Star Attorneys

Craig OuthierSeptember 2, 2022
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You see them on billboards, buses and TV, and then on more buses. In a town short on movie stars and Fortune 500 execs, advertising-prone lawyers are some of our biggest celebrities.

“Hey, you. Rafi!”

the man in the Larry Fitzgerald jersey bellowed across the crowded walkway.

At first, Brandon Rafi didn’t know what to make of the guy. High school frenemy? Disgruntled former client? Girlfriend’s ex?

Standing in a concessions line at an Arizona Cardinals game in 2016, the young personal injury lawyer was just another anonymous Valley football fan waiting to buy his burger and beer. Or so he thought.

“Can I get a pic?” Rafi remembers the starstruck fellow Cardinals fan asking, after the man initiated a high-five. “Wow, I can’t believe it’s Rafi!”

“And I was thinking: ‘Why would he want a picture with me?’” the lawyer says with a chuckle. “So, I took the selfie with him, and that’s when I knew it was finally, hopefully working.”

As anyone who’s idled in morning Valley traffic over the past six years can probably guess, “it” was the nascent billboard and bus advertising campaign the then-30-year-old attorney had launched to promote his fledgling Rafi Law Group the previous spring. “Until that day [at the stadium], I was worried maybe nobody had seen the ads except for my mom,” the Valley native and Brophy College Preparatory alumnus says with a laugh.

Naturally, it would not be the last time Rafi would be confronted in a food line, chatted up at a gym or otherwise molested by a well-meaning fan. When he purchased his first run of billboards, Rafi employed a support staff of five. Today, Rafi Law Group comprises around 180 attorneys, paralegals and assorted office staff, including a marketing department to manage his now-ubiquitous billboards and assorted ad buys. Like others in the Valley legal community, they’ve made him something of a star.

Valley attorney Brandon Rafi and his branding in west Phoenix. Photo by Mark Lipczynski.
Valley attorney Brandon Rafi and his branding in west Phoenix. Photo by Mark Lipczynski.

Relative to media citadels like New York City and Los Angeles, and Fortune 500 hot spots like Seattle and San Francisco, Phoenix is not a particularly celebrity-rich town. Our biggest stars, undoubtedly, are professional athletes, followed in some order by our political representatives in Washington, D.C., local TV news personalities and random, Jodi-Arias-style media pariahs. After that cohort, the fame index is pretty much ruled by whoever can afford to place themselves on mass-media advertising platforms.

From a pure numbers standpoint, lawyers – particularly in the high-volume consumer fields of personal injury, criminal defense and sometimes family law – dominate the ad-celebrity group. Once restricted in their advertising habits, attorneys now rip off their sleeves in TV spots, don funny animal outfits and banter extemporaneously for our amusement and professional enticement. But joining the ranks of “advertising attorneys,” as they refer to themselves, is not a step lawyers tend to take lightly. It fundamentally alters the financial calculus of running a law firm, and can raise the ire of regulators and Joe Public alike in unpredictable ways.

Despite the wily, freewheeling energy of many lawyer ads in Arizona, there are specific State Bar of Arizona guidelines on how firms can advertise their services. They cannot, for instance, hire actors to play attorneys – any person depicted as a partner, associate or paralegal at a given firm must, in fact, be employed at that firm. They also can’t cast actors to play clients, satisfied or otherwise – though that rule has evolved over the years.

Consider an early 1980s divorce-attorney ad from now-defunct Levine and Jarvi Law Offices – one of the earliest law firm ads to air on Arizona television, currently available for viewing on YouTube. In the 31-second spot, an actress playing a disgruntled wife is seen ruefully flipping through photo albums while chain-smoking. Such an ad would likely draw a rebuke from bar regulators in 2022.

“The touchpoint of all Arizona law when it comes to [legal] advertising is truthfulness,” says attorney Bradley Perry, a State Bar staffer who helps law firms navigate regulation and pursue best practices as the director of the bar’s lawyer assistance program. “To use another example: You can’t promise an outcome. You can’t say, ‘I will win your case,’ or ‘I will get you $1 million,’ because those statements are speculative and not rooted in truth.”

It’s a very lawyerly distinction, and the reason why longtime Valley personal injury attorneys Lerner & Rowe can repeatedly plant their “In a wreck? Need a check?” catchphrase in your brain – they’re acknowledging you need said check, while steering clear of an outright promise you’ll get it.

Same goes with the classic “I’m Larry H. Parker and we’ll fight for you!” line. As is, it’s great. Replace “fight” with “win,” and it’s contraband.

Most of what Arizona lawyers can and can’t do in media is codified in section 7 of the bar’s Rules of Professional Conduct, an evolving document that’s updated and annotated on a regular basis. Generally, the changes are esoteric and have little impact on how most modern attorneys advertise themselves – for instance, rule 7.5 was recently updated to discourage lawyers from “adopting a trade name that might be confused with a government agency,” Perry says, theoretically preventing someone from naming their firm “Governor Law Offices.”

However, there was one, very profound change in Arizona bar code that shook the entire American legal community to its roots. Until the late 1970s, lawyer advertising was banned in all forms in all 50 states. It was deemed unbecoming and exploitative by many in the legal profession, but perhaps more pertinently, it was threatening to entrenched legal networks, which relied on good ol’ boy connections and referrals to monopolize clients and keep outsiders at bay.

Two Arizona lawyers, John Bates and Van O’Steen, sought to smash the status quo. Angling to attract lower- and middle-class clients, the attorneys took out a modest print ad in The Arizona Republic ($175 for a divorce, $225 for an adoption) and swiftly drew a censure from the state bar.

The duo appealed their case and ultimately drew a hearing in 1977 from the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Warren Burger. Arguing that ad prohibition was inherently discriminating to the poor and unconnected, Bates and O’Steen swayed the court, which struck down the Arizona ethics rule on the basis it violated the First Amendment. The state bar subsequently rewrote the rule to end ad prohibition.

Thus, Arizona’s illustrious role in the world of lawyer advertising was enshrined forever.

Reflecting its origins, lawyer advertising rules in Arizona remain generally more permissive than those in other states, according to sources interviewed for this article. One key allowance: Attorneys here can brand their firms with words and concepts other than the surnames of their attorneys – a freedom not uniformly granted across U.S. states. “You can’t even use a bulldog [to represent your firm] in Florida,” one Valley lawyer says.

Law Badger Sean Woods & mascot. Photo by Michael Dunn.
Law Badger Sean Woods & mascot. Photo by Michael Dunn.

This is why Arizona firms can have catchy, evocative handles like The Husband & Wife Law Team, Viper Law Group and, perhaps most brazenly, the Law Badgers, a personal injury firm formed by longtime legal partners Sean Woods and Bob Mills in 2020. They are also partners in the more prosaic-sounding Mills + Woods Law.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Woods – like many people during quarantine – craved some reinvention. Inspired by the famous “honey badger don’t care” YouTube viral video, the Arizona State University law grad and his partner started playing around with the idea of rebranding their firm with the famously tenacious omnivore, which Woods says reflects their passion for client service.

He even occasionally dresses up as a badger in the firm’s TV ads.

“We looked at what a lot of [injury] attorneys do… they always try to settle, but if a case does go to trial, they end up dropping the case or transferring it to a litigator,” says Woods, who has argued several cases before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. “We always say we’re litigators first, we want to go before juries [if a settlement isn’t reached]. It’s like in the video, the badger doesn’t care. Even when it looks like he’s gonna lose, he keeps fighting and comes out on top.”

Arguably true to the intent of advertising trailblazers Bates and O’Steen, such high-concept branding schemes can give new or struggling firms immediate access to clients without the benefit of connections or referrals.

“It’s a very nice marketing tool,” Perry says. “In a busy legal market like Phoenix, where you’re targeting general consumer clients, you need to differentiate yourself, and one way to do that is with catchy branding.”

The Husband and Wife Law Team: Mark and Alexis Breyer rocking their D-Backs threads at Chase Field. Photo by Michael Dunn.
The Husband and Wife Law Team: Mark and Alexis Breyer rocking their D-Backs threads at Chase Field. Photo by Michael Dunn.

For Mark and Alexis Breyer, the married attorneys behind The Husband & Wife Law Team, the catchy firm name was always there – it just took a few years for them to fully exploit it. The duo met as law students at Syracuse University and moved to Arizona in 1996 after graduation on a whim. “Alexis knew immediately, just driving around, this is place we wanted to go,” Mark Breyer says, making time for a three-way phone interview while picking up relatives at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on a weekday afternoon.

Launching their personal injury firm in Phoenix as Breyer and Associates (“I was the associate!” Alexis pipes in), they took out a small newspaper ad, featuring Mark – who passed the bar first – by himself. It scared up scant business. Then inspiration struck.

“We had no clients, no game plan,” Mark remembers. “Then my father-in-law sees the little [newspaper] ad and says, ‘This is a mistake… you guys should be the husband-and-wife law team.’ I thought it was memorable and it fit, and deep down I wanted Alexis to be prominently [featured], too.”

The Breyers did well with the new name. The firm cruised along. Mark took on the role of the firm’s chief litigator – like law badger Woods, he stipulates that he takes more cases to trial than typical personal injury attorneys – while Alexis specialized in negotiations. Then, in 2012, they came to a crossroads. “The firm was fine, but [we were doing] nothing that was trying to create a brand,” Mark says. “That was the reality that we struggled with – there’s only so much growth you can do without a brand.”

That year, The Husband & Wife Law Team bought their first broadcast media spot, leaning into their natural sitcom-ish rapport – Mark as the suspender-wearing straight man, Alexis as the Edith Bunker-ish spitfire.

Blanketing airwaves, the ads were hard to miss and impossible to ignore – sticky in the finest tradition of advertising.

Part of the appeal, they think, was the lack of guile. “We’ve never had a single ad come to us through copywriting,” Mark says. “It’s just us, improvising and being ourselves. I don’t think it’s anything super impressive or creative.”

“Other [advertising lawyers] have special effects and props,” Alexis says. “For us, it’s like, let us talk and then just tell us when to shut up.”

The Breyers’ less-is-more approach to ad production is not entirely unusual in the advertising-lawyer sphere – in fact, many of the most effective, enduring campaigns have a simple, unvarnished quality to them. Think of the billboard ads of Phoenix criminal defense attorney Richard Suzuki – just his handsome, smirking face and his last name. Or those early, transformative ads of personal injury attorney Rafi, which looked like they were snapped by an intern… because they were.

“It was just the kind of Photoshop you do in college,” Rafi says, laughing at the memory. “Someone in the office just slapped it together, nothing sophisticated… but we thought it captured my personality.”

More important than the sharpness of the image or the cut of Rafi’s suit or the quality of the messaging was the simple fact that the ads were memorable, or “sticky” in advertising parlance. But why? Some colleagues have suggested to Rafi that it was the unguarded, open-mouthed grin he wore in those early ads, perhaps the first time an attorney smiled so beatifically on an Arizona billboard. He appeared happy – almost childishly so, like the proverbial “special young man who taught a town to love” from any number of inspirational movie melodramas. He seemed “approachable,” which was the intent of the ads, Rafi says.

For Suzuki, the criminal defense attorney, the stickiness might come from the fact that he has a Japanese surname – Japan’s second-most-common last name, in fact – but does not look Japanese. One can only imagine how many motorists have pondered that fact, then thought to call him later when popped for a DUI.

For Valley trial lawyers Robert Lewis and Amy Pokora, who for several years ran billboard ads featuring the two of them seemingly stranded on a windswept Arabian sand dune, with her in a va-va-voom white bodycon dress and him wearing an expression of intense discomfort, the stickiness is more existential. Why are they there? Are they seeing each other? Do they have enough drinking water to survive the heat?

For Phoenix personal injury attorney Byron Browne of the Bowne Law Group, known for baring his muscular, tattooed arms in his billboard and TV ads, the sticky quality could be the very natural response of wondering how much he bench-presses.

Finally, for accident attorney Sweet James, it’s the name Sweet James.

“Scientifically, people respond to what sticks out,” says Grant Crone, president of Valley public relations and marketing agency MMPR Marketing. “[Personal injury attorney] Michael Cordova’s billboards all mention he went to Harvard, so I remember that: ‘Michael Cordova is the guy who went to Harvard.’ It’s what you can say in two seconds, and all [the attorneys] seem pretty good at it.”

Rafi has since polished his image, growing a short, neatly trimmed beard and adopting a striking red backdrop.

“It’s a color that I associate strongly with Arizona,” says the lawyer, raised in the Valley by engineer parents.

“And you think about lawyer ads, most of them are blue, yellow, which are soothing and professional colors. Red is vibrant, it stands out.”

As a marketing professional, Crone sees the wisdom in it. “Simplicity in your face and name recognition, big bold colors, and shtick,” he says. “That’s the game plan [for lawyers].”

Attorney Kevin Rowe with fans at a summer charity event. Photo by Ellie Willard.
Attorney Kevin Rowe with fans at a summer charity event. Photo by Ellie Willard.

Shtick is, of course, the lifeblood of the most entertaining lawyer ads on TV and radio. There’s the George and Gracie banter of the Breyers, the endearingly goofy Jersey brio of Glen Lerner from Lerner & Rowe, and the hyper-masculine posturing of injury attorney Lloyd Baker, whose ads sometimes depict him riding a chopped Harley in front of a wall of flames that appears to be enveloping Downtown Phoenix.

These entertaining but nontraditional looks for attorneys – an august profession, after all, that is built into the very foundation of our democracy – skim intriguingly close to anti-advertising, that postmodern school of corporate psychology designed to entice consumers by messaging the opposite of their expectations. For Browne, the buffed-out injury attorney, it’s right there in his URL: He’s the anti-lawyer, who “will personally take your call” and give you “no B.S.,” his website stipulates – unlike those forked-tongued legal reptiles we know from TV shows.

Of course, risks abound when an attorney makes the leap into advertising and the subtle art of seducing consumers. For one, it’s pricy. By various accounts, a single, month-long billboard rental in the Valley can range from $3,000 to more than $40,000 for the single most expensive piece of display real estate in Arizona. (According to one media buyer who asked not to be quoted, this is no abstraction – it’s the southwest-facing billboard on Camelback Road and 40th Street in Phoenix, known as the most expensive billboard rental in Arizona.)

Local TV ads, meanwhile, average around $500 for a 30-second spot, but are only effective if the advertiser saturates their preferred demo and buys several dozen of them (and that doesn’t even include production costs). Bus ads are a relative steal at $400 to $600 each for one month, but the upshot is clear: Advertising is a significant investment.

And there’s no guarantee the public will respond well to the ads. Around a decade ago, one Phoenix-based criminal defense attorney leaned boldly into gangster movie mystique and released a lobby-one-sheet-style ad that depicted just him and the tagline “Sex. Violence. Murder.” It seemed crass even by modern standards and quickly disappeared.

But the headaches of failure can pale next to those of success. If an ad campaign is effective and results in a sharp uptick in business, it requires immediate restructuring within a given firm. More hires, more delegation and more focus on efficiencies – i.e. quick outcomes, in the form of pre-trial settlements. This is the common stigma advertising firms may face, the justice-by-spreadsheet model, and it’s why some principled attorneys are careful to stipulate that they do fight for clients and do go to trial.

But even those who prefer not to litigate are performing a service, says one Valley marketing professional who asked not to be named: “I don’t see it as predatory or anything. Sometimes, [clients] need something quickly.

They do need that check, right away. And these firms are very good at that. They know how to go down the spreadsheet and get the best immediate outcome.”

Annual ad spends for the biggest Valley personal injury and criminal defense firms can be enormous, ballooning into the low eight figures, according to sources, with net annual profits that are typically dwarfed by the ad budgets themselves. Such ad programs essentially become self-sustaining revenue reactors – and reactors sometimes melt down.

In 2010, well-coiffed Valley attorney Jeffrey Phillips of Phillips and Associates (now called Phillips Law Group) was barred from practicing for six months by the Arizona State Supreme Court after the court found that some clients were pressured to hand over cash deposits to salespeople at the firm without ever speaking to a qualified attorney. He pled ignorance of the infractions, and he might have been truthful: At the time, Phillips and Associates handled more than 10,000 cases a year, more than any one manager could realistically oversee.

Success and notoriety can also breed PR problems. One famous case involved Chicago divorce attorneys Corri Fetman and Kelly Garland, who ran racy, Ashley Madison-style billboards with scantily clad models proclaiming, “Life’s short. Get a divorce.” Decried as cynical and exploitative by a diverse caucus of Chicagoans, the ads were removed in short order.

Mark Breyer has experienced another unexpected drawback of fame – occasional problems with his jury pool before going to trial.

“Yes, it’s happened…” he starts.

“It’s usually not against us,” Alexis cuts in, as is her wont. “They just don’t like advertising lawyers in general, the system…”

“They’re usually remarkably friendly about it,” Mark continues. “And nice about it. One juror a couple years ago [recognized me] and mentioned he was so sick of lawyers on TV, he hits the mute button… when that kind of thing happens, I ask them if it will impact their ability to be unbiased, they usually say yes, and I ask them to be stricken [from the jury] for cause.”

And, sometimes, Mark gets the opposite reaction – but the same outcome.

“I just had a huge win in May in trial… and one of the jurors who knew me from TV said, ‘I like you so much, I’ll give your client anything they want.’”

Remembering the fan, he laughs. “And, of course, that person was immediately excused.”