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VOL. 39 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 9, 2015

No one knows his audience like Bart Durham

He spends $2.2M annually on ‘cheesey’ TV ads. Here’s why they succeed

By Tim Ghianni

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If, as the saying goes, everyone gets 15 minutes of fame, Bart Durham’s has come in 15 and 30-second spurts – the length of the commercials that depict him as a lawyer everyman, ever-ready to tilt at windmills for the sake of justice for the working class.

The guy who pioneered advertising by attorneys in Nashville has, of course, far exceeded his allocated 15 minutes, thanks to the commercials that have made him one of the best-known faces on local television. That face is tanned on this winter’s day.

“I’ll be 80 in March. The joke is that I’m a lot younger than I look,” says the head of a 20-employee law firm that specializes in injury law. The almost octogenarian has just returned from Malibu, California, where he and third wife, Cindy, 53, spend six months of the year. During the months in Nashville, Durham says he and his wife – who is Korean – build their lives around Nashville Korean Presbyterian Church on Franklin Road, where the lawyer is given a translator.

“I go out (to Malibu) when it’s really cold or really hot here. We’ll go in January and stay until March. Go again in July and August,” says this unassuming soul with the powerful TV spot catchphrase: “Justice is your right, and we demand it.”

And – since day-to-day duties are pretty well handled by his son, Blair Durham – this one-time country boy who made his name virtually symbolize “help is on the way” to those who get their lawyer referrals from TV commercials, is able to slip in a few extra beach weeks, as he did last autumn by spending much of November and December at the Malibu townhouse.

While he’s no longer the 12-hours-daily workhorse, this trailblazer for lawyer commercials on TV remains both involved and interested in the firm he built.

“If I had a house in Malibu, I know I wouldn’t be calling the office every day like he does,” says son Blair, who manages Bart Durham Injury Law. He both loves and loves working for his dad and relishes his own role in carrying forward “the brand” so well stamped into the minds of Middle Tennesseans through years of TV commercials.

“He still oversees everything,” adds the 44-year-old, semi-awe flavoring his words while talking about his father.

Relaxing in the conference room of his law firm on the 17th Floor of Parkway Towers, just a short walk from the city’s police department, jail and courtrooms – his places of business – the elder Durham cherishes the lifestyle earned by being the go-to-guy for people who need a lawyer.

“I keep my Ferrari out (in Malibu),” he says, explaining that he purchased the sports car when son (and ever-more-visible TV pitchman) Blair went into the Marine Corps. “Once he got out [of the service] and got married, Ferraris weren’t so important to him anymore.”

Bart Durham and his wife, Cindy Durham

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

The gleam in his eyes when he talks about the sports car clearly demonstrates that the elder Durham enjoys tooling around after the sun comes up on Santa Monica Boulevard. Fact is, while Blair was busy as a leatherneck, his pop and firm marketing director Pam Wheeler formed a Ferrari club in Nashville.

“I like driving it out in Los Angeles,” says Durham as a cold gray afternoon turns rainy and raw night on the other side of the windows overlooking the Nashville skyline.

Wheeler is sitting in on the conversation to inject facts, figures and names. She also is running the computer projector smack in the middle of the handsome boardroom conference table, cherry-picking her way through the bartdurham.com website to illustrate her boss’ laid-back description of how he built a firm that has name recognition wherever local TV reaches via airwaves, cable or satellite.

While his son, Blair, increasingly is becoming the face of the commercials, Bart Durham has been advertising in print, on the radio and especially on TV since it became legal back in 1977.

“Bart was the innovator of advertising on television,” says Rose Palermo, one of Nashville’s most respected practitioners of family law. Palermo, who practices with her husband Denty Cheatham (who does sometimes take on personal injury cases), does not use commercials.

But Palermo says Durham deserves credit for his pioneering in that world

“A lot of his clientele are people who watch a lot of television,” she says. “People need lawyers. People should not represent themselves. People need lawyers to help guide them through the system. If these people want a fast settlement and are not interested in protracted litigation [Durham’s practice] is a good place to go.”

“Bart set the table for every lawyer out there today who advertises,” says Joe Dalton, who began his legal career with a stint at Durham’s office.

His own Law Offices of Joseph M. Dalton opts for tradition and does not advertise. But he has steadfast admiration for the way commercials have worked for his old boss

“He’s the No. 1 advertising lawyer,” Dalton says. “Everybody knows Bart Durham. Everybody.”

Some of the other firms that do advertise either did not wish to be quoted or didn’t return calls about their commercials. But it’s a certain thing that they jumped on that train thanks to the hard work of Durham.

After a judge ruled in an Arizona courtroom that professionals could start advertising, putting an end to the old days when lawyers, doctors and dentists relied on word of mouth to build their practices, Durham took the leap, first entering the fray in print ads.

Firm facts

Only about 1 percent of the cases taken by Bart Durham Injury Law go to trial, estimates Pam Wheeler, who serves as marketing director for the firm but wears many hats in her role as Durham’s “go-to” person.

She says alternative dispute resolution practices are used in most cases.

“Mediation is a big tool in the industry,” Wheeler says. “If you’ve got a good case, chances are you won’t go to court.”

Wheeler lists three criteria that must be met while the firm evaluates whether to take a case:

  • “The accident can’t be our client’s fault.”
  • “They have to have damages, they have to be hurt and under a doctor’s care.”
  • “There has to be a way to recover. There has to be insurance.”

Tim Ghianni

“The day I took out my first ad in the Tennessean, they made it a news story on the front page,” Durham says, a sort of “can you believe this?” laugh punctuating the air in the conference room.

While the classified ad did appear in Nashville’s morning newspaper, editors likely found out from the advertising department that one of the city’s seemingly countless lawyers was taking out an ad and decided it was a news story, and treated it as such, even quoting Durham’s fees.

“At the time I was advertising divorces for $200, $400 for a bankruptcy case.” He can’t remember that far back to what he charged for criminal cases (mostly DUIs).

“But the big-ticket ones are the personal injury suits, when we work for part of what is awarded in court,” Durham says.

While the fees in general have gone up, so have the receipts from the personal injury cases, the life’s-blood of the firm begun by a man who started his law career in tiny Ripley, Tennessee, thanks to an example set by his father.

He is aware that there are those who refer to him as an “ambulance chaser.”

Others think of him as the one who makes perhaps cheesy commercials, from a memorable 20-episode soap opera to a more recent series featuring taut women and toned men who have nothing to do with the case.

These young people in leotards, bathing suits and body-fitting jeans cavort and otherwise bounce across the TV screen while the facts of real cases provide the narration.

If you have wondered which of those pretty people in the Bart Durham Injury Law commercials is the one who was run down by a semi on Murfreesboro Road while on the way to choir practice or whatever, the answer for the most part is: None of them.

“I like looking at pretty people. Don’t you?” asks Durham, displaying his frequent smile. On the rare occasion when the client in the case being described does appear in the commercial, he/she is easy to pick out.

They are “normal” folks in well-worn clothes, not the product of the modeling and acting agencies Wheeler uses to round up the sex-appeal window-dressing for the commercials.

Bart Durham was the first Nashville attorney to embrace TV advertising when it became legal in 1977.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“We have a lot of good-looking people. We use actual case files (as the narration), and we tell the story of successful results,” says Durham, summarizing that recent string of commercials.

Another benefit of using models and actors rather than actual clients in the commercials, he admits, is it causes less stress. Real litigants sometimes think they should be paid for their commercials (they can’t be, by law, Durham says.)

Also, real people (especially those who aren’t getting paid and therefore lack incentive), show up late or not at all to a shoot, wasting a lot of time and money.

“Yesterday we were shooting and we had nine characters getting paid,” Durham says. “We can use the actors and have them say the same things as the client would say.” And look better saying it.

Besides, many clients have no wish to have their “success” disclosed to the world, with good reason, Durham explains. Those who win, say, a $1 million judgment or settlement after being run over by a tractor-trailer could be treated like lottery winners, with relatives and scammers coming out of the woodwork.

By keeping the real litigants masked and anonymous, the lawyer figures he’s doing them a big favor.

Recently, as the pretty-people-dancing commercials have begun to fade away, the firm’s commercials have gotten more serious, with Durham or his son talking, one-on-one, with a happy client. The “eye candy” in these cases isn’t Bart or Blair or the client, but rather the setting.

“I love Nashville,” says the almost-80-year-old, explaining that he enjoys showing off his city – he lives in a tony townhouse just off West End – on television. The Batman Building, LP Field, the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge all have been used as backdrops for these commercials.

“We adapted. Pretty people and pretty scenery are a lot more interesting than our clients,” says the renowned barrister.

It should be noted that Durham, while he was the first attorney to advertise in Tennessee – “There was this one guy in Memphis who started advertising around that time” – didn’t dip his wallet into television commercials until after three years of print advertising.

“After the ads and the front-page story in The Tennessean, we just grew,” says Durham, clasping hands across his cranberry-colored shirt while relaxing in one of the associates’ seats at the conference table. (He has insisted his guest sit at the head of the table during this two-hour conversation.)

Love them or hate them – Durham knows there are both camps and few in between – the commercials have become the calling cards of his practice.

Television isn’t the only way Bart Durham Injury Law gets its name in front of the desired audience. Ads on MTA buses also have been proven effective.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I’m not from Nashville,” he says. “I’d been working in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Memphis and was a prosecutor for the state Attorney General in Nashville. I didn’t have any clients.”

The Durham name was big in small Ripley, where his father – also Bartlett Chesterfield Durham – had been a lawyer and mayor. And the younger Durham became familiar in Memphis, where, as a part of his U.S. Attorney’s staff duties, he accompanied the FBI to the boarding house near the Lorraine Motel moments after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered.

“I went to the boarding house and stood where James Earl Ray fired the fatal shot,” says Durham, in his official biography, adding that among his other cases was his proud prosecution of some KKK members.

He says it was only his good common sense that had him employ advertising and commercials when attempting to break in here.

“I had nothing to lose,” he says. “I wasn’t in a position to say ‘No,’” to those who thought he ought to use the media to get his name out there.

His first effort at TV came after “somebody sold me some canned commercials and we’d put my name and phone number at the end.”

He admits that some of his legal peers, perhaps those with long-time family firms, look down their Swan Ball beaks at the guy they might regard as a TV huckster.

“Being in commercials, when I started doing these, I didn’t think they were cheesy,’’ Durham says.

What he knew was that they worked.

The first Bart Durham commercial ran, fittingly, during the local commercial time of a Sunday night Perry Mason episode. Durham smiles when talking about how his TV persona began to take shape while Raymond Burr always proved his client innocent by getting someone else (i.e. a greedy friend or jealous lover) to break down on the stand and admit to the crime.

Regardless of viewers’ opinions, the commercials were lucrative and helped Bart Durham Injury Law keep growing. “Every year the bar has been raised (on production values and other aspects of the commercials). They keep on getting better.”

Other attorneys use TV now as well, and while he compliments his peers, he says they don’t have his production values.

“What’s so interesting about watching a lawyer advertise for clients while standing in front of shelves of unused law books, since everything’s on the internet now?” summarizes Durham’s general critique of others who have followed the television commercial trail he blazed.

It’s not just that he uses pretty people that set him apart. It’s doubtful many attorneys put as much of not just their souls but also their wallets into the TV commercial campaigns.

Wheeler, 46, who has worked at the firm since she was 24, notes that when they first began making commercials, the advertising budget was $3,000 a month.

“Then it went up to $5,000, then to $6,000,” she says, as a grin decorates the face of the father figure to not only Blair but to all 20 of his employees (including four attorneys and a variety of clerical experts) who come to this building each day.

“I thought that was a lot,” he says, emphasizing the “that.”

Nowadays the advertising budget is $2.2 million per year. “Most of that is spent on TV commercials, but it also goes to the bus wraps and the bus cards,” Wheeler says.

Perhaps best-known is the soap opera serial of a dozen years ago or so, in which the process of being injured, finding a lawyer who demands justice, and then going through the legal system was laid out in 20 distinct spots. Heck, there even were subplots.

“Bart wants to be interesting, so we added some things to get people’s attention,” Wheeler says.

The marketing director and her boss note that all 20 episodes subsequently were put together to make a half-hour “drama.”

“We ran that little movie on late-night TV,” says Durham, noting that late-night ad rates are cheap and that the types of people who may need a lawyer but are intimidated by the process keep the TV on well into the wee hours.

“We get 500 or 600 (people) watching them every night, no matter what time it’s on,” Durham says.

The commercials appear around the clock for good reason.

“Our average clients are the people who get their information from television and make their buying decisions from what they see on television,” he says.

While he does not refer to his client base as “functionally illiterate,” he did a few years ago write a magazine article in which he described how large numbers of these people do not, as a practice, find their deserved legal counsel.

“If the president of a bank gets run over, he’s not going to come to us, but if a regular lady gets run over, she’ll come to us. We’re consumer based,” he says.

It’s a very specific type of consumer, too, who is susceptible to this type of advertising.

“If my wife’s friends liked our commercials, then we’re targeting the wrong demographic,” says Blair Durham, whose increasing amount of airtime foretells a changing of the guard.

“I’ll be dead in five years,” says the elder Durham, noting that a big reason for Blair’s increased appearances is to lay groundwork for Bart Durham Injury Law to flourish after the Nashville’s most-visible TV attorney/pitchman makes that final journey … either to Malibu or to plead his case before the great jurist in the sky.

By doing these commercials for so long and so loudly, Durham’s firm has flourished, of course. And he’s achieved his goal of being “the default choice” when everyday people need a lawyer.

“We are for the client who does not have a relationship with an attorney,” he says. The bond is formed as potential clients watch the Durhams preach of justice on the flat-screen on the living room wall.

The basic takeaway, regardless of whether it’s the half-hour soap opera “movie” or a client testimonial about the $450,000 he/she got “thanks to Bart Durham Injury Law” is that “clients love me; insurance companies don’t like me,” says the man whose waiting room reading material is primarily a well-ordered stack of National Enquirers shouting things like “Tom’s Secret Gay Life Exposed” and “I Did It, So What! Dying O.J.’s Confession.”

A lot of time is spent formulating the commercials and the general themes. Durham and Wheeler work closely with Mark and Susan Crabtree of Apple Productions in San Antonio, Texas, to map strategy and drama.

Durham did not come up with this type of high-quality commercial (again, like them or loathe them, they work for his clientele) on his own, but rather by listening to professional brothers-in-arms. The Nashville lawyer was at a meeting of fellow practitioners a few years ago, when commercial spots for a couple of Texas attorneys were shown.

Durham had been using TV already, but was impressed by the simple power of these commercials, discovered the Crabtrees were director and producer and quickly sought out Apple for the first of what now has turned into years of meetings to plot strategy.

“We’ll go into a meeting together and throw 20 ideas around,” says Wheeler of the process.

One of the first commercial partnerships between Durham and the Crabtrees was a heritage commercial, showing the lawyer in Ripley, where he grew up, talking about the pride he had in his hard-working attorney and city mayor pop.

Of course, that commercial holds a special spot with Durham.

But whether we are seeing the taut, little-to-the-imagination buttocks of the youthful women in leotards stretching, or perhaps the “ripped” shirtless guys talking about playing volleyball or the more-recent client testimonials, the Durham firm remains true to its founder’s basic beliefs.

“I’m helping injured people. These are good people,” he says. “They deserve justice.”

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