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Lawyer for Hire

Caught in the Glut, Gershon Kulel Tries Advertising



In the back pages of legal journals, in the newspapers, in the Law Bulletin, they proliferate like dead leaves in an early winter.

Space for services. Suites for rent. Lawyers for hire.

Signs of the times, the ads spell the end of the palmy days when all a lawyer had to do to find work was hang a shingle and rent a phone. Once a comfortable, certain profession, law has been hit hard by the recession. Clients are few, and many practitioners have been reduced to doing what their pin-striped seniors would have considered as unthinkable as swabbing a street in their polished oxfords.


"It's sort of working," says Gershon Kulek, who would look about as comfortable in hundred-dollar shoes as Charles Barkley in the Bolshoi Ballet. A personal-injury lawyer just starting a private practice, he has an unpretentious, soft-spoken style that perfectly matches his chaste suit and caftanish overcoat. His gray-toned wing tips look as though he actually wears them to walk in, and the hat on his head has a certain resemblance to the fedora Paul Muni wore in the Brooklyn Yiddish theater.

He doesn't look like an attorney, if an attorney should look like a high-priced hoodlum carrying a briefcase full of repossession papers. Kulek would be on the pauper's side of that action, gently informing the shark of his intentions to see that his client got every break coming to him. He'd touch the ends of his wispy beard as his opponent fulminated, and then reach into his own briefcase--a rather veteran affair with a no-nonsense look about it--for a piece of research that would send the shark scurrying for cover.

He's a good lawyer, as well as a Hasidic Jew--two absorbing disciplines that don't coincide too often. He rents an office on the premises of a firm that cut him loose last summer, and he is doing whatever he can to rustle up enough billable hours to support the five kids who grin from the sepia depths of a framed portrait on his desk.

Including advertising.

"This one's for deposition work," he says, pointing to the smallish ad in the back pages of Law Bulletin, a newspaper for Chicago attorneys that features the lengthy roll call of the city's courts each day. Kulek's ad, its narrow column of type easy to overlook, asks for hourly assignments from attorneys too busy to schlepp across the Loop to hear a witness answer 600 questions about an accident he glimpsed for three seconds. Depositions are a plague for the plaintiff's counsel; defense attorneys get paid by the hour, but the complaint bringers have to wait until verdict to get a penny for their time. Hence the occasional whim to palm off a three-hour deposition onto a hired gun, especially a conscientious and cut-rate one, especially one who knows the rules of evidence and can make sure a big-firm honcho doesn't walk all over him.

Except he hasn't been getting many calls. "Not lately, anyway, but I really think it's going to improve. When I first ran the ad, the only response I had for weeks was from a woman who was looking for work as a deposition clerk. I had to tell her I didn't have enough work for myself, let alone somebody else."

The irony of the ad's response makes him smile--his hazel eyes flicker to life, and his deadpan expression lightens up. "It's been a hard winter," he concedes, "but I guess it's been hard for everybody."

Kulek is 37 and has been practicing law in Chicago for nine years. His office looks out onto a winding, narrow corridor; the name of the previous tenant is still on the door. Voices rise and fall as attorneys scurry by, files under their arms. Kulek sits patiently at his desk and occasionally eyes the push-button phone that squats within arm's reach like a recalcitrant bullfrog. A beep announces an incoming call, but the phone hasn't been beeping today.

"I've tried other ads," he says, showing a Hispanic weekly with a boldfaced headline. "I took Spanish in high school, and I thought I might reach out to that community for accident cases. Many of them have just come to Chicago--they tend to mistrust attorneys, probably with good reason, but I've always gotten along fine with Spanish clients." He turns to an ad-filled back page and runs a finger down to an advertisement for personal-injury cases. Bracketed nicely, it catches the eye; "abogado" seems to inspire more trust than its English equivalent.

He smiles again, and shakes his head. "The trouble is, they keep bumping it. The past four weeks, they've only run it once."

On a shelf above his desk are folio-sized religious books and well-thumbed evidence manuals; the books seem like dour chaperones for the latter, keeping them in line. A photograph of a bushy-bearded elderly man, taped to the wall, seems to scruti- nize the goings-on. "The Lubavitcher rebbe," says Kulek in a respectful tone--the Lubavitchers being the Hasidic group he belongs to. "Rebbe means 'teacher' in Hebrew; it's a term of distinction. He's the Lubavitcher leader, and sort of a role model of mine. If I can live up to his example in my own career, I know I'll find a way to get by."

Slightly uncertain, yet trusting; he's been getting by so far, and it hasn't always been easy. Newly married in 1982, Kulek moved to Chicago from Albany, New York, where he'd attended law school, and began practicing immigration law for a small, respected firm. He was looking forward to a career of ushering clients through the daunting, often Byzantine requirements of citizenship, a genial sort of law that amounts to a nice approximation of a Jewish mitzvah, or good deed. But the Reagan recession--the prelude to the current storm--gradually cut into the firm's client base, and Kulek was let go without warning the following year. His family on the grow, he applied at agencies, sent out resumes, went out on interviews. On tenterhooks for several positions, he ended up opening his own office in Rogers Park. His religious need to leave work early on winter Fridays in order to be home by sunset, as well as the impossibility of his working on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, may have hurt his chances with firms requiring their associates to work long weeks.

"I offered to come in on Sundays and to stay late during the week to make up for it, but it probably didn't help. It reminded me of a summer I spent during law school, working for a California firm that specialized in corporate work. The firm had an Arab corporate client, and I was wearing a yarmulke to work. They wanted me to take it off for fear of causing inadvertent offense, and I had to refuse. It made for a rather tense summer."

After a few up-and-down months, he closed his office and went to work for an immigration-law practitioner, then began handling matrimonial cases as well. Personal-injury law had always seemed attractive from afar; it satisfied his yen to fight for the underdog, and it didn't entail the retainer fees Kulek was so uncomfortable requesting from hard-luck clients. A friend told him about an opening at a personal-injury firm; he interviewed, got the job, and worked there for two years. He won a jury trial and settled two other cases on the verge of trial. But he was having trouble supporting his growing family, and another, bigger personal-injury firm was looking for attorneys. When his employer wouldn't meet the offer he'd been given, he went to work for the bigger firm, where he now rents an office after having been let go again.

"It's a new sort of thing," says Faustin Pipal, and then reconsiders. "Well, the ads themselves have been around for a few years, but I don't think I've ever seen so many before. Especially attorney-to-attorney ads, which we never used to see. I'm sure it has a connection with the recession, but I really can't say for certain if it's a good survival technique for attorneys."

He sits back in his Printers Row office, dominated by a bare slab of a desk that nearly matches his reddish mustache. The chairman of the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association, he's familiar with most newfangled aspects of lawyerly survival in a swamped market. "Flexibility, that's the key word. If a lawyer is willing to try something totally new, that may get him or her through this rocky period. We try to provide the means, for example, for an attorney familiar with one legal field to learn another one. Or perhaps even to leave the law entirely, if there's another career which may provide a much better opportunity."

Pipal spends much of his time promoting a blizzard of such programs--outplacement seminars, job fairs, attorney retraining classes. "Everywhere, it's tough," he says, "and it's going to get worse before it gets better. I'm hearing it at all ends, from deans, placement people, new grads, ten-year veterans. Offers are being rescinded, or just aren't happening. Big firms are having trouble. Small firms are having trouble. Young attorneys are having a hell of a time just keeping their heads above water."

Ergo the advertisements, which are the result of a gradual loosening of restrictions by the Illinois Supreme Court, which used to consider such attention grabs "solicitations" and hence verboten. Fierce competition for clients in a city inundated with lawyers has encouraged their spread. But for the small-timer, the little guy, the solo attorney who can't afford a TV commercial or a downtown billboard, can advertising really do any good?

"It's too soon to say," says Pipal in a cautious tone. "It's a very recent phenomenon, these ads in the journals and newspapers. The trouble is, there aren't that many clients to go around, and most firms want to hang on to whatever they've got. I don't know whether ads aimed at other attorneys will be very successful. Ads to the general public may be a different matter. You know, 'Had an accident? Call C-R-A-S-H,' that sort of thing. I see many of those ads, but I really don't know what their success rate is. Lawyers have to do whatever they can to stay afloat, and advertising may help. I've been out of law school for 12 years, and I've never seen so many lawyers out of a job, willing to do anything to get by."

Not long after Kulek lost his last job, he took out a newspaper ad looking for consumer-fraud clients. "I thought that if I tried something that not too many attorneys did, it might prove successful. I had done some consumer-fraud settlements, and I liked the work. But the ad didn't get any responses at all."

An ad for civil litigation followed, with similar results. Times were tough, and Kulek was starting to get worried. A split-fee arrangement on an injury settlement had put some loans in abeyance, but the respite was over. He had moved his family into a renovated house in West Rogers Park; his employer-paid medical insurance was done with; malpractice premiums had shot through the stratosphere. He decided to try something a tad unusual: he'd buy some time on the radio.

"I knew some attorneys who'd done it, so I thought it might be worth a try. I called up the stations--most of the time slots were very expensive, but WMAQ had reduced rates for certain times that I could handle. I bought 60 seconds of radio time, late at night. It was a very professional ad--they had a narrator do it, and if anybody was listening, I thought there was a chance I'd get a call or two."

He smiles, remembering. "It was really a nice presentation. But nobody called, and I'm not sure why. Maybe the time slot was bad, but a prime-time advertisement was over my head. I really had expected to get at least one call."

He's been making do, since then, with his Spanish advertisement--when it's in the paper--and his deposition ad, which is starting to get some responses. In the Hasidic community there've been a few referrals--about equal parts pro bono and scaled-down-fee--as well as a few cases from attorneys who respect the quiet, persevering style he shows in court. He's interviewing, but the results have been tedious and disappointing.

"It's been tough," he says. "I've gone on some interviews where I've been told the firm received 200 resumes on the second day of their ad. There seem to be so many lawyers, and there's just so few opportunities." He picks up a file from a lean-to stack against his desk; he's got a deposition to handle that afternoon. "I was just starting to feel comfortable as a personal-injury attorney. My arbitrations had gone well, and I really got along with my clients. They respected me for my orthodoxy--I think they appreciated the honesty, and effort, that I gave to their cases. But my settlements were down, and the adjusters were simply refusing to negotiate with me. Insurance companies are trying to cut back on their expenses, and not paying on a case unless they absolutely have to is one of the ways to do it. I suppose that's why I lost the job." He hesitates--one of the call buttons had briefly lit up on his phone, then gone dead. "It's going to get better very soon," he says uneasily. "The ads will work, or something else will. Everything happens for a reason."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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