Settling for Less 

Jim Rogers, the Bay Area's most famous TV lawyer, spends less time in court fighting for his clients than fighting with them.

It's 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, and personal-injury lawyer Jim Rogers is about to put in an appearance at his favorite court -- the middle court of UC Berkeley's Recreational Sports Facility. The 47-year-old Cal graduate is a regular here at the gym, where he tries to drop by a couple of times a week for a quick pickup basketball game.

The lanky lawyer talks furiously into his hands-free cell phone while warming up, sometimes tossing off a distracted left-handed jump shot as he paces around the key. He is the ultimate multitasker, frequently combining legal business and exercise. He talks like a foul-mouthed Disney character, casually throwing around phrases such as "blah-dee-blah" and "okeydokey" while occasionally punctuating his conversation with cruder language. In one typically nasal outburst, Rogers barks into his phone, "He fucked up."

Even players he's never met before refer to him by name. There's a reason they all know Jim Rogers, and it's not his jump shot. Rogers is a post-modern celebrity. You probably know him better as "the People's Lawyer," the goofy-looking guy with Shirley Temple locks whose ads are a ubiquitous feature of Bay Area late-night TV.

Rogers came of age professionally in the era in which lawyers first began advertising. One quarter-century ago, such advertising was not only gauche, it was illegal. But since the US Supreme Court opened the door to legal advertising in the 1977 case Bates v. Arizona, an entirely new type of law firm has arisen -- the high-volume personal-injury factory. Firms of this type use steady advertising to build a large volume of smaller cases, many of which are handled and even settled without a single face-to-face meeting between client and attorney.

Few Bay Area law firms better exemplify this trend than the Law Offices of James M. Rogers. The People's Lawyer boasts one of the busiest personal-injury practices in the Bay Area. At any given time, his office has up to 1,000 clients from Vallejo to San Jose and San Francisco to Walnut Creek. Rogers has been successful enough to use the money from his practice to help finance a political career.

After passing the California Bar in 1980, and working briefly for a Berkeley-based personal injury attorney, Rogers started his own practice and began calling himself "the People's Lawyer" in radio ads in the early 1980s. Seeking an identity that would characterize him as a populist champion of "regular folks," the liberal but independent-minded Democrat coined his now- ubiquitous moniker. By the mid-'80s, he had moved up to television.

Rogers' first ads were nothing special: a lawyer in a conservative suit standing in what looked like a law library offering his services to victims of car accidents. But over time his ads became riskier, quirkier, and more confrontational. Some picked on the insurance industry: "Don't get victimized by car insurance companies and health plans that cut costs at your expense," he warned in one. Others positioned Rogers as willing to tackle the tough cases that other lawyers ducked: "The California State Automobile Association is so hard-nosed even to its own policyholders that lawyers turn down thousands of good car accident cases against AAA -- that's not fair." Rogers even seemed willing to tangle with his peers: "You have a legal right to hire or fire your lawyer at any time -- and the lawyers share only one fee when your case settles."

Clients such as 25-year-old San Pablo hairstylist Nichole Williamson hired the People's Lawyer based on the impression generated by these ads. On Halloween of 1999, Williamson was rear-ended in her Mazda 626 and thought she might need a lawyer to haggle with the other driver's insurance company. She took her business to the People's Lawyer because she'd always liked his line about hiring or firing a lawyer at any time. To her, this seemed like a consumer guarantee she'd never seen any other lawyer advertise.

What Williamson never imagined, however, was that Rogers might fire her. And by the time she and the People's Lawyer had parted ways, Williamson was just the latest in a long line of unsatisfied customers.

Over the past decade, more than a dozen ex-clients have sued Rogers and his firm for malpractice, professional negligence, fraud, or violating fair business practices. Most of these cases were ultimately settled, with at least some compensation ultimately given to Rogers' client. Many other clients, such as Williamson, simply settled for less than Rogers' ads seemed to promise. Nor are his former clients the only ones pissed off at Rogers. Insurers grouse that he stiffs them on medical fees. Other personal-injury attorneys say he cheated them out of legal fees on cases he poached from them and then settled.

Rogers says having such a large practice is a mixed blessing. "If you have ten times as many cases as somebody, you have ten times as many unhappy people," he says. "It's often overlooked that you also have ten times as many happy people."

Still, last year was a particularly turbulent one for the People's Lawyer. In the summer, a judge found that Rogers and his firm botched a potentially lucrative slip-and-fall case in which Rogers purportedly pressured his client to change sworn testimony and take an $85,000 settlement. In September, a former client sued him for professional negligence after his office forgot to file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations ran out on her case. And just last month, California's attorney general sued him to recover payment for more than $21,000 in medical bills that he and a former client allegedly owe.

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