The heavenly hitter
Glen Lerner addresses controversy, why he’s hated by the media—and his personal relationship with God
Thu, Jun 12, 2008 (midnight)
Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh
Glen Lerner is shorter than his commercials, billboards and image-enhancing one-liners—“I’m a Heavy Hitter,” “One call, that’s all”—would have you believe. A few shades under six feet, I’d say. Upon meeting him, two things stand out most: a gleaming set of pearly whites—when the guy smiles, dimpling—and his chest. A hulkish thing, it; almost too big for his body and attached to log-like arms that give him the taut torso of a recreational bodybuilder or one of those top-heavy cartoon superheroes with big biceps and spindly legs.
Lerner’s in the makeup chair, readying for his next commercial, whose campy script calls for Lerner to narrowly escape an oncoming car. Lerner is the self-professed Heavy Hitter of personal-injury lawyers—“Many of our clients have received settlements of over One Million Dollars ($1,000,000.00)!” his website screams. He’s practiced law in town for nearly 20 years, the last 10 of which he’s spent building a reputation as an ambulance-chasing, do-gooding, make-the-bad-guy-pay attorney, even if that superhero persona exists first and foremost in his own mind.
Lerner’s penchant for making the headlines—controversy over his schmaltzy ads; a former employee embezzling a small fortune—reared its head in January when he was a no-show at the murder trial of Mario Lino, a former employee he’d agreed to represent for free. Lerner says it was a mix-up, unintentional. Lerner was in Pennsylvania on sabbatical and rediscovering himself. “I’ve been living the life of a rock star for so long,” he told the Review-Journal. Lerner’s back now, part time. Before jetting to Phoenix to check on his new law office, the Heavy Hitter chatted with the Weekly about the Lino no-show, how he rediscovered his faith in God and why he feels other lawyers—and a certain daily newspaper—think he’s the anti-Christ.
In most everything I’ve heard or read about you, I’ve seen little where you talk about your faith. Why now?
I reckon God has purposed me to witness. I wasn’t into drugs or alcohol or anything like that. My relationships with people were broken, and my pride was broken. God finally broke me. I’m a Jew. I was a religion major at Duke. God finally took over my life. I started reading my Bible like crazy.
So what was your coming-to-Jesus moment, so to speak?
It was April 26, 2006. I was on the edge. And that’s where that “rock star” comment came from. I was ministering to a [Review-Journal] reporter. That’s probably not a good thing—ministering to reporters. I was talking about how my life was in a shambles. I was driving around in a Rolls Royce. I had a beautiful wife. Everybody treats me like a king, even though I’m just some schmuck attorney on TV. But I didn’t feel good inside.
There had to be either some epiphany or tragedy brought on by something. People tend to find God when they’re in a crisis or they get in trouble. Is there some bombshell about to come out?
No. We all go through personal crises, and we don’t find God, God finds us.
You were on a sabbatical when the Lino case was coming up. [Lino, 41, was accused of killing a man he believed was having an affair with his wife.] Why were you out of town?
I never had a chance to get back and be introspective and to spend a lot of time with my family. Everything’s been, “Look at me. Look at my big house and my car.” That was the whole rock-star thing. I wanted to be humble. Driving around in my pickup truck and living in a small house. I wanted my kids to be regular kids, instead of going to their expensive school and being driven to school in a Rolls Royce. I wanted them to go to a school where the majority of the kids were on welfare. It was wonderful.
So why take on Lino, if you’re a personal-injury lawyer?
I took on the case pro bono. He used to be my pool cleaner. He was charged with murder. I really didn’t want to do it, but I didn’t want to see him railroaded. I didn’t think the trial was going to be fair. I felt bad for him. I knew him for a long time. I knew he wasn’t a bad man. He worshipped the ground his wife walked on. I saw this guy was broken. He committed murder and pled to it, but people do worse things and don’t get caught.
Were you prepared to argue the case? What are your criminal-defense bona fides?
I was an extremely good criminal defense attorney, 10 or 11 years ago. You ask any of the DAs what kind of criminal defense attorney I was, and they’ll tell you. I could argue a case against anybody. I’m a people person. This isn’t rocket science if you can connect with people. Why does everybody know Glen Lerner’s name and not Adam Kutner’s? Because I connect with people when I’m on TV.
In hindsight, was it a mistake agreeing to represent Lino?
Yes. It blew up in my face. No good deed goes unpunished is the moral of that story. The funny thing about that is I have an attorney in my office, a former prosecutor who, in my absence—I was going back between Vegas and Pennsylvania since November—was handling court appearances. He didn’t show up. He missed the calendar call, and that’s what started this thing off. I had no idea. So I thought we were going for calendar call the day I don’t show up and he doesn’t show up. So the papers run with the story: Glen Lerner doesn’t care about his clients. He’s doing drugs. He’s in rehab in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t true.
Do you think your commercials have created a huckster persona, one that makes it hard to take you seriously and opens you up to attack? [Lerner’s ads have been called tasteless. He’s been the Tasmanian Devil, he’s crushed the front of a car with his bare hands, and, in the most recent spot, he plays a schoolboy sticking up for a friend.]
The paper thinks I’m a huckster. They’ll take any shots they can at me. I think I’ve done something that no other attorney has done: I’ve transcended being an attorney and am some quasi-celebrity, and that’s made me a target. When you’re part of Vegas culture and I am … Look, in all humility, I’m not even looked at as an attorney anymore. I’m like the white tiger that bit Roy to some people. For others, I’m known as the attorney, the guy you call when you need help. I’m just a regular guy. I was going to drop out of law school, but my mother said hang in there. I’m just a regular guy … a little smarter than a lot of other people, but a regular guy. I got into Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Duke. I’m just a regular guy.
A few years ago, those Heavy Hitter ads came under scrutiny via a complaint to the Nevada Bar Association [challenging his status as the Heavy Hitter]. Who was behind that?
An attorney probably, someone who was saying that I implied that I was the only heavy hitter lawyer in town. My response was and is: Until someone comes and knocks me off of the mountaintop, I’m the reigning heavy hitter [laughs]. These guys are always writing complaints to the bar about my ads because they can’t compete on the playing field. The bar doesn’t like guys like me. They respect me because I have a clean practice and have done everything by the book, but they don’t like guys like me. This isn’t what they want the legal profession to look like. They want it to be a shining knight holding a law book. They don’t want attorneys to have personalities.
Does the “one call, that’s all” marketing catchphrase promise too much—that after one call, you’ll solve all my problems no matter what they are?
I don’t take myself seriously. I don’t act like I’m better than you because I’m a lawyer and because I have arms that are bigger than human legs [laughs]. A lot of people and a lot of attorneys don’t perceive me as a huckster; they know that I’m serious in the courtroom. Plus, you don’t find a lot of attorneys with my good looks [laughs].
How much are you even in the courtroom anymore? Do people think they’re getting you when they call your office?
In the courtroom … not so much these days. I have a lot of people, attorneys working for me. But I’m involved with everything. When your practice grows, it’s hard to be tied to every matter. I’m dealing more with client relations—making sure people are happy, and if they aren’t happy with our service, finding out why. After a year and a half of being open, my practice in Phoenix is one of the biggest in that town. I take it personally if someone’s upset with our service. [Lerner was sued in 2006 over his handling of a case in Washoe County. An arbitrator awarded singer Cecilia Llamas nearly $50,000 in a lawsuit stemming from a bar association complaint alleging negligence and deceptive trade practices. Llamas met with Lerner’s paralegal and thought she’d hired Lerner. Lerner told the R-J Reno attorneys had it out for him and pulled his business—and advertising—from that market.]
So there won’t be any disgruntled employees accusing you of wrongdoing of any sort?
I’m the best boss of all time, and everybody will tell you that.
Whatever happened to the—
The judge knew threw it out.
—lawsuit? [In a 2003 lawsuit, Michael Benninger claimed Lerner overcharged him by $120,000.]
It was an accounting error by us. It was resolved, settled out of court. It wasn’t a big deal. After he [the plaintiff’s attorney Gary Logan] deposed me … he thinks I’m this big advertising attorney. I’m just a regular guy. I ain’t trying to cheat anybody. I never want anything that’s not mine, but I want what’s mine. It was our mistake. Michael Benninger is a wonderful man. It could’ve been resolved in two seconds. It didn’t have to come out as a lawsuit. The R-J just pounced on it.
It’s difficult to square Glen Lerner the Heavy Hitter, the personal-injury attorney with Glen Lerner the believer. They seem like two different people.
I can’t worry about that. My life now is about bearing witness.
But is this genuine or a publicity stunt?
It’s not for me to tell people I’m genuine. People can see the change in me. I used to cuss more than any human being on Earth. Coarse talk. A womanizer. Anything you can name. I’m back in a right relationship with God. I had to put things in order back in my house. I’ve had the big house and big money.
Then why still do commercials?
What I do allows me the opportunity to be a witness to what Christ has done for my life. My first year in the Lord, I read the Bible four times. I’m not saying look how I great I am, but I was empty inside. I was crying all the time. I wanted to push that emptiness aside. I’m happy now. I would cry at night next to my beautiful wife, in my $5 million house and with all my stuff because it was just celebrating me. But now I’m happy. I got a good gig. I don’t have to do much. I do my commercials and witness.
Why’d you start doing commercials?
I had a place called Budget Legal for about seven years. Zillions of divorces, DUIs, a murder case, adoptions, every kind of case you can think. I loved it because I like people. But at the same time, I was doing very little personal injury. I was working 100 hours a week. Whenever I did it, I found that it involved the least amount of time and the most amount of money for me.
When did you become successful?
Two years ago, when I gave my life to the Lord.
I meant financially successful?
A year or two after we started advertising. I started really doing the commercials in 1998. I’d done them before, but I really started focusing on them in 1998. One call, that’s all.
So you weren’t concerned about being called an ambulance-chaser?
I bought the best sneakers I could buy. Usually, I was too fast for the ambulances.