Commercial appeal

Personal injury lawyer Darryl Isaacs masters the art of marketing

Glance over the University of Kentucky basketball bench at Rupp Arena and it unfolds in predictable order: dapper coaches, sweaty players with legs as long and sturdy as lamp posts, a cluster of casually dressed support staff. Now veer to the right, directly behind the basket.

There sits a ubiquitous, endearing mug, albeit one that’s far less obvious in this particular setting – Darryl Isaacs, arguably Kentucky’s most recognizable lawyer.

“If you were to ask the typical Kentuckian to name a lawyer, (like in) ‘Family Feud,’ he’d be No. 1,” says Jim Chen, dean of University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law. “Survey says? Darryl Isaacs.”

A generous donor to UK athletics, Isaacs got first dibs at buying a handful of floor seats that park him so close to the action, his chair quivers when Anthony Davis’ size 17s lead his herd of fellow Goliaths down court.

One could easily purchase a couple cars — maybe even a house — for the price of this kind of sporting intimacy. It’s one of the many perks of being Darryl Isaacs, once a sub par student, now a millionaire personal injury lawyer thanks to 15 years of aggressive, often campy marketing. He claims more than 500 different television, radio and print ads over that time-span.

As the “Heavy Hitter,” his TV commercials had him stomping around a miniaturized Louisville, a portly giant promising, “You’ll get big service, big help!” You may recall him zapping a nefarious-looking robot withholding money entitled to a car wreck victim.

There’s a kind of entertaining dissonance to these spots: an avuncular, cheery personal injury attorney, who could’ve easily sprung from a “Seinfeld” episode, shilling top-notch, tough legal chops by way of green screens and sound effects. In an age of cutting edge, new media, Isaacs’ reliance on communication relics like billboards and cheesy TV spots only adds to his character’s vintage eccentricity. (Fan note: He’s pondering a Twitter account, though he admits he’s unsure how that works.)

Sure, many cities have these local advertising legends. When in Nashville, for example, look for the Bible-beating Kia salesman. But in Louisville — a place that delights in its weirdness — locals have embraced Isaacs as part of their cultural fabric, alongside Kynt and Vyxsin, and Colonel Sanders.

Darryl Isaacs is part local celebrity, part living tchotchke, and he exists ever presently.

On a sunny Saturday morning in February, a navy blue Lexus winds through the rolling back roads leading to Lexington. Isaacs and his middle school-aged son are en route to watch UK play Vanderbilt. With an extra ticket still up for grabs, Isaacs reaches for the phone. He often gives the tickets away to co-workers or church friends.

Today he scrolls through his contacts for Joker Phillips.

“He may be busy recruiting,” he mumbles before leaving a message for the University of Kentucky football coach, whom Isaacs considers a good friend. He’s thrown private parties for UK coaches and, in return, gained trust, earning access to practices or a post on the sidelines of a football game.

“They don’t give access to everyone,” he says. “I’m lucky.”

As Isaacs pulls into Rupp Arena, a parking attendant pushes aside an orange cone so he can slide into a VIP parking area.

It’s less than a minute’s walk past glistening, luxury cars and one stretch limo to Rupp’s back door. Paper VIP bracelets get strapped on and Isaacs heads to a cramped room where petite cups of popcorn line a wall, a soda machine accelerates at each thirsty patron’s request, and banquet tables offer steaming trays of pulled pork, vegetables and peach pie ala mode.

Isaacs opts for a hot dog and bottled water. In the crowd of sweater-vested doctors, perfumed, fashionable women and wealthy coal executives, Isaacs looks more casual fan than patent elite. The 5-foot-6, non-smoker, non-drinker wears a royal blue Kentucky T-shirt tucked into light blue jeans that gather at the top of his sneakers.

This normalcy contrasts what one might expect of Isaacs, a millionaire several times over. His favorite band? The Beatles. He claims White Castle as a favorite food. Phone calls pipe in details from home regarding his daughter’s slumber party that night.

When he spots Josh Harrellson, a former UK player who’s now a pro, mingling in the crowd, he hustles over, whipping out his iPhone.

“Can you take a picture with my son?” he eagerly asks, smiling that familiar, boyish grin stocked with camera-ready, porcelain-white teeth.

With tip-off moments away, Isaacs heads toward his courtside seats, offering his extra ticket to an Army officer on leave from Fort Riley. Uniformed in the Army’s dress greens, the young man had been huddled in a corner near the “eRUPPtion zone,” a lively corral of standing students.

Those who know the 48-year-old attorney well speak often of his generosity. His older brother, Marc, tells the story of Isaacs buying a Florida vacation for a family he’d never met when he heard they couldn’t afford one.

Dawne Gee, an anchor on WAVE, remembers Isaacs writing a large check to the Angel Tree Foundation. She says he also gave free legal advice to a troubled family featured on the news. Both times he wanted the gestures to remain anonymous. They weren’t about business, just kindness.

As cheerleaders, barely an arm’s distance away, shuffle and bounce, Isaacs talks about his time as a UK undergrad. Back then, in the 1980s, the sports fanatic and fraternity brother was majoring in finance, with a minor in economics.

“I wanted to know about money (for) when I made it,” he explains.

In those days he was relegated to the “nosebleed” section.

“That’s where I was,” he says, pointing into Rupp’s upper abyss. “I would’ve never dreamed,” Isaacs adds, trailing off.

Just getting into college was a challenge. He took the ACT twice. His first attempt garnered a 14 out of a possible 36. The second time he scored 10.

“That wouldn’t get me in anywhere today,” Isaacs says.

Still, with tutoring help, he graduated in 1987 with a 3.2 GPA and worked for about a year, training to become a manager at Chi-Chi’s.

He decided to try law school. It took three attempts to score high enough on the law school admissions test (LSAT) to get into University of Louisville.

He flunked the bar twice before passing a third time and was sworn in Oct. 16, 1992. His dad, Sheldon, had partially retired from his own personal injury practice, and Isaacs eventually revived it, forming Isaacs & Isaacs.

Marc Isaacs says where his younger brother may have lacked in bookish, test-taking smarts, he made up for in other ways.

“I would say he’s very persistent,” says Marc, a certified public accountant in Evansville, Ind. “His interpersonal skills are off the charts. (He’s) everybody’s friend.”

Still, the law school decision stumped him.

“If you had asked me, ‘Would he be a lawyer?’ Nah, I never would’ve picked that … because you had to go to school,” the elder Isaacs says with a laugh. “He was a good student, but he wasn’t a great student. It didn’t come easily for him.”

He seemed better suited for entrepreneurial success. At a young age, Isaacs scrounged together money selling candy, delivering papers or cutting grass. He worked in his grandfather’s jewelry store for a short time to gain retail expertise.

To this day, his business-oriented mind rarely shuts off.

Even when investing in the courtside seats, the potential benefits for Isaacs & Isaacs tantalized him. Just over half of his clients come from Louisville, his hometown, with the rest mostly split between Southern Indiana and Lexington. The seats, directly behind the basket, and therefore in line with camera angles, provide exposure.

“It helps me being seen because of my business, because I’m not in Lexington very much,” he says.

It works. During games, Isaacs often receives text messages from friends who report: “Just saw you on TV!”

Emerging from lunch at Louisville’s KT’s restaurant one day this fall, a hunched, graying woman waved Isaacs down.

“Oh! I enjoy seeing you on the TV and cheering on Kentucky at the games,” she said.

“Does that make you happy?” Isaacs chuckled.

“Oh, it sure does!”

It’s Heavy Hitter fans like this who over the last year have grown frustrated with Isaacs. In 2010, he took his ads in a more serious direction, reinventing his on-air character. Gone were the talking dogs, basketball hailstorms, and hokey antics of yore.

Instead, a stoic, empathetic Isaacs emerged, fronting gauzy montages of accident scenes, stingy insurance adjustors, furrowing couples, ultimately ending with happy clients.

In one ad, it’s just Isaacs, a bed of keyboard music, a gray wall and a teleprompter:

I’m Darryl Isaacs. And this year we celebrated our 17th anniversary. There’s so many cases to remember, and the families, and their suffering, and most of all their pursuit of justice. I can’t begin to tell you the difference you’ve made in my life. And I hope I’ve made a difference in yours. Remember this: I’m not just a lawyer. I’m your lawyer…

While close friends admired the revamped tone, loyal followers did not. Calls streamed in begging for a return to the original Darryl Isaacs. Business slowed. Louisvillians who once ran up for autographs didn’t recognize him as frequently. The Heavy Hitter had lost his mojo, blending in with the host of other personal injury attorneys dotting daytime television.

So the old antics are back.

During Super Bowl 2012, as Isaacs enjoyed the game from Lucas Oil Stadium a few rows up from the field, behind Tom Brady’s relatives, he debuted his old self, catching six footballs, promising not to “drop the ball” when it comes to your car wreck case. He tags out with another popular catchphrase: “One call, that’s all.”

“‘One call, that’s all’ has worked better than Heavy Hitter,” Isaacs says. “Still, that’s how they see you.”

Legally, Isaacs can no longer use the “Heavy Hitter” in marketing. Group Matrix, a Florida-based advertising and consulting firm, owns the rights to the Heavy Hitter trademark. Dozens of Heavy Hitters exist in markets across the United States.

Isaacs stopped using Group Matrix about two years ago. Roughly eight years ago, he also retired his other handle, “Kentucky Hammer,” a brand he copyrighted. Still, both nicknames endure.

With a comfortable enough lead in the game, Isaacs and his son depart with a minute left on the clock so they can beat traffic.

He slips out of his seat, past the student section.

“Oh hey! It’s the Heavy Hitter!” a young male voice exclaims. The recognition reverberates in Isaacs’ mind. That Heavy Hitter brand just sticks so well.

“I think about getting it back,” he says, lost in a thought.

On a recent Thursday night, Isaacs makes his way to Strayer University. A marketing professor at the for-profit institution geared toward working adults, housed in a building resembling a Hampton Inn, has invited Isaacs to speak to her Marketing-100 class.

About 30 students scarf down pizza before taking stiff, plastic seats in a room aglow with fluorescent lighting. Isaacs, dressed in a khaki suit and black shirt, smiles and apologizes for being a few minutes late. Dotty Heady, the professor, quickly begins to gush, telling Isaacs she and her students marvel at his tenacious approach.

“We think you’re a marketing genius,” she says.

It’s in these moments of high praise that this high-profile man often appears bashful. His dark eyes, graced with Disney-length dark lashes, look down as he thanks whoever doles out the kind words. He fears coming across as vain.

“I admire you all,” he responds, congratulating this crew of parents and full-time workers who’ve committed to obtaining a degree. He feels he can identify with them.

Born the youngest of four boys and raised in the Hikes Point area of Louisville, Isaacs describes his youth as middle-class. His dad worked as a pharmacist before going to law school later in life. His mom, who suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, stayed home. Isaacs bounced around from school to school. In seventh grade, he formed a huge crush on a girl who’d later become his wife. By his junior year, he’d settle into Trinity High.

He’d eventually make his way to University of Louisville’s law school, where he graduated nearly last in his class. Given that fact, Isaacs admits he was surprised when in 2008, U of L law school dean Jim Chen requested his presence at a lecture series. But Chen points out few lawyers achieve the fame and fortune Isaacs has. Students packed the room.

“They treated him like a rock star,” Chen reports.

And tonight, at Strayer, a similar scene. The professor clicks pictures on her pocket-sized camera. Comfortable, at ease in front of a crowd, Isaacs offers his first piece of advice.

“Whatever you do, always market yourself … Abraham Lincoln used to advertise,” he says. “Everybody does it. Some better than others.”

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment allows attorneys to advertise. That case — Bates v. State Bar of Arizona — has been criticized, and, according to journal articles and other literature, while the public remains relatively neutral on the issue of lawyers advertising, many attorneys look down upon the practice.

According to the Kentucky Bar Association, of the more than 17,000 lawyers in the state, 62 lawyers or law firms advertised on television in 2011. And of the 1,789 attorney ads that ran last year, 27 percent wound up on TV.

Students raise their hands with questions.

“What’s your marketing budget?” a woman sitting toward the front asks.

Isaacs usually doesn’t like to talk financial details, but for this group he relinquishes a little. He says he’s spent as much as $3 million in one year.

“My rule is as long as we’re making more money than we’re spending, I’m good,” he says, adding that the marketing budget generally stays at 10-20 percent of a company’s net income, but he doesn’t always stick to that.

Isaacs is strategic about marketing. When calls come in, receptionists record what part of the city the caller lives in so they can track their target market.

In a nutshell, he says, his niche does not include highly educated, rich folks.

“It’s not that I’m prejudiced,” Isaacs explains. “(But) the lower on the socio-economic scale, the more they’ll listen to you … It’s not that I want dummies. I don’t mind if they’re college educated. It just seems like the smarter, the richer, the more successful they are, the more there’s an entitlement. And those are bad clients.”

It’s worth noting that Isaacs doesn’t charge clients unless they win a settlement. Lawyers then collect about a third. And, Isaacs says, he tackles a range of cases, from those that will settle for trivial amounts up to a couple million dollars.

Another hand leaps up.

“How many personal injury cases have you won?”

“Well,” Isaacs begins …

This is a difficult question to answer, as his practice hinges on neither trials nor “winning.” Isaacs settles 95 percent of his cases outside of court, and Kentucky law helps him do that. Drivers in this state are required to carry personal injury protection (PIP) coverage of no less than $10,000. This type of coverage is deemed “no fault” insurance, meaning no matter who causes the accident, insurance kicks in to pay for lost wages, injuries, etc. This coverage makes auto insurance rates higher in Kentucky, but allows for a path to financial resolution outside the courtroom.

Attorneys from outside Kentucky often set up shop here, as well as other PIP states, in order to get a piece of the action.

“Michigan has unlimited PIP, so it’s a great state to practice in,” says Isaacs, though he does not.

The last few questions of the night stray from marketing.

“Are you ever running for mayor?”

“Are you hiring?”

Before Isaacs leaves, applause erupts as the professor hands Isaacs an engraved glass souvenir in the shape of a light bulb that reads: “Thanks for sharing the light.”

It now sits on his cherry wood desk at work.

It’s about 10 a.m. at the Isaacs & Isaacs Cherokee Road law office situated on a sharp curve that’s prone to … car wrecks.

The lobby, inside a two-story, Victorian brick home, hums with light country music, as a bubbly receptionist tends to busy phone lines. The other 44 employees are spread throughout a complex of four buildings huddled around a brick courtyard.

Isaacs’ office blends executive elegance with Wildcat obsession. Leather chairs and dark wood furniture sit beneath a UK chandelier, surrounded by royal blue walls. For every framed family vacation picture, there’s an autographed basketball or limited edition UK Maker’s Mark bottle.

A statuesque woman from accounting walks in with settlement checks for Isaacs to sign. As he methodically scrawls the loops and spikes of his signature, he looks up at her.

“Are we switching to Fed-Ex?”

Isaacs, upset at a recent UPS commercial showing Duke player Christian Laettner’s infamous 1992 shot that killed UK’s chances at a national championship, has hastily switched his shipping loyalties.

“It’s been like 20 years since I saw that shot, and I was forced to watch it!” he states, exasperated.

It’s the kind of managerial decision that Isaacs busies himself with these days. He hasn’t taken a case in about five years. Now he’s primarily the CEO of this well-oiled machine.

Across the courtyard, two workers answer up to 30 calls a day from potential clients. This “intake” department weeds out people seeking divorce, criminal help, or claims that may be difficult to prove.

Secretaries gather records. Investigators conduct interviews. Case managers handle the hundreds of frustrated clients who see Isaacs pitching his services on TV all day and wonder, why haven’t I received my check?

Finally, nine lawyers handle the negotiations with insurance companies. Isaacs says his firm totals 1,400 to 2,000 cases per year.

When Isaacs first started practicing in the ’90s, he was, for the most part, a one-man show. He tells tales of working around the clock, sleeping at the office. But in 1996, when he started advertising, business boomed, demanding that his firm grow.

Those marathon days are now history. With great success comes the freedom to devote afternoons to his three kids, coaching soccer and baseball teams.

Even with a lighter workload, Isaacs may forever remain the face of the firm.

Rick Bension, a supervising attorney, says Isaacs draws people in with his approachability. Over lunch at August Moon, Isaacs jokes that usually clients just want to meet him when they’re upset.

Bension chimes in.

“Though I had one that we signed the other day that says, ‘When you’re done with my case I’ve got to shake Darryl’s hand.’”

“Well, yeah, I take that back. If I’m there and they get their check, I get called over all the time. I’ll go over, shake their hand,” Isaacs says. “They love it.”

Isaacs has the likability politicians seek, the popularity news anchors crave. At a recent UK game, Isaacs says, fans were just as eager to have their photo taken with him as with Gov. Steve Beshear and actress Ashley Judd, who were also present.

“It’s crazy,” he says. But, if there’s Zen in personal injury law, Isaacs seems to have found it. He got into it for the potential wealth, but walks away feeling fulfilled. The attention he’s amassed suits him well, though his wife prefers that she and their children remain out of the limelight.

After all, publicity has its risks. A few years ago, Isaacs ran ads focused on victims of semi-truck accidents. He says he received two death threats from angry truckers.

“John Lennon was killed by a crazed fan,” he says when recounting the nerve-wracking phone calls. He pulled the ad quickly.

Yet Isaacs is considering an opportunity that could catapult him into fame’s upper tiers via the fickle world of reality television. The larger-than-life persona, until now packaged into 30-second spots, has been approached for a possible show that, if sold, could air nationally. A pilot’s been shot and is being shopped around, though Isaacs and his colleagues were reluctant to say much more. Ever the marketer, Isaacs is tempted by the idea.

Before heading out of the office for the day, Isaacs spends a few minutes on YouTube, scoping out other personal injury attorneys’ ad campaigns.

“Look at this,” he says, punching up a spot.

It’s from a lawyer in Las Vegas. It shows a broad-shouldered, well-tanned man running.

“Look! It’s Glen Lerner!” a woman screams.

“Working!” the man waves back. A few seconds later, sirens blare, and Lerner takes off, chasing the ambulance.

“He’s running after an ambulance,” Isaacs says, shaking his head. “It pisses me off.”

The former Heavy Hitter sees such stereotypes as a blow to the image of lawyers like him.

“I love what I do,” he says. “I like helping people.”