By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Some of Loncar's professional peers say lawyers who advertise serve a purpose by providing legal services to low-income clients. But some of those who know Loncar's practices say he represents the worst of the type. "Really," says Dallas lawyer Stephen Grimmer, who is representing one of the women suing Loncar, "this is not somebody who should be practicing law."
The offices of Brian Loncar & Associates, located in the renovated Renaissance Place, just across Jackson Street from the George L. Allen, Sr. Courts Building in downtown Dallas, exude an air of prosperity. There's the marble staircase leading to offices on the second-floor balcony, the red leather sofas in the reception area, and the large abstract oils and acrylics on the soaring walls.
Here, roughly 14 employees handle as many as 1,400 clients a year, most reeled in by Loncar's abundant advertising on TV, Howard Stern's radio show (where Stern joked in one ad that he didn't even know he was hurt until he called Loncar), the Yellow Pages, D magazine, and other outlets.
Loncar's full face, lofty forehead, and receding hairline have been staples on daytime TV and the back of DART buses since the early 1990s, when legal reforms dried up his practice in workers' compensation claims and he refocused on collision cases.
In 1994, Loncar spent $593,000 on advertising, according to a document provided by a former employee in which Loncar analyzed the efficacy of ads in the various media. That year, TV ads alone brought in 465 new clients, at a cost of $741 a head. It was his top draw.
Loncar employs two attorneys in Dallas--one specializing in personal injury law and a second with expertise in criminal law--to handle the small fraction of cases that go to court. Four so-called adjusters, each of whom oversees roughly 75 cases at a time, move along the bulk of the cases, employees say. These are claims in which auto accident victims are negotiating settlements with insurers before lawsuits are filed. The standard fee is one-third of the settlement.
That process would not be worth noting if lawyers are overseeing the work. But the picture that emerges in the lawsuits against Loncar, and in several interviews with former employees, is that clients' claims are processed like so much hamburger by people without law licenses.
"Given the tremendous amount of advertising expenditures, the success of the business required quick turnover of clients and quick settlements," Robert Love, a Dallas personal injury lawyer, observed in a lawsuit he filed against Loncar two years ago. Love was Loncar's office manager from 1992 until 1994, when he became a personal injury lawyer as well.
Love's attorney, Mark Zimmermann, said flatly in a hearing in that case: "Non-lawyers practice law at Mr. Loncar's shop." Loncar's attorney, Randall Hill, denied that allegation.
Accident victims would never meet with an attorney, says Shirer, a board-certified personal injury specialist now practicing with another Dallas firm. "The large percentage were settled by people who I don't even know if they even had college degrees."
Shirer was Loncar's litigation specialist in personal injury cases from November 1992 until February 1995. His job was to file lawsuits in the cases that insurers wouldn't settle, and he handled about 200 of those a year. They were mostly the "dogs," he says--instances of people claiming to be seriously hurt when there was little damage to their vehicle, or where liability was questionable.
In a more typical case, he says, an accident victim would telephone the office, and the call would be screened by either the office manager or one of the more experienced paralegals. If it sounded reasonable, one of the office's "road warriors," again a non-lawyer, would drive to the person's home and sign him or her to a contract for legal services.
If the individual did not have a doctor, the Loncar paralegal would suggest one. "It's not like we had any special relationship with the doctors," says Shirer. "A lot of them were owed money by Loncar. He was a slow payer."
After the sign-up, one of Loncar's four adjusters would be assigned the case. That person would produce a demand letter and begin negotiating a settlement with the insurers, Shirer says. All but about five percent of the cases would be handled this way, ending in settlements averaging about $10,000.
"It was like a hospital run by nurses," says Shirer, explaining that in most firms lawyers are the ones who screen clients and negotiate settlements. "I don't think a lot of people got the representation they could have."
Roxanne Linscomb, who worked for Loncar for about five months as an adjuster before she quit last winter, says Loncar didn't supervise her settling of cases. In fact, she says, he would become aggravated if she asked him for advice. "He didn't want to see the cases," she says. "When he'd have a meeting, he'd be mostly concerned about how the money was coming in. If I went into his office with a problem case file, I'd be told to get out. He didn't want to deal with it."
During much of his last year with the firm, Shirer says, Loncar had "checked out" and "wouldn't be in the office much. His day-to-day activities were limited, and involvement in the cases was almost nonexistent."