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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 29, 2003 15 years ago

Driven Lawyer

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Frank Russo's clients number in the thousands. The former prosecutor takes on 400 new cases most years. His specialty: DUI defense.

Driven Lawyer

Frank Russo's clients number in the thousands. The former prosecutor takes on 400 new cases most years. His specialty: DUI defense.

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

There is the practice of law and there is the business of law. St. Petersburg attorney Frank Russo understands both.

Since 1986, he has built a criminal defense practice in which he consults with about 1,100 potential clients a year. About 400 become clients.

Compare that to Tampa attorney William Tyson, who considers himself a high-volume attorney. Tyson's goal is 200 clients for 2003.

"His endurance is amazing," Tyson says. "He's always thinking of something, always trying something. He's a good businessman."

Russo, 49, employs a two-part strategy of marketing and customer service. He estimates he has spent at least $500,000 on Yellow Page advertising since 1986, when he first opened his office doors, although he greatly reduced that when the Florida Bar began allowing lawyers to use direct mail advertising. He sends direct mail to people arrested in Pinellas County, and newsletters to old clients. He also relies on former clients and other attorneys for referrals.

"The business of law is something he's very good at, better than me," says Denis deVlaming, a Clearwater attorney who sometimes co-counsels with Russo. "There's the business and the professional aspect of the law, and he does get a lot of professional satisfaction - but the business acumen is one of the best I've seen."

There's a method, of course, to the numbers game played by Russo. After nearly two decades of practice, Russo knows how to move clients through the legal system - and through his office. About 40% of Russo's clients face charges of driving under the influence or similar allegations. First stop for them at Russo's office is a tastefully decorated media room where they watch an hour-long DVD that features Russo explaining the basics of Florida's DUI law.

"By the time they get to sit down and talk with me, they're in a really good position to ask intelligent questions," Russo says. Bottom line, Russo doesn't have to explain Defense Law 101 to more than a thousand potential clients a year. Which leaves him enough time to actually go face-to-face with 1,100 new people on facts pertinent to their case.

It doesn't end there. Clients who retain Russo are sent back to the media room to watch a DVD of their newly hired attorney explaining steps they need to take, including detailed instruction on where and how to attend DUI school, how to go through the alcohol evaluation process and how to complete their community service. Before trial, they're given a notebook that explains everything from courtroom dress code to exactly where to meet Russo before the trial.

It's efficiency. But it's also customer service.

"I think when people come to an attorney's office, they think, 'It's like I'm at the dentist's office. It's going to be painful,' " Russo says. "The comfort level here has been a big factor."

Russo finds that clients appreciate it when he shares the law with them.

"Some attorneys might maintain a quiet disposition and not share a lot with the clients," he says. "We have the opposite attitude. We explain what the law is, the penalties the client is facing and what the defenses are."

In fact, Russo's website, www.floridaignitioninterlocks.com/, is an example of his effort to blend marketing and customer service. The site features dozens of his articles about new legislation concerning a Breathalyzer device that controls a vehicle's ignition.

"I'll buy you dinner at any restaurant in town if you can find a Fortune 500 company that has a more complete or more detailed website," Tyson says.

Russo explains the high numbers simply. He prefers the adrenaline rush that comes with his practice area, the clients who hire him a day before trial and clients who call while the police stand at their door. But to make money in non-complex criminal defense, he has to deal in volume. Simple as that. Which is why he reports to court at 8:30 each morning with an armful of files, instead of just one. And it's why he doesn't get home until 7:30 or 8 p.m.

"I tell my law clerks, 'There's rarely a dull moment. The stories they come in with are interesting compared to a slip and fall at Publix,'" says Russo, who charges clients according to a graduated fee contract, which can range from $1,000 to more than $50,000. "But I warn them that there is this problem of having to handle a large number of cases because the home run (verdict) is not going to happen every day."

After 17 years of practice, Russo is starting to depend less on commercial advertising and more on word of mouth.

"All those years of spending money have developed into a large following," he says. "Many of the people I represent end up in trouble again, or their friends (do) or their relatives - kind of a mathematical thing."

A drawer full of thank you cards indicates that Russo manages to convey a personal touch despite his caseload. Russo affirms: "When I handle someone's case in court, I don't abandon them. I see most attorneys are out the door. I accompany my clients to the probation department; to the clerk's office for the payment of fines, court costs, investigative costs; to help them secure a certification of record to get a hardship license and things of this nature. Our office has taken the attitude that these people are in a foreign world, especially at the 49th Street Criminal Justice Center where it's this enormous $54 million building that you can be lost in."

Russo grew up in New Jersey, but moved to Florida to attend the University of South Florida. While in college he managed Longboat Key's Playa Lind resort, where many of the guests were attorneys, who encouraged him to attend law school. Russo attended law school in Los Angeles - because it sounded exciting - and interned for the Los Angeles County public defender's office and the district attorney's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office. After law school, Russo returned to the Tampa Bay Area and joined the 6th Circuit state attorney's office as an assistant prosecutor. He worked there for three years before opening his own practice.

Looking back at his career, Russo says he would do little differently. Except for one thing: he would have discovered the advantages of law clerks sooner. "I've only started using law clerks in last four or five years of practice, and that was a mistake. I should have employed clerks before that."

It would have freed him up, he says, for even more clients.

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