The Wal-Mart Crusade

Franklin Azar's office doesn't look much like the headquarters of a holy jihad.

His law firm occupies nearly two floors of a surprisingly low-key, boxy Aurora office building that is hidden in an anonymous office park tucked between equally anonymous subdivisions. Inside, the rooms are comfortable but hardly flashy. The space that houses seventeen attorneys could just as easily be home to an accounting firm.

As the late afternoon sun streams through the windows of his large corner office, Azar leans back in his leather chair, smoking an imported cigar. A Stolichnaya and soda is on his desk, and the nearby television provides ambient background noise. At this hour it's Shipmates, a dating show that features cruise partners who seem to lose a new article of clothing just before every commercial break; at other times, Azar might be caught watching Charmed or Excalibur (his favorites).

Azar loves television and movies, and he often sees his life -- and the court cases he's involved in -- as Hollywood-style epics. This is fitting for someone who is a minor celebrity on the Denver small screen. Azar's in-your-face commercials -- "Have you been injured in an accident? I can get you more money!" -- are a fixture of daytime and late-night TV, helping him establish one of the most successful practices in town for personal-injury suits.

While keeping an eye on Shipmates, Azar looks over a printout tracking the number of calls that have come in after the most recent TV ads.

"Television is very effective," he says. "When my dad practiced law in Trinidad, he just hung a 'lawyer' sign outside of his window, but you can't do that anymore."

Silk-stocking 17th Street lawyers often scorn him for that type of publicity, but it's paid off for Azar. He files several thousand personal-injury lawsuits every year and is currently involved in ten class-action suits (most of them targeting pharmaceutical companies). More than 90 percent of the personal-injury cases are settled out of court, often for a couple thousand dollars. Azar doesn't like to estimate annual revenues, but his firm takes a 30 percent cut of every settlement, a sum that adds up quickly with such a large number of cases.

Azar is aware that many of his colleagues have a dim view of him because of the ads. "A lot of guys are jealous because I'm on TV," he says. "The perception is the guys on TV aren't as good. I was talking to a lawyer today, and he said, 'You're a lot better lawyer than you seem on TV.'"

As if to prove it, Azar shows off a wall full of photos of his beaming mug with household names: Johnnie Cochran of O.J. Simpson fame; legendary Texas attorney John O'Quinn, who played a pivotal role in winning multibillion-dollar verdicts against tobacco companies; former prosecutor and author Vincent Bugliosi; and politicians such as Bill Clinton and Tom Daschle.

Azar frequently dines at the Palm restaurant downtown, Denver's best-known hangout for power brokers. He has a table near the entrance and is on a first-name basis with most of the staff. He loves to glad-hand the prominent attorneys who are also frequent diners, greeting Steve Farber and Norm Brownstein -- the most politically powerful lawyers in the city -- by their first names, then asking if he can get back the money he donated to Tom Strickland's losing senatorial campaign.

Farber, who considers himself a friend of Azar's, says establishment attorneys who dismiss Azar as a "TV lawyer" are somewhat hypocritical, since many of their firms are hiring marketing experts to help them gain new clients. "Far be it from me to demean anybody for using TV to advertise their services," Farber says. "Some people look down at that; I don't. If they deliver what they say they're going to deliver, then God bless them."

Azar is also on Farber's list of people willing to make substantial donations to high-profile charity fundraisers -- he's contributed to the University of Denver, cancer research, the American Heart Association and dozens of others -- a key factor in Denver's civic pecking order.

Azar clearly wants to enter the big leagues of plaintiff's attorneys. And he may have found his way in by suing Wal-Mart, already costing the company $50 million.

Azar's seven-year crusade against America's most successful discount retailer began in Trinidad, the hardscrabble southern Colorado mining town where he was born in 1957. Foreshadowing Azar's fights, the town was the scene of some of the United States' most violent labor battles in the early twentieth century, as miners fought for an eight-hour day and recognition of their union. Fiery labor organizer Mary "Mother Jones" Harris even came to take up the miners' cause.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers