In search of a $1 billion case, fielding 100 calls

Campaign: A Pikesville lawyer uses his Web site and $1 million in newspaper ads to find a really big lawsuit.

February 17, 2005|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The quotes flash across the lawyer's Web site like the snippets that assault theatergoers in movie trailers.

"DANGEROUS in front of a jury."

"Thoroughly prepared, aggressively pursued."

"Scoring with the jury, Rolex and all."

Then, a questionnaire takes shape on the screen: Do you have a billion-dollar set of facts? Is the target's conduct egregious? Can the target afford to pay if you win?

Answer "no" to even one of these questions, and you'll be redirected to a photo of attorney Stephen L. Snyder in an indoor pool, shirtless with sunglasses atop his balding head, flashing a double thumbs-down sign.

"SORRY," the accompanying text reads. "Mr. Snyder is in a meeting. He'll get back to you, uh, never."

The 57-year-old Pikesville attorney - known for winning four cases worth more than $100 million each and an ability to charm juries in overwhelmingly complicated civil cases - has been saying for years that he wants to hook a billion-dollar lawsuit. Now, Snyder has taken that wish not only to his Web site, but also to the pages of the nation's top-tier newspapers in a $1 million advertising campaign.

"Guess what a Big 4 accounting firm did after I beat them in a $185 million corporate conflicts case?" he asks in a full-page ad in yesterday's New York Times. "They hired me, of course."

Snyder said the newspaper, magazine and Web campaign was crafted to generate "a few quality calls." Instead, he said, in three days, he's received "way too many."

"I never anticipated the response I've gotten. Unfortunately it's been about 100 calls," Snyder said. "My life is over. I'm going to have to go into the witness protection program."

Lawyers, legal observers and marketing experts describe the advertising campaign as unprecedented and unusually aggressive. A senior fellow with a New York think tank said the ads launch Snyder into the company of the world's most tasteless lawyer advertisers. A Baltimore personal injury attorney known for his long-running television ads said Snyder's campaign is sure to produce results.

But those familiar with the plaintiff attorney's work and courtroom style also say the whole production is classic Steve Snyder.

The ads, said a Baltimore attorney who characterized Snyder as a "street fighter" in the courtroom and did not want to be named in the event that she opposes him on a case, "are in keeping with his style. He considers himself the best and isn't afraid to let other people know that."

The National Law Journal recognized Snyder in 2002 as one of the nation's top 10 litigators. He's pulled in a $185 million payment from accounting giant Ernst & Young LLP, the second-largest legal settlement in Maryland's history. His work persuaded two opponents he beat in $100 million cases to hire him for future legal work.

Marvin Ellin, a longtime Baltimore plaintiff's attorney, said he had not seen the ads but characterized Snyder's oh-so-public quest for the billion-dollar case as "fascinating."

"He's an excellent trial lawyer; there's no question about that," he said. "I suppose if he's fortunate enough to become involved with a pharmaceutical infringement or copyright infringement case, I can foresee a very large verdict. But a billion dollars? I don't know. A billion dollars is a billion dollars."

That focus on money is precisely what Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and frequent commentator on the American litigation system, found so distasteful.

"There's tough competition to be the most tasteless lawyer advertiser, but I'd say he's probably made it into the world's top 10," Olson said, adding that Snyder ranks with the London firm that advertised its divorce law services in ads that proclaimed, "Ditch the [expletive]."

"Lawyers are not expected to work for free, but if Snyder was a cartoon character, you'd see him with dollar signs in his eyes," Olson said.

William Hornsby, staff counsel for the American Bar Association's division for legal services, described Snyder's advertising approach as "peculiar."

"There are two types of advertising. There's that which is designed to make the phone ring, and that's played out in personal injury and other types of personal legal services," he said. "There's image-oriented advertisements done by corporate-oriented law firms designed to place them on the consciousness of their customers, who are generally in-house counsel for major corporations.

"Which of those categories does this fit into?" he asked. "The answer is neither."

Lawyer Stephen L. Miles said he agreed that Snyder's approach is unusual.

"He probably wanted to do something a little different, and that sure is different. He wants it drilled into people's minds that he's the guy to call with a big case," said Miles, who beckoned potential clients with TV ads that proclaimed, "Let's talk about it" for so long that strangers good-naturedly approach him with his catch phrase.

Snyder was hesitant to be interviewed yesterday. He declined to say how much he spent on the advertising campaign (although the New York Times reported Tuesday that the ads - designed by MGH, an Ownings Mills advertising and public relations firm - in its news pages, The Wall Street Journal and other publications carried a $1 million price tag).

Snyder said he has received a few potentially good calls. He won't talk about those. But, he says, "I've also gotten many calls outside the realm of what I'm capable of doing."

Such as?

Laughing, Snyder responds, "Somebody calling me from Bellevue State Hospital."

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