LOS ANGELES (CN) — In 2020, as the Covid lockdown wore on, Los Angeles was hit with a very different kind of epidemic: A small collection of stern-looking men in dark suits invaded the skyline, beseeching the city's most desperate.
"Injured in an accident?"
"WHO HURT YOU?"
Attorney billboards have long been a fixture in LA, and the older firms like Jacoby & Meyers, Larry H. Parker ("I'll fight for you!") and Jacob Emrani ("Call Jacob!") remained well represented. But they were joined by a bevy of newcomers — Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys, John Morgan, and perhaps most of all by Sweet James, also known as James Bergener, who enjoyed a brief stint on the reality series "The Real Housewives of Orange County."
According to data from the consulting company Kantar, while many of the city's biggest advertisers — namely movies and television shows — slashed their ad budgets during the pandemic, the legal services industry doubled down. Its spending on billboards grew from $12.2 million in 2019 to $18 million in 2021, becoming the biggest billboard spender outside the entertainment industry, where it remains today.
"Years ago, lawyer TV commercials used to be as ubiquitous as court shows," said Gino Sesto, the founder and CEO of Dash Two, an outdoor advertiser. "However, TV viewership is mostly down with the advent of streaming services and social media. Billboards have proven to be the best way to brand a law firm in a commuter market like Los Angeles."
Billboard prices plummeted during the pandemic, as movie theaters endured a long hibernation. Law firms were able to pick up vacant billboards, or "remnant space," for a deep discount.
"When a lot of businesses are suffering, personal injury law is counter-cyclical," said Andy Pirnia, a personal injury lawyer. "It’s not affected by the pandemic or the economy. Insurance companies always have a shitload of money and they're very rarely paying it out."
Pirnia, a native Angeleno who started his own firm in 2014, was one lawyer who jumped on the billboard bandwagon. His ads show him drawn in silhouette, making him look like one of the bandits from the film "Reservoir Dogs." "Pirnia Law," the text for one reads, in aggressive font. "We run LA." No phone number, no web address.
"In Los Angeles the personal injury field is very saturated," Pirnia said. "There’s a lot of people that will get cases using SEO [search engine optimization] or companies that generate leads. But at the end of the day, if you want to generate leads, the only way to do it is to be in everyone's face."
The proliferation of high-volume law firms who advertise heavily has drawn criticism, particularly from other attorneys.
"It’s all designed for the quick turnaround," said Rex Parris, an attorney and mayor of Lancaster, a small city in the northern reaches of Los Angeles County. "They send them to their chiropractors, and then they want to settle the case right away."
The typical business model works something like this: A customer sees the billboard, calls the number. A staff member — usually not an attorney — meets with the customer and signs a contract. The firm files a lawsuit, and then tries to reach a settlement as quickly as possible. If the case doesn't settle, the firm will then pass the case on to another law firm and collect a referral fee. One lawyer calls these kinds of firms "chop shops."
Parris himself has a handful of billboards. But, he said, he actually tries cases (Pirnia says the same thing). Many of the biggest advertisers — Sweet James, Jacob Emrani, Larry H. Parker — haven't seen the inside of a courtroom in a very long time.
"Some of these guys go through $10 million a month in advertising," Parris says. "It’s a volume practice. But rarely does the lawyer see the case. It’s all paralegals."
For much of the 20th century, law firms were strictly prohibited from advertising by most state bar associations. That changed in 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a state bar ban on advertising was a violation of both the Sherman Antitrust Act and the First Amendment, noting that such bans "inhibit the free flow of information and keep the public in ignorance."
A day after the ruling, Leonard Jacoby and Stephen Meyers ran their first ad in The Los Angeles Times. Days later, they aired the first legal television commercial in the United States. Aggressive advertising helped them expand into what they later called the "largest full-service consumer law firm" in America, which some 150 offices and 300 lawyers spread across six states. The firm even got a shout-out from the Beastie Boys, whose 1989 track "Shadrach" includes the line, "Got more suits than Jacoby and Meyers."
Meyers died in 1996 at the age of 53, in a car crash with a delivery truck on a country road in Connecticut. By then, the firm had already begun to downsize, its field flooded with imitators. As the years wore on, the Jacoby & Meyers firm had become nothing more than a front, its name sold like a franchise and used in different states to attract customers for other firms.
In California, the rights to Jacoby & Meyers were purchased by an Orange County lawyer named Steven Mehr, who used the famous duo's names to generate leads for his company Web Shark 360, which were then sold to other lawyers for a fee.
Though California is one of the few states that does allow law firms to collect referral fees for cases they play no role in litigating, there some limits on the practice, including for workers' compensation claims. In 2021, an Orange County Grand Jury indicted Mehr on 24 criminal counts, including "falsely identifying [Jacoby & Meyers] as a law firm the public could hire for legal representation," handing out referrals to workers' compensation attorneys and Insurance fraud. Mehr's attorney claimed his client had done nothing wrong.
But the case against Mehr never got a proper airing. Months after the indictment, the charges were abruptly dropped after important evidence was "no longer available," according to the Orange County District Attorney's spokesperson at the time (Mehr's attorney had accused the DA of various acts of misconduct, like making misleading statements to obtain a search warrant).
Mehr did pay $75,000 in restitution for not having a local business license. By then, he "was no longer associated with Jacoby & Meyers," according to his attorney. He had cast his lot with a different law firm: Sweet James.
According to Sesto of Dash Two, Sweet James has spent more money on billboards in recent years than any other law firm in LA, making him among the most recognizable lawyers in the city. His fame only increased when he and his new wife, Noella, managed to be cast on "The Real Housewives of Orange County." Their marriage fell apart halfway through the season in the most public of all ways, playing out first over Instagram, and then again on cable television.
"To this date James has not visited our son or given me any explanation for his departure," Noella an Instagram caption. "He has fled the state to evade service. My cards are still shut off, he hasn’t paid a dime in support, he stopped paying for our home and is currently holding up our divorce unless I sign a statement saying that I lied about him, his business partner and his brand."
Bergener shot back in a video, where he said: "I love Noella, but I do not know who she is anymore. I grew up in a very conservative, Puritan background. With Noella, I explored a world of sex, drugs and rock and roll. We went down a very unhealthy path, and I lost almost everything, including myself. I lost sight of who I am. Since our separation, I am healthy and happy."
He did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting an interview for this story; neither did Mehr. Bergener currently owes more than $5 million in state and federal taxes, is still living in Puerto Rico and, according to a few people how know him, is currently estranged from his brother and parents.
There are two major criticisms of legal advertising. The first is that it's dishonest.
"Advertising is one of the heaviest regulated areas of law, but it's one of the least enforced," said Mark Tuft, an attorney who helped write the American Bar Association's model rules on advertising and marketing. The rules, he said, are adopted by state bar associations but rarely enforced unless a consumer files a complaint.
"I do think there is a problem if the advertising lawyer is not going to handle the matter, and they're just a referral source," Tuft said. "There’s a lot of criticism of that. Most people would consider that to be misleading."
The other criticism is that customers who call billboard lawyers are getting a raw deal.
"Insurance companies, they have algorithms, they can pretty much predict what the case is going to get if they don’t settle, and who the lawyer is," Parris, the attorney and mayor, said. "It’s a volume practice, those people have. And volume practices can’t explore the nuances of the case, can’t prepare the case.
"It’s a fraud, let’s face it."
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