Peter H. Klee is the biggest rainmaker at Luce Forward in San Diego, bringing in between $10 million and $15 million each year, and his insurance litigation practice continues to grow at a rate of 10 percent per year. His winning ways won him the 2008 Rainmaker of the Year Award from Originate in the category of partners who are litigators.
What sets him apart is his unbeatable record: No client represented in court by Klee has ever been found liable for breach of insurance contract, bad faith or any other tort.
"Your work product is your best source of referrals," Klee said. "Most of my referrals come from people in the insurance industry referring other people in the industry. And they refer other people to us."
His formidable record includes the following:
He has eliminated 80 percent of the lawsuits filed against his largest client, a major property and casualty insurance company that had been sued in the past nearly 200 times per year. "We took an insurance company that had been sued repeatedly in southern California. But now, no one has successfully sued them for 20 years; nobody's ever gotten a dime. The plaintiffs bar made a decision that it just wasn't worth it," he said.
He and his group have handled more than 1,500 cases over the last 20 years. They treat every single case as a life-or-death cause that cannot be lost under any circumstances.
Klee has obtained defense verdicts in more than 500 cases, including more than 50 cases in the last year alone.
One-third of his current clients have been the result of client referrals.
He has expanded each client account he has worked on significantly from the original scope of work. His client list includes most of the major insurance carriers, including Allstate, State Farm, St. Paul-Travelers Ins. Co., and the Automobile Club of Southern California. His reputation for no losses is especially attractive to large insurance providers.
BUILDING A WINNING TEAM
Luce Forward is a full-service law firm with more than 200 attorneys practicing in San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel Valley/Del Mar, Orange County and Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. In 1987, Klee founded the firm's insurance litigation department, which he built by cherry-picking lawyers who were in the top 10 percent of their law school classes, but who were doing low-level work for megafirms like Cravath, Gibson Dunn, Shearman & Sterling, Latham & Watkins and Irell & Manella.
"I tell the associates if they come with me, they'll be in trial within one to two years and they'll be running their own cases," he said. When he hires associates, he encourages them to develop business on their own, but he provides them with all the work they'll need. "I don't want the person who is in the legal profession because they can make a lot of money; I want somebody who is passionate about what they do.
"We believe in our clients, and that shows through. Clients recognize they're going to get the best from us; it's not just commodity legal work. We care about the results, and it means a lot to us. We would probably work for free just because we like it so much. For us, it's really not about the money. It's the joy of competition and fighting for somebody we like and believe in. We've had cases where we had to pull rabbits out of a hat and dug into our personal reservoirs as only a person who is deeply devoted to victory can."
KLEE'S BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT SECRETS
Showing clients that he likes them. "It's critical that clients like you, but if they know that you like them -- that's very important. The personal relationship aspect comes into play, because clients want to be liked by their lawyers. Personal relationships make them feel good about going with the best. Some attorneys will defend a deposition of an employee and have a certain level of arrogance toward the employee as someone who's messed up. The lawyer will act like a parent and treat them in an impersonal manner to make them perform well in the deposition. I genuinely like the people I work with; I want to protect them. This approach has a way of cementing the relationship with the company that turns into new business," he said. How does he do it? "I find something to like in virtually everybody. I deal with people who are facing a crisis, feel vulnerable and need help. I can see the likeable side of them as opposed to what they're like when they're in control," he said.
Not charging for travel time. "Eighty percent of my work is in Los Angeles. I will let clients know that I have arrangements so they don't have to pay for my travel time. I have similar arrangements for northern California. The arrangement is that I'll limit the amount of travel time they would pay for a lawyer in Los Angeles. "
Devoting 500 hours a year to business development. "I take trips to visit clients for nonbusiness purposes, to maintain the relationship. I'll go on my dime to visit them, just to find out what their needs are and that we're satisfying them, and I try to meet new people. I also speak at seminars, which is an effective way to have nonclients learn about who you are and what you do. I do meet existing and potential clients for lunch and dinner from time to time," he said.
Not charging for giving quick advice. "My clients appreciate it because it reminds them that, for me, it's not all about the money. From top to bottom, I let clients know that if they've got a problem and want quick advice, I will talk it through with them and give them an opinion. People from top of company to lowest echelon call me. Sure, it takes up time, but it's a form of marketing. It goes a long way to establishing a relationship, and I don't just limit it to the person I work with. This way I get the trust from all the people at the company, and the word gets around. The person who makes the decision to hire you will get feedback from lower-level people," he said.
Treating every minute with a client as a marketing opportunity. "Every moment I spend with a client is the greatest marketing opportunity of all -- that's when they're seeing you in action and whether you can back up what you can say you can do. That's by far the most important time I spend on marketing," he said.
Joining key organizations of referral sources. Klee is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates. "Most members have extraordinary reputations, and it's important for them to know what you do and what your specialty is. Everybody in the American College is pretty good. In the college, when they want to refer a matter, they go straight to the membership book, and that's whom they pick from. They're a very good source of business."
Being an expert in his field. "The truly big business generators are known for being an expert in their field. That's the difference between someone who generates $2 million a year as opposed to $15 million in business. Now other people are viewing me as the lawyer to take down to build a reputation. I still think of myself as a young newbie -- I'm 50 years old and have been in practice 25 years," he said.
Turning down business when it would degrade the quality of his work. "Peter makes it clear to his clients that his group provides the highest-quality work. Sometimes, taking on the additional work they are offering him would be compromising his group's performance, something he isn't willing to do. His clients appreciate his honesty and trust that he isn't just trying to bring more work in the door," said Ramona Cyr, director of business development and marketing for the firm.
BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY
His business development program is done the "old-fashioned" way: by consistently achieving success in court for his clients, building and maintaining an excellent reputation, growing his practice wisely and cultivating client relationships. "In fact, his success leads us to believe that more people should use 'old-fashioned' techniques to acquire new business prospects on a regular basis," Cyr said.
Klee knows precisely whom he's looking for: He targets individuals who manage litigation in insurance companies, whether they are the in-house counsel or those working in the claims department. He doesn't treat clients like business acquaintances but instead makes them feel like family. He establishes appropriate personal relationships with them by learning about them and working together with them to solve the problem.
Klee's greatest source of additional rainmaking comes from expanding the work he does for existing clients. He may start working with a client on a narrow issue in a narrow region, but gradually comes to handle a wider breath of matters in a wider geographic region.
For example, when he started working with one of the nation's major insurance carriers, he was simply local counsel assisting a large well-respected firm with the local litigation. Over time, he earned the client's confidence to handle the cases on his own. After an unbroken string of victories in court, he then began to expand the client relationship, gaining more cases outside of San Diego, but still within the region, such as Orange County, Riverside and San Bernardino. He then broke into the Los Angeles market and continued until today, where he represents that insurance carrier throughout California and on a number of national issues.
"For a long time I didn't do any active business development because I would just get so many calls from people asking me to represent them," Klee said. "That's how it starts and how it grows from there."
Larry Bodine, a member of the Marketing the Law Firm newsletter's Board of Editors, is a business development adviser based in Glen Ellyn, Ill. He can be reached at (630) 942-0977.