55. Steven M. Levin, Levin & Perconti Revolutionizing Nursing Home Litigation, Niche Marketing, And Mentorship

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Steven M. Levin is a true trailblazer. From his early career in criminal defense, Steven forged his own path in the then little-known area of nursing home litigation. Now, alongside the team at Levin & Perconti, Steven has reached verdicts and settlements topping $660 million for their clients in Chicago and beyond.

Today, Steven shares his story of groundbreaking work in the category of nursing home and medical malpractice litigation. We talk about the difficulty of linking your marketing messaging when you’re niching down and expanding at the same time. Plus, discover how you can become an authority in your niche!

Transcript

Chris Dreyer

Every entrepreneur and indeed every attorney at some point in their career will face the conundrum: should you niche down or should you broaden your practice area? And let’s face it, choosing a single focus is a risk. It takes courage to stand out in a crowd and carve out your own space. What if it all goes round? And let’s face it. Choosing a single focus is a risk. It takes courage to stand out in a crowd and carve your own space out. What if it all goes wrong? Well, today’s guest took that risk, although he didn’t know exactly he was choosing his niche… he kind of stumbled across it by accident.

Steven Levin

In those days that wouldn’t be the type of case that a conventional personal injury lawyer would take because no one was dependent on him, he wasn’t working, he had no medical bills, and he obviously had a different sort of life than a healthy male. And so in conventional legal terms, that case didn’t have sufficient value.

Chris Dreyer

Today, we talk to Illinois’ leading nursing home and med mal attorney Steven Levin from Levin & Perconti about what it means to be a trailblazer of an ultra-specific type of litigation, how to land marketing messaging when you’re expanding and niching down at the same time, and what the secret of a happy marriage really is! 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. Steven’s career has been nothing short of pioneering. He’s one of the first lawyers in the US to handle nursing home cases and really established his reputation as an authority in the niche. But believe it or not, it wasn’t his first choice of a practice area. In fact, before he niched down, Steven was a criminal defense lawyer representing Chicago defendants facing serious charges.

Steven Levin

In the early part of my career, I was doing almost exclusively criminal work. And I loved the trial practice. I loved the work, but to be honest, it’s sometimes got a little depressing because you are representing criminals, even though you wind up knowing and liking the people that you represented. And I represented a woman where we had a, particularly, you had an unfortunate and she had been charged with murder. I lost a jury trial but was able to get it overturned on prosecutorial misconduct. She then pled guilty to a lesser offense and received a five-year sentence. If you looked at her criminal background closely as well, I’d have not been the first time she either injured or hurt somebody. Although she was a hardworking, proud woman, she just liked to play craps and had maybe a little bit of a drinking issue. So I went and met her and that had the first result and she wound up with a five-year sentence for voluntary manslaughter, and she only served one year of it. And she got out on work release and was living with this nice old guy that for some reason had married her during the first trial. And maybe within an hour, they got into a little argument about the car and apparently she killed him and she called me up and said, “It was like deja VU, they say I killed my husband”. And I didn’t even at that point, even fully recognized that she hadn’t been out of jail. And I still had an affection for the woman. So we, I, I went to the jail and visited her and obviously she now had a very hopeless situation. And the sad part about it is she hung herself in jail. And it was that and other similar incidences that said it’s, it took away the enjoyment of the work.

Chris Dreyer

The emotional drain of criminal cases took their toll on Steven. So he took out the emotional drain of criminal cases, took their toll on Steven, so he struck out in search of a new Avenue. In a twist of fate – and as another reminder of why you gotta be there when opportunity knocks – Steven answered a call one day from a prospective client that would change his career forever.

Steven Levin

So a kindly old woman contacted me and said her son who is developmentally disabled, had been living in a nursing home for a long period of time, fell down a flight of stairs inside the nursing home in and died. And in those days that wouldn’t be the type of case that conventional personal injury lawyer would take, because no one was dependent on him, he wasn’t working, he had no medical bills, and he obviously had a different sort of life than a healthy male. And so in conventional legal terms, personal injury terms, That case didn’t have sufficient value.

Chris Dreyer

It might be hard to imagine given today’s competitive market, but back in 1989, nobody was interested in pursuing nursing home litigation. Attorneys just didn’t see the value. However, Steven had a hunch that this new niche was ripe for expansion.

Steven Levin

So, we did some research and we discovered a statute on the books in Illinois that had been on the books for maybe 10 years that no one had ever used and it was called the nursing home care. And that was an act that was designed to encourage personal injury lawyers to file lawsuits on behalf of nursing home residents, as an adjunct to government. It was an enforcement action. In other words, residents, family members could contact the lawyer, the lawyer could take the case and in addition to the usual recovery that could be obtained, you could get attorneys fees and, in those days, triple damages. So what they’re really saying is there was a big problem in the nursing home industry, the government doesn’t have the resources to remedy that we want to get private attorneys involved. Most private attorneys don’t want these cases, so we’re going to highly incentivize them to take the case. So we filed probably the first case in Illinois under the nursing home care act for this 50-year-old son of our 70-year-old client. And that’s how we got started. The case had a successful outcome, but it was hard to get experts because you would talk to an expert and an expert would say, wow, that’s terrible, but this is a nursing home, what do you expect? So, there was no standard of care, there was no expectation that you would receive, you know, appropriate supervision and guidance, even though the law, it was in Illinois and eventually enacted federally was on the books.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. Well you let me write down this path and it’s exactly where I wanted to go was: you were a pioneer in this field and in the late eighties, there were hardly any of these cases. And like you said, most personal injury attorneys didn’t see the value of these cases and you found that this law and it allowed you to pursue them. But, um, let’s talk about, you know, what are the significant differences between pursuing just a standard personal injury case and a case against a long-term care facility?

Steven Levin

When I went to the first national meeting concerning, uh, plaintiff lawyers who handled nursing home cases, I was one of four people and I’m not sure if the other people actually hadn’t had a case they just had heard about, so no one was doing it. Now, if you go to that same convention, there’ll be thousands of people, there are obviously ads all over the TV and radio, that type of case has become a huge area of litigation. But when I started it was zero, nothing, no such cases. So, what we began to recognize is number one, what distinguished it is we had, we could like a civil rights statute, employment discrimination statute. If we won the case, the defendant would have to pay our attorney’s fees. The second huge change and we take some credit for this, is that we recognized that when you talk about noneconomic damages, we’re not talking about medical bills, we’re not talking about lost wages, we’re talking about pain and suffering, disability and disfigurement. We founded our practice on the belief that jurors will recognize that in an elderly person, no matter how many medical conditions they have. So they will look at the wrong, and if they believe a nursing home put profits over people, misallocated resources didn’t have sufficient staffing and an elderly resident of a nursing home was injured or died they would compensate that death or injury with significant money damages. And that was a perception that had to be changed because the defense model is – all cases are worth some mathematical formula X amount of times, medical wage loss, something. What we do in the nursing home area is get people to realize that, to recognize what we believe are the true, fundamental, important things in life, which is quality of life. So it’s, you know, it’s not that our clients are going to die, it’s how they died. And people are entitled to die with dignity, free of injury, free of mistreatment, free of neglect. And that’s a concept that now is widely accepted, but there are still some people who will say what we view as a nursing home tragedy, and they’ll say to us, do you want this case? I’m not sure there’s anything here. I say, no, that’s the type of cases we handle. So that’s the evolution, but it is a specialty area because it has its own laws, it has its own standards of care, it has its own expert witnesses, there’s an art to reading a chart, there’s an art to finding the people that are really responsible for some of these nursing homes are very good at hiding who really controls the facility. It involves a knowledge of many of the issues that are sort of endemic to the operation of long-term care facilities.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah, that makes sense. And you mentioned kind of just briefly about, you know, the expert witnesses, how to understand what’s going on with these individuals versus a standard case. And I want to talk about kind of how your marketing’s impacted, you know, have you found that. You know, cause we niche ourselves. Have you found that there is ever been confusion from your consumers when you’re trying to highlight this sub-area of PI where maybe they think you only do nursing home abuse or neglect cases, what are the steps that you do to market this sub-niche, but still take on the PI, the MVA, those bread and butter type cases?

Steven Levin

That’s a great question. And it’s a very incisive question because that has been a struggle for the decades that we’ve been doing this. So, you know what? You get the typical thing where we’ve had very good success in medical malpractice cases in birth injury cases. But you know, a client, a consumer will go to a lawyer and they’ll say, oh, we’re talking to you and we’re talking to Levin & Perconti. And they’ll say: “oh, unbelievable nursing home lawyer, but we’re the guys you have to go to for med mal”. So the short answer to your question, I have not found the perfect way to do that, or even I’m not even sure the right way. What I did learn is that having a niche allows you to really have a targeted, focused marketplace and really become an impact expert in a certain area. And, you know, through all the typical ways, digital public relations, now we’re doing TV. So being an expert in an area, an actual true expert has been great for marketing. And in fact, our challenge is that any sophisticated, fully rational consumer was looking to hire a nursing home lawyer and Illinois would hire us. We do three times better than anyone else on individual cases, but how you communicate that to the consumer who has many different inputs to decide what lawyer to choose is difficult. Now, to your question of what do we do about the rest of the area that we’re successful? I mean currently, we’re thinking of it in terms of divisions. We have the nursing home division, we have the medical malpractice division in the past. We’ve sort of focused on results. You know, we sort of hoped that everyone knew we’re the nursing home experts, but we’d mixed our nursing home key results with our other results. So people would think of us in other ways, but. I struggle. Maybe you have an answer to this myself.

Chris Dreyer

So that’s why I was asking you that, to be honest, it was a little self-serving, you know, cause your avatar, your potential prospective clients completely different. You’ve got an elderly individual versus maybe, someone that just got their driver’s license that you got in a car wreck you know. I would imagine though, there is certainly a clear benefit from exactly what you said on those pure referrals because the attorneys know who can get the maximum value for the cases. I’ve just, I think that, yeah, the challenge would be to the consumer, right?

Steven Levin

The challenge to the consumer is two parts. The first part is, figure out a way in 30 seconds or a minute or two minutes or by articles to really show them you’re the best we actually convinced them of what’s true. And then secondly, now try to say that just isn’t all that we do. Right. So we recently formed an alliance, we have a joint venture with two of the best birth injury lawyers in the United States and so now, you know, we’re covering both ends of the spectrum. But I think in today’s world, in the legal field, a lot of the firms have divisions, right? The big advertising, both, you know, the mass torts, you know, they all have divisions. So I think it’s much easier to think about it today as division. So I don’t think we’re struggling as much, but there is always that fear, you know, the more successful we are for the nursing home, the less opportunity you have to get involved with any big medical malpractice or catastrophic personal injury cases because our competitors will use our expertise in a nursing home against us. But, honestly, as long as I practice and as long as I market, I think of new ideas every day. I mean, I, you wish you could come up with the perfect plan right in the beginning.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah, I would say, I would say you’re doing something incredible, right. You’ve had results of over 600 million. It’s just been incredible. So it definitely works and I applaud you for choosing a specialization because you know, it’s the same old if your heart was beating and you had a pain, and he thought who would be the best person to solve my heart issue. Would it be the general practitioner or would it be the heart surgeon, not knowing anything about them? I would choose the heart surgeon all day. And then by the way, I wouldn’t ask them how much they cost, you know, it’d be worth it because it’s value-based, like what you said earlier on those value-based fees.

Steven Levin

Maybe that would be our… maybe that should be our ad. It would be an idea. If you had a heart problem, would you go to a general practitioner or a heart surgeon?

Chris Dreyer

Right, right. Cause everyone can recognize it’s a simple analogy. Yeah. So let’s talk about mentorship. So I read this quote that, so your sister said in an interview, you know, once that you raised her as a lawyer and if continued to do that with many other of the young lawyers, you know, so how important is mentorship to you and to the success of your firm?

Steven Levin

I mean, I think it’s crucially important. The three things are litigation skills, the ability to rain make, and in my belief, the education, and training of younger lawyers in law. And in general, and we’re fortunate to have four children and now 15 grandchildren and I always partnership with my wife, actively mentor my kids.We had a rule in our family, sort of, okay, we’re going to have an argument, you’re going to get angry, you’re going to close your mind, you’re not going to hear what I’m about to say, so let’s slow down for a second. Let’s think about what I have to say. You may agree. You may disagree with you. You have to respond to what I’m saying. And maybe I’ll convince you. If I don’t, you still, I may have to do it my way, but let’s try to go through this exercise and it sort of became, you know, they talk about a business in this culture. It sort of became the family culture that even today, and I’m fortunate to have very successful kids.I may be the poorest male in the family. Right. But, no one can make a point that stupid, no one could say something irrational. It’s just not part of what we do. It’s immediately recognized. So I always enjoyed doing that and I took the same philosophy to the practice of law. I mean, I, I love working with law young or inexperienced engaged lawyers that I can mentor and we’ve had great success with some of them. But I spent a huge amount of time working with them, talking with them. I have a younger partner, everyone likes to tell them, Oh, you’re his clone. And some people would be insecure about that. But he said, well, maybe I am. He said, but he knows. And in certain areas, he has exceeded me and he has the confidence to take everything I have to give him without ego and then build on that in his own way. So we recently meet like this, so people talk about it, so we now get these joint clocks because it’s sort of an easier way to talk when we play off each other. And we dress the same as if it was an accident. So, you know, you get the, all the notes from the people that think that was an accident. So the mentorship is employed. I have a younger now female partner and it’s the same thing. She’s a different personality. I mentor her in different ways, but it is truly, uh, what we pride ourselves on as a firm and what I, it’s not work because I love doing it.

Chris Dreyer

Incredible. And you know, I kind of as a follow up there, what are some of the things that you do to mentor? Is it shadowing? Is it meeting cadences for like an educational teaching kind of classroom setting? What does mentorship look like?

Steven Levin

I think it’s fundamentally more than formal teaching, although that’s a part of it. Yeah. It’s I think it’s shared, or now he’s remembered the model that they used to use in the talent agency business, or you’d worked for like the top agent like this, you know, Ari Emanuel or something like that. And he would actually be on the phone for every one of the calls. So number one, that allowed the trainee to act immediately on whatever is happening. But number two, just being around someone, you know, it’s like a kid who’s like as parents, right. It’s because they’re around them and they just get certain behaviors by proximity. So I thought that was a great model. It wouldn’t exactly work in the legal context, but that’s how I mentored. So I spent time with them both at work and socially. Again, this was, it was enjoyable to me to do that. It was stimulating to me. One thing about mentoring is whenever you mentor somebody, you learn something yourself. Just the dialogue forces you to think just like, as we’re talking now and I’m thinking, wow, what a great idea would you go to a general practitioner if you needed heart surgery. Those ideas get generated. And then number two, intense discussion about cases. And for some reason, and there must be a neurocognitive reason that I don’t know, it’s very hard to think about how to handle a case just in your own head. When you talk to someone else and bounce ideas off them, the processes created that is, is deeper, better, more thoughtful than generates ideas on both sides of the thing. So we talk about cases in very specific terms. I think what makes a really good lawyer from an average lawyes is the ability to anticipate what the other side is going to do. We all know what we want to stay. You know, we all have our own approach and hopefully we’re good at it because that’s what we do. And, you know, so I don’t know how to prove my case. What I need to know before the process even starts is what is the other side going to do? What are their arguments going to be? And can we nip them in the bud? Can we reframe the issues sometimes before they even think of them as being issues? So that’s a large part of mentoring and that just sort of morphs into reframing in general, good trial lawyers know how to frame and reframe issues. I can give you a specific example. We’re representing a 65-year-old gentleman, who’s almost 85 or 90-year-old mother is in an assisted living facility. During the course of her six-month admissions gets 18 horrible pressure ulcers or bedsores while in the facility, it was obvious that she was in the wrong facility. It wasn’t that she was getting bad care, they just didn’t have nurses to turn and reposition to do all the things. So we take the case. So what’s the defense going to say? So with the first deposition that had a nurse or whatever they call it, assisted living says, starts to say, well, we talked to your client and we told her this a facility wasn’t appropriate for his mom, but he insisted on staying there, which was a lie and it wasn’t documented anywhere in the chart. You know, the average lawyer attacks on that basis. We train ourselves to hear it differently. So what does that mean? That means the person who made that statement knew her facility was inappropriate. She knew that what was going to happen was going to happen. So we got it down, I got through my questioning, you know, so every minute of every hour of every day of every week, your resident was deteriorating and you knew you couldn’t treat it? And you just saw it happen? And not only you know it was bad, but I’m also sure you told everyone in the facility. So there wasn’t a single person in the facility who didn’t know that she was not appropriate for it for your place. And she was suffering on a daily basis. So of course, by the time I get through it, she as well, maybe the son didn’t say that to me. Maybe he said that to me. Yeah. But it’s how you hear the issue. Like they say bed alarms don’t prevent falls, that’s what nursing homes say. You can argue with them. I say they don’t prevent falls, I could put a bed alarm on you and you could fall. Right. People responding better prevents falls. So all issues need to be framed in a way that’s really true and that will resonate with a jury. And it seems like a simple process, but I’m sure in your business, the same thing, how you frame things sometimes is so difficult to come to when you finally understand. When you finally got it, where you want it, where you understand that you realize, how, why did it take me, you know, a hundred hours of conversation to get there?

Chris Dreyer

Yeah, it’s that Bloom’s taxonomy. Right? It’s the, at the very, you know, at the bottom you got, you can read something, you got some recall, you kind of go up the triangle and you can analyze and at the very top, what you’re talking about, as you can kind of see and do those advanced retrospectives and in a different manner, and kind of interpret what they’re saying differently. And that’s a skill that you acquire from your expertise. I imagine that in your first nursing home abuse case, you probably would’ve taken just the direct track.

Steven Levin

And what’s scary is when you think of your life, let’s say in five years segments and you think you knew a lot. When you get to be my age 20 years ago, and now, you know, so much different. You wonder how you got by with what you knew 20 years ago or 15 years ago. So. It’s a fascinating process.

Chris Dreyer

Absolutely. So let’s switch over to it to a, uh, personal question. So, you know, I was doing some research and I believe you married your childhood sweetheart, whom you met when you were 11. You know, so this is another self-serving question here being married. So what’s your secret to a long-lasting marriage?

Steven Levin

I think it’s having the same goals. I mean, there’s love and all that other stuff, but it’s having the same goals. We have the same goals of the importance of family and raising a family and raising grandchildren. So our strongest bond is through that family and we’re very blessed. And, uh, that is the number one, most important thing in our life. There’s nothing more important than a family unit. So nothing trumps that and I think that’s a huge part of the longevity of our marriage.

Chris Dreyer

I love that. I love that. And, uh, Steven, we’re going to finish up here in our three for three final segments is three questions and three minutes just to kind of quick-fire round. And I think you’re going to know where this first question is coming from, but number one, what is your top search engine optimization tip?

Steven Levin

Put a lot of real content out on the web, period. We were way ahead of each other, someone early on advised me to put real content out on a consistent basis. Don’t try to scam the search engine. Don’t try to do anything other than that. And we did that and I think we’ve had great success.

Chris Dreyer

Absolutely great answer. And number two, which entrepreneur do you admire the most?

Steven Levin

That’s a tough one, I guess. I’ll do Richard Branson. I think he’s the billionaire that you’d want to hang out with. So I don’t think there’s any other billionaire I’d rather hang out with more than Richard Branson.

Chris Dreyer

Go over to the Island and yeah, he lives certainly an interesting life. Yeah. Great answer. And final question. What is the next thing on your bucket list?

Steven Levin

After law or in law?

Chris Dreyer

Just personal after COVID, let’s say after COVID,

Steven Levin

I mean, the COVID has, as it’s turned out. I mean, again, I have many blessings and I count them to turn out to be a great time-out between working and my eventual retirement. It’s sort of an idea… the idea of what retirement would be like. But on the other hand, it’s really energizing because all the nuisance things that I would normally have to do, I don’t have to do, I don’t have to go to court, I don’t have to drive places, I can do everything from my desktop, from depositions to mediation to conferences. The only thing we can’t do is try cases. So it’s giving me opportunities in huge amounts of times to think about business. The answer to your question is I’m trying to think more and more as long as the business. And it’s fascinating because law as business is in its infancy. Law as a profession has obviously been here a long time, and there are all kinds of different opportunities that sort of energize me and get me started. And our goal and my partner’s goal is to leave a really solid functioning forward-thinking law firm for our younger partners.

Chris Dreyer

Truly inspirational to hear from someone like Steven who’s found his niche and pursued it wholeheartedly. You hear all the time that niching down is the secret to success, and that’s certainly true in Steven’s case, but it’s not the whole picture. Steven had a passion for pursuing nursing home litigation when nobody else would give it a second thought. And as a result, he not only opened up a new industry but brought relief to those individuals and families in need. You’ve been listening to The Rankings Podcast, I’m Chris Dreyer. A huge thanks to Steven Levin for joining us today, and you can find more info as always in the show notes. And we want to hear from you, how are you tackling the challenge of being an expert in a niche and expanding your practice? Drop us a review and let us know. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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