Breaking Out From the Letterhead

Posted on September 22, 2010.

Author: Frank N Darras

Nationally renowned ERISA expert found that being the third name on a shingle meant being overlooked.

DarrasLaw Ontario Number of lawyers: 5 Founded: 2010 Specialty: ERISA, disability claims Business Tips • Stake your claim to a niche, even one that other firms steer clear from, and go nationwide • Give free advice, it will come back to you in business

By Emma Gallegos
Daily Journal Staff Writer
ONTARIO – Frank Darras spent two decades carving out a niche for himself as the disability expert among insurance bad-faith titans at the law firm known as DarrasLaw Echeverria.Now, Darras has struck out on his own, hoping to turn his recognized expertise into a nationally recognized brand. Six months ago, the 56-year-old attorney split off from his longtime partners."[As] the third person on the letterhead, it was sometimes hard for out-of-state people to find me," Darras said in an interview. "I wanted to have a national practice, and I wanted to brand it DarrasLaw."

As part of the change, DarrasLaw is focusing more on the Internet and social networks outlets that many lawyers now use, but he's hoping to leverage it in unusually aggressive ways since many of his potential clients are too ill to work or leave the house.
Attorneys familiar with Darras and his practice said taking the jump made sense for the kind of cases he has made his specialty – representing life and disability insurance policyholders who say their benefits claims were denied, underpaid, or cut short.

The cases can be particularly expensive and prickly to manage because so much of the disability insurance market is geared toward employers and workers, meaning it falls under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, a byzantine federal regulation that limits legal recourse for those challenging their insurer.

"He didn't just start the national venture today, he's been national for many years," said Jeffrey L. Krivis, a neutral with First Mediation Corp. who has worked on several of Darras' cases. "It seems to me he outgrew the regional side of the firm. He's pretty well known on the East Coast and West Coast so it seemed pretty natural."In some ways, not much has changed for Darras in his solo venture.

DarrasLaw makes its headquarters in the same nondescript office park just off Interstate 10 near the LA/Ontario International Airport. The hallways are normally lined with glowing thank-you notes from clients, but they have been taken down temporarily while the office is being remodeled and repainted. Darras is involved in those details – he wants it to reflect the fact that this is a new venture while maintaining a welcome feel to his current clients.

Darras kept his longtime staff, including a nurse and senior attorney Lissa A. Martinez, who began her career as a broker selling the types of insurance policies she now works to enforce. His firm boasts five attorneys and 20 employees total.
During his 22 years Darras made a name for himself specializing in some of the most difficult cases against insurers with slanted odds, high costs – and sometimes relatively small settlements. That made his practice different from that of his former partners. He and the others have made insurance denial cases with big-dollar damages their forte.

"He tended to specialize in disability cases governed under ERISA – that model didn't fit our law firm model.

Few lawyers focus on ERISA cases that govern insurance and disability claims that individuals receive through their employer. Customers unhappy with their insurer's final decision only one remedy: a limited bench trial where they do not have a right to call witnesses nor have their case decided by a jury. Because ERISA cases are so tricky, Darras does go after a high volume of cases.
He says he's most proud of the cases with a mere $50 claim, but the cases he takes on behalf of professional athletes, doctors, lawyers and actors make it possible for him to take on cases with those much smaller claims. A middle-aged PGA golfer who ends up on disability for the rest of his life could have a $10 million claim. It takes just a few of those cases to push him over the $10 million mark in attorney's fees, which is where he ends up nearly every year.Darras says he asks the same thing of his clients whether they are a CEO or a secretary: they have to be able to prove that they have done everything they could to get back to work.

"The perfect client is someone that has exhausted every medical opportunity to get well," he said. "They have a good doctor, they're on the right medication and, unfortunately, they fall into that category where they can't get better."Darras has ramped up his efforts to become a full-service, high-volume national firm that he says is modeled on the insurance business. He expanded his staff, and he plans on hiring a sixth attorney to round out his new firm. His firm takes calls from sun-up to sun-down. His first week as a new firm, he took 80 calls. In July, he averaged 450 calls a week.If it's a cut-and-dried case, he'll pass it on to another attorney. If he takes on the case, it's usually on contingency."If I pick the wrong person, if I make a mistake, if I lose a case, I lose not only my time but I lose the money it takes to advance those cases," Darras said.

Darras said that his big push for handling a large volume of cases across the nation gives him leverage in his big cases against insurers. When a trend in insurance pops up, he sees it not once but many, many times over."The average disability lawyer has 30 cases in a year. I resolve 1,000 in a year, so I can see what [the carriers are] doing wrong, doing different, doing bad in 60 days. How does that help consumer? I can stop a problem before it becomes an epidemic."Darras has set aside one day every week to outreach. He's a talking head on a national cable channel, explaining when it might be a good idea to sell your life insurance policy.
He has a revamped website with more than 40 articles about insurance and a full YouTube channel of HD-quality videos. That's because Darras' new business model relies heavily on giving out free advice. He compares it to the policy of retailer Nordstrom, which accepts returns from customers no questions asked.

"If they give you your full money back, and don't ask a question, you're going to go tell 10 people," Darras said. "In insurance, I've found, they're going to go tell 20 people. That is what has exploded this practice."