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The rise of retail law

Half Price Lawyers owner and attorney Glenn Truitt sets up for First Friday outside their office on Charleston Boulevard in Las Vegas on Friday, July 5, 2013.

Half Priced Lawyers

Half Price Lawyers owner and attorney Glenn Truitt offers candy to a child during First Friday outside the Half Price Lawyers office on Charleston Boulevard in Las Vegas on Friday, July 5, 2013. Launch slideshow »

Lawyer Glenn Truitt stands downtown, passing out T-shirts and cigarette lighters to art fans and hipsters mulling about First Friday. The trinkets bear the name of Truitt’s law firm, Half Price Lawyers.

Truitt hopes to meet people in the neighborhood and flaunt his firm to potential customers. He’s also working to change the public’s perception about how a law office should represent clients.

They’re unorthodox marketing methods that rankle many of Southern Nevada’s more traditional lawyers; Truitt said he is under constant scrutiny to prove the “half price” claims he advertises. Even his firm’s name elicits questions from the State Bar of Nevada, which monitors attorney ads.

Most law firms generate business through referrals and business relationships. Truitt uses billboards and, more importantly, a can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head jingle that plays on multiple radio stations.

“The fact that we have a jingle that is memorable is fantastic,” Truitt said. “It definitely brings people to me. We try to keep our signs simple. There’s no picture of me. It’s about who we are; it’s about what we get and what you’re going to spend. It’s about the fact that we’ll take no money down and let you make payments. Those messages are important — a lot more important than a 10-foot-tall picture of me.”

Truitt is part of a growing local and national trend of attorneys using unconventional tactics to stand out in crowded markets.

In Las Vegas, lawyers take to billboards and the airwaves to try to distinguish themselves.

Like Truitt, personal injury lawyer Glen Lerner hopes his catchy jingles and catchphrases stick in clients’ minds.

“There’s approachability about me,” Lerner said. “I think I come across as a regular guy. I don’t do commercials in front of a bunch of law books. My voice has a distinctive accent. The model has worked well for me.”

Lerner created a “Super Glen” character for commercials and uses key catchphrases such as “In a wreck and need a check?” He has been running television ads in Southern Nevada since 1998.

His three main competitors — Adam Kutner, Chad Golightly and Ed Bernstein — also buy large amounts of airtime, but their commercials typically are more subdued.

Other firms adopt nicknames that personify their areas of expertise.

Richard Harris, a criminal defense attorney, and his staff call themselves “the Defenders.” The “Law Tigers” help motorcycle riders with personal injury claims.

Innovative marketing tactics have been a national phenomenon for some time now and appear to be borne out of increasing competition between small operators and established megafirms.

Many lawyers, like Truitt, back their claims and bet their reputations on doing so. Others are more lax when it comes to keeping promises and face reprimands from the state bar association.

But in most cases, the approach works.

•••

Lerner has parlayed his marketing savvy and larger-than-life personality into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with offices in four states.

Half Price Lawyers also is very successful and expanding rapidly. Its bankruptcy specialist, for example, filed the most client bankruptcies in Las Vegas during the first quarter of 2013 — 363 cases in three months.

Truitt’s downtown office is comfortable but boasts few fancy touches. He doesn’t advertise on TV. The economic downturn dictated that he streamline operations.

“It’s really about trimming the fat out of the law business,” Truitt said. “There’s a lot of excess, a lot of overhead. A lot of the buildings are marble-hallway shrines to their owners. There’s a lot of mahogany and leather in those places. The reality is that only one person is paying for those things, and that’s the client.

“We’ve learned to work in a price model that makes sense for consumers. We’re about helping people.”

Truitt guides clients through bankruptcy, divorces, criminal cases, traffic tickets and car crashes.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and Stanford Law School, Truitt landed a job with a law firm in Century City, Calif. The money was good, but the job satisfaction was low.

“I met just one of my clients in two years,” he said. “But I knew all their names because I billed them.”

After two years, he became counsel for a pharmaceutical group that was bought out by a Las Vegas company. He fell in love with Las Vegas and yearned to make a difference helping people with legal issues.

“For me, it was simple,” Truitt said. “If you can’t find a law firm that practices the way you want to practice, build one.”

His small practice, Truitt & Associates, was growing when he was offered the chance to acquire Half Price Lawyers, founded in 2009 in Las Vegas. Truitt closed the deal in May and quickly added business law to the firm.

“A traditional practice can beat the creativity and innovation out of you,” Truitt said. “You become a cog in the machine. A lot of my friends think I’m totally insane. They say, ‘What are you doing in Vegas? Why aren’t you at a traditional firm? What is this half-price thing? What are you doing? This isn’t Stanford.’ And I say, ‘Who says?’

“The law is going to belong to people who have the courage to go out and innovate. I think the law is going to belong to lawyers like me, and I want to hire lawyers like that who want to come in and be a part of something important and big and a change, as opposed to something safe with a good parking spot, a secretary and a nice desk. That’s a surefire way of not being important.”

Since it opened, Half Price Lawyers served about 30,000 clients in personal injury, family law, bankruptcy and criminal defense cases. The office has 12 attorneys and a staff of 40 who see about 1,000 new clients a month.

Truitt hopes to open satellite offices around the valley and possibly expand one day to Northern Nevada and other states.

Truitt inherited the firm’s catchy radio jingle but has pushed its half-price marketing message.

“I think the message resonates with people,” he said. “I think people are concerned about price. It’s why people will drive across town for cheaper gas. Price matters. The $20 and $50 savings resonates with people. When you see ‘half price,’ you’re at least interested at that point.”

The promise of lower prices shouldn’t imply substandard work, Truitt says. He offers to put his track record and work ethic head to head against any firm.

“Some people get some kind of gravity in seeing their lawyer in a really pricey suit or by paying a lot,” Truitt said. “There are plenty of people who believe that price is a substitute for quality; when you pay more, you’re getting something better. But that’s not true.”

Truitt considers himself an entrepreneur, much like many of the start-ups settling downtown.

“I think it’s the best place to be to have a law firm,” he said. “The energy is right here, and I’m right in the middle of it. I get it. I’m part of the movement.”

He also is on the front lines of marketing his business.

“I was out in the middle of Charleston Boulevard waving a T-shirt over my head and offering free water and T-shirts to anybody driving by,” he said. “Why not? Why should I be the one in my office and have my staff out there shilling for me? The public says, ‘Hey, I think I know that guy,’ and, ‘Hey, that’s actually the guy.’ That’s powerful because people feel like if I’m willing to come out and talk to you, then maybe I can come in and bring my problems to you when I have a problem.”

•••

Truitt’s T-shirts play off a British motivational poster popular at the beginning of World War II that read, “Keep calm and carry on.” Truitt’s T-shirts say, “Keep calm and pay half.”

His cigarette lighters double as bottle openers, a nod to Las Vegas’ smoking and drinking culture. They list his firm’s name and telephone number.

Truitt’s tactics irritate many traditional lawyers, some who have encouraged the bar association to scrutinize Half Price Lawyers.

“They’re always trying to say it’s not really half price, but it is,” Truitt said. “It has to be. The bar makes us make sure it’s half price. The bar scrutinizes all of our advertising.”

“There are plenty of people out there who don’t like what we do. But they want their marble hallway. They want to charge more. There’s a lot of pressure out there for us to charge more. We hear it all the time. ‘You’re not charging enough. You’re hurting us all.’”

David Clark, bar counsel for the State Bar of Nevada, acknowledged that many attorneys find legal ads to be distasteful and a breach of the profession’s ethics.

“The advertising rules are part of the regular rules of professional conduct that my office enforces,” Clark said. “Part of your oath as an attorney is, ‘I hereby agree to uphold and defend the Constitution and to abide by the rules of professional conduct that the Supreme Court has promulgated or may promulgate in the future.’”

In 2007, the Nevada Supreme Court adopted new rules on lawyers’ advertising. The court amended the law after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that attorney advertising is protected under the First Amendment.

Earlier laws focused on taste and lawyers’ use of dramatizations. The new rules center on whether ads are truthful or misleading.

With dozens of attorneys running ads, bar officials devised a peer review system to vet the lawyers’ claims. Bar member volunteers meet monthly to review ads. Lawyers are supposed to submit them within 15 days of their first publication or airing.

“They’ve built up a little expertise and experience on this, so they just go around the table and they look at the ad and say, ‘Is this misleading? Does this need a disclaimer? Does this claim need to be substantiated?’" Clark said. “An advertisement may say something like, ‘I’ve settled $150 million worth of cases.’ One of the provisos is if you make a claim like that, we can say, ‘Show me the backup.’”

But the system is imperfect. Clark acknowledged that the potential for unequal enforcement exists because some attorneys fail to submit their ads for review. Problems may be caught only if a complaint is filed.

If ads are questionable, they are referred to Clark.

In 2011, the committee reviewed 887 ads and referred 224 to Clark. In 2012, they vetted 802 ads and referred 224. Through June this year, 401 ads were reviewed and 63 were referred to Clark.

In most cases, only simple fixes are needed. Clark sends a courtesy letter to the attorney recommending changes.

Sometimes, it’s a matter of adding a disclaimer. Other times, it’s substantiating a claim.

“If they fix it, we’re fine and they’re fine,” Clark said. “But sometimes they don’t.”

Lawyers who fail to make the appropriate changes can face disciplinary action if they continue to run the ad.

Attorney Anthony Lopez Jr., for example, received a public reprimand from the State Bar in 2010 after he was found to have “violated a duty to the public and the profession by disseminating an advertisement which contained ‘a material misrepresentation of fact or law.’” In 2008, Lopez ran a 10-second Spanish-language radio commercial that promised, “If you get in an accident, by law you are entitled to receive $15,000.”

Bar officials were alerted to the ad when rival attorneys Liborius Agwara and Eric Palacios complained that clients were asking why they weren’t entitled to $15,000.

Lopez, who provided the bar an incorrect English translation of the ad, admitted the commercial was confusing but argued that a public reprimand, which included running the same number of ads telling the public that the earlier ad was incorrect, was too harsh.

The Nevada Supreme Court, which reviews all cases involving attorney reprimands, agreed with the bar association.

Truitt asked Half Price Lawyers to prove its pricing claim before he bought the firm.

Former owner Adam Stokes had conducted a survey of law firms to calculate the average prices of legal services and made sure his firm offered the same work for half the price.

Truitt said he continues to monitor rivals’ pricing, even using a “secret shopper” who inquires with other firms to make sure his pricing remains half price.

Clark said it’s possible the bar association will ask Truitt to prove the claims again in the future.

“Time passes,” he said. “Sometimes what was true then isn’t true now.”

While Clark is the bar’s enforcer and sometimes has to clamp down on overzealous claims, he supports legal advertising.

“I think you need to inform the public,” he said. “You have to give them options. Everybody deserves a shot at a lawyer when they need one.

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