Fred Penney on the next wave of legal marketing
Published in 2022 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2022
Fred Penney’s not a famous actor, singer or athlete. He’s a personal injury lawyer who 30 years ago founded an eponymous firm in Roseville, population 135,000. So why does he have 1.2 million Instagram followers?
It’s all part of the job these days, he says.
Penney has always promoted his businesses in unusual ways, like putting his name on race cars, but it’s his use of LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook that have garnered him ink in Forbes and Entrepreneur.
Colleagues and opposing attorneys often tell Penney they don’t have the time to “play around” on social media. He is quick to set them straight. “This is a lot of work,” he says. “Building your brand is early mornings, it’s late nights, pounding away. That’s what I do.”
It’s also weekends and holidays and three hours every Saturday co-hosting Radio Law Talk, a live syndicated law program. It’s writing an autobiography: Goose, coming this year from Beyond Publishing.
Penney has a farmer’s work ethic, borne from the small Northern California town where he grew up picking peaches to contribute to his family’s bottom line. He was a hard worker, but he didn’t have the best grades. People who knew him growing up still marvel that he’s become a successful lawyer.
Early in his career, Penney recalls facing a “superstar trial lawyer”—and winning. When polled, jurors said they recognized the other attorney’s skill, but that he was “a little over our heads. But Mr. Penney, you were like one of us.”
“That’s where I try to be as a lawyer,” Penney says. “Like an individual who is sitting in the jury box, not above them.”
He does the same on social media, where, like many of us, he’ll post a photo of his lunch—in his case, a pastrami sandwich. But his has almost 10 thousand likes.
He admits to occasionally posting a “thirst trap,” which for most social users means sharing a sexy photo of themselves for attention. For Penney, it’s pets. A recent photo of a family member’s dog on the ’Gram got over 23,000 likes.
“If I’m out here reading a law book, everyone’s going to scroll, scroll, scroll,” he says. “But I put up a little dog and say, ‘Show me your dog’ and BOOM! Then it hits.”
After a few hours of morning social, Penney turns to lawyering, overseeing his firm and a stable of attorneys that includes his son and son-in-law. (He puts the younger men to work finessing the firm’s TikTok presence.)
In the evenings, he’s back online, checking how many people have responded to his posts and engaging with his followers. His efforts have gained him multiple celebrity clients—but he’s not naming names.
“Once you get big enough, it’s like a freight train going down the track,” Penney says. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of time to get where I am, but once you are, look out.”
Speaking of modes of transportation, Penney & Associates’ private plane, the Phenom 300 jet, is a hot topic among people who like Penney—and certainly among those who don’t.
But what matters, he says, is that they’re talking about it, period.
Several of the workers at Van Nuys Airport have received branded Penney & Associates camp chairs and T-shirts, while business associates receive a personalized pillow as a gift. “As stupid as it sounds,” he says, “that pillow has a picture of the jet and says ‘I flew on Penney & Associates’ Phenom 300 N30FP.’”
To those who say he’s just showboating, Penney notes that it’s a sign his firm is doing well.
“Some people think it’s arrogant, but it’s a fact: We are successful at what we do, and what we receive for our clients, and the more successful we are, the more money we’re going to make,” he says. “That’s not a negative. We’re helping people who desperately need it.”
Penney likes the critics; he says they keep him on his toes. “If you’re at the top of the hill or close to it, they’re going to try to knock you down,” he says. “If you’re not doing anything right, they’re not going to care about you.”
With a million followers, what could come next? That’s what Penney asks himself weekly. “The lifespan of any social media platform is uncertain—remember MySpace?” he says.