Law “Dear Potential Litigant…”

Despite attempts to regulate their behavior, personal injury lawyers are just a fender bender away-on TV, in the Yellow Pages, everywhere.

We understand that you were recently injured in an accident that appears to be another person’s fault.

-LAW OFFICES OF LONCAR & ASSOCIATES



We received your name from Direct Mail Marketing Inc. (who obtained it off an accident report). Records indicate that you were involved in an accident caused by another person.

-LAW OFFICE OF WOLFE & KINKADE, P.C.



It is our understanding that you were recently involved in an auto accident. ARE YOU AWARE that you are entitled to monetary compensation?

-LAW OFFICES OF REGIS MULLEN, INC.



ON A SWELTERING AFTERNOON IN JUNE, my daughter unwittingly qualified for the Ambulance Chasers’ Most Likely To Be Worth A Mint list. She was stopped at the intersection of LBJ and Abrarns when a skittish mailman named Melvin slammed his mail truck into the car behind her, knocking that car into her’s. When the policeman arrived, the mailman had a simple explanation: “Someone beeped and I hit the gas.”

As the officer filled out the accident report, he asked whether my daughter desired any solicitation from lawyers or other professionals concerning the wreck. She said no, so the officer placed an N in the appropriate box. My daughter also stated, for the record, that she was not hurt. This too was noted on the report.

By Friday, our mailbox was full of envelopes emblazoned with attorneys’ in-signias. And my daughter was out of town, cliff diving. I feared the worst. What had she done? As I tore through the letters, I quickly realized that they were all invitations to sue for injuries she might have suffered in the traffic accident.

Some contained glove-compartment size guides, police reports, refrigerator magnets, and slick brochures. But all had a common theme. Each lawyer would be happy to meet her at home, work, or the hospital, if she desired representation for her pain and suffering.

Accident non-victims are not the only ones who have noticed the abundance and annoyance of lawyers’ advertising. This summer the U.S. Supreme Court took a tougher stance on it, and Texas’ extensive new rules took effect July 29, allowing the State Bar of Texas to police itself. The Bar’s immediate past president, attorney Jim Branton from San Antonio, appointed a review committee which oversees all advertising to the public, including print, video, audio, billboards, and DART buses.

According to the Bar’s new guidelines, the word “advertisement” must be plainly marked on the envelope and the first page of all such solicitations; board certification statements or disclaimers must be conspicuously displayed; the lawyer may not claim to be a specialist in areas in which he is not board-certified; potential clients must be told if cases or matters will be referred to other lawyers, a practice known as “brokering;” and claims which are not objectively verifiable, such as “We can settle your claim faster and get you a larger settlement than any other attorney,” are not allowed.

Based on my survey, the committee will face a daunting task in simply seeing all the ads, commercials, brochures, and bus-signs, much less evaluating them. On a recent weekday morning between 10:30 and 11:30, I turned on the television and took a count of these “One call…That’s all” lawyers, the ones who don’t want us to “settle for less,” and who want to make certain that we get “every dollar we deserve.” The total was staggering. Channel surfing on network and cable channels, I saw 32 commercials for personal injury lawyers aired in the one-hour span. That’s more than one every other minute.

Some took the big-bully approach. Jim Adler pronounced himself “a tough, smart lawyer” while behind hirn, a human skeleton in a car thrust forward and whiplashed backwards.

Some dangled the lure of big bucks. Twice during the hour, Cole & Associates urged us to consider David Cole’s $9 million proven track record. And four times, David Kondos of Kondos & Kondos stood in front of a library shelf and told any potential litigant that he “will be as tough as it takes to make sure you get every dollar you deserve.”

David Vereeke chalked up five commercials on separate channels during the one-hour span, as did high-profile, picture-on-the-back-of-the-DART-bus, accused-of-big-amy-but-case-dismissed Brian Loncar. Others weighed in with one, two, or three commercials each. As I watched the avalanche of come-hither spots which seem to target down-on-their-luck citizens looking for some easy bucks, the word “shyster” did come to mind.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders, a non-attorney member of the advertising review committee, uses even stronger language about some of the material he’s been reviewing. “Some of the ads are slimy,” he says. Invective aside, the primary concern of the committee is getting information to the lawyers, so they have the opportunity to make the required changes.

How much does this televised invasion of our living rooms cost the lawyers? At KDAF-Channel 33, where lawyer advertising is rampant, that’s a secret. Tom Comerford, general sales manager, says, “That depends on who the lawyer is and how much money they have.” When asked what he means by “how much money they have,” he replies: “Just that. It depends on how much they have,”

At KXTA-Channel 21, a staffer revealed that a30-second spot during the 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. time slot sells for $85. That sounded cheap to me until attorney Angel Reyes revealed that many lawyers spend upwards of $75,000 a year on television advertising. At $85 a pop, that’s some 882 commercials. And that’s just for television.

Does the TV blitz pay off for the attorneys? The $9 million dollar man, David Cole, uses that figure because, he says, that’s how much his office made in settlements last year. Asked why he so constantly touts his track record, Cole reveals an unsettling figure. There are about 12,000 practicing attorneys in Dallas County who are his potential competitors. Think of it. If promotions continue at the current rate, school children will point to the omni-televised Wallace Craig and say, “I know him. He’s on my side!” And they can chant, “One call…That’s all” while skipping rope at recess.

For some attorneys, television is not the only way to go. The current Southwestern Bell Greater Dallas Yellow Pages contains 37 full-page ads for lawyers. An additional 31 pages contain three-quarter-page ads and smaller. The general listings are added to that. And the back cover displays accident and injury lawyers Kraft & Johnson, in full living color.

Not surprisingly, few of these ads could be accused of subtlety. Consider the open-mouthed, attacking sharks which mark the full-page ads of Best and Associates. “People have the impression that they want an attorney who is forceful, and fearful, and scares people,” says attorney James Best, who goes after auto accident victims. “They want one who’s intimidating. You don’t want a nice lawyer. You want somebody mean to fight against the insurance companies’ high-dollar attorneys.”

Carol Kondos, who is in partnership with her brother-in-law, David, says the firm obtains a four to one return on its advertising dollar. She adds that they prefer television ads over Yellow Pages ads because the rates are not so steep. For $4,429 per month you can buy a full-page ad in SWBYP’s. If you want two pages together, to form the imposing look of one large ad, the price is $5,903 per page, per month. A 12-month contract is required, costing up to $141,672 a year.

Given such expenditures, advertising must pay off big time for lawyers. As surely as images of freshly popped popcorn entice movie goers to head for the snack bar when they may not need the calories, personal injury lawyers’ advertisements urge people to take legal action when they may not have the injuries.

With that in mind, I called Regis Mullen, whose unwanted solicitation letters had asked my daughter, in dramatic capitals: ARE YOU AWARE THAT YOU ARE ENTITLED TO MONETARY COMPENSATION? He also has a full-page ad in the Yellow Pages. I wanted to ask him about his views on advertising, appealing to people who may not honestly need his services, like my daughter, who had made it clear from the start that she was not injured. But Mullen refused to talk to me, telling his office manager to inform me that he will do what he thinks is right.

No one is proposing a world without personal injury lawyers, In this city of freeway frenzy someone has to make sure that the insurance companies cover our assets. Now that tailgating is a popular pastime and the two-second rule has come to be interpreted as, “two-seconds and you’re dead if you don’t get out of my way,” we must have someone to represent us.

Wallace Craig says that without contingency lawyers, people without money could not afford justice. Granted. But does anyone deny the common-sense assumption that lawyer solicitations help spur the number of frivolous and fraudulent claims?

Of the dozens of lawyers interviewed, most estimated that whiplash or neck sprain accounted for 75 to 95 percent of their clients’ injuries. These injuries cannot usually be detected on X-ray, MRI, or CT scans, A doctor can’t usually prove you don’t hurt, if you say you do. Still, the status quo has its defenders.

“The one thing that’s pretty clear is that you can’t regulate taste and dignity. The citizens of this country have to do that for themselves,” says Dallas attorney Charles L. “Chip” Babcock. He challenged the new advertising and solicitation rules in Texans Against Censorship Inc., et al, v. The State Bar of Texas, et al. The suit was not successful. But Babcock doesn’t believe that the rules governing advertisements for lawyers need to be changed. “It’s appropriate to have a rule that lawyers should not advertise in a false or misleading way, but we had that rule, and there was not much of a problem. We had no prosecutions with it. But the Bar is taking it quite a bit farther than that,” he says.

Even attorney Jim Branton, a premier supporter of the new rules regulating lawyers’ advertising, doesn’t admit that the ads are enticements or bait, as any other type of advertisement surely is. He says, “If someone’s inclined to lie about injury then I think they’ll do it whether they got a letter or saw an advertisement or not.”

Dallas trial lawyer Mark Elliston, on the other hand, thinks the new guidelines don’t go far enough in restricting advertising. “I’m very much opposed to it,” he says of advertising and the tactics some attorneys employ to solicit clients. “I think the manner in which they advertise is ruining the dignity of our profession.”

Until the lawyers and plaintiffs stop looking at accidents as a chance to bring home the bank, dignity may be in short supply. Under our current system, clients are apt to want their booby prize when things go crash and lawyers come calling. So court is in session. It’s Dignity v. Advertising. But the jury’s out. And it may be years before we hear the verdict.

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