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A Lawyer for Tourists in Trouble

May 6, 2019
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Alan Fowler primarily represents tourists who got into trouble while on vacation. He talks about finding clients, their urgency in resolving their legal trouble, and how he learns about what they really want. Alan is a graduate of Mercer University School of Law.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Kyle McEntee interviews a criminal defense lawyer who helps tourists manage their vacation mistakes.

Kyle McEntee:

We're joined today by Alan Fowler, a 2006 graduate of Mercer University School of Law. Today he runs a criminal defense shop in Key West Florida, but before that, he spent six years with the Navy JAG Corps, first in Washington State and then in Key West. Alan, your story about starting a firm is pretty interesting to me. After spending those six years in a rather structured environment, you immediately went out on your own, and that's a pretty bold move. Can you tell us a little bit about your thinking?

Alan Fowler:

My last year or so with the Navy, I knew that I was going to be leaving active duty, and so of course, I think like anyone would, I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and my career, and I really took an interest in entrepreneurship and business, and I found myself reading on starting a business and running a business. So then I started thinking, "How could I go about starting my own law firm?" At that time, my wife and I were debating where we wanted to live, and once we settled on the idea that we wanted to live in the Florida Keys, and Key West in particular, I started thinking about what I wanted to do.

I was fortunate enough in the Navy to practice a real broad spectrum of areas, and so I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on what would happen in each different practice area, like estate planning, or criminal defense, or what have you. I was really overthinking it, quite frankly, and I found myself just hyper analyzing what it would be like to be a land use attorney or criminal defense attorney, and I kept finding equally weighted pros and cons for each practice area that I had interest in.

Then at some point it just dawned on me that I'm not truly going to realize what it's like to be a solo practitioner doing a particular area of law until I'm in there doing it. And so I found myself thinking about, what do I like to do in my free time? And I really love food, and wine, and the craft beer movement, and I had this idea about being a attorney that specialized in restaurants, and bar owners, and craft breweries, and other culinary entrepreneurs.

Kyle McEntee:

And there's a lot of that down there in Key West, isn't there?

Alan Fowler:

Yeah, and for a small island we've got some unusually high number of bars and restaurants. So I ran it by a few acquaintances who are restaurateurs, and shared my vision and my passion for what I want my practice to be, and they both loved it and hired me right on the spot. I grew my practice from there, marketing myself as a restaurant lawyer, or a culinary lawyer as I would sometimes say. But then I found myself missing the courtroom.

Around that time, a colleague of mine asked me to help him in a homicide case that was pending down here at the time. As you might imagine, in a small community like this, we don't get very many homicides. So by working on that case with my colleague and friend, I had occasion to work with him on some other cases that he had pending, because it was interesting to me, and then I found myself enjoying being a criminal defense attorney. So then I pivoted my practice, with a passion project, so to speak, of restaurants and other culinary entrepreneurs, and then things really took off from there.

Kyle McEntee:

So can you explain a little bit about what you didn't like about your original practice?

Alan Fowler:

I'm kind of disappointed that it ended up being like this, but it was really two things. One, I found that the majority of the work was transactional, which is to say reviewing or drafting contracts, forming LLCs, drafting operating agreements, registering trademarks and copyrights, if that was applicable. And while I certainly enjoy writing and reading, I tend to prefer it more from a persuasive advocacy perspective.

The second, what I found is it's really kind of difficult to be a specialist for a type of human being. I've had ideas, and I'm sure others have had, things like, "Hey, what if I was to specialize in representing professional athletes, or CEOs, or these kinds of people that you would love to be around and have in your life, rock stars or something?" But the reality of it is it's hard to be good... Well, it's hard to be good at one thing, let alone lots of different things. And by good, I don't just mean competent in that area of law, but to systematize and proceduralize what you're doing, so that you and your business can produce consistent results each and every time. I just found it was too many practice areas to be particularly good at any of them. So what I did is I reduced my client load to my best clients and have been focusing almost exclusively on criminal defense ever since I had that realization.

Kyle McEntee:

Let's talk a little bit about your criminal defense clients. Who exactly are they?

Alan Fowler:

Well, I like to say that my law firm helps people who made a mistake on vacation avoid going home on probation, which is to say that the majority of my clients tend to be tourists and out-of-towners that found themselves getting arrested.

Kyle McEntee:

So what kind of stuff are they getting into?

Alan Fowler:

Well, I'd say the majority of my cases involve drugs or alcohol to some extent. So DUIs, drug possession, drug purchases, drunk and disorderly conduct or batteries and things of that nature, that are frequently fueled by drinking too much, or using drugs, or both.

Kyle McEntee:

And those are all misdemeanors, right?

Alan Fowler:

Yes, though some possession of some drugs would be a felony, like cocaine, for example. For some reason the majority of my clients tend to be tourists, and when I came to that realization, I adjusted my marketing. I've got plans to take that model across the state over time in other tourist communities in Florida.

Kyle McEntee:

You said the majority of your work is misdemeanors, I guess the other bit is going to be the more serious felonies. Do you find those more interesting? Are they more profitable?

Alan Fowler:

Certainly the higher stakes there are, the more you're going to be able to charge, and the more complex they are, the more that you're going to be able to charge, at least in my experience. I tend to find them more enjoyable, assuming they have more issues to explore and leverage from a defense perspective. I would rather litigate a simple, let's say, marijuana possession case, that perhaps involved a traffic stop, and search and seizure issues, and other fun issues to explore, than an armed robbery case where there were multiple eyewitnesses and video surveillance, and you really can't do a whole lot. I don't really like to be in a position where there's very little to litigate and very little to do to leverage your client's interests. So to me, it's not the seriousness that matters, but the amount of lawyering that we can do in a particular case.

Kyle McEntee:

I'd imagine the fact that your clients are tourists, at least for the most part, that that poses an extra problem for them, as they can't appear in court without enduring an enormous expense. What's the difference in your workflow for tourists versus locals?

Alan Fowler:

Locals can appear in court and they can also come and meet me in person, meet my staff, but tourists can't. So I leverage a lot of different technology tools to make it easier for the potential client, or retained client, to know, like, and trust my office and I. I have a lot of email templates that I use to keep them updated on a regular basis. I have scheduling software where my clients can go to a website and, at any moment in time, schedule a phone call with me. But just leveraging technology to make it as simple and pain free for them to do what they need to be doing as a client and to get access to me and to keep them informed.

As we all know, the number one complaint about attorneys is lack of communication, and we have all these great technology tools now, something I've learned recently is you can train your clients. Clients want to be good clients, just like we want to be, let's say, good patients to our dentist, or something like that. You can train your clients on how you're going to work together. I tell my clients that unless it's an emergency, I don't take unscheduled phone calls. And I notice that when I finish that sentence, there's a little bit of a pause, or there's a little friction. But then I say, "Though you can schedule a phone call with me, and I block off all day Tuesday and Thursday just for phone calls and meetings. So you're never more than about 36 hours away from talking to me. And when it's scheduled, I can be prepared to effectively answer your questions, and help you, and update you on the case."

Kyle McEntee:

Before, you'd mentioned you weren't initially targeting these tourists but that they were finding you, and then you changed your marketing approach. Can you talk a little bit about your marketing and what goes into it?

Alan Fowler:

I was working with a business coach on an elevator pitch, and I found myself characterizing my clients and target clients as good people. I think the first rendition was something to the effect of, "Hey, I help good people who made a mistake", or, "I help good people who were wrongfully accused." And my business coach was like, "Hey, listen, people who get arrested do not think of themselves as good people. Most of them are not good people", blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'm like, "Well, look, I don't want to argue with you about it, but most of my clients are good people who just made a mistake, who've never been arrested before. In fact, most of them don't even live here." Then he interrupted me and said, "Wait, hold on. What do you mean they don't live there?" And I said, "Well, 90% of my clients are on vacation, or visiting someone, or whatever the circumstances are." He's like, "Oh, well that's what we ought to niche down to, if that's what you're already pulling."

Kyle McEntee:

How did that end up changing the way you advertise your services?

Alan Fowler:

I am changing much of the copy in my website and other marketing outreach efforts to highlight that I am, we can't use the word specialized in Florida unless you're board certified, but that I'm focused on helping tourists and out-of-towners, who had what should have been a nice Florida Keys experience turn upside down by an arrest.

My formula has been that you need to have a beautifully designed website that converts visitors. Your website needs to be on page one of Google as well as the other search engines, but you need to work your way up so that you're one of the first actual law firms that comes up in search results. And depending on your market, you need to do Google pay-per-click ads, so that you can be sure that while you're working your way up, your website is getting in front of people who are searching search terms that are relevant to your practice area.

Then you need to find other ways to trigger leads. I have sponsored some local events, especially ongoing events, that allows me to have some ad placement. I've started doing Facebook ads, and I've really taken a broad net. And this is perhaps the big thing, is you have to measure the results. And at a very minimum, you just need to measure, "Hey, I spent this much money, I did this type of advertising, I got this many phone calls. And of those phone calls, this many of those turned into clients."

For example, I just started doing direct mail letters that have a tracking number, so I know when people call the number that's in that letter, versus some other number on my website. I'm tracking every letter I send out, I'm tracking every letter that gets returned. And when I'm getting phone calls, I'm asking these leads how they heard about me, if that helped them make a decision to call me. You have to track these things, so you know if it's a good investment or not.

Kyle McEntee:

I am struck by the language you're using as well as the concepts, words like leads, conversion, and then concepts like return on investment, search rankings, and advertising. It strikes me as not quite what people would expect when they're thinking about what a criminal defense attorney has to focus on in their day-to-day.

Alan Fowler:

Well, thanks, and that's an education that I've been undergoing the last year or two. If anyone is the owner of a solo practice, or a part owner or single owner of a small law firm, or if anyone's considering either of those routes, you have to embrace the idea that you're a business owner, because this is how you're going to need to think in order to grow that practice. The responsibilities of running and operating a law firm is not going to change just because someone merely wants to be a practitioner. And while certainly you need the knowhow to do the job, you can't do the job and run the business if you're only thinking like a technician.

Kyle McEntee:

Let's talk about the legal side of things. I understand that you usually come in after someone has been arrested, but before their first court hearing. So when a client calls you, what is your first step?

Alan Fowler:

Well, I usually do the client consult right then and there. I find that with criminal defense leads, they feel a sense of urgency to talk to a lawyer as quickly as possible, to hire a lawyer as quickly as possible. I think what's happened is their life has been turned upside down. They've got a court hearing that might be 10 or 14 days in the future, but they have this desire to stabilize things. In my case, since most of my clients are tourists, the majority of them have already gone home. So there are people who might be arrested on a Friday, they fly home to Iowa or somewhere Saturday or Sunday, and then they wake up the following week and realize, "Oh crap, I got to be in court in seven days. I need to hire a lawyer." And so I do the consultation over the phone. In the early minute or two of the phone call, I look up the client's mugshot, and I look up their case with the clerk of the court's website.

But again, I found that with criminal defense leads, that there's a sense of urgency, and that if you don't talk to them right away, that they're going to move on to the next lawyer and you may lose the lead. And I'm really not ashamed to say this, though I hope it doesn't sound bad, but I'm not ashamed to say that there have been times where I've gotten phone calls from potential clients, and at some point they have mentioned that they have a meeting scheduled, or a consult scheduled with a colleague of mine, either that afternoon or the next day, but they decided to keep calling lawyers, and by doing the consult right then and there, I've converted that lead into a paying client, and obviously that client has canceled whatever consult they had.

Kyle McEntee:

So I am not ashamed to say that one of my favorite guilty pleasures is How To Get Away With Murder. Yet it's actually a bit ironic, since one key purpose of this show is to dispel bad information born of TV and movies. So how far off base is that show with regard to the strategizing that's going on?

Alan Fowler:

For a big homicide case, or a complex sexual assault case, or complex white collar case, you are going to find yourself strategizing quite a bit and weighing different alternatives, and if your client has the resources for it, to hire a private investigator to do things, but that happens in virtually every case. I've had domestic violence cases where my client and I have strategized what we can do to try to get the case dismissed, or the charges dismissed, with the help of the alleged victim who doesn't want to cooperate in the prosecution. So I think you're constantly going to be looking at legal strategies that you can do to get evidence suppressed, or otherwise be effective inside the courtroom. It may not be to the extent of the fictitious nature of that show, but if you're not thinking strategically on how to get the result that your client wants, then you're probably not being as effective as you can be.

And by the way, it's probably worth noting, the last thing I said, is what drives all this, at least in my mind, is what the client wants. I can't tell you when I first started out how many times I would talk to a potential client, or even perhaps after they retained me, and I would think that they have something in mind. Maybe they want to go to trial and be acquitted, or I might think that they have some other result in mind. But then when you talk to them and you really listen, you find out that they just don't want to go to jail, or they have a prior record and they hated being on probation, and they're willing to go to jail so long as they don't get more probation. If someone says something like that to you, which is unique, you need to strategize on how to get there. And I've had cases where I've had to find creative solutions to convince the prosecutor that jail time with no probation is best for everybody, or whatever the case may be.

Kyle McEntee:

I Am The Law is a LawHub production. Don't forget to subscribe and rate this show on your favorite podcast app. Thank you to our presenting sponsor, Blueprint LSAT Test Prep. Thank you also to our other sponsors, LSAT Lab, Vermont Law and Graduate School, Seton Hall University School of Law, Penn State Dickinson Law, Cardozo Law, and Baylor Law.

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