152. Sean Domnick, Domnick Cunningham & Whalen — Global Success: How to Build a Thriving Remote Firm

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Civil trial lawyer Sean C. Domnick (@dcw_law), a shareholder of Domnick Cunningham & Whalen (@dcw_law), has secured over eight figures for his clients. Recognized as Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers for the past two years, he currently serves as President-Elect of the American Association for Justice. Sean worked remotely before it became popular and spent a year traveling the world with his family – all while working.

He shares how the client journey should inform branding, how to use technology to build the practice that fits into your life, and how the American Association for Justice is helping shape the future of personal injury law.

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What’s in This Episode:

  • Who is Sean Domnick?
  • How was Sean able to travel with his family and work for a year?
  • How does niching down tie into business development?
  • How should the client journey inform the design of your website?

Past Guests

Past guests on Personal Injury Mastermind: Brent Sibley, Sam Glover, Larry Nussbaum, Michael Mogill, Brian Chase, Jay Kelley, Alvaro Arauz, Eric Chaffin, Brian Panish, John Gomez, Sol Weiss, Matthew Dolman, Gabriel Levin, Seth Godin, David Craig, Pete Strom, John Ruhlin, Andrew Finkelstein, Harry Morton, Shay Rowbottom, Maria Monroy, Dave Thomas, Marc Anidjar, Bob Simon, Seth Price, John Gomez, Megan Hargroder, Brandon Yosha, Mike Mandell, Brett Sachs, Paul Faust, Jennifer Gore-Cuthbert

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Transcript

Sean Dominck:

You never feel as good about yourself as you do when you’re helping somebody else.

Chris Dreyer:

Being the best can take many forms.

Sean Dominck:

So I get to feel good about myself every single day.

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. Lawyer and shareholder at Domnick, Cunningham & Whalen, Sean Domnick has secured over eight figures for his clients and is recognized as Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers for the past two years and as a Florida Super Lawyer since 2006. But this trial attorney has taken a non-traditional approach to practicing law. He’s been remote since before the pandemic. We discuss why your branding should reflect where your potential clients are in the client journey and what that means, and how niching helped him travel the world with his family for a year while still working.
Soon to be President of the American Association for Justice, we get an inside look at how organizations like these are shaping the future of personal injury law. 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 Sean Domnick, shareholder at Domnick, Cunningham and Whalen.

Sean Dominck:

All I ever wanted to do was be a lawyer from the time I was a little kid. I’m not sure why that is. In fact, when I went off to college, all of a sudden they say, “You have to have a major. And I said, “What do you mean I have to have a major? I’m going to be a lawyer.” I didn’t know anything about that process at all, I just knew that I wanted to be a lawyer.

Chris Dreyer:

Was there a TV show a book? Did you have a family member? How’d that come about?

Sean Dominck:

No family member. I don’t know why it is that that.was what I wanted to do, but it is what I wanted to do

Chris Dreyer:

That’s amazing. So many people struggle. I know I went to college and I started off in computer science and I’m like, “Uh…” I got through all those hard math classes and then decided I wanted to switch afterwards.

Sean Dominck:

Yeah. When I ended up having to have a major, I started down the pathway of accounting. And certainly, if I had that to do all over again, I would’ve chosen a very different direction for my undergraduate degree. But all seems to have worked out in the end. I’ve been practicing since 1990.

Chris Dreyer:

And you’ve got a specialization in nursing home cases, so I want to start there. What drew you to those types of cases and how did you get your feet wet in those types of cases?

Sean Dominck:

Yeah. So I started doing nursing home cases back in the early ’90s. And it’s interesting, I was a young lawyer, had an older partner, and he had been called actually in a criminal defense case where a doctor had been charged with manslaughter in a nursing home down in the Keys. So the criminal defense lawyer had brought him in to help out on the medicine side of it for the case. And so sort of as a result of that, we started realizing what was happening in nursing homes.
And it was at a time where nursing home litigation really was in its infancy. There were only a couple of lawyers, certainly, led by Jim Wilkes over in Tampa, who I think we all would recognize as being the godfather of nursing home litigation, and it just started from there. And certainly being in Florida and in Miami at the time, it’s just the epicenter of nursing homes. And when you started to see what it was that was happening to the most vulnerable of our society in these homes, it was easy to develop a passion in that area.

Chris Dreyer:

Well, there’s so many areas of law and you don’t get that like you do in PI, where you get to make a real impact. And in some cases, I guess on the criminal side, it’s like am I fighting on the right side?

Sean Dominck:

Right. Well, my practice now has evolved. I do a lot of medical malpractice, defective products, and just any sort of catastrophic injury case. People come to us when something terrible has happened to them and they place this great faith and trust in us to try and get them some accountability, get some justice. And so when we’re able to make a difference in somebody’s life, you feel good about what you’re doing, as hard as it is. And it is really, really hard. And any lawyer that’s ever tried a case will tell you, they leave a little piece of their soul in the courtroom every time.

Chris Dreyer:

There’s no clock, there’s no 9:00 to 5:00. You bring those cases home and you’re thinking about them and how you can help these individuals. And you’re incredibly decorated, you’ve got some amazing case results and Daily Business Review, Verdicts Hall Of Fame Award, National Trial Lawyers Top 100 List. What do you think makes a good lawyer great?

Sean Dominck:

So, a good lawyer turning into a great lawyer. So a lawyer, one that listens to their client. The client’s trying to tell them how to win the case. They’ve lived through what it is and you’ve got to develop this relationship with the client that you’re going to be together for years. None of these cases are quick and even after the case is done, you stay family after you go through what it is that you go through.
So it’s about developing a relationship with your client where they know that you care and that you’re fighting for them. And win or lose, they know that you have planted their flag in the ground and stood and fought with them. So I think that’s really at the core.
But beyond that, in terms of being a trial lawyer, all of us have our own personalities, and you can’t be somebody you’re not. But the consistent thing that you see for all great trial lawyers is preparation, preparation, preparation.

Chris Dreyer:

And so, you would say that’s the driving force behind your success is just when you go in, you’re the most prepared person in the courtroom?

Sean Dominck:

100%. It frees you up in the courtroom when you know your case cold. If it’s an incident involving a car wreck, you’ve been to the accident scene, you’ve stood there, you’ve closed your eyes and just sort of listened to everything that’s happening so that there’s inevitably a moment where, because you’ve done that type of preparation, you’re going to catch somebody in something. And the jury is going to know, “I can trust this person because they clearly know everything there is to know about this case.” And you want the jury looking to you as being the person that they can have confidence in to tell them the truth.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah, and I guess that allows you to be prepared for if a curve ball question comes, that you’ve covered it in all areas. I wanted it to touch on something that you’ve been doing here for a while, and your career’s been anything but traditional in terms of how you work with a firm. So you’ve been working remotely well before the pandemic in a very traditional field. We saw COVID accelerated technology with Zoom depositions and things like that. So how did you convince those that you work with and your clients that this was the best solution for you? And, how did you make this decision to run a remote based firm?

Sean Dominck:

Well, family first. Right? So back in 2012 or 2013, my wife and I had made the decision that we wanted to take our kids out of school for a year and travel with them because it was just kids were going to be headed off to college and we had one kid that was 10 years younger than the oldest. And so, you want to create a family bond, something that’s memorable for everybody. So we made that choice to do it. And again, it kind of boils down to preparation where, when you’re gone, you set it up so that you’re working in the morning, you work in the evening and then late in the evening. So, you can put in six, seven, eight hours a day of solid work and get as much done no matter where it is that you are, as long as you’re dedicated to it. And with technology being what it is, people you’re dealing with have no idea whether you’re down the street in another state or in another country that’s there.
And then of course, when you have to be there in person, you have to be there in person. Now, certainly things have gotten easier for us as technology has continued to evolve and as courts now are getting better about letting lawyers appear remotely. During the worst of the pandemic, we had a lawyer in our office, she and her husband live on a boat in a marina near where our office is. And so what they did, they took seven or eight months and took their boat up the east coast of the United States and she worked from the boat. She had a set up there, twin monitors, everything that was going on, and had set up wifi. And so, she was able to do that and continue to work. And when she needed to be back here, she got on a plane and flew back and did that.
So, what we’re learning is that the practice of law and all business is evolving, and technology can be good and technology can be bad. And the good part of it is the fact that it allows you to have freedom to move around and to do other things that historically you were not. So for example, when I first started practicing law and I’m doing a medical malpractice case, I’d have to go to the local university medical school library and pull out books to read up. So, you had to be close to someplace like that. Now I have the world at my fingertips in an iPad with me so I can do that research no matter where I am, that before, I had to be in a physical location to do it.

Chris Dreyer:

Sean does not see location independence as a challenge to business development. His successful litigation practice leans heavily into referrals.

Sean Dominck:

So getting business is just like getting a verdict, you have to ask. You sort have two pathways. There’s traditional advertising, now what we call traditional advertising. And then most of my work, I get through referrals from other lawyers or clients that I’ve represented in the past. But when I first started practicing, and again, when I was a young lawyer, I went to all of the local advertising lawyers in Miami and I said, “Hey, take a chance on me. Send me a couple of cases, let me show you what it is that I can do.” And people want to help somebody that’s young, that has confidence in themselves, that is willing to go out and put themselves out there and ask. So you have to be willing to put yourself out there. And all of a sudden I had four, five, six lawyers sending me a case or two cases a month and quickly it accumulated.
So, you have to ask people to send you work. That’s one thing. Today, of course, there’s TikTok, there are YouTube videos, things like that, that you can do to make a name for yourself in a particular field. So for somebody starting out, I would say figure out what your niche that you want to sell yourself as. What do you want to be? You want to be the car wreck lawyer, you want to be the nursing home lawyer, you want to be the slip and fall lawyer, whatever it is that you want to be, and start telling people that’s who you are.

Chris Dreyer:

I think that’s such a great piece of advice, especially for the trial attorneys. If you’re just the personal injury lawyer, you’re in the red ocean, right?

Sean Dominck:

Right.

Chris Dreyer:

You’re fighting against everyone. But if you pick an area… The other thing that happens too that’s so interesting, I’m glad you brought this up, is it forces you to become an expert because you do get granular and you look at all aspects of that. So you actually become better and you can get more value for your clients.

Sean Dominck:

Right. There’s no doubt about it that for most people, learning to focus in one particular area, the more you do it, the better you’re going to be at it. You learn the language. In our business, you develop relationships with the experts. The adjusters and the defense lawyers are the same lawyers that are handling those types of case, so you develop those relationships. And then if you’re fortunate enough to go off and get a nice jury verdict, then all of a sudden, everybody’s thinking about you and they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I had this trip and fall case at Walmart. Jane Smith is the Walmart trip and fall lawyer.” And you can be that specific about your practice.

Chris Dreyer:

When you are specific, it allows you to spend more to target the correct people, as opposed to just throwing paint against the wall, right? Just hoping something sticks.

Sean Dominck:

And the problem, you have to make sure that people know what it is that you do. And there are people that I’ve seen, “Oh, that was a wrongful death case. I thought you were just a personal injury lawyer.” And while we think that everybody knows the difference between those, they do not. So I’m at the point in my career where I tell people, I give them a little bit of an idea of what it is that I do specifically, but then I say, “Look, I am your everything lawyer. If you need a lawyer, you call me. If I can’t particularly handle the case for you, I will direct you to the best person to handle it.” And so that’s another great thing to do with that one, is you’re telling people to call you now whenever they think of needing a lawyer. And if you’re able to turn that into referring cases to other lawyers, then those lawyers are ultimately going to turn around and refer cases back to you.

Chris Dreyer:

That reciprocity is a big-

Sean Dominck:

Oh, it is.

Chris Dreyer:

Very important. And the other thing too, and you kind of beat me to the punch, I was going to play devil’s advocate and say, well what if you’re in a city that has less than 50,000 people, it doesn’t have a big TAM, total addressable market? And I see these firms, they’re not doing just PI, they’re doing everything because they have a small TAM. So your recommendation is, “Hey, tell them you’re a lawyer and then if you can’t help them, you can still monetize the lead.”

Sean Dominck:

Absolutely. What’s the old thing about, “Always be closing.” Always be thinking about, how is it that I can help this person? And even in the personal injury field, I’m not always the best person to represent that particular client. But if I can get them to somebody that is, it’s a win for everybody. And in the smaller market, you do, you’ve got to diversify ultimately and put yourself where, “Okay, maybe we need to have a probate lawyer as part of our team. Maybe we need to have a real estate lawyer about.” And think about how it is that you can expand your practice and make sure that you’ve got people who are bringing in money regularly so that when the personal injury contingency case finally resolves, it’s good for everybody.

Chris Dreyer:

Sean’s driving motto is, “Do right by your clients.” This philosophy spills over into his marketing.

Sean Dominck:

We don’t advertise by TV or newspaper or magazine ads or anything like that. So for us, our website is primarily a qualifier for our clients, that is, that they’ve been referred to us by somebody else. They go to the website and they want to know that the person that’s going to be representing them is somebody who is qualified to do it, is at the top of their game, is respected in the legal field, has had proven results. So that’s the driving force for us.
But then I think that the other thing that we’re trying to do is provide information to people. And so it’s not just about litigation or that, it is about, for example you’ve had a stroke, how do we identify the signs of what a stroke is and what should you do? So things like that, that are informative to people.

Chris Dreyer:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And, shifting over to the American Association for Justice. So you’re currently serving as the President Elect, and tell us about the association and that process of becoming President Elect.

Sean Dominck:

The American Association for Justice, or AAJ, is the largest nationwide group of plaintiff’s trial lawyers. And our job, really, it’s threefold. One is, it’s the only group in Washington DC that is fighting to protect our practices, to make sure that our clients have meaningful access to justice. So, that’s number one.
Number two, it’s about education. We educate and put on seminars. And in fact right now, I was in Denver yesterday at a trucking seminar. I’m in Minneapolis today where we’re putting on a bootcamp for young lawyers and I’m participating in that. And then the third component of it is really about the community that we have. I have met people not just across the country, but across the world through AAJ. And as a lawyer, no matter what city I’m in, I can pick up the phone and call somebody and they’re there to help me with whatever it is that I might need at the drop of a hat.
So that’s kind of the overarching idea of what AAJ is and what it’s meant to be. It’s been an integral part of my practice. And as an officer, you start off as parliamentarians and then you go up, it’s a six year path to become President.

Chris Dreyer:

Wow.

Sean Dominck:

And I’ll become president next year in Philadelphia at our convention that’s there. So over the course of that time period, I’ve traveled to virtually every state in the United States to meet with lawyers, to educate with them, to fight with them for justice. And it’s really an incredibly fulfilling thing.

Chris Dreyer:

Where does the AAJ fit into pushing their thoughts on where the direction of law for PI should go? Do you have advisors? And, how do you represent the people as a whole when there’s..? I say this all the time with my team, they’re going to give me a lot of information. Sometimes they argue and they don’t agree and at the end of the day, I got to make it a decision, pick an initiative. And sometimes there’s no winners, but how does that process go where there’s clear that the AAJ has to make a position? What’s that process look like?

Sean Dominck:

Well, we’re going through that process right now because there’s not uniformity of thought among our memberships about what the best path forward is, how that’s going to look forward. Therefore, different people have different ideas. And on this particular issue, they’re very passionate about it because there are those that say, “This is going to be the destruction of our practice and our independence and it’s going to be terrible for the clients.” And there are those on the other side that are saying, “Well, this is the future and we can’t stop it, so you might as well be a part of it.” So you’ve got these two very big ends of the spectrum.
And so our job is to gather information, it is to educate people about what it is. As a matter of fact, we’re getting ready to do a webinar on November 30th about this very issue, where we’re going to talk about what it is and what’s going on and try to… Our job is to educate people. And if there’s not unanimity of thought among our members, or close to unanimity because you always have an outlier, then we may or may not ultimately take a position on a particular thing that’s there. But we will continue to educate.
And our job is to continually monitor what’s happening and make sure that whatever it is that’s going on is not to the detriment of our members and the people that they represent. And this is going to be a contentious issue, as you know. And I mean many states-

Chris Dreyer:

I asked it lightly, because I’ve asked other guests on the podcast and it’s very polarizing and both make good cases for it. So it’s like, that’s what’s top of mind in this space.

Sean Dominck:

There’s already so much money in the PI world, right? We see it, we know that it’s out there. And the concerns about bringing in people whose job is just about money and making money, and what are the standards that are in place? How are we making sure that our clients are protected? How are we making sure that the money people aren’t playing both sides of the case? I mean, there are so many, so many, so many questions that are out there. On the other hand, we know about the fact that having capital allows some lawyers to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do, and it can level a plain field out there. So, there are arguments that go both ways with regard to that. And I think that where things end up and how they end up, period of evolution right now.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah, I had Patricia Riffo on and that was kind of her stance too, it’s just early. And I see there’s been a consolidation, and with consolidation there comes economies of scale and things like that and technology advancements. That’s very nice that you’re having a webinar, getting the information out there, trying to collect as much opinions as possible.

Sean Dominck:

It is. I mean, this is an issue that has been percolating for several years now. It’s not new, but it’s gone from percolating to bubbling. And so, I think that we would be remiss in not seeing what it is that’s going on out there, educating our membership about the arguments for and the arguments against, and having the dialogue that needs to be had about what the direction of the law is.
And for those that want to go down that path, what does that mean? For those that don’t want to go down that path, what are you going to do to protect yourself? Right? There’s a lot of questions that are out there and with that unknown, there’s a lot of fear.

Chris Dreyer:

Well, I don’t envy the position that you’re in, coming in as the President Elect and having to be in this position. But it’s certainly a time where there’s a lot of opinions and, yeah, it’s going to be really tough.

Sean Dominck:

Well what’s great about the way AAJ is structured, we have a lot of committee structure that are very much empowered to do things. And so, you really end up coming to consensus and-

Chris Dreyer:

Excellent.

Sean Dominck:

And when you go through a process where everybody has an opportunity to be heard and it’s viewed as legitimate, that nobody started off saying, “This is absolutely what we’re going to do,” and all of that. Even if your viewpoint is not the viewpoint that’s ultimately adopted, you feel good about the fact that there was a good process in place.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. And your voice was heard and you got to make your opinion, and ultimately you’re on the ship and you carry on. Yeah.

Sean Dominck:

Right. And I’ve won arguments, I’ve lost arguments on issues. And once you’re heard, then the vote happens and you got to move forward.

Chris Dreyer:

Organizations like the AAJ can help move the personal injury space forward. It is also a great place to build deep relationships for referrals.

Sean Dominck:

You’re not going to get a referral without a relationship. And so, to me, people refer cases to people that they believe have a certain level of competence, that there’s a base level of competence that they want to have. But then it’s about, do they like the person that they’re sending the case to? Do you have a setup in your office? At my office, the way we set it up is the initial intakes are done by an attorney. So, my referral lawyers love that fact that the clients are talking directly to a lawyer. Because the client feels good when they’re speaking to a lawyer because they’re saying, “I never got to speak to a lawyer.” We hear that all the time from people who had gone with other firms.
And we have a system where we are constantly reporting back to the referral attorneys about the status of the case, what it is that’s going on so that if the client calls them, that they know what it is that’s happening on the case. So yeah, it’s about developing relationships and then showing them that the faith they place in you is well deserved.

Chris Dreyer:

And I got to imagine too that the type of practice that you have, this specialization in nursing home, med mal, product liability type cases, it allows you to have an attorney answer all the calls. I guess the big TV advertisers and billboard advertisers, like Marc Anidjar Levine is the only one that I’m aware of to where he does high volume intake with attorneys first. Which is different, because most of the time it’s an intake specialist that isn’t an attorney, that may not know the nuances of the case, like you said.

Sean Dominck:

Right. It is unusual. And I think that the larger advertising firms that are doing hundreds if not thousands of calls in a week or a month, it’s harder to have that number of lawyers that are able to do it. But I think you can, no matter what size you are, you can triage things so that the cases where you want to make sure that that person, that case, is quickly gotten to a lawyer to talk to the people, you can set up systems like that and I think you should.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. So that meets certain criteria, a score or whatever. “This one’s got to get to an attorney immediately,” the bells and sirens are going off.

Sean Dominck:

Yeah. Because what happens today is most people aren’t just calling. Especially, again, my practice is different because I get most of my work from referrals. So the person’s not out like speed dialing at other lawyers. They’ve been referred to me by somebody that they have confidence in. When you’re advertising, if they’re not getting through to somebody right away or they’re not comfortable, they’re onto the next firm and then the next firm and the next firm as quickly as can be. So, you’ve got to act quickly.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. You have a bad intake, they’re going to go to the next person. Yeah. And I kind of want to switch, Sean, to a couple final questions. I want to go back to this world tour. Are there any memorable particular destinations that just really stand out, that you just had an amazing time in terms of this world tour?

Sean Dominck:

Every aspect of it was incredible. And what we did was… It was kind of incredible the way it happened. So we had it set up starting off in Russia in August, and we were working our way west through Europe with the weather and then coming back through the Middle East and down into Africa and then back up into Europe. And then I got called to trial on a tobacco case. And if I didn’t try that case then it was going to be another year and a half or two years, and I can’t do that to my clients.
So my wife got on a plane with three kids and flew off to Moscow and thank God for FaceTime, that every day I was able to see them and do that. And so, then I finally caught up with them in France and we went to Jordan. If you’ve never been to Jordan, and going to Petra and Amman and Jerash, everywhere in Africa is just so memorable. Egypt, just incredible. And then of course, in Italy with all of the food. And it’s just, every place has its own magic.

Chris Dreyer:

Amazing. Amazing. Yeah. I’ve got a funny picture of my mom in Egypt on a camel that I get a kick out of every time.

Sean Dominck:

And we did the garden drive in South Africa from Port Elizabeth over to Cape Town and drove three or four days over there and stayed in Cape Town for several days, dove with the great white sharks. I mean, it’s all incredible.

Chris Dreyer:

Amazing. This has been an incredible conversation. What’s next for your firm and how can people get in touch with you?

Sean Dominck:

So, our firm continues to grow. We are expanding and doing more and more cases outside of Florida. And just looking to see where it is that we can continue to represent people who need help, continue to enjoy what it is that we do. Because I love practicing law, I really do. I can’t think of another thing that I could do where I’m able to make a good living, but that’s secondary to the good feeling that I have about representing my clients.
And one of the things I always said to my kids was, “You never feel as good about yourself as you do when you’re helping somebody else.” So I get to feel good about myself every single day. So I’m very, very blessed in that way. And anybody that wants to reach out, my email is sean@dcwlaw.com. Our website is dcwlaw.com. And reach on out, I’d love to talk to you.

Chris Dreyer:

There’s no one right way to practice law. When Sean wanted to travel with his family for a year, technology allowed him to do that. Remain flexible with your time, be dedicated to the work, and make the work fit into your schedule. I’d like to thank Sean Domnick for sharing his 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 liked 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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