By Steve Nohlgren, Times Staff Writer In Print: Sunday, January 27, 2013
It was a minor rear-end collision with no obvious injuries. But when a Sebring jury finally had its say last month, that 3-year-old fender bender created a legal milestone. The Tampa law firm of Culpepper Kurland at last conducted its first trial. • Created six years ago by two energetic 30-somethings, the firm has parlayed hip, edgy advertising into a thriving personal injury practice. • Where most legal commercials show earnest attorneys pontificating in front of law books, Brad Culpepper and Brett Kurland move to a hard rock beat. They walk around town in slow motion, stride up courthouse steps, address juries and reporters, creating a vibe familiar to any fan of TV legal drama.
The ads are such a hit, strangers stop by the office and ask to take a photo with the lawyers.
But the reality of Culpepper Kurland — like the legal niche they compete in — is far from the Hollywood image.
The firm specializes in auto accidents, cases that usually settle no matter who the lawyers are. Even in that crowd, Culpepper Kurland stands out. They have filed hundreds of lawsuits but taken only one, the Sebring fender bender, to a verdict. They say clients prefer the certainty of settlements over the potentially bigger — but riskier — payoffs of trials.
Competitors — including Culpepper and Kurland’s former mentor — have taken notice. Top-notch settlements occur when opponents fear your trial record, John Morgan says. And once every six years doesn’t cut it.
“If you don’t get into the arena, all of your other cases are compromised,” says Morgan, also familiar to TV viewers with his “For the People” campaign. “If the insurance company thinks you will always take the last offer, they never will offer what the case is worth.”
Clearwater’s Carey & Leisure, another heavy advertiser, might take 1 percent of its cases to trial, “but it is an important 1 percent,” Tom Carey says. Trials help lawyers predict how juries will react, Carey says. “If you never try a case, you have no reference point” while negotiating settlements.
Culpepper and Kurland insist, however, that good payouts stem from thorough preparation — ordering the right medical tests, preparing witnesses, taking depositions and plugging any holes in cases.
“We are going to medically manage that file and we are going to negotiate that file better than anybody else in town,” Culpepper says. “For my first five years, I had the umbrella of Morgan behind me, and I have seen nothing but an increase in the value of offers since I’ve been with the CK firm.”
Culpepper and Kurland spend more than $1 million dollars a year on advertising and treat it like a one-third partner, Culpepper says.
“The monster is hungry and wants to be fed,” he says. “Sometimes, he makes as much as we do.”
John Morgan usually hires experienced civil trial lawyers. But 11 years ago, a young man three years out of law school wrangled an interview and sold himself on the spot.
Brett Kurland earned MBA and law degrees from Stetson University. He rose fast in Pinellas County’s state attorney’s office, where criminal trials come along every week or so.
“I loved the adrenaline rush. I always wanted to win,” Kurland says. “If I would lose a case, I would get depressed for three days. I took it personally.”
Kurland promised John Morgan that doggedness would trump lack of civil court experience.
“He made a great appearance,” Morgan recalls. “I thought, ‘This guy, if we could harness his energies and competitiveness, could be a really good trial lawyer.’ ”
Kurland’s wife, Blair, was a Culpepper. Her grandfather was Florida’s first university chancellor. Her father led the University of Florida student body and captained the football team. Her famous brother would soon knock on Morgan’s door as well.
Brad Culpepper was a Gator All-American and dean’s list student. His 6-foot-2 frame was small for a defensive tackle, but he starred as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
Bored in off-seasons, he attended UF law school from January through May — possible because the Bucs were usually so terrible he didn’t have to play in January. He had swagger and a name that could attract clients.
“I loved him,” Morgan says. “He looks like a million dollars and is smart as hell.”
The brothers-in-law specialized in auto accidents — the meat and potatoes of personal injury law. They learned Morgan’s high-volume model, which they would later copy at their own firm.
Case managers collect relevant records, then lawyers “value” the case based on car repairs, medical bills, lost wages and subtle factors like potential jury sympathy. Often, lawyers on both sides value the case within a similar range, then negotiate the actual payout.
Within a few years, both Culpepper and Kurland placed consistently among Morgan’s top fee producers. Culpepper says he earned in the high six figures by 2006. Kurland declined to discuss his income, but Morgan estimated it at $600,000 a year.
Then the firm altered its pay policy — to encourage more trial work, Morgan says. Culpepper had notched one trial as lead attorney; Kurland had none.
Culpepper remembers the change as more of a pay cap. “I was going to have to work twice as hard and earn less,” he says.
Kurland says money wasn’t his biggest concern. He wanted to run his own business and had innovative ideas for legal advertising. It was time.
Two men in dark suits glide through Tampa streets. Clouds scud by, waves break on the shore. The men keep moving but say nothing. A message appears as the music crescendoes: “If you have been injured … EMPOWER YOURSELF.”
Another high-gloss Culpepper Kurland is on the air.
“It just took off. People loved that,” Kurland recalls. “We didn’t need to talk. People knew what we do. It’s branding and about being different and projecting confidence and energy.”
To critics who suggest that such pizzazz has little to do with settling cases, Kurland invokes the lizard. “You have been pounded with the gecko over and over with commercials that have nothing to do with insurance,” he says. “But people remember that, and when they need insurance, they call GEICO.”
Culpepper Kurland opened its Tampa office in March 2007. After four years, the firm averaged two new clients a day and is still growing, Culpepper says. The staff has grown from five to 13.
Both men describe their temperaments as “polar opposites,” helping define their distinct roles in the firm.
Culpepper is comfortable in the public eye, gives interviews and goes on radio shows. Big photos of his playing days decorate the conference room. But family comes first, he says. He has learned to work “smarter” — fewer hours with better results — so he can be there for Little League and piano lessons. His office is blanketed with 191 photos of his wife and three children, mostly on vacation.
Kurland manages the firm and thinks about business around the clock, he says.
“Brad is pragmatic. When he walks out that door, he doesn’t think about it,” Kurland says. “I don’t have that ability to turn it off. It’s a curse, but it’s also what makes us successful.”
Though his face graces billboards all over town, Kurland says he treasures privacy. He wears a baseball hat in public so people won’t recognize him.
Economics generally drive accident cases toward settlement.
Plaintiff legal fees usually rise from 33 to 40 percent if a case goes to trial. Depositions and expert testimony can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Beyond that, Florida law penalizes clinging to unreasonable demands. If you fare poorly in court, you may have to pay the other side’s legal fees and costs.
“Many clients have a real interest in resolving cases quickly,” even at a discount, says Florida State University law professor Mark Spottswood. “Some clients don’t want to be cross-examined by a lawyer who will make you look like a liar.”
Still, a lawyer’s trial experience counts, Spottswood says. “There is a game of chicken that is going to happen,” he says. “The threat is: ‘If you don’t give me this, I will go to trial.’ If somebody doesn’t take cases to trial, that threat is not going to be as credible.”
Some high-advertising firms will accept almost any offer, while referring out difficult cases. Culpepper Kurland does not fit that pattern. The Florida Bar lists no complaints against them. Court records show they set hearings, conduct mediations, depose witnesses and schedule trials.
“This is all we have done, day in and day out, for 11 years,” Kurland says. “We have our fingers on the pulse.”
Morgan is skeptical. Going years without a trial “would have to mean that the insurance industry paid you fairly in every single case,” he says. “That is not possible. Insurance companies are not fair by business design.”
But if clients want to avoid court, Kurland counters, lawyers should not force the issue to burnish credentials.
“I will never sacrifice a current client to let everyone know that I will try cases.”
Startup firms generally do not go to court right away because cases can take several years to mature into trials. Now Culpepper Kurland’s pipeline holds hundreds of cases, so they have added a third family member, who brings significant civil trial experience to the firm.
Bruce Culpepper, 70, runs marathons and has no interest in retirement. He left a commercial practice at one of Florida’s largest firms 18 months ago to join his sons in the trenches of crashes, injuries and insurance adjustors.
He was lead attorney in the Sebring fender bender. The client underwent one operation for a herniated disc, needed another and faced $70,000 in medical bills. But the defense thought he was faking and never offered more than $10,000, Brad Culpepper says.
A defense doctor said the bad disc was an old ailment, unrelated to the accident. The client’s former boss said he bragged that a doctor’s son had hit him and he was going to make a big score.
Bruce Culpepper repeatedly caught the boss changing her story. But the jury did not award a dime and now the client may be on the hook for defense costs.
Bruce Culpepper, who once represented banks and hospitals, says injury cases are more personal. “By the time you go to trial, you love your client.”
His mouth tightened and face flushed as he left the courtroom with one brief assessment:
“This is why you are very, very careful about going to trial.”