Past the buckled, weed-lined sidewalks of a northwest Tulsa neighborhood, sitting in the most remote room of an old oil-boom mansion, the attorney who would sue other attorneys works alone. No invitations to lawyers' posh parties lie about his desk. No job offers from large legal firms sit in his mail bin. Not that he's all that interested.
Michael Fairchild is the attorney who, in his recent newspaper advertisement, encouraged people to "Bite back!" and "sue your lawyer." More than 50 attorneys angered by the ad have complained to the Tulsa County Bar Association since the ad first ran late last month, said Bill Jacobus Jr., president of the county bar. Other complaints have been lodged in a less official manner.
Fairchild said a woman who would not identify herself called him and warned, "You better be looking over your shoulder." His children found a box of spent rifle shells on the front walk, he said. A friend told him he saw his ad posted in the district attorney's office of a neighboring county with an attached memo: "No deals, no considerations for this viper."
Fairchild's response has been to purchase a second ad -
"Hire a cannibal," it reads. "I sue other lawyers."
The 41-year-old attorney drew a long breath on his cigarette, then smiled as the smoke escaped the upturned corner of his mouth. "I don't intend to back down," he said.
For moral support, Fairchild said he looks to the the 20 or 30 calls a day he said he received from people other than attorneys. Many of the callers didn't even have a complaint about an attorney, he said, but simply wanted to tell him to go get 'em. "It's nice to be a hero, and that's the feeling they (the callers) give me," he said.
Fairchild said he has not taken any attorneys to court yet but is investigating 20 claims of malpractice. At least ten of them are what he calls "good cases," and he said he plans to file three cases by the end of this week.
Taking on legal malpractice as a specialty is unusual, said law professor Judith Maute of the University of Oklahoma. But going a step further and advertising it is "very unusual," she said. "It's usually very difficult for someone who thinks they have a malpractice case to get help," Maute said. "They typically are unpopular cases (for an attorney) to take on because of the notion of professional courtesy."
Maute, who studies and teaches professional responsibility and ethics, said Fairchild's shark ad may seem inappropriate to some people because "it implies lawyers bite to begin with, and it seems to call for retaliation." Maute said it would not suprise her if Fairchild is getting favorable public reaction. "The public has very ambivalent feelings about lawyers," she said.
Jacobus said ads like Fairchild's perpetuate the misconceptions and ill feelings concerning lawyers. "If someone were to run an ad saying, `sue your doctor,' I guarantee you'd hear people screaming up and down the streets," he said. "But say, `sue your lawyer,' and everyone sits back and thinks that's kind of funny. It casts us all in a bad light."
And it invites yet another round of attorney jokes:
Why does New Jersey have more toxic waste dumps while California has more attorneys? New Jersey got first choice.
Fairchild thinks those kind of jokes are funny. He said his ads were intended to be funny - but not to other attorneys. "I've always considered myself somewhat of a maverick," he said.
Originally from Cincinnati, Fairchild graduated in 1973 from the University of Tulsa law school where he and some friends spent part of their time publishing an underground newspaper called "Cheap Thrills," he said. Fairchild has been married for 16 years to his wife, Libby. He has an 18-year-old step-son, and he and Libby have two children, ages 9 and 7. Over the years, he has had partners in his general and criminal law practice, but he said he never wanted to be part of a big firm. "It's never appealed to me. I've never wanted to be part of the club. I've no interest in society events."
He said he began considering specializing in legal malpractice a couple of years ago because so few people were doing it and he saw a potential niche for himself.
A Yellow Pages ad in last November's book brought little response, he said. Then he placed the newspaper ad, complete with a picture of a shark fin, telling people to "Bite back!"
The public's reaction to the ad has not surprised him, Fairchild said, but the number of complaints the bar reported from attorneys has. "I hadn't realized the hypocrisy of the bar association in general," Fairchild said. "I'd like to hear one argument against the ad that makes sense to a layman. The reason the bar is so upset is because this is their worst nightmare come true. "I don't think attorneys should be exempt from lawsuits."
Attorneys offended by the ad say it is not the question of suing attorneys that is offensive, but the nature of an ad they say recklessly incites lawsuits. "There should be attorneys to take malpractice cases," said Tulsa attorney Jim Frasier, "but I think (Fairchild's) ads are in very poor taste."
Fairchild said an attorney friend - one who still is his friend - told him he thought Fairchild was "committing professional suicide."
Another friend, he said, told him 99 percent of the lawyers in town are out to get him.
"Well, I'm out to get them, too," Fairchild says. "So, I guess we're even."