Carter Mario is one of the most highly visible lawyers in the state of Connecticut. His name and face are splashed across television ads, billboards and the sides of buses. He has a catchy "Get Carter, Get It Done" slogan, and his ads and Web site are filled with exclamatory messages about his skills as a personal injury lawyer.
But there are potential drawbacks to that much visibility in a profession that doesn't quickly embrace flash. Personal injury lawyers especially have to walk a fine line when it comes to spreading their message without offending the public or other lawyers.
Carter Mario seems increasingly eager to be perceived as being on the right side of that line. In recent months, his firm has hired a marketing firm, touted its community outreach, hired key personnel, joined other bar members in legislative lobbying efforts and, just recently, opened a new office in New Britain.
"I know Carter pretty well," said attorney Michael Stratton, of Stratton Faxon in New Haven. "He wants to be mainstream and doesn't want to be marginalized as one of those TV lawyers. I love what he's doing [in extolling community involvement]. It's next-generation thinking in terms of the role of personal injury lawyers in our society."
But Michael Koskoff, of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, said some law firms that advertise widely don't actually attempt to bring cases to trial. Without referring directly to Carter Mario, he said these firms either refer cases to other firms or serve as large-scale settlement mills.
"Very often the marketing has taken over and has become the dominant factor in whether a law firm gets a case, and that's regrettable," Koskoff said. "There's a huge amount of misleading advertising out there. It has cheapened the image of a lawyer and engendered disrespect in the community."
Carter Mario and other lawyers at his firm declined comment for this story. Greg Davis, the new public relations manager for the firm, said Mario "cares about his brand and doesn't want to be included in a story with other personal injury lawyers."
But the firm has addressed questions about litigation and marketing strategies in other forums.
As of last week, Connecticut court records showed that the eight attorneys listed on the Carter Mario Injury Lawyers Web site had a total of five cases pending in state courts. On its Web site, the firm states that "we are skilled at negotiating settlements without filing a lawsuit. In the event the insurance company is not willing to negotiate fairly, we will then proceed with filing a lawsuit if you so desire."
As for marketing, Mario, in an interview earlier this year in the Hartford Business Journal, spoke of the difficulty in catching consumers' eyes while not offending peers.
"We realized early on that we were marketing to a group of individuals who needed help in selecting a lawyer," he said. "The best way to reach these people was through television. Although we got the cold shoulder from many of the established law firms during our early years, now many of them have since entered the advertising market."
But, he added, when it comes to advertising, some firms "have produced some tasteless commercials" and "the law community needs to maintain a certain degree of professionalism."
CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER
Carter Mario's firm began as a general practice shop in 1989 before focusing on personal injury law in 1998.
"After leading a private practice for many years, I decided it was time to focus on injury-related cases, because it allows me the opportunity to help people who need it in a very hands-on fashion," Mario says in a statement on his Web site.
Last December, Carter Mario hired a new public relations firm out of New Haven that has aggressively spread the message about the firm's softer side and business model.
And there have been a couple of significant changes on the business end. Earlier this year, the firm hired attorney Joseph Fournier as its first chief operating officer; Fournier is admitted to practice in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, but not Connecticut.
COOs, which are relatively new positions in the legal industry, are focused more on the business of the law, such as managing the firm's finances and addressing the challenges of operating a partnership that includes multiple branch offices. It's a position that lends a certain amount of gravitas to a law firm.
Growth came last month with the official opening of a New Britain office, the fifth office in the state for the Milford-based law firm. The firm's press release cited increased demand for services in the area and quoted New Britain Mayor Timothy Stewart expressing his gratitude "for the community spirit and service they will bring to our city."
The office will include 21 full-time staffers who are responsible for case management, including file set-up, collection of medical records and investigative reports.
Carter Mario lawyers also actively lobbied with other trial lawyers in support of anti-solicitation legislation on the state level, striking at the heart of the "ambulance-chaser" stereotype. The law, which takes effect in October, prohibits the use of "runners," who are paid to find clients for personal injury law firms. Punishment includes up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine for those who are runners or who hire them.
The firm also has pushed into the public eye its Carter Cares outreach program that for several years has awarded scholarships to high school students, provided free bicycle helmets to children and supported Little League baseball and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Last year, Carter Mario Injury Lawyers was mentioned favorably in the book "What's The Secret?" by John DiJulius. The firm was named as a top customer service business, along with Southwest Airlines, Ritz-Carlton, Disney and Starbucks.
For example, Carter Mario promises prospective clients a free lunch if the firm doesn't return a telephone call within the same day. His Web site says: "My feeling is that the service culture threshold in the legal profession is so low, that if I can raise the bar a little bit, then I have done something positive for this profession."
'SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES'
Carter Mario's peers are cautious about directly criticizing his high-profile approach. But most are also reluctant to endorse it.
"It's critically important that lawyers and law firms market themselves in a professional way," said Michael D'Amico, a personal injury attorney in Watertown. "If we don't, all of us suffer the consequences."
Michael Koskoff, speaking of personal injury lawyers in general, said "the [marketing] message that is harmful is that 'I'll get you lots of money whether you deserve it or not.'"
He noted, "People who sit on a jury are left with the impression that's what personal injury lawyers do because that's what they're seeing [in advertisements]. Juries don't make a distinction" among personal injury lawyers.
Several lawyers said it's tricky to develop an advertisement that looks professional when it's plastered on a bus or billboard or when it occupies certain television time slots, such as late at night.
"When you do that kind of heavy advertising, you run the risk of people looking down on you, though I certainly wouldn't want to say that Carter Mario is looked down upon," said Ernest Teitell, of Silver, Golub & Teitell in Stamford.
Teitell said his own firm doesn't want an image of being one that advertises aggressively, "but that's not to be critical of other people's choices," he said. "We all make choices and one's not better than the other."
There seemed to be more support for some of the recent PR strategies that Carter Mario has undertaken. Many personal injury firms say they play up their civic involvement with postings on their web sites and sponsorship of charitable events.
Stratton said it's a delicate balancing act. When his firm sponsors the New Haven Road Race, any connection to being a law firm is removed from signage because "there's so much distrust and cynicism" toward lawyers, Stratton said.
The payoff comes in creating some goodwill that might combat those feelings.
When future jurors become aware of the firm's name and community involvement and then make the connection in the courtroom, it's not enough to sway a case but it may level the playing field a bit. "At least they become more open-minded," Stratton said. "At least I'm getting back to neutral grounds. We have a point of reference with them and we show them we're not the scumball personal injury lawyer."
Steven Ecker, a litigator with Cowdery, Ecker & Murphy in Hartford, said he is not familiar with anyone at Carter Mario or the results the firm achieves. But, in general, he said that many personal injury lawyers with high-profile marketing strategies are far more concerned about generating business than respect from peers.
"Within the bar, there's a perception that most of those advertisers are not 'real' lawyers," said Ecker. But it's not other lawyers those firms are trying to impress. "Their market is the unsophisticated consumer and the goal is to get clients in the door and make as much money as possible. If people in the profession don't respect you much, well you know, these guys are laughing all the way to the bank."