Our Personal Injury Lawyers, Ourselves

There’s a human-interest story I can’t help but think about whenever I see an ad for a personal injury lawyer on TV. It came out in 2015, according to its Wall Street Journal law blog dateline, but it has lodged itself into the crevices of my brain in the five years since it was published.

It featured a normal family in Louisiana and normal two-year-old boy named Grayson Dobra. For his first birthday, Grayson had a normal Mickey Mouse birthday party theme. But for his second birthday, his mom chose a theme more aligned with Grayson’s passions: Morris Bart, a personal-injury lawyer in Louisiana whose ubiquitous ads (“One Call, That’s All!”) are all but unavoidable throughout the state. Grayson loved Morris Bart’s ads so much that he watched them on YouTube when they weren’t playing on TV.

For Grayson’s birthday, his mom ordered a cake with edible photo frosting featuring Morris Bart in a suit. He got a cardboard cutout of Morris Bart and a child-sized Morris Bart t-shirt as gifts. And after Grayson’s mom emailed Mr. Bart’s office, they personally sent Morris Bart keychains, an autographed picture, and a New Orleans Pelicans shirt with Bart logo on the back. “We have the cutout and the signed photo on his dresser, and he frequently tells Morris Bart good night and gives him a kiss,” his mom told BuzzFeed at the time.

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I get the appeal, Grayson.

It’s hard to say why this story enthralls me so much. I think it’s genuinely amusing a toddler would be obsessed with a personal-injury lawyer. Normal children’s birthday party themes are like, dinosaurs or race trucks. The idea of throwing a party for a two-year-old with personal-injury-lawyer decorations feels like wrapping up a bunch of legal pads and giving them to a child as a birthday gift, or decorating their bedroom with a theme like “subprime lending crisis” or “hernias.” I love the idea of Morris Bart’s watchful cardboard gaze watching over the otherwise normal birthday celebration, the cake cutting, and the bout of pin-the-tail-on-the-personal-injury-lawyer. I hope this love remains a constant as Grayson gets older. Imagine the possibilities: Morris Bart-themed sweet 16? Morris Bart-themed college graduation ceremony? Eventual Morris Bart-themed bachelor party? It is very funny to me.

The other reason why I love Grayson’s love of Morris Bart, is that, at least on a regional level, it seems like everyone has their own Morris Bart. While personal-injury law may be the most caricatured of all branches of practicing law, there’s something weirdly charming about it. Looking out the window of my freshman dorm cafeteria at Interstate 81 was my own Morris Bart on a billboard: “Hurt in a car? Call William Mattar.” William Mattar was Syracuse’s Morris Bart. I have never needed a personal-injury lawyer, I only watched a normal amount of television in central New York and thus have only seen a normal amount of “Hurt in a car? Call William Mattar” ads on tv, and here it is, etched indelibly in my brain, a phrase I will think about for the rest of my life.

It’s impossible to talk about beloved (?) personal injury lawyers without also invoking Cellino and Barnes. Steve Barnes’ untimely death in a small plane accident in western New York earlier this month was preceded by an engrossing feature in New York magazine a few weeks prior about the acrimonious dissolution of the firm. Though Barnes is now in that great big TV commercial in the sky, what he and Cellino built from a small-time western New York personal-injury law firm was a New York institution, ubiquitous with their “(800) 888–8888” ads plastering subway cars, bus stops, billboards, and generously sprinkled over the airwaves.

Cellino and Barnes were everywhere. Every New Yorker was a potential client. And until 2017 when Cellino demanded to dissolve the firm, it was a lucrative business: At the firm’s peak, according to an email Barnes sent Cellino, each of them made $10 million a year. But who cares about money when you have the kind of cultural cache these two did? They’ve been portrayed on SNL, in memes, in off-Broadway musical productions, and even in erotic personal-injury lawyer fan-fiction art. Their legacy (and their jingle!) will far outlive the firm itself. If you feel so inclined, you could even buy an “888s and Heartbreak” shirt to commemorate what will never again be:

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Sold-out Cellino & Barnes merchandise.

Maybe personal-injury lawyers are just better at branding and marketing than the rest of us. I assume they just have a “spray and pray” system where they put their ads everywhere and hope that enough people have sponge brains like me and Grayson, an actual child. Is it working for them? If I were in a car accident and wanted to sue the other guy would I immediately think of William Mattar?

Technically I work in marketing now, but clearly I’m not very good at it since I don’t understand the secret to the success of these guys. It’s less about the lawyers and more about how effectively they’ve been able to sell themselves to us. The personal-injury lawyer is always standing by, ready to help you get your money after you’ve been wronged so badly that you’ve overcome your fear of talking on the phone just to dial the 800–888–8888 and explain that yes, you have been hurt in a car, and you’d like some legal assistance.

The memeification of the personal-injury lawyer makes me think there’s something bigger here than my simple obsession with Grayson’s Morris Bart party. There’s something distinctly American about their appeal, about being slighted and demanding justice in the form of a swift settlement from all parties you deem guilty. These are the guys who cater to that entitlement, whose ads make it an impermeable part of our culture. I’ll be thinking about it the next time I see that 800–888–8888 number on a fading ad on the side of a bus shelter.

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