty for sharing a story with us. And I hope you gained some valuable insights from the conversation you’ve been listening to the personal injury marketing mastermind. I’m Chris Dreyer. If you liked this episode, leave us a review. We’d love to hear from our list. 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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