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March|April 2005
An Academic Auction By David Bitkower
Job Fair By Dana Mulhauser
The Mobile Law Office By Margot Sanger-Katz
Self-Adhesive Salvation By Nicholas Hengen
Domesticated Disputes By Dashka Slater
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

The Mobile Law Office

It doesn't chase ambulances. Honest.

By Margot Sanger-Katz

ON A RECENT THURSDAY, NEAR THE CORNER of Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues in Brooklyn, a pair of lawyers met with clients on a bus. The lawyers consulted with two clients who had fallen from scaffolds, one who'd fallen from a ladder, and one who'd been scalded by hot water in her bathtub—all before lunch.

One of the lawyers was John C. Dearie, a plaintiffs' attorney who runs five brick-and-mortar offices from Manhattan to Albany. Then there's his roving operation: two peripatetic offices painted in the blue and gold of the University of Notre Dame, Dearie's alma mater. He calls the units Mobile Office A and Mobile Office B. Though he relies on former Greyhound drivers to operate them, he forbids his staff of 11 lawyers and a dozen or so paralegals from referring to the vehicles as buses.

Dearie, who is 64, 6'6" tall (he played basketball for the Fighting Irish), and perennially tan, got the idea to take his practice on the road while he was driving one day. In 1999, he spied a billboard beside I-95: A mobile education program run by New York City had recently been discontinued, and the decommissioned mobile classrooms—complete with blackboards and lockers—were for sale. If you could build a classroom in a bus, Dearie thought, you might also build a law office in one. "Within three seconds of seeing them," he said, "I was on the phone."

He picked up his first bus for a song—less than $20,000—but getting it out on the road required a good deal more money (around $80,000) as well as time (three months). The interior of the classroom was drab metal and it was filled with seats for the 24 students it had been designed to accommodate. To convert the mobile classroom into a mobile office, Dearie turned to Linda McNab, one of his full-time paralegals and a sometime interior designer. What she created is closer to an upscale Manhattan law office than to even the finest jitney. The walls are covered in gold striped wallpaper and brass sconces. There are curtained windows, framed photographs of New York City landmarks, and a china coffee service. Oversize, green tufted leather chairs surround mahogany desks and tables (bolted to the floor) and a TV/VCR unit (steadied with a bungee cord). The exterior of the bus is a less tasteful advertisement for the services provided within. Dearie's name, his firm's 800 number, and its Internet address are emblazoned in tall, gold letters on four sides of the vehicle, as is a slogan promising to bring "legal services right to your doorstep." But Dearie doesn't typically make house calls. Instead, the units make strategically planned visits to neighborhoods, usually setting up shop on a wide thoroughfare where there's hope of finding consecutive parking spots. "We're a two-parking meter-bus," explained Timothy Jones, one of Dearie's team of lawyers. "Two meter office," he corrected himself.

A FORMER STATE LEGISLATOR FROM THE BRONX, Dearie wears bespoke suits and favors a gold collar pin. The mobile units, he says, provide a service to clients too old or too injured to travel very far. "If someone is in an auto accident," he explained, "we say, don't worry about it. We'll come to Elm Street, and we'll come to you with our staff, and with our equipment, and with our attorneys in a professional environment."

During Dearie's recent morning in Brooklyn, one of his clients was a young Polish immigrant who'd fallen from a ladder on a construction site, suffering back and neck injuries and several broken bones. He lived a few blocks from the bus's parking spot. Leaning heavily on a cane as he left the office, the client requested that his next appointment also be in the mobile office. "I cannot take the stairs to take the subway," he explained. But the bus's clientele is not limited to severely injured clients or, for that matter, to ones with appointments—walk-ins are always welcome. Dearie estimates that he gets an unscheduled visitor almost every time he goes out. On this day, he had two. One was a neighborhood man obviously familiar with Dearie's operation—he boarded the bus armed with a bag full of medical records and photographs.

The other walk-in was more a matter of serendipity and a bit of salesmanship. Around midday, Timothy Jones decamped from the mobile unit and headed to a nearby hot dog stand for lunch. He encountered a man with an arm in a sling. "What happened to you?" Jones asked. The man, an electrician of Albanian extraction, told Jones that he had been injured in a car accident when the hitch on a defective U-Haul trailer he was hauling broke. The lawyer invited the electrician into the mobile unit's "reception room." Ten minutes later, the injured man had signed a retainer engaging Dearie's firm to represent him and promising it a third of any awards. "Good things happen at the hot dog stand," Dearie remarked.

But not everyone thinks that what Dearie is doing is a good thing. The tort reform crowd, no fans of lawyers trailing ambulances on foot, are unsurprisingly incensed by the idea of them giving chase in a bus. "There are enough problems created in the legal system with this type of claim without lawyers driving into neighborhoods with moveable offices," said Theodore Boutrous, Jr., a partner at the firm Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, which frequently represents corporate defendants in large tort cases.

The mobile units have also incurred the wrath of doctors. Recently, a medical blog called "Gross Anatomy" posted photographs of one of Dearie's "offices" parked in the doctor's-only lot at a Brooklyn hospital. "I'm totally disgusted by this lawyer van sitting outside the ER," wrote the blogger. "Had no idea they actually did that." Dearie claims that emergency rooms are not ordinary stops for his outfit. "Under no circumstances have we ever gone to the ER of a hospital and said, 'Now that looks like a good parking space,' " Dearie said, bristling at the website's suggestion that he is an ambulance chaser. "We're not there with a giant client fishnet trying to harvest whatever clients we can."

Dearie regards his mobile operation as "outreach," a service to the community that is of a piece with other elements of his practice. Yet others see "outreach" as Dearie's euphemism for marketing. "Wouldn't it have been more economical to bring a smaller vehicle with better gas mileage?" asked tort-reformer Walter Olson.

Dearie doesn't deny that raising his firm's profile is a fringe benefit of his mobile operation. "It's just amazing the number of people who call and say, 'What is that big blue thing?' " So Dearie is thinking of expanding his fleet of mobile units: "Trying to do this service with two is not easy, frankly."

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