Personal injury lawyer Edgar Snyder is arguably the most recognizable attorney in western Pennsylvania. For decades, he has been in TV commercials, in radio ads, and on roadside billboards, asking potential clients, “Hurt in an accident?”
And since the 1980s, he has vowed to “go after the insurance company to get the money for your medical bills, lost paychecks, even for your pain and suffering,” before signing off with his signature line: “And remember, there’s no fee unless we get money for you.”
While today this slogan might be emblazoned in the region’s collective consciousness, Snyder’s practice got a quiet start in the Mon Valley city of Duquesne. A public defender at the time, the attorney opened his first office in a storefront outside the gate of U.S. Steel Duquesne Works. He kept nighttime hours so that he could meet with mill workers whose shifts had ended.
Then, in 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on legal advertising. The legal community had long viewed the practice as unseemly, but the justices said it would increase access to legal services.
Speaking at his current office in the U.S. Steel Tower in downtown Pittsburgh, Snyder remembered the ruling “really and truly changed the entire way that business of practicing law has been in this country.”
Snyder said he seized the opportunity, placing a “tombstone ad” in the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press. A small square in the newspaper, the ad offered to fight charges under a newly tightened DUI law.
“And we got calls off the wall,” Snyder said, “because the law had changed and ... you could go to jail for drunk driving. Before that, you couldn’t.”
“It was an amazing discovery,” the lawyer continued, “We had the largest practice at the end of one year from what we call a ‘tombstone ad.’”
The jump to television
Still, Snyder said he faced scorn over the advertisements.
“We were considered pariah in the business world,” he said. “People used to say to me, ‘What’s a good trial lawyer like you doing, stooping down to do things that don’t seem very professional?’”
The attorney largely ignored the criticism, however, and soon made the expensive leap to television. In-house marketing staff created the commercials and initially bought time in lower cost areas. Snyder said their mission was to make him, and Edgar Snyder & Associates, a brand in western Pennsylvania, known for being a trusted provider of legal services.
Snyder said the investment soon paid off – perhaps too soon.
“Business took off to such an extent that my biggest fear was not getting business,” he recalled. “It was, how would I handle it?”
Snyder eventually gave up litigating cases so that he could keep the business running. Advertising continued to play a central role, with Edgar Snyder & Associates spending more on TV ads over the last 37 years than any other law firm, according to Snyder. (The lawyer said only that his firm has spent “millions of dollars” on television, noting the precise amount is proprietary information.)
Today, Edgar Snyder & Associates has 140 employees, with offices in Pittsburgh, Altoona, Erie and Johnstown. Snyder estimates the firm’s 36 attorneys take about a thousand new cases every year.
Reflecting on his business’ growth, the attorney said, “I learned how to run a business by making mistakes every day of the week.”
‘You have to be able to change with business’
He also made tactical decisions along the way. For example, as the firm’s caseload continued to rise, he hired claims adjusters to reduce errors attorneys might make in lawsuits against insurance companies.
“And they knew what to do better than I did,” Snyder said. “They taught me the claims business.”
After about 10 years, however, the model became unworkable because, Snyder said, insurance companies started to fight more claims rather than make settlement payments.
“After a while, it became pretty technical. We ended up having to file lawsuits all over the place,” Snyder said. “Lawyers have to file lawsuits; you can’t have claims people filing lawsuits.”
So, Snyder replaced the claims adjusters with attorneys.
“The business changed,” Snyder remembered. “And you have to be able to change with business.”
Edgar Snyder & Associates has since gone beyond personal injury cases and now represents workers claiming employment violations.
But Snyder added that he doesn’t jump at every opportunity for more business. For instance, he said, his firm turns away several thousand cases a year, instead referring them to outside attorneys.
“I found you can’t do everything,” said Snyder, who estimated he would need to hire 300 or 400 lawyers to handle all the cases his company receives.
Snyder noted, however, that he once considered taking on medical malpractice cases. In one sense, the move would have been a natural extension of the firm’s personal injury portfolio. Indeed, the attorney estimated his staff gets 50 calls a week from patients alleging malpractice.
He said his firm even ran a TV commercial in the early 1990s offering to represent such clients.
“But,” he remembered, “orthopedic surgeons at that particular time said to me, ‘You can’t have it both ways, Edgar.’”
The lawyer quickly abandoned the idea, recognizing that his firm relies on physicians to build its personal injury cases.
“How are you going to have them testify to what happened to their clients when they’re angry at you [and] they think that you’re going to sue them?” Snyder asked.
The now semi-retired attorney said it is that kind of decision that has allowed him to sustain his business while also allowing for growth. And he said he likes to think his brand will live on.
“I think I created a legacy of this type of work, with a model and good people that now run this place that are taking it to better heights, bigger heights than I even did,” Snyder said. “And I see it lasting.”