Keith, where are you from and where do you currently practice law?
I was born and raised in Slidell, Louisiana. I’m currently practicing as a solo at the Law Office of Keith L. Magness, LLC, focusing primarily on car accident injury cases, in Gretna, Louisiana, just across the Mississippi river from downtown New Orleans. I also have a satellite office in Metairie, Louisiana for those clients who work and/or live on the Eastbank of the river, and don’t want to travel to the Westbank to meet.
What’s your educational background?
I graduated from Slidell High School and did my undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana, University in Hammond, Louisiana. My major was Criminal Justice. Upon graduation, I joined the Navy as an aviation officer candidate. Just before graduating from Officer Candidate School, I learned that my job choice disqualified me for the Navy’s legal education program. Apparently, my initial obligation as a pilot would be too long for the Navy to get any use out of me as a lawyer. So, against the wishes of my class Officer, class Drill Instructor, and class Chief Petty Officer, I decided to DOR (drop on request) and attend law school at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. I started the Fall, 2000 semester in the night (part-time) program, and switched over to the day (full-time) program after my first year. I graduated with honors in May, 2003.
What type of law do you currently practice?
My primary focus is plaintiff personal injury law. Specifically, auto, truck and motorcycle accident injury cases. But I also have a commercial contingent to my practice where I represent individuals and small to medium-sized businesses with a variety of disputes. I also routinely represent subcontractors, equipment, and material suppliers in the New Orleans construction market. This could be anything from “Help me, I haven’t been paid,” to defective workmanship issues, to larger issues that can come up during the construction process.
What’s your work background since graduating law school?
Throughout my law school years I clerked with a few of the major firms in New Orleans. During my third year of school, I accepted an offer from one large firm to become an associate. Prior to this, just before 9/11 happened, I had applied to become a Special Agent in the U.S. Secret Service. After an eighteen month long application process, the Secret Service offered me a position in their New Orleans Field Office. Following a lot of thought, I decided that was the route I wanted to take. So I walked into the hiring partner’s office, and explained that I felt that I had to exercise the option to join the Secret Service. She completely understood.
So for the first two years after law school, I was an agent with the Secret Service in the New Orleans Field Office. I was one of few Agent-Attorneys in the entire agency, so my boss really tried to utilize me in that capacity. I wrote legal memos regarding recent court decisions and how it impacted our investigations. I wrote or reviewed countless applications for search/arrest warrants, requests for grand jury subpoenas, and even co-authored two Title III authorizations for wiretap. I even got to climb the telephone pole to assist with installation of the devices that allowed us to listen in and track the target’s calls. That was interesting. If I recall correctly, the wiretaps we did in New Orleans were the first for the agency in fifteen years. That got the attention of some higher ups in Headquarters, and there was even discussion of my possibly doing a stint in the General Counsel’s office.
After two years at the agency, I decided to fall back on my law degree, leave Federal Law Enforcement, and start practicing law. I then went to work for two downtown New Orleans law firms prior to becoming a solo in September, 2011.
What kind of work did you do in the Secret Service? Were you protecting the President at any point?
In the first phase of their career, an Agent’s primary duties revolve around criminal investigations. The Agency was founded in 1865 to fight counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and that still is a major component of the mission. They also investigate other financial and electronic crimes, and enforce all the general federal fraud statutes.
That said, as a young Agent in a field office, you are often tasked with supplementing protective operations. The permanent protectees, the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Homeland Security and so on, all have 24-hour details. When those individuals travel, Agents are pulled from local field offices to supplement the protective teams as needed. During the campaign leading up to the 2004 election, the President and Vice President came through New Orleans on multiple occasions to attend fundraisers and other functions. As a local field Agent, I would routinely assist with the pre-planning of security. Often, I was tasked with escorting VIPs to meet the President or the Vice President, and to have their pictures taken with them.
After working with some bigger firms, what made you decide to start your own solo practice?
Well, I think I always had a calling to do it, but coming out of law school, large law firms started knocking on my door. They invite you to various recruiting events, wine and dine you, and throw ridiculous salaries at you. The law school also pushes you in the big firms’ direction. I did well while in law school, and was on Law Review. So I was being recruited by a lot of the major New Orleans firms. I was disillusioned by big-firm money and image, but eventually found my way and started my own solo practice. I’ve certainly enjoyed it the last four years. I like that I own every case that comes in from cradle to grave. It gives me much more exposure to the client and the courts.
How did you decide to focus on personal injury and car accidents cases?
Well, it has to do with the David and Goliath aspect of it, as well as personal experience. Back in October 2001, I was going out with my roommate for a bite to eat when I received a phone call that really rocked my world. It was a call from the hospital where I was born, saying that my father was in the emergency room and that he’d been involved in a bad car accident. I asked the nurse on the line, “What’s the status of my dad?” and she told me that he was pretty banged up but was going to be fine. My next question to her was, “Well, have you been able to get in touch with my mother to advise her of the accident and the condition of my father?” at which time she kind of paused, and said, “Let me let you talk to your father.” My father was obviously very shaken, crying, and he told me that he was okay, but that my mom had been with him and she didn’t make it. I was not prepared to receive that phone call. I was blown away.
After my mother’s funeral, we started receiving calls from the insurance companies involved. As a second-year law student I was viewed as the lawyer of the family, so I was tasked to “deal with it.” I initially turned to a couple alumni of the law school who are known for their injury work. I talked to them about the facts of the case. There were no liability issues. It was just going to be a matter of what the damages were. Both quoted a fee of 40%. While I had an idea what the standard fees for personal injury work were in my market, I have to say that I was kind of blown away at the 40% quote. It just didn’t seem fair to me, especially when liability wasn’t contested.
So, I turned to one of my trusted professors at Loyola who instilled the confidence in me that I was capable of handling the claim. With his guidance, we ended up reaching a policy-limit settlement on the claim, all without filing suit.
Those attorneys really left the mark on me. I think about that all the time now as I represent injured parties. I think about how I felt, what I was going through and, God forbid, if the case involves a death, the emotions involved in dealing with that. It left me with a desire to help people in those situations, and to do it for a fair fee.
When you say “fair fee” do you charge less than the industry standard of 40%?
The “industry standard” contingency fee in New Orleans runs anywhere between 33.3% to 40%. Sometimes even higher. For example, I know of some attorneys that charge 45% and even 50%. That seems absurd to me, especially if no appellate work is involved. My base fee is 25% of the gross recovery, or eight percent lower than what most attorneys open at. That’s for cases that I’m able to resolve similarly to how we were able to resolve the claim involving my mother’s death. No lawsuit has to be filed. If we have to file a lawsuit, our fee increases to 30%, which is still less than the floor of most injury attorneys in my area. If actually have to litigate, our fee increases to 35%, but it’s capped at that. That to me is fair. Of course, the client remains responsible for the “hard” costs of the case such as filing fees, court reporter fees, service fees, etc.
Quite honestly, many claims that come through our door are resolved at one of the lower fee points, and it results in a greater recovery to the client. It’s the client’s injury, it’s the client’s loss. Different clients need different things after accidents. It could be counseling. It could be replacement of income from somebody they’ve lost. I’m going to put as much as I can in their pocket. Again, it’s their injury. They deserve it. I can still support my family on the fee schedule that I’ve established, and in my opinion, it’s simply fairer.
That seems like a strong way to differentiate your practice in the market.
Yes. Of course, I’ve received a lot of pressure from other attorneys not to do it. Some of them have attacked me, saying I’m cheapening the profession and personal injury work is worth more. Quite honestly, I think they just feel threatened because I’m willing to say, “I’m not going to go along with the status quo and I’m going to charge people less and still continue to give them great service.” I do client reviews with every client. I’m not only asking them how likely they are to recommend my firm to their friends and family based on their experience with us, but what was it that attracted them to my firm, etc. Frankly, the response to the reduced fee has been overwhelmingly positive. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s allowed them to receive more. I’ve represented people who had previous accident claims with other firms, and when they saw that I was collecting much less than them, they were blown away. It’s just a matter of putting that message out so that people understand they have options, and don’t have to pay one third to 40%. It’s been nothing but positive for us.
You mentioned that you conduct reviews with every single one of your clients, how does that work?
At the conclusion of every case, we sit down with the client and have them complete a three-page review. The initial question is simple: ”On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely would you be to recommend us to friends and family?” Then it asks the client how they would rate our service in a number of other areas such as how trustworthy are we, how responsive are we, do you believe we knowledgeable, were we informative, how they felt about our returning telephone calls/messages, how they were treated by our staff, etc.
We also have a narrative section where there are several questions asked of the client: What did you like best about our service? Why did you decide to hire us? What was the biggest obstacle or concern you had BEFORE hiring us? If you were to speak with someone who was thinking about hiring us, what would you say to them? How many lawyers have you worked with in the past? What specific things, if any, could we do to change or improve our service to create a better experience for you? What words or phrases would you Google to find a law firm like ours?
The survey covers several different data points that allow us to gauge our marketing efforts, and, more importantly, to ensure that we are giving the ‘Wow’ customer service that we aspire to, because that’s what we promise our clients.
We have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. I’m not aware of any other law firm in New Orleans doing it. Basically, if within the first 30 days of retaining us, the client believes we have not lived up to our promise of outstanding customer service, the client can ask for their file and take it wherever they want, and we will not assert an attorney lien for that case.
We also have a written Client Bill of Rights. That’s another thing that differentiates us from our competition. Basically, the Client Bill of Rights explains what rights our clients have as a customer of our firm. For example, a right to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect at all times by all members of our firm, a right to be updated on a timely and regular basis about the progress of your case, a right to be Wowed by our client service, a right to expect a high-level of compassion and professional competence from every member of the firm, a right to receive prompt attention from all our attorneys and staff, a right to have things explained in clear, plain English without all of the legal jargon, a right to pay us only if we recover money for you, a right to pay a fair fee and not be overcharged for the work we do, and a right to be treated like one would want their grandmother to be treated. Things of that nature.
I’m happy to say I’ve never had anybody exercise the 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. Quite the opposite. Everybody that we have sat down with says that we are living up to our promises. And we’re going to continue to do that. Conducting regular reviews with all of our clients helps to ensure we are.
What are some of your bigger practice management goals right now?
Probably my biggest practice management goal right now is completing the policies, systems, and procedures that will ensure the same level of customer service is delivered as we grow. That is actually something that I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time to over the past 10 months. Many of my law school friends are shocked when I show them my firm’s Policy and Procedure Manual. It covers from, “How to answer the phone” to “How to file things” to “How to deal with vendors”, etc. It tries to cover everything, to ensure that we are consistently delivering the desired level of service across the board, no matter what the circumstance.
That is one thing I continually work on. It’s always a work in progress as just about everything can be improved. Staff are free to make suggestions on possible improvements to any policy or procedure when they find a shortcoming. There’s actually a written procedure in place on just how to do that (make a suggestion).
Are there any particular tools or pieces of technology that are indispensable to your practice?
Yes. The ones I use every day would be Clio for practice management, contact management, calendaring, billing, and so forth. And then NetDocuments, my document management system, where all the drafts, documents and electronic records are kept. Those two are vital in my practice. We are, by and large, a paperless firm. There are things that we still keep in paper form such as original affidavits, client documents, things of that nature. But for the most part when correspondence or pleadings or discovery responses come through, they’re scanned, saved into the system and the originals are shredded. I have nearly five years of litigation files in my office, and I don’t even have three full lateral drawers of hard files because most of it is digitalized.
Everything that I do, I try to do in a cloud-based system. There may be one or two programs that are located locally on my computers, but for the most part if it isn’t cloud-based, I really don’t want to touch it. It gives me the ability to be mobile. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in depositions or in trials with larger firm attorneys and they’re amazed that I essentially have my entire office and file system at my fingertips. If I have an internet connection, I’m live. I can be in the Caribbean on a beach and it’s as if I’m sitting at my desk. And that includes my phone system, which is also cloud-based.
Are you a Mac or a PC user?
I’m a PC user. I haven’t made the transition to Mac, although a lot of my friends have.
Do you have a piece of advice for lawyers just starting their own practice?
My advice is when it comes to practice management, the cloud is the way to go. You need to understand the Terms of Service and the way your information is stored, but there’s no prohibition that I’m aware of against it. Embrace that technology because you’ll be able to be much more nimble and productive.
And secondly, just going on my own experience: don’t get disillusioned with money. Unfortunately, people come out of school with tremendous amounts of debt, especially from private universities. The last thing you want is to be enslaved to a position simply because you have loans or bills to pay and you end up going to work hating what you do every day. That to me is a miserable way to live. Find something that you enjoy doing and dig in. Do good work, do appropriate networking/marketing, let everyone know who you are and what you do, they’ll see the passion and the money will come.
Is there a difference between what you thought practicing law was going to be versus what it actually has been?
Absolutely! Everybody thinks that a case can started and finished within a one-hour time block. Blame Law and Order, blame Ally McBeal, Suits, whatever the favorite lawyer show is of the day. That’s all a myth. People really don’t understand the tremendous amount of work that actually goes into taking a case from cradle to grave, especially if it’s going to be tried before a jury, and how much bickering and fighting goes on in advance.
When I was a defense attorney, I was appalled at some of the things we had to do just to check a box. Now that I’m a solo, I’ve found that I’ve become much more surgical and pragmatic in my approach, especially when I’m representing individuals who are paying me by the hour. You have to look at the big picture. See the forest for the trees, and decide if something will really advance my cause versus just running up a bill or checking a box out of fear of malpractice or so that some supervisor can report to some committee that XYZ was done.
What’s the funniest moment you’ve had in your practice?
I’ll go back to my law school days, when I was a law clerk working in-house for a major insurance company. We had an auto accident claimant making a loss of consortium, loss of love and affection, claim. We reached the part of the deposition where the loss of consortium claim would be covered, and the attorney was very respectful, saying, “Sir, I don’t mean to be overly personal, but this is a claim in the case. You made a loss of consortium claim that the accident has impacted you and your wife’s ability to be intimate with each other,” and the claimant said, “Yes. That is true.” The attorney said, “How often are you engaging in relations presently?” And the claimant answered, “About three to five times a week.” At that time all the attorneys in the room, who were 15-20 years my senior or more, all start looking at each other like, “Are you serious? This guy’s complaining about having sex three to five times a week?” So then the follow up question comes, “Okay, three to five times a week now, but what was it before?” He said, “Oh, man, at least ten to fifteen times a week!” The reaction of the lawyers in the room was hilarious. They almost fell out of their chairs. During one of the breaks, they were snickering: “You’ve got to be kidding me! I’ve been married 20+ years, you think three to five times a week is bad, how about three to five times a year!”
What would you say is your proudest moment as a lawyer?
That would have to be any of the cases I’ve handled where I’ve helped a family or child through a tough situation. One in particular comes to mind. I represented a woman whose oldest son was a member of the U.S. Army. He fought in Afghanistan and ended up dying. When enrolling for Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance, he listed his younger sister, who was 12 at the time, as a beneficiary on his policy. So in comes this mother, obviously distraught at the loss of her son, trying to figure out what she could do because the insurance company would not release the funds to a minor. Long story short, we went through the process of appointing a tutor in order to obtain the funds.
There were a few procedural hoops to jump through to get the tutorship set up. But that wasn’t enough. We had to look at the big picture. The question was: How can we help this young lady, and make something positive out of a bad situation? To do so, we put the mom in touch with a great financial advisor, worked with that financial advisor, and came up with a court-approved plan to ensure that the little sister will be able to go to college, have a car, and experience things in life without any financial worries. I’ve had big victories at trial, half a million dollar plus verdicts, that don’t feel as good as when you’re really able to make an impact on somebody’s life, and hopefully affect them in a positive way for years to come.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
A lot of people look at me and they think, here’s this former Marine and law enforcement officer. He must be pretty cold-hearted and cynical. But anybody who’s close to me knows that I have a sensitive side, and I’m not afraid to shed a tear. I think a lot of people would be surprised at that side of me.
Describe your ideal client.
Someone who has realistic expectations and listens. Not only listens, but really heeds the advice you give. Someone who doesn’t think that they know it all themselves and try to play lawyer. You explain the potential outcomes of a situation based upon the facts, and make recommendations. While they may not go along with every one of your recommendations, they follow your advice most of the time. They don’t just go out and do crazy things that will impair their case, and your ability to protect their interest.
What would you say is your most lawyer-like characteristics?
I have to say being thorough is something I would think is lawyer-like and would apply to me in my practice. You know, really drilling down on details. That’s something that I think would apply to me.
What would you say, by contrast, is your most un-lawyer-like characteristics?
I don’t drink like a fish. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid to have a beer every now and then, but I can remember attending firm functions as a young law clerk and associate and watching partners knocking back the gin and tonics one after another thinking, “Wow! This is crazy.” I guess that’s how some people deal with the stress of the profession, but that’s not something I do.
Also, they tell you in law school that you have to separate yourself emotionally from your client’s case, but I think that there’s a time and place for lawyers to show some emotion. Not only with a client, but possibly in front of the judge or jury. I’ve had judges say that they could sense my passion about a particular case versus the other side who was just going through the motions. I certainly do my best not to take things personally, but there are some cases that require that passionate representation, and I think I strike a good balance in doing that.
What personal trait or characteristic makes you a great attorney?
I’m highly competitive. I certainly don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit’. I credit my days in the Marine Corps for that one.
Also, now as a solo plaintiff’s attorney who represents a lot of individuals and small businesses, I’m very methodical in my approach. I really look at the case as a whole and try to be surgical with the things I do. I don’t use the shotgun approach, firing off motions or other pleadings just to see what sticks. Part of that is my desire to be a good steward of my client’s money, especially on hourly cases. I try to fire those shots that really deserve to be fired and may result in some type of advancement in the case.
What’s your favorite quote?
I’ve actually used this in open court before: “One shot, one kill.” Not sure who to attribute that quote to other than some Hollywood movie about snipers. That goes back to my surgical approach. You need to be precise with the shots that you fire in litigation, and only take those that will truly result in some type of advance in the case or serve a greater interest.
Jason Marsh is the founder of Orlando-based internet marketing agency MARSH8. He frequently writes and speaks on how law firms can implement better online marketing strategies to acquire new clients. Jason is the Chair of the ABA, Law Practice Division, Client Development and Marketing Committee, and Editor of Member Spotlight in Law Practice Today.