Does every citizen need a lawyer on private retainer? The founder of Landmark Legal Plans Inc. thinks so
As soon as you hear about him you're going to think Christopher P. Nolan works at your company.
That's because someone like him probably does. He's one of your top people, but also your harshest critic. Even as he's pocketing commission checks -- in Nolan's case, $2,465.57 one day, $29.40 the next, and $371.68 the day after that -- he's thinking that your marketing approach is lousy and your financial acumen worse. As founder, you always fear what he's thinking: What do I need this guy for? You just hope it's an impulse he'll never act on.
After all, it took even Nolan himself a few years to make the leap. He first started considering it back in 1985, when he was a salesman at Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., in Ada, Okla. The company, which by 1987 ranked 92d on the INC. 100 list of the fastest-growing public companies, specialized in selling legal plans, a nascent concept that sounded great: for a relatively small yearly fee, the average person could keep a lawyer on retainer. The problem, Nolan thought, was the way the plans were marketed.
Like most companies in the field, Pre-Paid used multilevel marketing to sell the plans. Via tent shows, it recruited part-time salespeople to buy the policies and then sell their friends on the idea of joining up. The part-timers would receive a cut of every sale their recruits made.
Multilevel marketing got the product on the street -- and sold it -- very fast. But Nolan believed the strategy was better suited for selling a tangible item than a service like legal plans. The problem, as he saw it, was this: the sales force had every interest in selling a plan but none whatsoever in servicing it. Understandably, most customers had questions about the unfamiliar plans. Unable to find answers, they checked the "no" box when it came time to renew.
Many fine prospects, Nolan observed, simply wouldn't buy anything sold through multilevel marketing. "Is this like Amway?" he'd hear as the door was closing. Small-business owners were the worst. "Their fear was that once you sold them a plan, you'd try to recruit them to sell the product," says Nolan.
Nolan didn't think the attorneys were getting a good deal either. Most plans paid them less than $2 per plan per month -- not enough, Nolan felt, to keep them motivated. You really should start a company of your own, some of them urged.
No way, he thought; surely there's another company that sees the same opportunity. In search of it, Nolan jumped to a competitor, where he encountered what in his view were the same problems. Unprofessional salespeople. Underpaid lawyers. Unfocused marketing. "I became even more convinced that it was a great idea," he says, "and that nobody was doing it right.'
Chances are that the Christopher Nolan at your company will criticize and carp but stick around to enjoy those regular commission checks. Not so this Christopher Nolan.
"I am sure I can do better," says the 37-year-old founder of Landmark Legal Plans Inc., based in Denver. "I'm betting everything I have on it.'
Let's suppose your business is bickering with a supplier over whether that company fulfilled the terms of its contract last month, or you're not sure how to comply with a new piece of legislation. And what are your rights if your spouse is a louse or your car a lemon?
If you're well heeled, you probably already have an attentive lawyer to handle such matters. But for most people, contacting an attorney -- and, more to the point, paying one -- is as appealing as spending a night in jail. Those people will even pay up front to make sure they have an affordable lawyer lined up.
At least that's the presumption behind legal plans. For a yearly fee, consumers receive certain legal services. Usually these include half-hour phone consultations, letters and calls to third parties (suppliers, landlords, and so on), the review of such documents as leases and contracts, and the writing of wills. For all of these, consumers call on their "access attorney," whose number is printed on a wallet-size card.
For more specialized legal matters, such as bankruptcy, the access attorney turns to a list of "referral attorneys." Typically, plans offer these lawyers at about 25% less than their usual hourly rates. Some plans include a roster of legal matters, such as deeds and misdemeanors, with maximum-fee caps. For the most sophisticated work, such as a merger, Landmark offers specialist firms at a 10% to 25% discount.
Since 1977, when a Supreme Court ruling paved the way for such plans, marketers -- which now include such heavyweights as Amway and Montgomery Ward -- have been seeking a balance between a plan that consumers are eager to buy and one that lawyers are willing to service. At the rates they've been used to getting, access attorneys aren't very eager to provide many free services. At the same time, plan marketers need to lure consumers. Hence there have been plans that, for instance, boast of covering such potentially expensive transgressions as vehicular homicide. Read the fine print, though, and you'll see that alcohol- or drug-related charges aren't covered -- which excludes, by one lawyer's reckoning, around 90% of all those cases. "Some plans verge on being illusory," notes David Baker, an industry consultant.
Getting lawyers to back legal plans isn't easy. After all, the plans require attorneys to turn their traditionally lucrative approach, based on high margins and low volume, right on its head. When he decided to launch Landmark Legal Plans, Nolan knew that a plan couldn't succeed unless the lawyers had a stake in it. So last spring, he met with 30 attorneys from eight different law firms. What do you like about legal plans? he asked. What would it take to get you to service one? Well, they said, we'd like to see a plan handled by professional marketers so we don't have to spend half our time briefing customers on what they just bought. Furthermore, they said, if you're going to ask us to slash our margins, you'd better deliver us volumes of clients; so far, the marketers are the only ones who seem to be making money.
Not anymore, Nolan vowed, I'm going to make it worth your while.
Landmark now offers two plans -- one for individuals, one for businesses with revenues under $4 million -- that enable attorneys to earn roughly 50% more than competing plans, Nolan claims. True, Nolan is calling on attorneys to provide more free services, but he's carefully chosen areas that will add up to only about 15% more work, he says. Whereas most plans offer free will preparation, for instance, Landmark offers two free wills and any number of children's trusts. And the plan offers fee caps in 15 areas, at least 5 more than most.
Nolan is hoping to lure customers from his competitors, which haven't done badly in opening up the market. Pre-Paid started by selling about 5,000 plans in 1977, and is up to some 300,000 a decade later. Nationwide Legal Services Inc. has grown from sales of $56,000 in 1983 to more than $1 million last year. Landmark's individual plan is about 30% more expensive than Pre-Paid's; Landmark's business plan is priced just a bit higher than Nationwide's, which is similar in content. Nolan insists that customers are "more interested in service than in price. If they call an attorney, they want to talk to an attorney today.'
Most potential customers, he contends, still haven't been exposed to the legal plan concept. Only 42 million people now own one, and Nolan believes that the market for individual plans is as large as 155 million, about 70% of the U.S. population. Less than 1% of small businesses, he claims, have a legal plan. "Around 75% of the market is wide open," he says. Some companies have bitten off pieces of the market through direct mail (Montgomery Ward) and multilevel marketing (Pre-Paid, Nationwide), but "nobody has really figured out how to sell it to the mass market," Nolan says.
Nolan knows firsthand that the demand exists. He claims that at Pre-Paid, he could fill a ballroom with 200 people, tell them about the plan, and expect 10% to leave with one. At Nationwide, with what he judges a slightly better product, he could usually count on 50%.
Shortly after going out on his own in May 1987, Nolan got hold of information about five West German companies that sell legal plans. Aside from examining usage rates, renewal levels, and profit margins, he was heartened to discover that 80% of all West Germans subscribe to plans. "It's just a matter of educating people here," he says. "There's no reason to think it wouldn't happen here like it did there.'
Three of the five companies, he adds with a smile, now post annual revenues of more than $1 billion.
The legal plan concept sounds an awful lot like insurance: pay up front for services you might need later. But Nolan, borrowing from his European counterparts, is operating strictly as a middleman. That should, he says, enable him to grow faster. As an insurer, Landmark would have to wrestle with capitalization and licensing requirements that vary from state to state. But Landmark does not pay out claims, nor does it depend on actuaries to set its fees. The company receives an annual amount up front -- say, $195 for most individual plans and $570 for a business plan -- and wrings its profit margin from that fee. (A company that buys individual plans for its employees can obtain a group discount that sinks as low as $110 apiece.)
A Landmark fee makes more stops than a cable car as it chugs its way toward the bottom line. To keep his start-up costs down and enable Landmark to expand fast, Nolan has signed deals with two national companies, each of which will skim percentages off the top of each fee: Insurance Marketing Services Inc. (IMS) will sell Landmark's plans through its network of some 1,700 insurance agents, and National Insurance Administrators Corp. (NIA) is handling all the paperwork and record keeping, as well as maintaining a toll-free number to answer brokers' or clients' queries. "This way," Nolan says, "we can concentrate on the marketing side.'
Marketing is especially important because renewals are key to improving Landmark's profitability. For its efforts, IMS takes away 42% of each new plan, 2% for itself. As with any insurance product, the rest will be split among various combinations of general agents, distributors, and producing sellers -- depending on exactly who was involved in the sale. When a plan is renewed, though, the IMS percentage drops to 24%.
Likewise, NIA's straight percentage slips from 12% to 10% in the second year. Only the access attorneys, who have a direct effect on whether consumers like the plan enough to renew, receive the incentive of a bigger percentage the second and third years. In the first year, access attorneys receive 18% of each fee; in the second year, 20%; and in the third, 30%. For the third year and thereafter, the attorneys are contractually locked in to receiving $5 per month for every individual legal plan and $14 for each business plan they service.
If he can raise working capital, Nolan plans to open branch offices that will serve both as marketing headquarters and as training centers for lawyers and brokers. Outside of Colorado, his first branch will be in Phoenix. Using that as a model -- ``I know it won't hold for cities like Chicago and L.A.," he notes -- he expects most branches to break even at the end of the first year. Branch managers will be virtually the only salaried employees in each office; the rest, as many as eight district managers, will receive a commission out of revenues. "I'm trying to lock down as many costs as possible," says Nolan.
Landmark's profit on each plan sold should be a slender 3% during the first year, climb to about 15% the second year, and hit 24% by the fifth year, depending on the renewal rate. According to projections, the company will break even in its first year. "As long as we keep selling contracts, we'll keep making money," Nolan says.
To succeed, Nolan must reach three different markets: the lawyers who will service the plan, the insurance brokers who will sell it, and the consumers who will buy it.
Most legal plan marketing strategies have employed multilevel marketers following the same general dictum: where there's no will, there's a way. Lured by the prospect of a cheap will, consumers join up, get the document, then depart.
The lawyers, who have generally worked at bargain-basement rates, haven't had much incentive to convince customers to stay. Their goal is to see as many people as possible in the hopes that one of their customers (or a customer's friend or relative) will be struck by a heavy object and initiate a lucrative personal-injury suit.
Because legal plans are so low cost (read: low commission), direct selling is simply too expensive. Still, no other plan has caught on with insurance brokers before. But, says IMS president Ron Roesener, "this one is much simpler. It's very understandable for the brokers." Nolan is counting on the IMS insurance brokers to bring in at least two-thirds of Landmark's sales.
With beefed-up services and the credibility of the broker behind it, Nolan believes Landmark can attract a different class of consumers than do the multilevel marketers or the direct mailers. The brokers' slick marketing presentations will aim squarely at the middle-class and upper-middle-class clientele Nolan is seeking -- litigious enough to need a plan, wealthy enough to afford one. Some people, he figures, will snap up a Landmark plan because, say, they have just run over a cat; unlike an insurer, Landmark covers those preexisting conditions for which a lawyer hasn't already been hired. Even the higher price, he says, will serve as a competitive advantage. "People figure, 'What kind of lawyer am I going to get for 100 bucks?' " Nolan says. "In lawyers, people want quality.'
Eventually, Nolan also plans to sell through financial planners and business consultants. An experienced speaker, he hopes next spring to start leading seminars on issues that will attract entrepreneurs. He expects more than 60% of Landmark's customers to consist of companies buying group business plans for their employees through the same agent that sells them group health plans. "It's cheaper than a raise," notes Nolan, "and the perceived value is very high.'
To encourage plan holders to renew, Landmark will churn out newsletters and other literature to remind them to use their plans. But what Nolan is really counting on to keep plan holders coming back are the attorneys. His approach to motivating them is about as subtle as a gavel to the cranium. "Let's face it," he says, "money does talk." For each individual plan they service, the access attorneys will receive $3 per month the first year; $4 the second year; and $5 the third year. The scale for business plans runs from $6 to $10 to $14. That doesn't sound like much, Nolan concedes, except when the volume is turned up.
The idea is for the plan to be profitable whether or not that big personal-injury case happens to limp in. Richard Hughes, a senior partner at the law firm that serves as one of Landmark's access firms in Denver, contends that "three dollars per month per plan can be profitable by itself. You just have to be efficient." Hughes estimates, for instance, that it takes his firm only about 30 minutes to execute a will, often by mail. Besides, he adds, the firm saves the marketing costs of bringing in new clients.
Nolan hopes the incentive pay will prompt access attorneys, 50% of whom will also be servicing other plans, to "honor my plan first." By contract, access firms must answer all calls within 24 hours. They are also required to send out welcoming letters to each new plan member.
As for referral attorneys, Nolan contends that $68 an hour enables most to make a profit of $10 or more an hour. He arrived at that figure after discovering that big insurance companies pay attorneys $65 an hour for volume business. To qualify with Landmark, referral attorneys must own at least $300,000 in malpractice insurance, show areas of expertise, be in good standing with the local bar, and have been practicing law for at least five years.
In June 1987, Nolan sold his house in suburban Michigan, raising about $25,000 to put into the business. He knew that wouldn't cover the legal and accounting expenses, so he accepted a lucrative consulting contract -- $10,000 a month for six months -- in Dallas. Nolan put aside what he could to live on, originally thinking he might launch the company in the Lone Star State. Upon further study, he decided to head for Colorado, where the regulations concerning legal plans are as thin as the mountain air.
Between December 1987 and March '88, he ran through most of the money he had saved. He had to draw up contracts with access and referral attorneys and with insurance brokers, at a cost of about $20,000. Accounting fees for the pro forma ran to more than $3,000. Printing brochures and letterhead stationery cost another $12,000. He saved money by working from what he called "the executive dining room' -- his house. Last January, when Nolan began thinking about hiring, he decided he would have to move to improve his credibility. The problem became apparent when he interviewed Randolph Orr, now vice-president of marketing. Orr plopped down on Nolan's couch and said, "I just want to know: exactly what kind of scam are you running here?" In March, Nolan began occupying space in the Colorado Club Building, which offered him a no-rent deal as long as he agreed to rent offices once Landmark was up and running.
By then, Nolan was exhausted, and so were his funds. Looking for more, Nolan has made the rounds of venture capitalists but says "they want too much of the company." What he'd really like is somebody who will put in $250,000 without demanding a controlling interest.
Nolan estimates that Landmark will need about $300,000 to keep both the Arizona and Colorado offices running for the next year. But that also assumes that the offices will bring in no sales all year; in truth, Nolan expects to see about $30,000 a month from each office by the end of the fall.
If that happens, then he can spend the $300,000 just the way he wants: opening as many as four more branch offices this year. The start-up costs of each office will run to only about $25,000, most of that for a computer with a modem and terminal. Nolan plans to lease the furniture and space. Once an office is set up, it will cost about $17,000 a month to operate a branch.
Nolan is also hoping to raise at least $3 million by December through a public offering of less than 30% of Landmark's stock. With that cushion, he would be able to speed his growth, opening more than eight branches a year after this year.
But Nolan isn't counting on that. "This company could finance its own growth," he says. "If I can't raise the money, we'll just grow slower. It's tough.'
Christopher Nolan isn't just introducing a new product in a proven market; he's trying to build a market where, as Hughes puts it, "there has been a lot of crawling, stumbling, and falling.'
Ultimately, it may turn out that consumers are dubious about the guidance they get from attorneys whose profits depend on dispensing wisdom fast. Companies, having watched group health premiums rise an average of 40% last year, may not be in the mood to add legal plans as a benefit for their employees.
But assuming there is the strong market Nolan sees, Landmark is most vulnerable in its distribution system: the insurance brokers. "I'm betting very, very heavily on brokerage community acceptance," Nolan admits. "I am putting all my eggs in one basket." There are several potential holes in that basket.
One is that the brokers might not push the plans because they require too much explanation. New insurance-type products, as opposed to marketing twists on familiar products, take forever to catch on. Brokers might decide they'd rather spend the time selling a higher-commission product like group health insurance.
If the brokers don't push fast enough, the lawyers' interest may wane. "Where are all those clients?" has been the parting shot of many a legal plan lawyer.
Finally, there is the one risk that any small company in a new industry must anticipate. Most big insurance companies have avoided writing legal plans because it is hard to assess the risk. Watching Landmark may give them some ideas. Big ideas.
By that time Nolan hopes that Landmark will be the perfect acquisition target, though it's hard to imagine him returning to work for somebody else. He does not, after all, speak fondly of his former employers.
"I was as big a sucker as anyone else," he says. "But those companies didn't know how to do it. There's big demand for this product, and I've got the formula that works.'
Research assistance was provided by Leslie Brokaw.
The Company: Landmark Legal Plans Inc., Denver
Concept: Legal plans for businesses and individuals offering specified legal services and a discount retainer for an annual fee
Projections: Pretax net of $58,700 in 1989. In 1993, sales of $47.8 million, with more than $11 million in profits (about 24% pretax net)
Hurdles: Questionable demand; getting insurance brokers to sell plans; delivering customer volume to lawyers quickly enough to keep them interested in providing services
Landmark Legal Plans Inc. projected annual operating statements
Fiscal year 1989 Fiscal year 1993Sales (and % of sales) (and % of sales)
Business plans $702,600 (40%) $19,131,400 (40%)
Individual plans 1,053,800 (60%) 28,697,200 (60%)
Total sales 1,756,400 47,828,600
Cost of Sales
IMS commissions 737,600 (42%) 15,010,800 (31.4%)(brokers)
Access attorneys 316,200 (18%) 10,588,800 (22.1%)
NIA commission 210,800 (12%) 4,782,900 (10%) (administration)
Total cost of sales 1,264,600 (72%) 30,382,500 (63.5%)
Gross Profit 491,800 (28%) 17,446,100 (36.5%)
Corporate salaries/ 210,800 (12%) 3,947,200 (8.3%)bonuses
Printing and advertising 53,200 (3%) 837,900 (1.8%)
Seminars and training 16,900 (1%) 267,000 (0.6%)
Legal fees 20,300 (1.2%) 75,600 (0.2%)
Miscellaneous 14,500 (0.8%) 23,700 (0.05%)marketing
Telephone 7,500 (0.4%) 114,000 (0.2%)
Postage 10,500 (0.6%) 166,300 (0.3%)
Rent 22,200 (1.3%) 123,200 (0.3%)
Equipment 44,700 (2.5%) 250,200 (0.5%)
Supplies 5,300 (0.3%) 83,200 (0.2%)
Miscellaneous 27,200 (1.5%) 142,900 (0.3%)
Total operating 433,100 (24.7%) 6,031,200 (12.6%)expenses
Net Income 58,700 (3.3%) 11,414,900 (23.9%) before Taxes
Sometime in 1983, as Christopher Nolan was giving a seminar on real estate, a man emerged from the crowd and asked him, "How much are you spending on an attorney?" Too much, replied Nolan -- who, as a real-estate investor, was plunking down as much as $6,000 a month for a lawyer to handle contractor's agreements, mortgages, and so on. That's when the man told him about prepaid legal plans. Nolan bought one. He found it actually cut his legal bills in half. "I became intrigued," he says.
Once Nolan becomes intrigued, he generally follows up. Not long after graduating from Northern Michigan University in 1973, Nolan entered the securities industry, where he helped wealthy clients pad their portfolios with tax shelters. What intrigued him then, he says, was that most of them had made money, and buckets of it, in real estate.
Off he went to a real-estate seminar given by Albert J. Lowry, a then-popular (now bankrupt) lecturer on the subject. Not only did Nolan take the plunge into real estate -- he claims he made about $160,000 gross his first year -- but he eventually accepted Lowry's invitation to tour nearly 160 cities, telling 1.5 million people about how Lowry's system had worked for him.
But Nolan, now 37, claims none of his previous jobs fully prepared him for the challenge of starting Landmark Legal Plans Inc. Well, maybe one. As a kid, he led groups of people on fishing and hunting trips through the wilderness of northern Ontario. "It was great for honing people skills," he says. "You can drop me in the middle of anywhere, and I'll do just fine. So Landmark doesn't scare me all that much.'
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
President, Time Financial Services, a Reseda, Calif., insurance brokerage firm; managing editor of California Broker magazine
Nolan's certainly right in that he's created a plan less complicated for the broker and buyer, which seems to offer more benefits than other plans. I would recommend the plan to my clients over other plans I've seen, absolutely.
His problem, though, is depending on the broker as a means of marketing. He plans on getting a substantial number of his clients from group sales, but I don't think the market's there. Employers aren't ready to put money into it. They have to provide medical and life insurance because everyone else does, but there's no pressure to offer a group legal plan. And with recent increases of up to 40% for the medical plans, they've been cutting back on benefits, not adding new ones. Brokers are already struggling to put together reasonable packages of basic insurance for their clients. Convincing those clients to do anything else now is tremendously difficult.
Nolan also shouldn't depend on the brokers to sell the individual plans. If I sell one of those plans, I'll only make $40 -- and it's hard to make me do that for $40. Having brokers sell the business plans, however, is reasonable. For the broker it's more profitable -- $120 to $150 -- and it's a good service for the client. I can see marketing that plan.
I would recommend that he sell the individual plans directly, with advertising and direct mail. I know it's expensive, but brokers just won't be eager to market it.
Will he succeed? Not with the current marketing plan. If he can figure out a way to get the company off the ground with a smaller number of customers, and then grow slowly, he might get somewhere. But with the money he's thinking of putting into it, and the number of people he needs to sign up, I think he could go bankrupt.
E. BULKELEY GRISWOLD
President, MarketCorp Venture Associates, a Westport, Conn., venture capital firm specializing in consumer products and services
I would not invest in this as it's presently constituted, and as it stands now, I don't think it will succeed. I've just read too many plans from individuals who have observed an industry but not run a company or been accountable for profits and losses. They see a need, but a lot of it is still supposition and hasn't been tested properly. Prepaid legal services is an industry that hasn't succeeded in this country; there's a lot of missionary work to be done. And whenever I hear talk of missionaries and development of a business and proving a need, I remember that missionaries do good work but don't usually get wealthy.
I think Nolan is running into the market too fast. He's got to test his thesis: how he'll market his plan and service it, and what kind of renewals he'll get. He's got to withdraw from three or four of the markets he's talking about, take one particular area, run a fairly decent test, and do some focus-group work with the consumers and with attorneys' groups to see exactly what they are willing to do and how appealing his fees are.
The money he says he needs now is far too little. It's probably more like half a million to a million dollars to take a market and test it. When he says venture capitalists want too much of the company, it's the classic story of the guy who's sold his house and is betting the ranch, is now in search of that next chunk of dollars, but is very unwilling to consider giving up control. And that potentially can lead to failure. He can't let the fear of losing control get in the way of doing it right.
He also talks about raising $3 million with an equity offering -- but if you think having an IPO in your second year of business is a godsend, then you haven't done it before. All of a sudden you're trying to satisfy shareholders instead of really building the fundamental strengths of the business. You could end up getting too much equity too fast during the period you ought to be doing testing. And if you have a good public offering and the stock price goes to inordinately high levels and you do not perform, there will be disappointment -- and those shareholders tend to sell that stock pretty quickly. Then there are all the attendant costs of an IPO and the amount of time it takes to do it. For all those reasons, it's better to forestall that kind of financial arrangement until you've proven the concept, built the team, and have some strength under your belt.
Founder and CEO of Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc., a legal service company he started in 1972. In 1987, the company was #92 on the Inc. 100.
There are a couple of problems here. The biggest fallacy of Nolan's plan is its marketing. I don't think anybody's had more experience trying to work with insurance brokers than I have, and it's been one of the most disappointing things I've ever tried. It did not work.
Despite the fact that we've signed up literally thousands of brokers across the country, that we pay higher commissions than Landmark, and that we advance those commissions, the amount of prepaid legal services sold for us by brokers wouldn't pay our light bill. These people are used to selling life insurance and health insurance, which is a totally different ball game. With legal plans, there has to be some education about the product before the sale -- you have to introduce the consumer to the product and convince him there is a need for it before he'll buy it -- and most insurance brokers for some reason can't do that, or won't.
Second is the middleman strategy. It's a great theory -- I wish I could do it -- to farm everything out. That's what he's doing, saying he's going to get somebody to do his marketing and pay him a percentage. And get somebody to do his administrative work and pay him a percentage. And get people to do the legal work and pay them some percentage. Then he's going to be left with 28% for doing nothing? If I could get that kind of work, I'd be doing it.