41. Pete Strom, Strom Law Firm Personal Injury Pricing Strategies & Hiring For Psychology

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Pete Strom’s success is by design. Whether it’s hiring lawyers for their psychological profile, his open-minded approach to SEO and digital marketing, or his pricing strategy – he knows who he is and what he stands for, as a businessman and as an attorney, and he’s got the confidence to follow through.

Pete was the youngest ever US Attorney General for the District of South Carolina in 1993, and his subsequent private practice – Strom Law Firm in South Carolina – saw him named as one the Top 100 Trial Lawyers for Criminal Defense by the National Trial Lawyers Association.

Transcript

Chris Dreyer

Pete Strom Jr had a kind of storybook childhood. His dad, Pete Strom Senior, was an influential police chief in South Carolina law enforcement and so Pete grew up in a world where officers and agents were around all the time.

Pete Strom

We went out to what they call sled headquarters when I was a little boy and I was around the forensics. And that was during the days when they had… they’d shoot a pistol into bales of cotton and find the bullet and then use that bullet to match the bullet found in the body and I was around that and I was around the bloodhounds as they tracked. So I kind of grew up with the law and law enforcement in my blood.

Chris Dreyer

Today, we find out how growing up with law in his blood inspired one of the youngest ever US attorney generals; how the NFL crafted Pete Strom’s most electric closing argument; and at what point it’s finally time to go and buy that flashy car you’ve been looking at on Instagram. That’s coming up on The Rankings Podcast – the show where founders, entrepreneurs, and elite personal injury attorneys share their inspiring stories about what they did to get to the top and what keeps them there. I’m Chris Dreyer, stay with us.

Pete Strom had law written into his destiny from the start. His father had an impactful legacy so when Pete graduated from South Carolina school of law, he knew he wanted to make his mark. He clerked for a state court judge, had a stint at the local DA’s office, and did a little trial work before seeking out a mentor.

Pete Strom

I’d watch the different lawyers come into court, you know, I thought I’d do some criminal defense and probably go back and prosecute lighter. And so I’ve identified a particular guy and basically went to him and said, “I want to come to work for you”.
I wouldn’t there a month and I get this call – this was back in the old days of cocaine, you know, drug dealers had a lot of money. I get this call from this guy and he says, he wants to hire me that the feds were looking at him. You know, and I’m 27 years old and I go meet this guy. He brings me $80,000 in cash and it’s in a duffle bag, all $20 bills.
And so I go to meet this guy in town about an hour south of where we are, and I bring it back to this guy who had hired me and of course he’s probably paying me $30,000 a year. And I take this big duffle bag of money and I dump it on his desk and I shake the bag, and the $20 bills are falling on the desk and that’s $80,000. And he opened up that big drawer on the right hand side of his desk that everybody has and he raked all that money into that drawer and he reached the end and he handed me $2,000, one bundle out of it, he said, here’s your bonus. And that’s when I knew that I wanted to be practicing by myself.

Chris Dreyer

Pete says he got out there pretty soon after and wound up doing criminal defense work. For one of his first cases, he was contracted to defend police officers – this is in small town Carolina years ago – in a case that has a kind of eerie foreshadowing of a lot of the big trials we see in the media today.

Pete Strom

All this is very timely now, I guess, but it was a young white police officer and his partner, and they were going in one direction on a two lane road and there were corn fields on the other side and a car coming in the other direction one way in excess of the speed limit. So they turned around and they’re chasing this car and the car wrecks into a cornfield and there are four African American men in the car. And the police officer I represented was the driver and he gets out on the driver’s side and he’s telling everybody to get out, put their hands on the car, which they all did. And his partner, was obviously getting out of the passenger side and my client says he sees the guy who was the driver push away off the car and turn toward my client’s partner and he thought he had a gun. They shot him in the back and the guy died. I mean, it’s just tragic. And we go down there and, you know, we pretrial the thing with this judge and he looked at me, he said, “You know, if they convict him, he’s got to go to jail for a long time.” He said, “If you’re pleading guilty, I’ll, you know, try to be as light as I can on you.” And I talked to him, and I said, “No, sir. I don’t intend to do so.”

To make a long story short, we try this case and, of course, everybody gets up there, the other three passengers in the car and my guys partner, and they all say that the guy didn’t have a gun and my guy has made a mistake and my guy got up and testified basically what I’ve just told you.And I went home and I said, I don’t know what in the world I’m gonna tell this jury, and this is just it’s horrible. And just so happens this was the beginning of the instant replays on the NFL and it was a playoff game, one of the first playoff games, and there was a call with the end of the game where the referee threw a flag and then after regrouping and looking at all the video, he walked over and he picked up and he shook the flag and waved it off. We’ve all seen that. And I said, there’s my closing argument. And I went the next day in front of that jury and I said, I know all of y’all saw that football game yesterday, and everybody shook their head yes. I don’t know what I’d done if they’d said no. And I said, you know, my client, you know, Officer Smith here, just like that official who ran down that line, that official had to make a call and he thought, and that split second, that there was a penalty and he threw that flag down. And I said my client pulled the trigger. There’s nothing more that my client liked to do than to be able to walk over there and pick that flag up at this case and bring that man back to life. But he had to make that call just like that official did and unfortunately he doesn’t have the ability to do that.

I graduated from law school in 84 and my dad was so well known in our state, even though I was winning trials as a prosecutor and, you know, after I got in private practice, I’d get written up occasionally for cases I had, it was always the son of. And so, yeah, I really wanted to get my own name.

Chris Dreyer

And what better way to make your own name than becoming the youngest US attorney general and the whole country.

Pete Strom

I was so young and I had a lot of senior agents from South Carolina, a lot of them had been in New York and Chicago and other places but they wanted their last stop to be in South Carolina because a lot of those guys like to retire down here so they can play golf. And we had some knock down drag outs about some things, I had my views of how we ought to do them and even though I was young, I kind of imposed my views. But I tried to do a good job collaborating, asking other people in the office, but you know, it’s a great experience for a young lawyer to be able to do that.

Chris Dreyer

Absolutely. So were you basically the Chuck Rhodes off Billions of South Carolina?

Pete Strom

Exactly! In South Carolina we just have one district so I was the Chief Federal Prosecutor for South Carolina, the FBI, the DEA, customs, IRS, and then on the civil side, anyone that’s suing the government I think I had authority up to a million dollars to settle cases of fraud against the government.
What I did is identified the key people in the US attorney’s office that I felt had the best judgment and a pretty much ruled by committee. And, you know, I’d say 95% of the time we were able to reach consensus. And you know, the thing you gotta realize is when you’re a prosecutor, you have that kind of discretion. You might view this as a case where the guy should only get five years. I may view it as a case where he ought to get ten, or I may think he ought to get a year and a day. Well, I’m the one that the president appointed to be the conscience of the system, so ultimately that’s my decision. And what I learned that what I try to educate other people on is I’m not saying you’re wrong in the way you view this case, but I’m sitting on this chair, not you. And so it’s my view how are we going to go forward.

Chris Dreyer

So take me to back to private practice, Strom Law Firm.

Pete Strom

Yeah, I’d come out and I just about starved my first year. You know, it isn’t like the Southern district of New York where you’ve got all these big law firms that can’t wait to hire the former US attorney. And I start back up and what I realized is, and I think this is important for every private practitioner, every young lawyer to know, is being a lawyer is a little bit like a dentist. I had a big clientele, I had good strong client base – criminal and civil, good referrals from people, you know, they liked me as a person, they liked me as a lawyer. Well, guess what? You go somewhere for three years, they’ve gone to somebody else. Okay. And just because you come back out into private practice, that doesn’t mean that they’re going to come back to you.

Chris Dreyer

The stakes were high for Pete. He needed to expand his reputation as a private practitioner, fill up his books with a new client base and find a way to grow the firm too. And grow it he did. Strom Law Firm now has around 20 attorneys and staff, and they’re surprisingly diverse group because – and if you know anything about Pete Strom you’ll know this is true – everything about his firm is by design.

Pete Strom

I’ve got everything from right wing Trumpers to the most liberal men and women and everything in between, and I want to keep it that way.
What I kind of quickly realized is you get these stars, people who are charismatic, and at some point they’re going to do the same thing I did – they’re going to get to a place where they’ve got their own clients and they’re going to leave and they’re going to take a paralegal and they’re going to take their cases and it’s going to be a little awkward or not for a little while, but it’s disruptive.So I changed my model and I decided that I was going to hire really smart people who weren’t necessarily entrepreneurs, who weren’t interested in investing in a law firm. They wanted to get the work done and we worked from 8:30 to 5:30 or 6. I don’t want them there late at night or on the weekends, unless obviously we got something going on and you know, of course, times have changed with everybody having a cell phone and we’re all email and texting 24-7 anyway. But yeah, I decided that I was going to hire that psychology and that’s worked really well for me – people have stayed and I try to pay them above market.

Chris Dreyer

Of course, as we know, the birth of the internet changed everything for attorneys, giving them a whole new way to engage with prospective clients through things like social media, SEO and digital marketing. And Pete was an early adopter.

Pete Strom

I became very, very interested in SEO probably 15 years ago and I went out and bought South Carolina criminal defense lawyer with dashes in between .com, South Carolina truck accident lawyer, South Carolina divorce lawyer, South Carolina, personal injury lawyer, South Carolina defective products lawyer… probably 20 of them and just kind of put up single web pages. And then somebody told me, well, Pete, you’ve got Strom Law Firm but different clients want different things. If someone’s looking for you for a DUI, they expect to go to a webpage or they want to see a blue light and a drink and some handcuffs cause that’s what they envisioned. And if somebody is coming to you for a nursing home case, they want to see a little old lady, you know, in a wheelchair or whatever that looks like or med mal or worker’s comp. But those, you know, if you try to do all that on one web page then you’re going to run off the nursing home case when you’re trying to attract the DUI case.
I also at one point had somebody just building some small pages for me, they were buying domains that had a little bit of ranking that had been turned in and put some content on it. Probably, you know, at one point and I had 120 web pages, I probably still have 90, and I’m not keeping up with all of them. And of course, what I’m learning is that I’m probably hurting a main page with those other pages. Um, you know, just because things have changed.

Chris Dreyer

Interestingly, Pete’s affinity to SEO and online marketing in general isn’t just because that’s what you’re expected to do these days. For him, it’s a personal choice.

Pete Strom

I never wanted to be on television and I don’t fault anybody that does it – I’m a huge fan of John Morgan, and John is kind enough to send us his cases in South Carolina. But for me in South Carolina, that’s just not where I wanted to go. So I decided the internet was the way to do it. So I have been dabbling in this for a long time personally, and sometimes a lot more active than others, sometimes, you know, with a lot more staff than others and it has worked for me.

Chris Dreyer

SEO and other types of web marketing seem like they’ve got some magic formula for success, but in reality what often really drives engagement is the same thing that got Pete so much respect during his attorney general days – you have to know who you are, what you stand for and have the confidence to follow through.

Pete Strom

What I believe now is that with COVID that nobody’s watching network TV – I’m not, I’m on Netflix and Stars. And I know that, you know, my kids are doing the same thing, young people are doing that. In the old days, people got their lawyer by word of mouth and then it was a yellow pages… and, good God, I’m embarrassed to say how much I used to pay for a double truck ad, you know, in the yellow pages. But then, you know, in November I’d get one big case and then I’d be afraid to give it up just because if I give it up, am I going to get… um, but you know, eventually did because of what we’re doing on the internet. I think that moving more toward the internet and targeted social marketing is the future of marketing for what we do. And you can do it in so much more classy way, in my opinion, than a 30 second blurb, you know, that “In a wreck, need a check” kind of thing.
And also think it’s complicated as shitmail. I mean, I, you know, I had Screaming Frog running earlier, you know, looking at my sitemap and I do arefs and, you know, I’m looking for broken links. The good thing about this is if you’re interested in it, then all these tools are relatively cheap because, as you know, most of the SEO people are sitting around in their boxers, uh, with their laptop and doing it. So the tools aren’t very expensive and I’ve got a lot of them the problem is the stuff changes all the time and unless, you know, you’re doing AB testing and really staying on top of this it’s almost impossible to manage. I think you got to have, if you want to do it right, you got to have somebody to do it for you.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. There’s so much to unpack here. I mean, we could talk for probably hours on SEO. So one of the things you mentioned when I was preparing for this interview, I found many of those sites, those keyword dash domains. You know, several years ago, Google’s algorithm, those worked very, very well. Now they still work to some degree today but they were those exact match domains of keyword strategies were tremendous. Today what I’m seeing personally from the SEO side is now the business entity name. So if your firm name is X accident injury lawyer, you have a greater likelihood of ranking in the map pack. Unfortunately, there’s legion companies that are putting up fake listing things that don’t even have websites and sell leads doing this tactic so it’s a big mess, but yeah, that’s something I’m seeing. And all these tools you mentioned – they get you a lot of information, but there’s just so many things you can do. And one of the biggest challenges is where can I focus my efforts to have the maximum impact.

Your reputation lends itself and your experience lends itself to a tremendous amount of referrals, I’m sure, just a tremendous amount of experience and besides referrals, besides these SEO tactics, what are, what are your main methods for getting leads today? What’s your main marketing strategy?

Pete Strom

I’m fairly often quoted in our papers and on television about legal topics. Most lawyers are afraid to talk to the press. I don’t have to necessarily talk about my cases, I’m just talking about anything that’s going on because obviously the courts frown on pretrial publicity, but I had the training when I was US attorney to deal with the media, you know, so I talked to those guys a lot on background. I talk to several reporters three, four times a week, and I’ll give them a heads up on things that are going on and I’ll get quoted in those articles and they don’t use the word expert, but that helps.

I’m big on Facebook and I’ve got, unless I’ve pissed somebody off, I’ve got almost 5,000 friends. That may drop down to 4,900 if I say something… I’m actually kidding about that, you know, it fluctuates but I keep around the full load and my wife and I love to cook and love wine. And we post a lot of the things we cook and we post about some of the travel we do. And I’ve found that that’s kind of front of mind for people. You know, a couple inquiries a week, sometimes more than that, of somebody will say, well, and I don’t know who my friends are. I mean, if you friend me, unless you’re a hooker in LA, I’m probably gonna accept you. And if it’s late at night, I might accept you if you’re a hooker in LA. But, um, a lot of these people will ask me about a case – do you mind if I call you or can, you know, my son was arrested or I got a friend who was just killed in automobile accident or whatever the case may be. So, uh, I try to do a more subtle approach on the marketing, um, using Facebook.

And I’m trying to sort of qualify myself as an expert by doing the media, the free media. I’ll tell you this, you know, at one point, one of the TV stations said, will you come do a seatbelt campaign? You know, buckle up. What I found was if I was advertising that even though it’s just a public service piece, they quit asking me to speak on the record because I was an advertiser and the marketing department at a news outlet and the news department try to remain very independent of each other and, you know, and that makes good sense and I think that’s good journalism, but I found that I was probably actually punished from the free media side when I was doing a little bit of paid stuff.

Chris Dreyer

We actually had Cameron Harold on a few weeks ago who wrote the book free PR. It’s a really good concept that Pete also embodies – just so many benefits, and you can go back and listen to that episode in your podcast app. Now, I always think one of the best insights you can get about a person is to find out how they like to spend their money. So I asked Pete to get personal for a second.
You know, what was one of the first things that you bought that made you think, you know, I’ve made it? How did, how did you celebrate that big win?

Pete Strom

The guy who was a mentor to me told me that if you’re a personal injury lawyer, criminal lawyer, your clients want to see success. So before I could afford it, I was getting custom made clothes. And as soon as I got a big hit I bought a Mercedes, this was before I was US attorney. And that was a big boy car, but I felt like, like that was part of the persona. People wanted to see success and, you know, people that they’ve asked me to speak many times on quoting a fee on a criminal case, which is much harder to do than a civil case – you gotta get the client in the door to usually sign them up on a civil case; criminal case you gotta have the temerity to ask them for a lot of money and then convince them to pay you.
And, uh, what I learned was I would say somebody come see me and I was a youngest guy doing high level criminal work and I just asked him, well, what did Mr. James quote you. And they’d say “Well, Mr. James quoted us $25,000.” And I’d look at him and say, I couldn’t possibly do that case for 25. For me to do it, it’s going to be 35,000. And they’ll look at me and they’d say, “You’re more expensive than Mr. Jones?”. I said, “Yeah. You saw all those people in his waiting room. He has a big old practice.”They said, “Yes, sir, we had to wait a long time to see him.” I said, “Well, I give more individualized attention than probably Mr. Jones can do. He’s certainly a good lawyer, he’s just as good as I am by the way,” I would say. But I tried to set myself apart by being more expensive, you know, cause people want to buy success and that worked for me.
So I probably the first big thing I bought was a car and then we also traveled a lot. And at the end of the year, no matter what you do, you’re going to end up with about the same amount of money. Okay. And if you take one good trip or two good trips in the year, you’re going to have about the same amount of money. It almost seems to us to kind of go away or you save about the same amount. So you’re crazy not to enjoy your life and do some fun things and spend money because it really it’s not material at the end of the day.

Chris Dreyer

I couldn’t agree more. And I also think the pricing strategy is right too because it reminds me of the Seth Godin quote: the problem with the race to the bottom is you just might win. And Pete you’ve dropped just so many value bombs and I appreciate you sharing all, all of this with this. Pete, where can our audience go to learn more about you?

Pete Strom

www.stromlaw.com – that’s our main page and then of course, if you’re interested in food and wine and my Facebook is Pete Strom. And listen, if anybody ever, you know, any lawyer wants advice feel free to pick up the phone: 803 252 4800. Obviously you can find my email. I’m always happy to help. And the last thing I’ll say to lawyers, I learned this a long time ago – I started going to AAJ, it used to be the American Trial Lawyer that was from American Association for Justice. So I started going to their conferences, both of them, I think obviously with COVID we hadn’t gone, but I’ll tell you this – every year that I go, I learn something new that makes me money that following year. Cause we all go to our local CLEs, but it’s the same lawyer doing the same CLE with a new joke and a new case. You’re not learning there. When you go to the American Trial Lawyers – yes, everybody out there brags about how much money they make and 99% of them are lying, but you are going to give some good tips from good lawyers and good ideas about cases.

Chris Dreyer

Great piece of advice here from Pete, and it’s really generous of him to offer help. And, you know, he means it. If you’re an up and coming attorney and you want to talk shop, give Pete Strom a call, take advantage of that open door policy.You’ve been listening to The Rankings Podcast. I’m Chris Dreyer. A big thanks to Pete Strom for joining us today, you can find all the links from today’s conversation in the show notes, and be sure to hit subscribe to get future episodes. Thanks for joining us, we’ll see you next time.

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