Attorney Frank Azar has flooded Colorado’s airways, byways and highways with advertisements for his personal injury law firm for three decades — but now the self-proclaimed “Strong Arm” alleges an out-of-state competitor is leveraging that prolific advertising to poach his clients.
In a lawsuit filed in Pueblo District Court last month, Azar claims the Alabama-based Slocumb Law Firm is creating deceptive advertisements on Google that make customers believe they’re calling Franklin D. Azar & Associates when they are, in fact, calling the out-of-state firm, which is headed by Alabama attorney Michael Slocumb and has just one lawyer in Colorado.
Slocumb’s firm buys Google ad keywords and uses metadata to ensure its ads pop up when users search for Frank Azar or his ubiquitous slogan, “The Strong Arm,” the lawsuit alleges. Slocumb’s ads then direct users to a call center where operators fail to correct callers’ misconception that they have reached Azar’s Aurora-based firm, the lawsuit says.
Slocumb has been accused of using similar tactics to target high-profile personal injury attorneys in multiple states, court records show. In the last four years, he’s been sued by personal injury attorney Jim Adler, known as “The Texas Hammer,” Alabama attorney Matt Abbot, known as “The Outlawyer,” and Louisiana attorney Morris Bart, who uses the tagline “One call, that’s all,” for similar complaints.
“The money at stake here is absolutely unbelievable,” Azar said in an interview. “They’re getting into the core business, using my reputation with the community, my ability to do advertising and preying on the public.”
Slocumb denied wrongdoing in an interview Wednesday and said his law firm has stopped using Azar’s keywords in its advertisements.
“Frank is going to lose the case,” he said. “…There’s nothing improper about the practice of bidding on a name through Google AdWords, nothing improper about it.”
In a motion to dismiss Azar’s lawsuit filed Tuesday, Slocumb’s attorneys argued that the tactics the firm uses — paying for its advertisements to show up when users Google other attorneys’ names or slogans — have been upheld by courts across the country.
“Merely purchasing keywords — whether those keywords are trademarked, patented or protected from commercial use by another — to display a separate and distinct advertisement from the searched term on Google is, simply, not violative of any Colorado (or federal) law or illegal in any way,” attorney Miranda Yancey wrote, repeating nearly word-for-word arguments made by another attorney for Slocumb in the Louisiana lawsuit.
The practice of using a competitor’s keywords to bring up another company’s advertisement online is “really common,” and is generally not considered to be copyright infringement, said Denver intellectual and commercial litigation attorney Thomas Howard, who is not involved with any of the lawsuits against Slocumb.
But it is illegal to purposely confuse and mislead consumers, he said, which Azar also alleges in his lawsuit. Azar claims that Slocumb’s ads direct users to a call center run by The Injury Solution LLC, which then directs clients to Slocumb’s firm.
When an investigator for Azar called the number in Slocumb’s ad, operators at the call center repeatedly failed to explain that the call center was not Azar’s law firm, the complaint states.
“The investigator inquired, ‘Is this the Azar firm?’ The question was ignored, and the telephone operator proceeded to ask questions about the accident,” the complaint reads. “Again, the investigator asked if they were speaking with the Azar firm. In some instances, this second request for clarification was ignored. In other instances, The Injury Solution said Mr. Azar is ‘not available.’”
Azar said his firm discovered the practices when a woman who believed she’d hired Azar’s firm several weeks earlier called for an update on her case only to discover she’d actually hired Slocumb’s firm.
“They know these people misclicked,” Azar said.
When asked about those practices, Slocumb denied deliberately misleading consumers and said his employees clearly identify the law firm when they answer the phone.
“I’m not The Injury Solution. You realize that, right?” he said, then proceeded to answer follow-up questions by repeating “I am not The Injury Solution” several times.
Slocumb declined to say what his business relationship is with The Injury Solution, which has two phone numbers on its website that on Wednesday were answered by operators who said, “Slocumb Law Firm.”
The Injury Solution is registered as a limited liability company in Florida to Jason Berger, business records show. In 2012, Slocumb and a man by the same name were both members of the same Alabama limited liability company, Casa Fuega 1 LLC, and the business was registered to Slocumb’s Auburn law offices, Alabama business records show.
Azar’s lawsuit says Berger is the Slocumb Law Firm’s chief operating officer. A message left for Berger on Wednesday was not returned.
Howard called advertising on Google with another company’s keywords “sleazy” and “underhanded,” but said Azar faces an uphill battle in the court case, because it will be difficult to prove his firm suffered actual damages.
“It is a very tough argument,” Howard said. “It’s not an easy one. It sounds like it would be, but it’s not, because (Slocumb) will argue that they barely made any money off of it, the ads hardly ever run, searches for him are hardly ever conducted, they run thousands of different ads, they have thousands of different AdWords and his is just one of them and his hardly ever come up.”
Azar estimated he lost between 50 and 80 potential clients a month to Slocumb’s advertising scheme, which could be millions of dollars in settlements; Slocumb said the approach was “never effective” and declined to elaborate.
Slocumb last year settled the lawsuit filed against him by Adler, “The Texas Hammer,” court records show. Abbot, “The Outlawyer,” who accused Slocumb of ripping him off by dressing like a cowboy in a TV ad, voluntarily dismissed his lawsuit in 2019. The Louisiana case with Bart is ongoing.