John Swanson's Interview (Referrals and Car Accident Law)
INTERVIEWER: I'm here today to interview John Swanson. He's a personal injury attorney in Texas. As my first question, what motivates you to be a personal injury attorney, and what kind of personal injury cases do you tend to work on, mostly?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, I've always really enjoyed representing people against insurance companies. For me, it's always been about helping all kinds of people who really would have a very hard time tackling a big company on their own. It's a chance for the little guy to have his case heard in court or to settle against the billion-dollar institution.
As far as my work takes me, I help people who've been injured in a car accident, pedestrians, motorcyclists, cyclists, people in cars who get into crashes and get hurt. And in terms of personal injury cases, areas of personal injury, my practice is just auto injury cases. For me, that's been something that I've tried to deal exclusively with since the mid-'90s.
INTERVIEWER: You have been practicing since the mid-90s, how many of these cases have you handled since then?
JOHN SWANSON: I've been practicing law for 20 years and have handled thousands of cases over the years. I've seen all kinds of different cases, but I've handled thousands of cases for injured people, over the last 20 years.
INTERVIEWER: Of all the people that you see, but is there any typical circumstance ... Also, is there a bias? Do you see more men than women or older people or income level differences?
JOHN SWANSON: In terms of men or women or older or younger, I don't see any regular pattern. In terms of income level, yes... I've, over the years, primarily represented laborers, construction guys, plumbers, electricians, not necessarily that they don't earn any money. Most of my clients are from pretty modest circumstances, blue-collar guys. I don't represent big corporate CEOs or people who are earning a lot of dough but people from the trades. It's very unusual for some guy to walk into my office with an attaché case, you know, a briefcase and a tie. It's never been my gig.
INTERVIEWER: And over the years you've been practicing, has the type of clients you're taking changed at all?
JOHN SWANSON: You know, it's interesting, because my client base has narrowed down to primarily a few large ethnic groups. I just found that I do a good job for some guy from a particular ethnic group, and he'll tell two friends and they'll tell two friends, and before you know it, there's a whole bunch of people who are looking for my services. So, it's grown exponentially, through that model.
INTERVIEWER: So, for people out there that have been involved in a car accident, what are your three best tips when somebody's been injured? What should they do?
JOHN SWANSON:In terms of a tip, the first thing that should be kept in mind is that if the person is able, get all the information about the other driver, the other vehicle and any witnesses right there, at the scene of the accident. Write down the other person's name, address, driver's license number. Have a look at the car that crashed into you. Get the license plate number. Look at their insurance and talk to people at the scene. See if anybody saw the crash and get their full name and contact information, because, you know what, if you rely on other people to gather that, or you just don't gather that, sometimes you're going to get bitten. A lot of people think that the police are going to come, they'll get the information, but it's really important that someone who's been in a crash does their own investigation.
The second thing I would say is to be very careful before you give any type of a statement, recorded or written, to an insurance adjuster. I've seen a lot of good folks sign something that they really didn't mean to sign, the language gets mixed around, they're not careful enough, in terms of reviewing it, maybe their English isn't great or maybe they're just not great readers, and they miss something that comes back to haunt them later on.
A third tip, if you have a camera, take some pictures right there at the scene where the cars are, what the damage is, if there's any skid marks on the road, because memories diminish over time and sometimes, unfortunately, stories get altered but I'll tell you what, pictures, they tell the . So, those would be the top three.
INTERVIEWER: So, what things do potential clients unintentionally do that hurt their ability to make a successful case?
JOHN SWANSON: They will say things at the scene of an accident that they really don't mean, just to be polite. It's, "I'm so sorry. I didn't see you," or things that maybe, have nothing to do with the way the accident happened but come back to be used against them later on. So, that's a big one, is just to sit back and don't say all that much at the scene of an accident.
The other one is, they phone the insurance company to report their claim and they forget to tell the person that they're hurt on the phone and so, later on they get their feet put to the fire because the insurance company says, "Well, if you were hurt, you would've said something right away." Then, when the people go in to give a statement to an insurance adjuster, they don't really get their story in as tight or as accurate a manner as they should. They leave out key details because, you know what, this is their first time down this road, and they don't know what's important, what's not important and all this stuff gets put under a microscope later on and if it's not tight, it can come back to haunt them.
INTERVIEWER: So being polite would be something that would offset the situation?
JOHN SWANSON: Yes it would..For example, a person might end up saying, "Yeah. Yeah. I'm fine." "Well, your arm's hanging by a thread." So, it's the same type of mindset, and the best thing is just to keep the chit chat to a minimum because, like I say, this stuff all gets put under the microscope later on.
INTERVIEWER: Well, how about the attorney himself? What are some myths that people have in their heads that you want to dispel?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, the myths, and that's a great word, the myths surrounding personal-injury lawyers are monstrous, and if you think those came out of nowhere. …Now, the insurance industry has done a masterful job, over the years, of developing myths about personal injury lawyers. The first one is just churn and burn that they don't care about their clients, right? It's just churn and burn. And for the vast majority of lawyers that I know, they really care very deeply about their clients and their cases. So, to paint all personal injury lawyers with a brush that they're just money hungry, it's sad.
Another one is that personal injury lawyers are, in large part, unethical ambulance chasers. In every lot, there's going to be the odd bad apple, but the vast majority of personal injury lawyers that I know, are 100% above board. You know, I see that all the time. I hear people cracking jokes. They do everything by the book, and their ethics are 100% clean. But, once again, you're dealing with myths that have been created because the insurance industry stands to gain from propagating these myths.
The third one that I hear all the time is that you have personal injury lawyers advising their clients to be dishonest about injuries, how they present their injuries, the level of their injuries, whether they've been injured in the first place, and, once again, that's just bogus. Nothing could be further from it. I encourage my clients, and the lawyers that I know in the personal injury field, tell their clients, "You've got to be straight," because that's the cornerstone of any claim is honesty. If the client, somehow, is found out to be dishonest, their case crumbles.
In any of my cases, I put that front and center, with anybody that I'm helping out with their case got to be 120% above board or else it's going to come back to bite you and me. I see no reason why myths have been put out there.
INTERVIEWER: The main thing that I hear is ... Everything that happens or that you say or that you do is going to be under a microscope. So, later on, stuff comes to light that you said wasn't true, or the client, or everyone involved, it's going to be a big problem, so why would people even do that?
JOHN SWANSON: Like I say, that's the foundation for anybody's case: "Can I believe this person or not? Can I believe their lawyer or not?" So, if that starts to fall apart, then the whole thing comes tumbling down.
INTERVIEWER: Makes sense. Is there anything else that you've learned about human behavior, peoples’ reaction to being in an accident? What human insights, additionally, have you gained in dealing with these accidents over 20 years?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, in terms of how people behave, how they react, most people are really shook up. They see their world being turned upside down. Part of my job is help them regain some composure, regain some focus and get on with the process of trying to get over this problem, their rehabilitation, and getting them some income replacement, benefits.
I found that the most people are straight ahead. Most people, if you give them some guidance, if you point them in the right direction, they're going to do the right thing in terms of trying to get better, trying to get back to work, trying to restore their health. I found that most people are very genuine, and they just want to get back to where they were, before the accident. They're not hunting for a big pot of cash. They're looking to get on with their life, to get back to where they were with their families, with their loved ones, with their hobbies, recreation, and work. So, at the end of the day, my faith in people and their genuine want to do the right thing is restored, day in and day out. The idea that it's all about the money, I think, is not accurate. Do people want to be treated fairly? Yeah. Sure. They want to be fairly compensated by an insurance company, but what they really want is to get their lives back in order, to get back to the way things were before the accident, and the money is a tool for helping them do exactly that.
INTERVIEWER: It brings to mind another question. How should you perceive the insurance adjuster? Are they on your side? Are they against you? How should you potentially deal with them?
JOHN SWANSON: The insurance adjuster is someone who is working for a big company. and they have a job to do. The job is to be loyal to their employer, not loyal to you. So, you have to understand the relationship, right from the get-go. The insurance adjuster isn't looking to help you put your claim together. They're not looking to help you get compensated. That's just the way it goes. So, you need to understand the basics, right from the start.
INTERVIEWER: It has been said that a person's perception of their own case changes as they have to go through this for months or maybe, years. Can you say anything about that?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, you know, it can become a bit of, I'd say, I guess, baggage, for people in that I hear a lot of times, "This is stressing me out. It's something hanging over my head," and yes, sometimes it becomes this mental weight that they're dragging around.
I encourage people just to try and focus on recovering, and let me handle everything else, because some people get what I call "claim fatigue". The process wears them down a bit, and I spend time propping people up, encouraging them to make sure that they really think of their families, think of their long-run interests before they pull the pin on their case, settle it because, like I say, you only get one kick at that can, and sometimes you need to really think long-run.
INTERVIEWER: So how long do these cases take until there's a result, a good or bad one?
JOHN SWANSON: You know, that's a hard one to nail down. It depends on the types of injuries. I've seen cases that last a number of years. If the person is really catastrophically injured, brain injury, spinal cord injury, those type of cases take a long time to really nail down because you have to be able to figure out where the person is headed for the remainder of their days, for the rest of their life, because they need to be compensated for the work they're going to miss, the health care they're going to need. It's a big, big responsibility, and I have to make sure that case is as tight as a drum. So, it takes three or four years, sometimes.
Cases where the person has lesser injuries, say, they have a couple of broken bones, once again, we have to really see how they're going to heal up. Are they going to be able to get back to doing the same type of work? Are they going to have any long-term problems at work or in other areas of their life? So, those can take a couple of years.
Lesser cases, soft tissue, whiplash type of things, last a number of months to a year. I try and move those forward as quickly as the person is healing up. I know people want to get what's fair, but they also don't want to be having this case hanging over their head for longer than is necessary, but my bottom line with my clients is you've got to make sure that we're doing this right because you're only going to get one chance at settling a case.
INTERVIEWER: What this tells me is that people shouldn't be in a rush to make a decision, and also they have to be patient because it's going to take, at least, some time, if not a long time.
JOHN SWANSON: Yes. You know, it's interesting, because we deal in our society, with a lot of instant, instant this, instant that and, really, what I'm dealing with is people recovering from an injury, and the human body doesn't recover instantly. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes treatment. So, it's dealing with Mother Nature, in large part. I always say to people, "Don't be in such a rush. We really need to see where this is going to lead you because if you settle your case today, and you're having a bunch of problems tomorrow, and the settlement hasn't taken that into account, because it's too early on in the game, you're going to be an unhappy camper."
INTERVIEWER: Could you put a number to that? What percentage of your practice comes from referrals?
JOHN SWANSON: You know, that's a good question, Richard. My statistics show that it's about 75 to 80% of my clients come from referrals, as best I can tell from the way I track the clients who come to see me.
INTERVIEWER: I've spoken to a lot of attorneys, and I think that's an incredible referral percentage. How do you manage to do that?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, that's a good question. I stay in touch with my past clients, and I get to know people. I think that it's important that I have a relationship with my clients. I spend time with them. But, after our case is finished, I try and stay in touch with them with newsletters and other ways of reaching out to people. And you know what? I get a lot of referrals from the medical community, doctors, physiotherapists, chiropractors, because they've seen the results, and they hear from my clients the way that they're treated, and they hear about the results that we get and that kind of takes care of itself.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned you use a newsletter, and you keep in touch with them, but what do you talk about, when you keep in touch with them over time?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, what I try to do is provide them with information, a lot of safety information, that people quite frankly, really are interested in, ways they can protect their kids, protect their parents. I read about things are going on in terms of ... You know, not dry, boring law stuff but what's going on on the streets of my city, in terms of car accidents and how people can avoid getting involved in things. I want to make sure they're up on the issues, and I also keep them in the loop about what's going on with me, my family, our firm and different things that they can do to help themselves.
I'll give you an example. I came across an article about programming your cell phone with what's called 'ICE'. In case of an emergency, you put in the name of a person who you want paramedics to contact, in case you're hurt in an accident and can't talk to them. So, I put an article in my newsletter about that so people would know about this service, they'd know how they can really help themselves if they're in an accident, and the paramedics need to get in contact with a loved one, a husband, wife, whoever, using their cell phone.
Also, you should know what, it's the relationship that we formed along the way. I've connected with someone, because for me, that's important. I can't do a good job with someone's case unless I really get to know them a bit, and I understand what makes them tick, and they get to know a little bit about me because, how are they going to trust me, if they don't know who I am, and what makes me tick?
So, it's a little deeper than just, "I handled your case." It's, "We got to know each other. We connected on a human level," and I think people get a kick out of hearing about my family, my kids, what's going on with our firm. I've had a lot of people tell me they genuinely enjoy me bringing them up to speed with newsletters and other things like that.
INTERVIEWER: Oh, so you have, what, calls or emails, people coming back to you on their own, saying they enjoy what you're sending them?
JOHN SWANSON: Oh, yes. Absolutely.Absolutely. We have people phone us up and ask to be put on our newsletter list.
JOHN SWANSON: On a regular basis, people, I'm not even sure how they found us, but they phone up and, "My friend gets a newsletter. I saw it at his house. I quite like it. Can you handle getting me put on the list yourself?" Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: How long do you send out the newsletter to any past clients?
JOHN SWANSON: Oh, we keep them on the list as long as they're agreeable. Unless they say "come off", I keep sending it, to infinity and beyond.
INTERVIEWER: Are there people you sent it to for over a year?
JOHN SWANSON: Oh, yeah. I have clients who I've settled cases for ten years ago. They still get the newsletter, and some of them, they'll respond to a contest I have in there, or they'll send me an email with a question. People like it.
INTERVIEWER: So, how do referrals literally, come to you? Does a past client call you and say, "Hey, I've got someone that's here to talk to you," or does the referral itself call and say, "Hey, I've heard about you."
JOHN SWANSON: Well, more often than not, it's the referral source. Either the person who's been referred to me will call up or they'll email and they say, "My friend said I should get in contact with you." That's the more usual situation, but also, I'll get calls or emails from my past client, "I've given my friend or my coworker, my neighbor, your name and they should be calling you. Here's a little bit about their story." It comes in a variety of different ways.
INTERVIEWER: When someone does that, How do you thank them?
JOHN SWANSON: I send them a "Thank You" note. I want people to know that I really appreciate them thinking of me because "Thank You" is kind of a dying word in our society. But, you know, for me, someone went out of their way to give my name to another person, and that takes some time and takes some effort. So, to me, it's my responsibility to just say, "Thank you. I appreciate the time and the effort that you put out to send your buddy in my direction."
INTERVIEWER: OK. How many referrals do you get? Do you get them mostly from past clients, or do you get more from leads and chiropractors and other professionals?
JOHN SWANSON: You know what, I would say the better part of them come from past clients and people I'm helping out right now. That's a good chunk of it, but there's not an insignificant number that comes from other sources, medical people, body shop people, just people who get to know that there's someone out there who can help a person who's been injured in an accident, because they find out. They're in the system, and they find out who's doing a good job for their clients and who isn't.
INTERVIEWER: Besides the newsletter, do you send other items to them or it's primarily that?
JOHN SWANSON: I do postcards. We'll do postcards with safety information. I do videos. I'll send out a video about an important topic, so they can download an information booklet about something I think is important to people. I did a St. Patrick's Day video, just wishing people a happy St. Patrick's Day. I just cut, the other night, a Mother's Day video. I had a lot of fun with it, but the underlying theme was, my mom's getting older and I'm concerned about when she goes to cross the street. Here's things that you should look out for when your mom goes across the street. However its the feedback that I get from my group is that they really appreciate it.
INTERVIEWER: It seems obvious that you're operating differently from any other personal-injury lawyer that I've seen. How do you think differently, and how has this led to your success?
JOHN SWANSON: Well, I've spent a lot of time talking to my clients about what really matters to them and I think that's a key. You've got to find out what people are interested in because, as a lawyer, there is often a tendency to just dispense legal advice, to give legal advice but what might make someone happy, and what I'm providing them with, may be two different things. So, to take the time to find out what my clients are really interested in, what's important to them, what's really going to make the case from their perspective, I think, is key.
I also spend a fair bit of time reading about how to make sure we serve people properly, because at the end of the day, we are in a service industry and the way that you treat people, the way you communicate with them, it's no different or it shouldn't be any different from a lawyer to any other person who's providing service to the public. A lot of lawyers miss that piece. They think just because they've got a law degree, they're able to operate differently from the rest of the world, in terms of how they treat people, and that's where you really go wrong.
INTERVIEWER: Yes. It definitely seems like the clients themselves are telling you, first, what's important for them. Then, when you are looking to attract new clients, you know what's important to most people, so you're able to put a better message out there. And also, you follow up with them.
JOHN SWANSON: The key is to ask. I find that if you ask people, they are more than happy to tell you what's on their mind, but most of them, they have this perception of a lawyer as someone they shouldn't be telling that kind of stuff to. The lawyer should be calling all the shots and telling them everything. So, you have to develop a wave length with people where they're going to confide in you, they're going to trust, trust to the extent that they'll tell you what's really on their mind, and they'll tell you what really would make them happy.
INTERVIEWER: OK. I'm sure there's probably misconceptions that other attorneys have about how you run things and how you do things. Can you talk about some of those?
JOHN SWANSON: That's a good one. It's often thought that the way I do things is not lawyer-like, that a lawyer puts a big ad in the Yellow Pages or a big TV ad out there, and that's the way you should operate, that's the way you're going to get clients. I've kind of turned it on its head and said, "Well, let's not just shovel it out there. Let's get in touch with people. Let's talk to clients. Let's connect with clients and maintain a relationship, develop a relationship, not try and keep a big distance between myself and my client but plug in to what makes them tick and then give them more of what they're interested in."
INTERVIEWER: Well, that makes sense. Yes. I've gotten a lot out of speaking with you, and I'm sure people listening to the call will as well.
JOHN SWANSON: Well, you know what, I hope so because I think that it's really important for A) for lawyers to understand that there are different ways to do things, other than the way that everybody else is doing it. You have to use your imagination. You have to look around a little bit, and it's important for people who are going to be hiring a lawyer to understand that different lawyers do things differently, different lawyers operate differently. You should be asking questions, not just about the legal end of things but about how that lawyer operates, how they connect with their clients, how they communicate with their clients, how they really drill down on what's important to their clients, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all type of approach to dealing with injured people or, for that matter, any type of client.