The creature emerges from the black lagoon in vintage horror-flick style, festooned with pearls and dripping bracelets—but wearing scuba gear. He opens his mouth and emits not a primordial bellow but a pitchman’s spiel across the TV airwaves of Madison, Wis. “If you’re in over your head,” says the creature, “we’ll put you through bankruptcy for only $100.” Ken Hur, 55, who calls himself “the advertisingest lawyer in America,” has struck again.
If viewers find Hur’s act hilarious, his more decorous brothers at the bar find such plugs for his cut-rate legal clinic monstrous. “I just don’t think that is any way to carry the message of availability of legal services,” sniffs former county bar association president Tom Ragatz. But, spurred on by the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting lawyers to advertise, Hur has gone one better than the old ambulance chaser. He cruises the streets of Madison in a Cadillac hearse to push his $15 wills, as well as in a battered stock car emblazoned SIDESWIPED? CALL ATT’Y KEN HUR. So far he has starred in 35 TV commercials and even flown his banner from a rented airplane, all to get across one message: “You can talk to a lawyer for just 10 bucks.” By way of justification, he explains: “My clients aren’t bankers and doctors. They’re ordinary middle-income people—the ones who fall through the cracks in the legal system.”
The legal establishment has, in turn, been trying to crack down on Hur ever since he first took to the air. “Hur’s advertising tactics are demeaning to the profession,” argues Richard Sommer, president of the state bar of Wisconsin, which last spring attempted to rewrite the state’s code of professional responsibility for lawyers to get Ken Hur-type ads off the air. The Wisconsin supreme court rebuffed that counterattack, but Hur’s critics still contend his advertising is irresponsible and, says Ragatz, “building up expectations he can’t meet.” Hur retorts with stories of poor clients who might never have gotten to court without him—and blasts the lawyers who tried to muzzle him as “stuffed shirts.”
For television, Hur stuffs himself into a T-shirt touting his clinic’s services and phone number. “Madisonians have an especial tolerance for the zany,” explains one local observer—and zany seems the only word to describe Hur, a Russian immigrant grocer’s son who went through University of Wisconsin Law School on the Gl Bill. Who else would name three (of his five) children Janine (J9), Too-dee (2D) and BB, after the apartments their parents lived in when they were born?
Hur, who also runs a separate private practice specializing in personal injury cases, says that despite the advertising, the legal clinic has cost him $150,000 so far. But the long-range prognosis is healthy. During the first year the staff of young attorneys—started at a meager $6 an hour—increased from three to eight, and the TV spots pulled 5,000 people to the clinic for advice (although only 1,000 became clients). For a man who started his career moonlighting as a justice of the peace—and instructing his constable, Lee Dreyfus, now governor of Wisconsin, to issue more speeding tickets to raise his revenue from court fees—Ken Hur has come a long way. In fact, he may be leading a trend. Recently another Madison attorney offered bankruptcy assistance for $25 less than Hur. Says Ken, undismayed: “I’m proud of that and I take credit for it.”