Two local personal injury lawyers -- Sam Bernstein and Joumana Kayrouz -- are slugging it out on metro Detroit freeways and major surface streets to get their names and numbers in front of accident victims. They are the most visible competitors among local lawyers, who increasingly are buying billboards to pursue clients.
Bernstein, 67, of Farmington Hills is a king of Detroit legal advertising, spending millions of dollars on television commercials over three decades to become a household name.
Kayrouz, 47, of Southfield is a relative newcomer. She's a Lebanese immigrant who got her law degree in 1997 and opened what she describes as the first female-owned personal injury law firm in Michigan.
Kayrouz has dozens of billboards, rivaling or surpassing Bernstein's outdoor advertising.
"There's definitely a battle going on," said Dennis Green, senior account executive for International Outdoor, a Farmington Hills-based billboard company.
Bernstein insists there is no fight, at least not on his part.
"I'm only doing what I've always done," he said.
Kayrouz told the Free Press in an e-mail from Lebanon over the weekend: "I ... never worry about what other attorneys do."
Southfield lawyer Joumana Kayrouz gets the billboard advertising ball rolling
Metro Detroit's three major billboard companies say there has been an uptick in advertising on billboards by law firms in recent years.
They attribute it to lawyers competing for clients in tough economic times and in a state where the Legislature and the courts have made it tougher to collect for clients hurt in auto accidents, slip and falls, medical malpractice and other personal injury cases.
Last year, lawyers spent nearly $790 million nationally on ads, an 8% increase over 2009, according to Kantar Media, which tracks advertising spending.
Billboards cost about $1,200-$4,500 per month, depending on location, size, duration of the contract and the number of boards being rented, according to the billboard companies.
Prominent Southfield personal injury lawyer Vernon (Ven) Johnson said attorney Joumana Kayrouz came up with the idea of blanketing metro Detroit with billboards, forcing competitors to follow suit.
"She came out of nowhere with a very unique idea," Johnson said. "Because of her success, you see the big hitters doing the same. She's done a great job."
Personal injury lawyer Sam Bernstein, who began advertising in the late 1970s after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban on lawyer advertising, wouldn't discuss his advertising budget or how many clients his ads bring in. But he said his billboard spending is "miniscule" compared with what he spends on television commercials.
"I started with baby steps," Bernstein said about his foray into advertising. "It wasn't a popular thing to do back then, and it wasn't well-received by other lawyers."
Bernstein said he made his first TV commercial after the Yellow Pages ran his ad at the end of the lawyer listings instead of the front.
His first TV commercial didn't generate a single phone call, he said.
"It was a good thing I was out of the office trying a case for the first two weeks -- otherwise I probably would have pulled the plug on the ads," he said. But he kept with it because he wanted to be No. 1.
Bernstein said his ads have enabled him to help accident victims, given him the choice of personal injury cases and built a firm of more than 20 lawyers that includes his three children.
Seven weeks ago, he unveiled new billboards that build on his 1-800-CALL-SAM brand.
In place of the word "SAM," the new billboards show Bernstein's face.
"The Bernsteins have done a remarkable job of branding their firm over the years," said CBS Outdoor Vice President Thomas Carroll, whose staff designed the billboards. "We were able to create an iconic billboard for an iconic firm."
Kayrouz's red, white and blue billboards prominently display her face, too, while urging passersby to call 1-866-YOUR RIGHTS. "Millions recovered," several of them say.
"When you drive by a Joumana billboard, there's a single focus -- and that's Joumana," Carroll said. "That, like Sam's billboards, is what makes them so effective."
Kayrouz attended American University in Beirut as a premedical student and came to the U.S. when she was 22, according to her Web site. She has a law degree from Wayne State University and worked for Harry Philo, a prominent Detroit personal injury lawyer, whom she calls her mentor and hero.
When he retired around 2002, she started her own firm.
"I had a vision for creating a woman-owned personal injury firm," she said. "As you know, the world of personal injury is dominated by males."
Kayrouz said she has a 40-member staff. On Fridays, she hosts an Arabic and English-language legal talk show on WNZK-AM (690), a Southfield radio station that features ethnic programming. She also advertises on television.
Other major players in Detroit's lawyer billboard advertising market include Gene Zamler of the Zamler, Mellen and Shiffman personal injury firm in Southfield, and the Johnnie Cochran law firm, named for the late California defense lawyer who won the acquittal of O.J. Simpson on charges of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.
Zamler advertises on large billboards. The Cochran firm uses small, eye-level billboards along sidewalks in Detroit.
Many lawyer billboards are understated, like those of Royal Oak attorney Todd Flood. His say: "When it matters ... floodlaw.com."
Flood, a former Wayne County assistant prosecutor, said he wanted classy, toned-down billboards so motorists would know that he and his colleagues at Flood, Lanctot, Connor and Stablein run a first-rate general law practice.
Other billboards virtually scream at passersby.
Those of Bloomfield Hills attorney Malgorzata (Margaret) Lorelli say: "Personal Injury? One call: 1-855-2-WIN-ALL."
The boards for a law firm advertised as 1-866-9-LAW-HELP cry out: "AUTO ACCIDENT INJURY? WE SUE BIG!"
Dearborn attorney James Jernigan has only one billboard, on Telegraph Road at Ann Arbor Trail. It features his face and his legal specialties: divorce, family law, wills and probate and real estate.
Jernigan credits Kayrouz for his entry into billboards.
"When my wife saw Joumana's billboards she said, 'You should do that, too,' " Jernigan chuckled. "So, I did."
Contact David Ashenfelter: firstname.lastname@example.org. Free Press special writers Christian Carter and Aaron Kuhn contributed to this report.
By David Ashenfelter, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
Source: Detroit Free Press