Mark Zilberberg and Fred Freedman peddle law the way McDonald's hawks hamburgers.
They advertise discount divorces and cut-rate wills alongside the 99-cent hand tools and the whitewall tire cleaner specials in the newspaper ads.
They dispense no-frills legal advice from cramped law offices sandwiched between the pharmacy counters and the stacks of plastic garbage cans in local Dart Drug stores.
"There's a whole segment of the population suspicious of the traditional type of cloistered law," said Zilberberg, who has opened the first no-frills, chain-store legal clinics in the Washington area. "We're in the people's environment. They feel comfortable when they can have one foot in the law office and the other foot in the safety of their own environment with the toothpaste and the pharmacist."
Even the name of the firm is far from intimidating: the Lawyers at Dart Drug.
The drugstore lawyers say they are luring the price-conscious shoppers, the coupon clippers, the bargain hunters, the people who have never before been inside a law office.
Zilberberg and Freedman say cut-rate, retail store law firms are "the wave of the future." They're cheap, convenient and accessible, goes the sales pitch from Zilberberg. They offer shopping-center hours at bargain-basement prices.
Although they are the first to open such legal clinics in this locale, chain store law firms already are prospering in other urban areas, especially in Florida and California, according to a spokeswoman for the American Bar Association.
"The public response has been phenomenal," said Zilberberg, a teacher-turned-lawyer-turned-entrepreneur. He said the nine attorneys in the five Washington area clinics have counseled 1,000 clients since the offices opened six months ago.
The partners started last October with clinics in three Dart Drug stores in Virginia and two in Maryland. They plan to add three more offices in June and predict that, within the year, they will expand to between 12 and 20 stores, some as far south as Richmond and Charlottesville. The Virginia clinics are in Falls Church, Fairfax and Manassas, and they plan to open a fourth this June in southern Fairfax County.
There are no plans to expand into the District yet because of parking and other access problems at most city stores, said Zilberberg. Without a heavy volume of business, the clinics can't survive with their low prices, he said.
"In most law firms, seeing two clients a day in the office is considered good," said Freedman. "If we only get two a day, we're out of business." Each office sees about seven clients each day, he said.
The law offices are operated independently of Dart Drug management; they do, however, rent office space from Dart, advertise in Dart newspaper supplements and use the Dart name.
Their success has piqued the interest of other stores and businesses in the area, including Zayre Department Stores, which are considering entering the legal market.
But the response from the conventional legal community has been lukewarm.
"It's demeaning to the legal profession when you go to being advertised like a hammer in the hardware section," said Virginia Del. John H. Rust, an attorney in Fairfax County.
Although the American Bar Association has endorsed the concept of more affordable legal services, according to spokeswoman Gayle Alexander, the professional organization "wants to make sure they are providing good, solid legal advice."
Zilberberg and Freedman stand behind their crew of lawyers as experienced attorneys. Freedman has practiced law 26 years, Zilberberg seven. As backup, the Lawyers of Dart Drug occasionally consult a conventional downtown law firm on some legal matters, Zilberberg said.
Zilberberg and Freedman are staking their business on cut-rate, advertised prices--prices that are sometimes 10 percent of the cost of the same service from a conventional law firm.
And even skeptics like Rust say the lower prices will give much-needed relief to lower-income clients and may force other lawyers to be more willing to quote fees in advance.
"The hardest thing for traditional lawyers to do is talk about money," said Rust. "They always said, 'We'll do the work and talk about cost afterward.' That's wrong. Everyone in the legal profession is going to have to be up front about costs."
Most clients who have ambled into the drugstore law offices have wanted help on routine matters: wills, divorces, traffic tickets, shoplifting charges. (The Lawyers at Dart Drugs won't represent people arrested for shoplifting in Dart stores, however.) And, most customers are lower- or middle-income people who don't have the money to hire high-powered, established lawyers, according to Zilberberg.
But there are exceptions:
Such as the man who strolled into the Lanham, Md., office and said he needed a divorce--from five different wives.
Or the woman who came into the Manassas clinic for help with her will. Turned out she was worth millions.
The Lawyers at Dart Drug bank their business on newspaper advertisements, a practice that has been allowed in the legal profession only since a 1977 Supreme Court ruling.
The drugstore lawyers hand out fliers on legal services as insurance companies pass out brochures on benefits packages.
There's the green pamphlet: "Divorce." A simple divorce without children or property considerations will cost $195 plus court costs. (Conventional law firms generally charge about $500 plus court costs.)
And there's the blue brochure: "Traffic Tickets." A DWI conviction can cost you your license and your freedom. We will counsel you on whether a plea of guilty or not guilty is in your best interest. In some cases it is possible to have the charge reduced to a lesser offense.
The fine print indicates that complications in most cases mean higher prices and that the advertised prices don't include outside court costs and filing fees.
These modern-day drugstore lawyers bear little resemblance to the storefront lawyers who opened practices during the late '60s to help lower-income people. These attorneys are in business to make money, Zilberberg admits.
"We're only six months old and we're already turning a profit or breaking even in most of the stores," he said.
The drugstore law clinics actually are part of a larger trend: dentists, doctors and optometrists also are experimenting with chain store offices, with varying degrees of success. A recent survey by the American Dental Association found a proliferation of discount dental clinics opening in major deparment stores, including Zayre, Sears and Montgomery Ward.
"I think we're going to see a whole restructuring of the professions," said Zilberberg.
People's Drug Stores went into the cut-rate dental business in Washington three years ago.
"The return on the investment is not that good," said Joseph Pollard, vice president of public relations for People's. And although the walk-in dental clinics at three Washington-area People's Drug stores have been "reasonably successful," Pollard said the company is not planning to expand the services.
Zayre, Sears and Montgomery Ward do plan to expand, however, according to the ADA survey.
And, although Pollard said "not many dentists want to work in clinics like this," that hasn't been the case with lawyers, according to Zilberberg. He said he received 400 applications after a newspaper help-wanted ad ran three days last fall. He said experienced lawyers start in the Dart Drug clinics at an annual salary of $32,500, with opportunities for profit-sharing if business booms in their office.
"We're in a pioneering stage," said Zilberberg. "People are no longer hiding their professions and their prices."