Sam Spital – San Diego's successful TV lawyer

Spital's law: Advertise, settle the suit, go to the bank

Except for the heavy gold bracelet. Spital looks like most other lawyers.
  • Except for the heavy gold bracelet. Spital looks like most other lawyers.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Sam Spital. He’s the attorney who advertises on television all the time, the one who asks in all sincerity if you’ve been in an auto accident lately. San Diegans may not be familiar with U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, his California counterpart John Van de Kamp, or San Diego City Attorney John Witt, but most of them know who Sam Spital is. His commercials have a homemade quality to them, a stiffness that takes on a campy veneer late at night. Spital (pronounced Spital) has never taken acting lessons; it may be obvious when, for emphasis, he snaps his briefcase shut. But when he looks straight into the camera and says, “We’re on your side,” thoughtful television viewers in San Diego make up their minds one way or the other.

Among law firms, Spital's advertising budget is the third largest in the nation.

Among law firms, Spital's advertising budget is the third largest in the nation.

San Diego attorneys in the audience seem already to have.made up their minds about Sam Spital: they hate him. Or at least they hate his image, which they believe has overpopulated local TV screens. Among law firms, Spital's advertising budget is the third largest in the nation, according to a study by the Television Bureau of Advertising. (He is surpassed only by two nationwide law businesses.) He started advertising on television three years ago, but in 1986 Spital flooded the airwaves.

“When I walk into the Mercedes dealer. I'm treated like a king."

“When I walk into the Mercedes dealer. I'm treated like a king."

“It was the response of the people that stimulated me,” says Spital, explaining why he spent approximately $850,000 on TV commercials last year. He continues. “It was the idea that people out there were really grateful that someone would have the initiative and motivation to put their face on television and say, ‘Here I am.’ ”

Spital has opened branch offices in El Cajon, Chula Vista. Carlsbad, Palm Springs, El Centro, and (opening this month) Escondido, in addition to his main office in the Security Pacific Building, downtown.

Spital has opened branch offices in El Cajon, Chula Vista. Carlsbad, Palm Springs, El Centro, and (opening this month) Escondido, in addition to his main office in the Security Pacific Building, downtown.

There he is, sitting in an empty courtroom in the lull between All My Children and One Life to Live. Or giving dictation to his secretary after the last chuckle of Happy Days. Early evening is also Sam Spital time, especially during the news programs. He advertises every day on Channels 6. 8, 10. and 39. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1977 that attorneys have the right to advertise, the decision opened up law offices to the masses. And standing behind the door with an extended hand and a big smile was Sam Spital.

“I don't think I personally am changing the way attorneys do business,” says Spital. “What's happening is that society is changing, and I'm just changing a little faster than the other attorneys." Spital is not the only lawyer in town who does TV commercials, but he’s certainly the most noticeable one. So he's become emblematic, a rankling reminder of the competition. Spital's success has forced local lawyers at least to consider advertising on television, to analyze the image of an attorney, or even more painful, their own images as attorneys. Could this be why they hate him?

Except for the heavy gold bracelet. Spital looks like most other lawyers: nice suit, expensive watch, shoes that take no style risks. He lacks, however, that professional distance, the slightly chilled courtesy that translates “Call me anytime” into "I have another appointment.” Off camera, Spital has a wide and, at times, self-conscious smile; if his colleagues could meet him. maybe they would like him.

Many attorneys have never adjusted to seeing each other on TV. They think lawyers should be professionals first, businessmen second, and salesmen not at all. Spital has not bought into this equation. He says, “Whether you’re a manufacturer or a distributer or a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, I think it’s important that you find some forum to make your services available. Through television and other forms of media, myself and other people have made it more easy for people to choose.”

Spital’s competitors claim he makes it too easy for people to choose; as a result, they say, people choose Sam Spital for the wrong reasons. Clients get sucked in by the commercials and don't shop around for a lawyer, don't compare Spital’s fees and services with what they can get elsewhere, attorneys complain. “His commercials are a bit misleading,” says attorney John Little, who, like Spital, also specializes in plaintiff personal-injury law. Free initial consultations are the norm in this type of practice, as is the arrangement of charging no fee if the case is lost — that is, no money is gained by the plaintiff s side. (The defendant is usually an insurance company, represented by its own attorney.) When Spital says during his commercials, “There's no consultation fee, and you pay me nothing unless you win an award,” Little and his peers grind in their armchairs.

"He's leading people to believe it's something special that his office does, like it's a big deal." says Little. The same goes for Hashing "former deputy attorney general” on the screen. “There were probably one hundred deputy attorneys general in his office at that time.” Little says, explaining how young lawyers, fresh out of law school, often get their start this way. The average consumer doesn't know this, however. “People think this guy was second to the D.A.,” exclaims Little. But he says he doesn't classify Spital's ads as “schlocky," at least not like the Los Angeles attorneys who advertise on billboards or on the back rests of benches. He admits that every advertisement emphasizes the good points. And he admits that attorneys, in general, are envious of Spital's success.

While they might criticize Spital for a number of things, his colleagues have to agree on one point: Sam Spital is not starving. He won't supply dollar figures for his business (“I don’t focus in on the profits,” he says) but offers his expansion as evidence of his success. In the last three years, Spital has opened branch offices in El Cajon, Chula Vista. Carlsbad, Palm Springs, El Centro, and (opening this month) Escondido, in addition to his main office in the Security Pacific Building, downtown. Spital knows how to package a law practice so that it’s got mass appeal: convenience, security, and free food. He is proud of providing niceties, which he explains with one of his many automotive analogies.

Spital drives a Mercedes with a license plate that says TV SAM. He also has a Buick. The Mercedes dealer always washes his car when he brings it in for service. The Buick dealer doesn't. While he doesn't expect the Buick dealer to wash the car. he still enjoys the extra Mercedes touches, he says. “When I walk into the Mercedes dealer. I'm treated like a king. There’s coffee there, there’s doughnuts there. I like that. And I want to do that for other people."

This is one of Spital’s business tenets, a personal aphorism he repeats over and over: Make the common man feel as though he’s walked into a Wall Street law firm. “We like to treat people like a guest when they come into the office," he says. Clients are offered coffee, soda, water, “anything to make them comfortable," he says. The phone system he installed was very expensive, but piping music to people waiting on hold was important to him. He says he deliberately picked an impressive skyscraper location for his main office, the fifteenth floor of the Security Pacific Building in the Community Concourse at Third Avenue and B Street. “We could be on El Cajon Boulevard and pay fifty cents a foot,” he points out. Instead, he says he pays $1.75 for a more prestigious address.

While he is trying to impress the common man, Spital is careful not to scare him back into the elevator. San Diego Bay makes a grand sweep past the office windows, but the receptionist’s area would not be called plush. Neither would the cubicles in which potential clients are interviewed.

Many of Spital’s clients have never been to an attorney before; they are the kinds of people who shop for a lawyer by looking for the biggest ad in the Yellow Pages. They see Sam on TV, and he becomes a familiar face. He has made an imprint that says “attorney," and this is another thing that upsets some of his peers. “Ask the person on the street who the top attorney in town is, and they'll say, ‘Sam Spital’ because they saw him on TV," says Brian Monaghan, not too happily. Monaghan is also a personal-injury attorney, on the plaintiffs side. So is Patrick Frega, to whom local attorneys will sometimes send their big cases (for a percentage) because of his reputation in the courtroom. “The premier trial attorneys in San Diego don't advertise on TV.” says Frega. "Some people will go to Sam when they should be going to someone more qualified [to do trial work]."

“There are some [attorneys] who are arrogant and think they're at a higher place in life," observes Spital, adding, clearly and repeatedly, that he's not referring to anyone in particular. “They think they deserve to be more godlike in their behavior. But there are also people who are down to earth." Spital, who lives in Del Cerro with his wife and four children, says he doesn’t see much difference between a department store clerk and a lawyer. “We all eat with the same fork," he says. “We all have the same organs."

Spital and other attorneys who advertise are stymied by guidelines and restrictions imposed by the county and state bar association, says Terri Embery, Spital's public relations director. “You can hardly do anything," she laments. “That's why attorney ads are so dry and boring." Testimonials from clients are prohibited, as is the mention of dollar awards, or cheap devices like showing a box full of money.

Spital appears in all his commercials, although this wasn’t the original plan. “When I went to advertise in the beginning, it was with the goal to have a professional actor or actress. It was absolutely the last thought in my mind to use myself. It was only because I was encouraged. They said, “Why don’t we take a sample shot of you. Let’s just try it.’ And I was outvoted by everyone who saw it. They said unequivocally there is nobody better that can speak for you than yourself.”

Although the settings vary a bit — Sam outside the courthouse, Sam walking away from a car, Sam's bilingual employees talking to “our Spanish-speaking friends” — the dialogue is virtually the same in all his commercials. “Don't be a helpless victim. Assert your rights." “Let Sam do it. and receive what is rightfully yours.” “Before you settle with the insurance company, call the law offices of Sam Spital."

Spital thinks it’s important for the viewers to see him so they can form an impression. “I think they can tell from the commercials if a person is sincere." he explains. “When you look at somebody in the eye, you have an opportunity to decide whether that person is someone you can have confidence in or trust or want to have a conversation with"

Spital is so convincing, many of his first-time clients think they're actually going to talk to the guy they saw on TV. They don't realize that his offices are working on as many as 1000 cases at any given time, which means that Sam had to hire some help. His staff of forty-five includes twelve attorneys, in addition to paralegals and clerical staff. At the age of forty-two, he is the second-oldest person there.

Spital says he likes hiring young, fresh-out-of-law-school attorneys because they are moldable, willing to work hard, and idealistic. He likes to get them before they’ve had a chance to develop quick-and-dirty work habits, he says. “Sam doesn’t pay much, and he requires quite a bit of time and effort," says an attorney who worked for Spital but requested anonymity. “He’s got a high turnover. He really works their butts off." Unlike other law firms, Spital's cases are not assigned to individual attorneys; he prefers a team approach, with two attorneys and a legal assistant working on each case and himself overseeing the computerized operation. “A lot of people rely on me as being the captain of the ship,” he says. “I personally read every single letter that goes out of the office. I dialogue with the attorneys on a daily basis.” Ask Sam how many hours a day he works, and he'll say “fourteen,” without pausing. “It’s obvious I’m a type-A personality,” he says. But as a child, he ranked a bit farther down in the alphabet. “Getting a C was fine with me,” he recalls of his early schooling. “I’m not sure if I was bored or I wasn’t trying hard enough.” Sam's gift of gab occasionally got him into trouble in the classroom. Perhaps his teachers weren’t thinking progressively; maybe they didn't realize that a talent with the spoken word could carry a child far in life.

Spital was born of Jewish parents in West Los Angeles, where his father sold staples and stapling machines. He remembers growing up “as a pretty poor kid.” His father and mother worried about their son's apparent lack of drive. “How are you going to be anybody if you don’t work harder?” he remembers them asking. Although the nagging put him and his parents at odds sometimes, Spital is now grateful for it. “If they didn’t motivate me, I don’t know what I would have done ” he says.

At the age of fifteen, he went through a metamorphosis that was part parental pressure, part cosmic advice. “I thought about success, and I said to myself that it wasn’t going to be a matter of timing or chance.” So Sam joined forces with his father, increased their business, and decided to begin repairing the staplers as well. But the stapler manufacturers didn’t want Sam to diversify, and they refused to sell him parts. They didn’t know they were dealing with a future graduate of the Loyola University School of Law in Los Angeles.

According to a biographical sketch in one of his press releases, Sam Spital tried to file his first lawsuit at the age of sixteen. It was an antitrust suit against the staple giants. No attorney would work on the case, and most of them wouldn’t even return his phone calls, he says. Those attorneys who showed a mild interest wanted to charge the young Spital an arm and a leg for their services. “Having already made the decision to attend law school,” his story reads, “Sam made a decision to be a lawyer for the people so that anyone who needed a lawyer could afford it and not be intimidated by it."

After he finished law school in 1970, Spital was hired by the state's Attorney General's office in Los Angeles. He worked there for seven and a half years, a fact he often mentions in conversation. His specialty was prosecuting professionals, such as doctors and attorneys, for malpractice and fraud — including false advertising. In his last year as a state prosecutor, Spital was transferred to San Diego. In 1978 he left that job and started his own practice in the Security Pacific Building. The Sam Spital Story continues: “Armed with the background and experience he needed, Sam began practicing on his own, determined to build a firm that could offer the elitist practice of law to all people, regardless of income, education, or level of sophistication."

Sam switched sides when he began his practice and specialized in the defense of professionals, such as contractors accused of shoddy work or physicians being sued for malpractice. Business was good, but he felt unfulfilled. “Here I was very successful, I had at least a statewide reputation, if not a national one, for defending professionals, I lectured all over the state and wrote articles about it. Looking back, I had what everybody would think would be enough. But I wanted more. I wanted to have the opportunity to get down to the grass roots and make legal services available to everyone."

So three years ago, Spital decided to advertise and expand, in that order. Although he still does defense work for professionals, his emphasis is on personal injury, which includes dog bites, food poisoning, slip and fall (sidewalk, supermarket, the stairwell at work), and defective products (the toaster that blows up, the lawn mower that mangles). Spital says he’s proud of taking the small cases, where “soft tissue" injuries, such as muscle, tendon, or ligament damage, do not bring big settlements from insurance companies. He says most of his colleagues turn these cases away, adding to the perception that attorneys are only in it for the money.

“Some people wouldn’t have an attorney if it weren’t for him,” says Christopher Crotty, a former Sam Spital employee. “He provides a service to individuals that’s invaluable in some instances." Crotty, who is now an attorney working in Mayor Maureen O’Connor's office, practiced law under Spital in 1985. At that time, he says, not all personal-injury attorneys gave free consultations, and some charged an hourly fee — win or lose. Spital’s office represented “the kind of people who can’t come up with that money," says Crotty.

Spital’s office won’t take the fender-benders, the parked car that gets hit by a trash truck. Or a case in which the injuries will bring a minuscule settlement. Or a case that might bring no settlement at all. Clients’ claims are evaluated in an interview with a legal assistant or an attorney, and matters concerning immigration, landlord-tenant disputes, or divorce and custody are referred elsewhere. Although his firm will take other cases, such as drunk driving or estate planning, for an hourly fee, Spital shuns having what he terms “a garden variety" practice. Instead of doing a little bit of everything, he says he'd rather specialize in personal injury. “I would have no difficulty attracting business clients, just from the contacts I’ve made in society," says Spital. “I circulate right now with the upper-echelon business people. But I want to be more of a people’s lawyer than a business lawyer."

Spital’s business seems to be of great interest to other attorneys, and some are not shy when it comes to telling him how to run it. Dan Zeidman, a personal-injury attorney in El Cajon, wrote a letter to Sam Spital in October of last year, criticizing him for a contract in which Spital tried to charge a client forty percent of the final settlement. (Dissatisfied with the arrangement, the client hired Zeidman and showed him the Spital contract.)

“The standard in this county for a noncomplicated personal-injury case is certainly no more than one-third prior to trial, and forty percent if the case goes to trial," Zeidman wrote to Spital. He was also disturbed about a part of Spital’s contract that raised the fee to forty-five percent if a lawsuit was filed. “I will not mince words,” Zeidman wrote. “You and I both know that since only about three percent of the personal-injury cases filed go to jury trial, merely filing and serving the complaint has no substantial effect on your time consumption on that case."

The reason he sent the letter, Zeidman says, is his concern over the image of attorneys, especially in the face of what he sees as attacks from the insurance industry. He is a member of the American Inns of Court Foundation, which he describes as a national group of attorneys and judges who discuss and promote ethics and competence in the legal profession. “I sincerely honestly believe that we attorneys in California need to clean up our own house,” he says.

Spital thinks that ethics have less to do with Zeidman’s letter than professional jealousy. The accusations are not accurate, he claims. Spital’s response to Zeidman’s letter, mailed two weeks later, said that his firm did not always charge forty percent. “We often reduce the forty-percent fee to one-third or lower, based on the facts and circumstances of each case," he wrote, adding that each attorney in his firm negotiates the fee. His firm did no. charge forty-five percent just for filing the paperwork for a lawsuit, Spital also wrote; the extra five percent did not take effect until the discovery process ensued (when testimony is taken from both sides), he claimed. “We have rarely charged forty-five percent,” Spital wrote.

In defense of his fees, Spital outlined in his letter the caliber of services he offers and the high overhead he incurs through advertising. “Our advertising reaches many people who would not otherwise know of their rights to be fully compensated for all damages which they receive in an accident. Most attorneys do not provide this service to the public.” Almost half the calls that come into his office are not within his areas of specialization, he said, so he refers them to the San Diego County Bar Association. The spillover business benefits other attorneys, but his office pays the advertising bills, he pointed out in the letter.

Spital still maintains that his commercials benefit the local legal profession. “A lot of people are getting business because of the snowball effect of other people's advertising. I have talked to attorneys that told me they never had so much business in their life like they do from the results of my advertising. They don't advertise at all. They have one line in the Yellow Pages. Some people aren’t going to go to Carlsbad if they live in Encinitas. They might just say, ‘I’m going to go down to the attorney in this corner shopping center in Encinitas because I saw Sam's advertisement on television.’ ”

John Little, a competitor who might get this spillover business, calls it “negligible.’’ But he does think that the advertisement of legal services on TV is helpful to the public. Many people are unaware of their legal options; they think they have to take whatever the insurance company offers. Spital's office is familiar with the system and will probably negotiate a better settlement for them. “He's competent. He's not going to blow a case for somebody,” says Little. “But he might settle for less.”

According to Little and other personal injury attorneys, Spital has a reputation for settling cases to avoid going to trial. “His business is to turn them over and get them through,” says Little. Insurance companies know this and are not afraid of being sued by Spital’s clients if the offer is too low, according to Little. “Insurance companies know which people mean what they say and which people are flexible,” he says.

Attorney Pat Frega, known for his civil trial work in San Diego, agrees with Little. Rumor has it, he says, that Sam Spital has never tried a civil case in San Diego. “The word in the courthouse is that he’ll settle,” says Frega. “The defense bar [for the insurance companies] is not afraid of Sam Spital."

"Pat Frega doesn't have 1000 cases in his office." says Spital. “He has to go to trial. That's his specialty." Spital denies the rumor that his firm has never taken a case to trial in San Diego; the figure he reluctantly supplies is “under ten." “It's like saying to a doctor. How many hysterectomies do you do?' " retorts Spital. Like the doctor who avoids surgery. Spital says he avoids trials because it is not always best for the client. He disagrees with attorneys who use trial as a measure of competence and effort on behalf of the clients. “Is it our job to obtain justice and resolve disputes or to use our tools and artillery to go before a judge?" he asks. “The real challenge is to convince your adversary — the insurance adjuster or attorney."

Ninety-five percent of Spital's cases are settled out of court, by his estimate. His clients get their money quickly, which is important to many of them. Holding out for more money by going to court is like being a contestant on Let's Make a Deal: you can take what Jay is offering in the small box and go home happy or hope that Carol has something big behind door number three and possibly lose everything.

The plaintiffs attorney usually initiates the case by sending a letter to the insurance company, explaining the client’s claim. If the plaintiff doesn't like the insurance company’s offer, he or she can file a lawsuit. Then attorneys from both sides go through the discovery phase, collecting evidence, witnesses, and expert opinions, and suffering through an albatross of paperwork. A non-binding arbitration is usually held as a last attempt to avoid a jury trial, which is expensive for the insurance companies and a hassle for the plaintiff. The entire process, from demand letter to verdict, averages between tour and five years. At any point along the way. a settlement sum can be offered and accepted. This is what happens in more than ninety percent of the personal-injury suits filed, according to several attorneys.

“The trial attorney thinks that everyone who comes here wants to settle," says Spital. “But let's look at the reason. If the reason is that they get fair value for their injuries, then they should settle. It's a cloud over your head." he says. “Why should you go through the humiliation and the anxiety?"

Spital denies the accusations that he settles cases for less than they're worth. He says he goes to trial when the insurance companies play hardball. To prove it. he points to a new division he opened in October with four full-time attorneys and several law clerks who were hired just for litigation. They are currently handling about one hundred cases, he says.

Spital gives an example of a client he lost this past December because Spital wanted to go to trial. “The case was worth a lot of bucks," says Spital, meaning “in excess of $300,000.” But another attorney advised the client to settle, which the client did. “That attorney made a quick $100,000," he says — but the client could have come out with much more had he gone to trial.

Knowing when to settle, and for how much, is an art, according to Spital. He thinks he is better equipped to make this estimate than many other attorneys because of the number of cases he handles in this specialization. He keeps up on the going rates through professional publications and has hired a former insurance adjuster with twenty years’ experience in the field to help estimate what cases are worth. This exadjuster, he says, is one of many extras that justify his fees. “I think there’s one thing that's very important about services as opposed to products. You could go to an Arco gas station or a Standard gas station or a Thrifty gas station and essentially buy gas. Whether's it's going to be a dollar a gallon or $1.25. if the service is the issue, then I'd say pay more for the gas."

One of the main complaints about attorneys is that they're bad about returning phone calls. (One of the main complaints by attorneys is that their clients call them too often.) Spital’s staff is instructed to call clients back immediately, and with three people working one case, someone is usually available to reassure apprehensive plaintiffs. If anything could be called a Sam Spital specialty, this is it: he nurtures his clients through their cases. Even the attorneys who criticize Spital admit that his operation runs fast and smoothly. He has staff members who do nothing but deal with medical bills and reimbursements with insurance companies and Medi-Cal. "The client doesn't keep getting bills. They don't have to worry." he explains.

Spital's injured clients are encouraged to choose from a list of thirty medical specialists who lean toward aggressive, instead of conservative, diagnoses, he says.

Spital claims he gives out a lot of free legal advice during his initial consultations. These sessions are conducted not by a paralegal but by an attorney, who doesn't ration his or her time, says Spital. "An hour, an hour and a half, w hatever it takes. We don't sit there and look at the clock and say we can't spend any more time with you.”

Spital gives the example of a woman who recently came to his Palm Springs office with a personal-injury case. She had $6000 in medical bills, and the insurance company had already offered her $9000, counting pain and suffering. The ceiling on the insurance policy was $15,000. "We said, ‘Go back and get the $15,000,’" recalls Spital. "She came back the next day w ith a $15,000 check. We didn't take a penny. You wanna talk to her?"

"He’s changing the atmosphere for everyone," says Carol Crandall, administrator of the attorney referral service run by the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association. She cites the sudden need for attorneys to establish an identity. Because if there's one thing Sam Spital has. it's an image. "Some people call us and say i don't want a Sam Spital.' and others say they want someone just like Sam Spital," she says.

Sam is unusual, and he may even be unique. "No other county has anything like him," Crandall says, judging from discussions among attorneys at conferences and state bar gatherings. The San Diego County Bar Association, which counts sixty-six percent of local attorneys, including Spital. as members, has a videotaped spoof of his commercials called “Sam Spittooee." Spital is played by another attorney who deliberately mispronounces the last name and pleads for more business: “Slip and fall, major airline disasters.... Please, please, please call me, Sam Spittooee."

The lampoon has been played at several holiday banquets, and according to entertainment organizer and attorney

John Little, local bar members were disappointed that it wasn't played at last December’s dinner. But while Spital may be the victim of attorneys' guffaws, “many people would like to be in his position," says attorney Little.

“There's a lot of jealousy," Spital observes. "I realize it's a dog-eat-dog world." But he believes that the criticism comes from a small percentage of the legal community. "Ten percent of the attorneys out there might balk at what Sam Spital. or some other advertising attorney, is doing. But I went to the USD law school and lectured to a class on ethics. It was not quite a standing ovation, but there was tremendous support. These are people going to law school to become attorneys. I've gone to bar association dinners and had people I've never met before in my life come up to me and say. ‘I wish I had [advertised] too,' or ‘I wish I could afford to do it now.’ There's ten percent of the people who, no matter what I did, would criticize me. I don't worry about those ten percent."

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