THEY'RE IN THE rear of the store, by the Futuro Sitz Baths and the Rubbermaid products. The "them" are lawyers, not quarts of Quaker State, just canny counselors at law in three-piece suits, hunkered here in the fluorescent wonderland of a 24-hour Northern Virginia Dart Drug.
Watch them dispatch the simple will ($40). See them handle the uncontested divorce ($195). Listen to their soothing words on that weekend bender that got you a DWI ($195). Individual bankruptcy? From $350, plus costs. And if it's just a quickie consult you're after, you can be in and out in 15 minutes for $17.50, flat. Cash and carry. Joni in the other room will write you a receipt.
Joni Arnold is the Girl Friday picking up the phones. In the last 10 minutes, 10 calls have stabbed the noonday air. "Good morning. Lawyers at Dart," she says brightly, over and over, with perfect resolute cheerfulness.
"Some of our customers bring in coupons they've clipped from the Sunday paper," says Fred Freedman, one of the managing partners. "They say, 'Is this good?' We say, 'You betcha.' "
"This is the greatest thing since night baseball," says a client named Barbara, who has just come in with her aged mother. (IRS problem.) "Mother didn't have to get dressed up and go to town."
There is a lull in the phones. Joni gulps for air. "Oh, sure, we still get people calling up and saying, 'Hey, is this legit?' 'Where did these guys go to school?' But you'd be very surprised at how we're getting accepted now. The public knows we're legit. They know we're providing a service."
"Yeah," calls Bob Abrams from the other room. "See Bob." He says it and roars. It strikes him as unbearably funny. "See Bob today for all your legal needs." Bob is the attorney in the hot seat today. This could be another $1,000 day. Move 'em in and out -- immigration problems, eviction cases, marriage squabbles. Bob came on at 9 this morning, and by the time he gets off at 9 tonight, he'll be waffleville. Go home and veg out. Not for nothing did this job lose him a girlfriend.
Bob's card says Robert Michael Abrams. He is 35, short and blocky and talky, two years out of law school. He has a puce pen and a green suit and a bucket of hair. His grandfather was an immigrant Russian Jew. Abrams was a little wary of this cut-rate legal idea at first, but not now. This is the cutting edge, he thinks. He is nobody's jurisprudent fool, and his law degree from the University of Virginia isn't the least of the evidence. "Let me warn you," he says. "If you are an attorney and you underestimate me, you do so at your peril. Some smart-ass counsel representing the other side will call me up and practically snicker into the phone. Either that, or he's curt. Right off, he thinks he can talk down to me because I'm practicing in a drugstore. You see, the professions in this country have gotten incredibly arrogant. What you're witnessing here is a marriage of professional legal service to a retail outlet. It's the first step down from the ivory tower. The extent to which we reverse legal model is the extent to which we are serving the public."
This is a no-frills, high-volume, cut-rate, quick-service story, a kind of bargain-basement parable of our times. Call these guys the Freddie Laker and People Express of formula law. That is no sneaky way at saying they're fly-by-night. It's a way of saying they have listened to the voice of the American consumer, and come away reborn. Are they cause or effect; is it chicken or egg? Who knows? Who cares?
The particulars of this very going enterprise will come in a minute. But first an actual "case" history from last week's files. This case wasn't a "walk-in," of which there are some every day, but rather the quickly resolved, happy-ending story of one, elderly, sweet, very upset Marie Allen. Reading time: 45 seconds.
Client gets a letter in the mail from the IRS. Gist of letter is that she owes back taxes for 1980. Her Social Security payments might be in jeopardy. Client didn't know she owed a tax bill. She is distraught. She will be unable to sleep tonight unless she sees a lawyer. She is afraid she's going to jail.
Client's daughter, Barbara, phones Lawyers at Dart. Fine, come in at 12:30 today, says receptionist and administrator Joni Arnold. Elderly mother, with cane and letter, and solicitous daughter Barbara, arrive Dart Drug, Loehmann's Plaza, Falls Church, Va., at 12:25 p.m. Robert Abrams is waiting. "Mrs. Allen, Mrs. Allen," he says. "Come in. Come in." Attorney helps Mrs. Allen into chair, closes door quietly.
"Ten minutes later, door opens. Mrs. Allen and attorney are smiling. "Everything's fine now," says counselor. "We understand the problem. We're going to take up this matter directly with the IRS. Today, not tomorrow."
After client has gone, counselor says: "Seventeen-fifty. And Marie Allen sleeps tonight. An old lady won't go to jail."
The Lawyers at Dart Drug have been in business since October 1981, although the idea was on the drawing boards long before that. It isn't a completely original concept, but it is one whose time seems definitely to have arrived (along with, say, the $19 shuttle to Newark). This is the late 20th century, not the middle of the 19th. There are new approaches to some previously sacrosanct ways of doing things.
A man named Joel Hyatt, with Hyatt Legal Services, is applying much the same principles as the Lawyers at Dart. Hyatt has 200 lawyers in 90 offices in a dozen states. He is in with H & R Block and is clearly out front in the race to democratize the legal system, making it accessible as tap water. Out in California, a firm called Jacoby & Meyers has 44 offices (and another 19 in New York). They are credited with pioneering the cut-rate legal clinic idea.
The Lawyers at Dart Drug don't especially like the clinic image. Sounds like a backstairs operation, they say, some kind of abortion clinic. Besides, they say, clinic law is idiot-proofed, with the cheapest lawyers and the cheapest secretarial help. Everything out of a form book. The uncontested divorce is on page one, the quickie will on page two. You stab 'em, we slab 'em.
That's not the lawyers at Dart at all. "Our concept is: No Cut in Quality," says Fred Freedman. "On the other hand, we don't want to sit with Mrs. Rich Bucks and hold her hand for $65 for nothing."
"Say, for instance, somebody wants a $195 divorce . . . " says Bob Abrams.
"Everybody wants a $195 divorce," cuts in Fred Freedman.
"Do you want your divorce to be a thing of beauty?" says Abrams.
"So for $195, instead of $1,200, you've got a real divorce," says Freedman. "Bob here does it three, four times a day. The more the merrier."
"We're not against the institution of marriage, you understand," hastens Abrams.
"No, no, no," says Freedman.
"My job is to solve the problem," says Abrams. "If it seems in the best interest of my client that she get back together with her husband, then that's my counsel."
At the moment there are 14 attorneys and eight Dart Drugs participating in the Lawyers at Dart. More stores and more attorneys are on the way. The main office is in a townhouse in McLean. That's where the firm of Zilberberg & Freedman concocted the idea of putting attorneys in the back of drugstores, right there with Dr. Scholl and the hoi polloi. Those colleagues who were yukking then may not be hooting now. Who knows: Dart today, Safeway tomorrow.
A deal was worked out by Mark Zilberberg with the Dart chain, which rents the space to the firm. So far all of the Darts with lawyers in them are out there where the Beltway meets the shopping center sky--four in Maryland, four in Virginia. "We ring the Beltway," beams Fred Freedman. Actually Freedman just joined up himself. He used to practice conventional law for the SEC. (Last year he was squaring off against Edward Bennett Williams in a Gulf and Western case; case settled.) "And now I'm in a drugstore managing my law offices." This is a great country. This born-again legal man is in a blue blazer and "rep" tie. He could be a silk-stocking lawyer.
"It's great for Dart, too," he says. "Our clients buy things on the way out."
"How are we accepted by our peers?" Freedman says. "Let me tell you. Last week I had lunch with the president of the D.C. Bar. He's very supportive of us. We have gotten referrals from Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver, & Kampelman. They're in the Watergate. Look, a place like that can't open a case for less than $1,000. You're partly paying for the carpeting. They have to send out some young Harvard grad to reinvent the wheel. Our Bob Abrams here doesn't have to reinvent the wheel."
Of course you can't please everybody. Some people aren't so fond of this operation at all. "The people we get static from are the people we're making obsolete," says Freedman. "I refer to them as the three-martini crowd, the good old boys who went to school with the judge. We're putting them out of business."
There are two keys to the success of this operation: high volume and cash up front. "Sometimes we'll make out a payment schedule for somebody," says Bob Abrams. "It's got to be . . . in here." He raps his heart.
"Sometimes Bob lets people go out the door with a $350 tab," says Joni Arnold. "I just go . . ." She makes a tragic face.
"It sounds like a gimmick," says Fred Freedman. "It's no gimmick. We're meeting the needs of the people."
"We're not selling hamburgers at this McDonald's," says Abrams. "We're selling quiche."
"I don't think McDonald's ever takes a customer away from Rive Gauche," says Freedman.
Actually, there are probably three keys to the success of this operation. The third key is keeping a whiz like Bob Abrams in the office all day. Let another lawyer from the firm, a kind of "floater," handle the court stuff. Kelly Dennis is one of the firm's courtroom sharpshooters. He handles most of the criminal cases. Abrams' got one expertise, Kelly Dennis another.
"If Bob is seeing 10 people in a day, he can't get a complicated case," says Freedman. "We can't have Bob sitting in a library looking something up."
"One of the pitches I make is that they're not just hiring me; they're hiring the firm," says Abrams.
A lot of stuff you can't do by formula. Sometimes you have to get out of the office. Can't go to the form book for a 17-year-old who's just been knocked off a bike. "I took pictures," says Abrams. He pulls a camera from under his desk.
They may yet get rich off this idea. In fact, that was one of the gentlemanly selling points to Bob Abrams, when he thought about joining the team. Bob Abrams was an attorney with a Charlottesville degree and no clients.
"Profit-sharing," he says, coming forward in his black swivel judge's chair. He intones it, the way somebody might have intoned "plastic" a generation ago. "Profit-sharing. If this thing flies . . . "
"There's no if," says Freedman. "When this thing flies."
Bob's dad and brother have a bet between them that within five years, he'll be making $100,000.
Joni Arnold is on the phone again. She greets nearly every call with high decibels and joie de vivre. Joni used to do high-pressure sales at a health spa. She's not in this for the money, she says. Just decent good will toward people. "Hello, Mr. ------, this is Joni Arnold from the Lawyers at Dart Drug. I have some news for you I don't think you're going to like. Your wife has hired a lawyer. Now that in itself doesn't mean that much . . . "
Blue fans whirr on the floor. There are a couple of potted plants, inexpensive paneling, a kind of everyman's furniture. This look is all in the master plan: Don't put the client off. This could be his first trip to a lawyer. Make the guy feel at home, or at least somewhere between a haircut and a root canal.
"The American middle class," sighs Abrams. "What you've got here is a broad slice of metropolitan life."
"Yeah," says Freedman. "We've got one lady in Manassas who may be the richest person in the county. She came in."
Client at the door right now. Bob Abrams is up from the desk, buttoning his jacket, all business. "Mrs. Sargeant, how very nice to see you," he says in a wonderful voice. "Won't you please come in?" He is very talky, very happy.
Labor Day. Bob Abrams and Joni Arnold are tending the legal store at Dart Drug. Actually, pretty slow day in here today. Nothing on but the radio.
"Are you over 18?" Abrams says to the visitor when he comes in the door.
Of course. Why?
"Are you a felon?"
Of course not. What is this?
"Good," he says. "I'd like you to witness a will. Holly is going to be the other witness."
Holly is the girl from the prescription counter. She is in a blue smock. "They pull me in a lot," she says. "It's okay. Breaks it up."
"Holly, are you over 18?" Abrams says, perfectly serious, going through it all again.
Later, Abrams says, "We've got all kinds of ideas. We've even thought of a LAWMOBILE -- a van that we could send out to nursing homes and hospitals. You know, one of the reasons I got into law was to help people. I'm doing it here. And this is only the beginning."