If you don't get paid, they don't get paid. But how hard do TV lawyers really work on your behalf?

by Mike Gibson

In this damp fall morning, there's no mistaking the evidence inside the City-County Building; amassing at various points around the spacious two-tiered hall are dozens of workaday Knoxvillians, most of them plainly-dressed common folk leaning on decorative stone buttresses or filing into one of the foreboding oak-themed war chambers that line the walls, tough, sun-beaten faces etched with brooding, anxious gazes. Court, it would seem, is now in session.

But on the more tranquil end of the upper hall, removed from the usual courtroom clatter and peal, the almost disconcertingly quiet second Chancery Court hosts a tiny gathering of its own: two attorneys; the plaintiff, a stout, handsome African-American woman in her mid-30s; the judge, a bare-pated, preternaturally dignified sort seated beneath the august portraits of jurists past; and the elderly bailiff, a hound-jowled senior dozing quietly in the far corner of the room.

The plaintiff, a nurse's assistant at a local hospital, suffered a badly-mangled left ankle when a patient she was attending slipped and fell on said appendage last year. Through a convoluted legal calculus that weighs both the afflicted's weekly salary and the severity of the ailment, her attorney has asked for a $26,000 settlement from the hospital's worker's compensation fund, in addition to life-long treatment by an orthopedic specialist.

During testimony, her solicitor painstakingly draws her out on the smallest details of her trauma, asks at length which of the countless appointed tasks she is unable to perform at her nurse's post, her grocery and office sidelights, her volunteer position at a local charity, as mother to her two young children...All the while, the bailiff snores quietly.

After more than two hours of exacting testimony—questions, cross examinations, and re-directs that see the woman and her husband (waiting patiently outside the courtroom until the bailiff wakens with a jolt and waddles out to call the witness) paced by both plaintiff and defense counsel, the chancellor renders a verdict, awarding her a $13,000 (still far more than had been suggested by the defense) settlement as well as the requested treatment.

"We realized our request sounded a little high, but she has a problem that will never go away," says Bill Hotz, the plaintiff's vigorous courtroom advocate. "The defense was emphasizing the fact she had no doctor's restrictions. That's a no-brainer; she can do a job that requires standing, but then she's completely sapped at the end of the day."

You may recognize Bill Hotz's name; a 20-some-odd year legal veteran, Hotz is one of many local lawyers who solicit their pool of clients through television advertising. It's a distinction that brings to mind all sorts of bombastic, overwhelmingly negative imagery—oily hucksters in cheap suits feverishly promising huge settlements, filing frivolous suits and generally conducting themselves with all the decorum and dignity of a small-town used car salesman. (Hotz's firm doesn't employ many gimmicky on-screen tactics, although a couple Hotz spots are particularly memorable, including a "scales of justice" plug and a slot featuring portly, Santa-like partner James Galli astride his massive Harley-Davidson road cruiser.)

The reality is often considerably less sensational, as evidenced by this relatively routine workman's comp. case, the bread-and-butter of most television attorneys. "Lots of people think we're out there filing lots of frivolous lawsuits," says Hotz. "There are always a few that don't belong, but most of the poor ones are thrown out long before they get to court. The vast majority of the cases you'll see involve very reasonable, valid claims."

Still, the perception lingers that TV lawyers are somehow less scrupulous than their lower-key legal brethren; that the practice of using television commercials to vend legal services is somehow...tawdry, beneath the quasi-regal dignity of one the world's oldest and most venerated professions.

"I think there is still a little tendency to look down on the practice (of TV advertising)," says John Willis, a Knoxville attorney whose work as defense counsel for insurance companies saw him take a seat at the defendant's table opposite several area television stalwarts. "Individually, I think the lawyers get along well with each other. But when you look at the Big Picture, you tend to snicker at (the TV contingent)."

The truth about most TV lawyers is too complicated for generalization, however, as several of Knoxville's own television attorneys (as well as their non-advertising counterparts) reveal.

Virginia, a Sevierville native and recent client of Knox TV lawyers Fox and Farmer, is perhaps an apt example of the legal and social niche TV lawyers fill. The victim of a careless driver last year ("This fellow came barreling down the hill and hit me on the back."), Virginia is a widow, a senior citizen living on a fixed income, and the accident caused extensive damage to her back.

She says her attorneys were "very patient...they didn't mind me calling every other day." Her case was resolved out of court (as are more than 90 percent of most trial lawyers' cases), and the hefty settlement left her in markedly better financial straits.

Virginia says she chose Fox and Farmer because, having seen the duo's television commercials (most of which are pretty low-key affairs, featuring the two middle-aged partners seated at a table filled with legal tomes), they were the only attorneys that came to mind.

"You've got to reach people who don't know lawyers," explains James Fox, the firm's silver-maned senior partner. "An early survey we had done showed 60 percent of the people didn't know a lawyer, and another huge portion didn't even know someone who knew a lawyer."

"Old clients weren't coming back to me; they were carrying new cases to the only two advertisers we used to have on TV," Hotz says flatly. A 1973 graduate of the University of Santa-Clara law school, Hotz began practicing in Knoxville only because he ran out of money while traipsing through the city on a post-college round-the-world backpack trip. ("Hey, it was the '70's, man," he offers by way of explanation.)

"I had two clients in a three to four month period who went with other lawyers in personal injury cases," says Hotz, who had by then chosen to specialize in that area of law. "I figure if I'm losing very close clients, then I'd better advertise if I want to continue in this line of work."

Hotz explains that the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates of legal advertising in 1977, when a pair of cases—Bates vs. Arizona and California vs. Jacoby and Myers—challenged state laws that prohibited attorneys from hawking their services through any commercial medium. Through the 1980s, local attorneys like James Milligan and Ward Whelchel gained name and notoriety through their oft-run television spots, and today more than half a dozen area firms advertise via the small screen.

Several attorneys believe that the advent of law-office commercialism reshaped the American Bar Association, permitting attorneys who might have once toiled as so-called "general practitioners" to focus their professional efforts on a particular legal specialty. Most lawyers who advertise via the television medium fall into one of a few categories—personal injury/worker's compensation, bankruptcy, divorce, and a smattering of criminal defense.

These attorneys admit, however, that more calls yield more cranks—more flimflam artists who siphon the system with falsified disability claims, with fake gimps and feigned limps that draw unearned workman's comp. Fox personally screens the majority of potential F&F clients, noting most of the disability cheats can be identified long before they see the inside of his tastefully-adorned West Knoxville office space.

"When you advertise, you inevitably get a lot of cases that are questionable," says Fox, a former criminal lawyer who jokes that he got "chewed out by the judge plenty of times" in days past, one of the hazards of his prior specialty. "But you can screen out an awful lot of the bad apples just through the phone calls."

"Life's too short to put up with a bunch of bullshit," offers another local TV attorney, a liability specialist who prefers to remain anonymous. "If they're going to bullshit me and the judge and everyone else, get 'em out of here. It usually doesn't take much time to figure them out. They say a few things that don't jive, and they're back on the street."

He remembers a former client, an accident victim who never mentioned his criminal record until it was revealed by the defense in court; the plaintiff artlessly denied every fact and query pertaining to his life behind bars and former identity—until a question about whether he was the same John Doe who spent "six years in the state pen" elicited an indignant rebuttal: "It was only two!"

And another accident casualty, a woman who claimed the trauma from a car collision left her incapable of so much as lifting her right arm for the courtroom swearing-in, was exposed as fraudulent when a defense team private investigator produced a candid videotape of the plaintiff performing all manner of strenuous tasks, the withered limb exhibiting an astonishing range of motion. "Those two experiences made me really stress to clients to tell the truth. It won't necessarily make your case, but a lie will always kill it."

And sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction, such as the time one local attorney's TV ad caught the eye of a homeowner whose claim involved the embarrassing collapse of a certain key plumbing fixture. Or the time a TV partnership received a call from one of its clients, only moments after he had gunned down two intruders caught by the eye of his security camera.

Or when Hotz was sought by a man who suffered a 13,000 volt shock while painting a billboard, a jolt that hurled him to the ground and left him paralyzed for life. Having sued the man's employer for workman's comp., Hotz sued the billboard owner (which happened, in this instance, to be fun-fact kingpin "Ripley's Believe It Or Not.") "We had to prove the client didn't get into the wires, but that the shock came from arcing—surges of electricity through the air," says Hotz. "He collected maximum benefits."

Hotz Partner Gary Adkins' Favorite Lawyer Jokes:

Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and a catfish?
A: One is a slimy, scum-sucking, bottom-feeding scavenger, and the other is a fish.

Two lions are walking down trail, single file, when one turns and says 'Pardon me, but did you just lick my butt?'
The second one answers, "Yeah, I just ate a lawyer and I had to do something to get the taste out of my mouth."

Having defended several cases brought to trial by one of the more prominent local TV barristers, one local attorney recounts how this particular solicitor once sued two local law enforcement officers in connection with an arrest they didn't make, a case of mistaken identity possibly owing to slipshod research and a case file too big to allow for care.

When the plaintiff, a police informant assisting in an arrest, was placed in cuffs (as per his advance request) along with a suspect, the man decided his make-believe captors had treated him badly, and sued the department, claiming they were responsible for his various bodily aches and pains.

But his TV lawyer apparently pulled the wrong police file—a second, later arrest report involving the same suspect who had been targeted in the prior case, an incident at which neither the plaintiff nor his "arresting officers" were present.

"He had the wrong people, and the officers were pretty upset about it," says "Bob," the attorney for both policemen. "At my insistence and threats, he dropped the claim. I can see how he could easily have mixed the cases up. The fault you can assign is that (this TV attorney) takes whatever walks in the door. My educated guess is he had a problem and decided the only way to make money was to push on with whatever he had."

And such is only one of several knocks on lawyers who hawk their services on local airwaves—that their cases are more frivolous, their methods less ethical, their attention to detail less exacting than other, less market-savvy practitioners. "They deal in volume, with lots of spurious cases," says one local critic. "There's one or two in particular, where I know that when their case comes into our office, it's probably pretty flimsy. They have to settle the vast majority."

"It comes down to whether the client is being well-served," says another. "How many are looking for that one big case? I suspect they pick out major cases and let the rest go to somebody else."

The allegations are manifold, as are the defenses; many lawyers level very specific allegations at certain local advertisers. Another, more neutral observer avers that "my sense is that (TV advertisers) aren't much different. Ward Whelchel is one of the biggest, but he is also known as quite a good lawyer." (Whelchel, the best-known Knoxville television attorney and the de facto godfather of the local industry, unfortunately didn't wish to be interviewed.)

At Tennessee's Board of Professional Responsibility in Nashville (the sounding board for attorney-related complaints), President Tom Bracey says no figures are kept as to the number of incidents involving TV lawyers ("We don't put an asterisk by the complaint," he says with a chuckle.), but he affirms that most of the figures offered by local legal advertisers—caseloads, percentage tried vs. percentage settled, etc.—fall within the expected professional norms. "Few civil cases actually reach the trial stage—probably less than 10 percent," he offers.

"I'd be a bit circumspect about that guy in Florida who advertises 1-800-DIVORCE, but my sense is that television lawyers are fairly representative of the entire industry," says University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, a keen local legal observer. "There are some pretty good TV lawyers, and there are plenty who don't advertise who are terrible."

Reynolds notes three common allegations concerning legal advertisers—that they often skimp on contingency cases; that they settle cases too readily in the interest of expediency; that they bring to trial too many spurious claims—and observes that such accusations are generally overstated.

"You hear these sorts of things, but they're not necessarily always true," says Reynolds. "There will always be those who abuse the system, but most television lawyers are going to do the work, go to trial when necessary, and be reasonably careful about the types of cases they'll take.

"What you've got to remember is that this is not a neutral discussion; people who are most opposed (to advertising legal services) are often the lawyers who generally represent businesses and insurance companies."

But Reynolds says that perhaps the biggest reason TV lawyers are viewed less than favorably by their peers owes more to professional vanity than ethics. "Lawyers have always had a sort of stuffy image of themselves—gold-frame spectacles and Dickensian furniture and all that."

That may be slowly changing. F&F partner Steve Fox (son of the elder Fox) notes that advertising has slowly become the norm for a number of heretofore "untainted" professions, and that such progression has evolved a change in attitudes. "We get more guff from our friends than anyone else."

Hotz, who has worked extensively with needy clients outside his regular practice, maintains that small-screen attorneys provide a valuable service to their clients both through the information they impart in their commercials, and by offering a generally less affluent clientele the option of employing a lawyer's services via contingency fees. (Reynolds agrees, noting that TV lawyers have played an important role in bringing legal services to the lower middle class.)

"I'd say lawyers on TV represent the spectrum of the bar as well as any of them—there are some great lawyers on TV," Hotz insists. "There's a perception that lawyers in general, and especially lawyers like this, are responsible for too many lawsuits. But there are plenty of safeguards—most of the frivolous actions get thrown out. If it wasn't for trial lawyers, the abuses of big business and big government would be rampant. We help level the playing field."

"People who level these criticisms are misguided in their thinking," Fox says sternly. "Before advertising, people went to their bank head or country club president to find a lawyer, they sought out ambulance chasers who gave out cards at the scene of an accident. These people didn't necessarily have your best interests in mind. Now, there are a lot more choices."