Texas-sized business: Critics, lawyers discuss controversy behind personal-injury attorneys

SAN ANTONIO – They are flashy and memorable on TV, some would say over the top. Personal-injury lawyers have a unique reputation in South Texas.

It is one part pseudo-celebrity and another part known for turning lawsuits into an industry.

The lawyers pull no punches on their methods but critics argue they don't arrive as advertised.

Drive around San Antonio, the billboards and bus signs are hard to miss. It's a constant barrage of advertisements with bold buzz words and catchy slogans featuring personal-injury lawyers you might know by an alter ego.

Lawyers like Jim Adler, who started billing himself as the "Texas Hammer" nearly two decades ago, can be seen in TV spots standing on semitrucks telling viewers he "will hammer the big trucking companies down to size."

Speaking to KSAT 12 at his flagship Houston location, he explained how his script writers and directors helped him come up with the character.

He agreed with them that he needed a more memorable character than his predecessor "Jim Adler, the smart tough lawyer.” Through acting lessons, an eye for production and bilingual showmanship Adler said he became the grandfather of the unique style of personal injury advertising found in South Texas.

It worked.

"At that point, the phone started ringing off the wall," said Adler.

Now the 1967 University of Texas Law graduate has a Lone Star empire, with offices in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

There's a central call center to handle prospective cases before they get to one of his 28 attorneys.

It's big business now -- one with many players.

In the last six years lawyers working in the Greater San Antonio area have tripled the amount of commercials they run on TV from about 50 thousand to more than 180 thousand a year according to data from Nielsen AdIntel.

In the same time period, the number of firms advertising has stayed around 150.

What has changed is the industry now spends tens of millions of dollars on spots.

After tort reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s, workers' compensation and medical malpractice suites became either less lucrative or were not brought at all.

Even though the rules have tightened, a $10 billion jury verdict in the 1980s in an unrelated area of law was precedent enough to continue to make South Texas the place to sue for personal injury.

"People began to think the courts were like a slot machine," said St. Mary's University law professor L. Wayne Scott.

The confluence of major interstates in San Antonio and Houston coupled with increased truck traffic traveling north and south due to the North America Free Trade Agreement make personal-injury cases available.

Commercial insurance policies on corporate vehicles make 18-wheelers good targets.

The traffic and advertisements here trickle down to the Rio Grande Valley where the payouts are best, known as a 'judicial hell hole' by the insurance industry.

Critics say the lawyers are misleading, showcasing large winnings for cases that are of the most extreme circumstances. They're also the fact the lawyers clients see on TV aren't the ones representing them in court.

Groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation believe large firms just collect cases to hand off for a fee.

"So they use their name on the billboard, they bring in the injured worker," said director of the Center for the American Future at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Robert Henneke.

"[He or she] thinks that they're getting that big lawyer to be their lawyer."

Adler says he hasn't been in a courtroom in at least a decade.

He says he reviews each case his firm takes, and any client can meet him.

"The young lawyers like to fight, and go down to court and mix it," Adler said.