I don’t know if you’ve been to the new Marriott yet, but it’s worth the drive, if only to take in the majesty of the hundred feet of projection TVs in the sports bar. Every sporting event from every country in the world. I think I want to be buried there. While watching Australian Rules Football I was waited on by a charming young lady named Ainslie who, after looking somewhat skeptically at my well-used American Express card, asked me if I was one of “those” Maloney lawyers. I get this question on occasion and considering that my family has been suing people for close to 60 years, I cautiously prefaced my response with, “Is that really relevant to my drink order?” Ainslie was a sharp kid and responded that it would be of the utmost importance if my card did not go through. However, what she really wanted to know is if I would give her my opinion about the car-accident settlement she was about to receive.
“How much did it settle for?”
“How much of that did you keep?”
“Thirteen grand is pretty fair ... “
“Your case settled for 20 grand and you netted $1,300?”
“Well, I wasn’t in the hospital that long.”
“Hospital! What happened to you?”
“I was rear-ended by a drunk driver. It was pretty bad — it totaled my car.”
“Who was your lawyer?”
She told me. Geez.
“How did you wind up with him?”
After the accident, she said, she must have gotten 20 calls. Body shops, pain clinics. Some guy said he was with Catholic Charities. Ainslie’s Baptist. She got fed up with it and finally went to some chiropractor who said she would get free medical, but when she got there they informed her she would have to use a specific lawyer or pay $1,000. She sure as hell didn’t have a thousand bucks.
“So I got up to leave, and the door was locked,” she continued. “After about a half-hour, they came in and I said fine, where do I sign?”
“You ever meet this lawyer?”
“Wouldn’t know him if he walked into the room.”
“That is bad.”
“What’s bad? Isn’t that how it works?”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“Tim, there’s a reason there are so many lawyer jokes.”
There is a quiet little war going on in the Bexar County legal world, and for a lot of firms, it is a fight to the death.
A little history.
There was a time not that long ago that lawyers got clients by joining clubs, wearing funny hats, shaking hands like third-place politicians, or coaching little league. Then the Supreme Court ruled that attorneys could advertise, and guys like my father, for good and bad, truly changed the landscape. Advertising was king. The more you spent, the more clients called. Phone books, TV, buses, billboards — annoying, maybe, but legitimate. It stayed that way up until a few years ago, until a new game came to town and changed the whole deal
The problem with advertising is that it is imprecise. You can spend and spend, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get the big case. So some very scummy guys decided to create an air of predictability. You see, it’s illegal for a lawyer to call you after an accident. Most people are surprised to hear that. We’re supposed to actually get into trouble for directly soliciting a client. But these scummy guys decided to try and find a way around this law. Who can call injury victims directly, and not get busted? Hmmm, got it: chiropractors!
Here’s how the scam works. Major multi-state chiro firms hook up with fly-by-night lawyers. Most of these lawyers couldn’t find the courthouse with a GPS system. The chiros hire people who go to the police department every morning, get the reports, and start calling. If you have been in a car crash, you know what I mean. Most folks don’t know any better and wind up taking the bait and accepting the offer of free medical care. That’s when the hustle takes place. Once you are in the office, the pressure starts. Hey, you’re going to need a lawyer, and we know a good one. If you don’t use him, well, we’re going to have to charge for these services. The clients sign with the lawyer and the chiro gets to charge and charge for “medical services,” which the lawyer guarantees be paid in full. Then of course the lawyer takes his 30- or 40-percent and the next thing you know, the Ainslies of the world get 10 cents on the dollar.
A few caveats.
I have many friends who are chiropractors and they do a great job. I have used them myself and have no problem recommending them to my clients. Are you listening, Doc Tacket? But like all professions, a few can pollute the ocean for the rest. There are maybe a half-dozen of these guys operating in San Antonio now, and they have taken this scam to a whole new level. They literally have call centers set up and start their day with a cup of coffee and a police report, and a come-on like, “Hello, I am from the Archbishop’s office. Is there anything His Eminence can do to help? Perhaps recommend a good lawyer?”
So, why is this bad thing? Where’s the harm, really?
First, it’s ILLEGAL.
Second, and most importantly, is that a profession — that I bitch about sometimes — is under attack. It may sound cliché, but I think what I do is important. I think that helping someone who is at their most vulnerable is a noble calling. I am proud of what I do and honored to represent most of my clients. The others? Well, a man does have to eat.
These hustlers and cheats reinforce a lot of the negative things people think of lawyers, and that just downright pisses me off. People have become seriously cynical about virtually every institution, including the law. If the guys who are doing it right are put out of business by the bottom-feeders, then people are going to be more susceptible to the insurance-industry pitch for tort reform, arbitration agreements, and the complete dismantling of trial by jury. Think this isn’t important? Ask someone whose house has slid down a hill. If you get in an accident and someone calls you, take the information and call the cops. Or email me with your story and we’ll put it up on my website.
Yes, that Tim Maloney. His next column will appear in the April 7 issue of the Current.