Most people would be offended to know that you had found their name on the bathroom wall, but Zach Smith is counting on it.
Smith is Tulsa’s “DUI Guy,” the aspiring young criminal defense attorney who has found a niche marketing his DUI defense services in the restrooms of Tulsa’s drinking establishments.
Although when he started his law practice in September 2006, he was uncertain that he wanted to be the lawyer who advertised in bar bathrooms, he said the scheme has proven its worth.
“Do I really want to be the guy advertising over the urinal? I thought, ‘Absolutely not, I would not advertise my law practice over a urinal,’” he said. “However, the one exception I found is DUIs. It might not work in a family restaurant, but maybe a bar.”
The idea came to him as he stood in an out-of-town restaurant’s restroom looking at a similar set of advertisements on the wall and pondering how he was going to jumpstart his business if he left the Tulsa County District Attorney’s office and went out on his own.
He called John Jolley of Big Guys, the advertising agency that has about 80 indoor billboards in Tulsa and the surrounding area, and told him he wanted to add his ads.
“It was spawned right then and there,” Smith said. “I started out pretty small, just to see what the response was. In about six months, it was apparent to me I might be onto something.”
Smith said his first six months’ return on investment was only about 150 percent, but in the next six months it had grown to about 500 percent.
“As an attorney, you want to establish a base of clients, because the larger your base of clients, assuming you do a good job for them, it exponentially grows from there,” he said. “When the one year mark rolled around, I negotiated the exclusive rights to advertise with Big Guys. No other lawyers can advertise on his boards.”
Smith said he doubled his locations with Big Guys, putting his ads in 40-45 locations at any one time, and that his return has climbed to 10-15 times his investment.
“Actually, I just quit keeping up with it because it was making so much money that the ROI is not something with which I am concerned now,” he said. “I know I am making my return on my investment.”
He said DUI cases account for about two-thirds of the criminal cases handled by Gorospe & Smith, PLLC, 1521 S. Denver Ave., and criminal cases make up two-thirds of the firm’s business. The rest of the firm’s cases are primarily civil, personal injury, auto and motorcycle accidents.
A native of Holdenville, “T. Boone Pickens’ stomping ground,” Smith, 31, said he always knew he wanted to enter the law profession.
The son of retired Hughes County District Judge Gregg Smith and longtime Holdenville music teacher Heather Smith, Zach Smith graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1999 with a degree in business administration. He joined the Oklahoma Army National Guard in 1997 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1999. He attended Oklahoma City University School of Law and earned his law degree in 2002. He had a slot waiting for him with the 20th Special Forces Group in Mississippi and had interviewed with Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris.
“I decided if I got the job here I was going to come to Tulsa, and if not, I was going to go to Mississippi,” he said. “In six weeks my life changed. I went from not knowing what I wanted to do to driving a U-haul to Tulsa.”
Smith started in the juvenile division in the DA’s office and after 15 months moved to the felony division.
“If I was going to be a trial lawyer; that’s what I wanted to do. I stayed in felony for about three years – rape, robberies, murders – pretty much name the charge and I prosecuted it or actually have been in jury trial for it.”
When Smith decided he had enough experience to leave the DA’s office he said he “looked around at for some jobs at several firms here and there. And one day I woke up and I decided I know I am as good as this lawyer or that lawyer and I can do this on my own.”
What he saw was a “huge gap” between the great class of defense lawyers he looked up to – Clark Brewster, Allen Smallwood, Paul Brunton, Skip Durbin and current District Judge Tom C. Gillert among them – and the new up-and-coming defense lawyers.
“I didn’t see any 20-, 30-something criminal defense lawyers who were hitting home runs. I saw what I thought was an open door,” Smith said. “I had some good rapport with the defense bar. I might have stepped on a couple of toes with the DA…but I think I treated everybody very fairly and respectfully, and in return, I think that is what helped me make it my first year.”
When he opened his doors in September 2006, Smith had his DUI advertisements in place, but he needed a case to boost his recognition as a criminal defense lawyer.
That came in the form of Jason Nicholson, a former professional boxer/bouncer who was charged with first-degree manslaughter in the September 2004 killing of Nelson Scott Bolton.
“Nicholson was kind of like the perfect storm for me,” Smith said. “That case came to me by way of an attorney friend of mine, Kevin Adams, who represented him originally and had to withdraw. He was picking my brain about it and I told him what I thought.”
In late November, Nicholson called and asked Smith to defend him.
Two weeks later, he said it became apparent DA Tim Harris was going to try the case himself.
“Then it kind of sank in – this is going to be a lot bigger deal than I originally thought,” Smith said. “Well, there you go. I got ready for it just like I would any other case. Never at any point in time did I think I am not capable of this.”
Smith was able to acquit Nicholson after a two-week trial with lengthy testimony from about 20 witnesses.
“They did the job they needed to do,” Smith said. “I think they probably underestimated me. I walked in on a two-week homicide trial and an 11th hour verdict of ‘not guilty’ and it is on the front page of the paper the very next day. I bet I had 40 phone calls in the next eight hours. That catapulted my business in a completely different direction.”
Because it was so early in his practice, Smith said he took the case for free.
“In fact, that case cost me money,” he said. “It was a big stresser to put myself out on a limb like that. It was either go hard or go home. The reason I did it was, maybe the publicity I might get from the news would pay for itself. I never thought in a million years that this would happen the way it happened.”
Smith said it is important to understand that the business model for his firm is different from the DUI business itself. The criminal defense business “keeps the lights on and every now and then you get a nice little paycheck or a bonus for your personal injury work.”
“But the DUIs a value business. It can be. It depends on how you want to market yourself,” he said. “I want to be the Israel Diamond supplier of the DUI service.”
He explained that the difference between one DUI representation and another is not normally enough to require a large difference in fee.
“Your average public might not know that. I am providing the exact same quality of service that you can get here and there and there,” he said. “The only difference is you are getting a better fee from me.”
Smith, who brought in partner Anthony F. Gorospe after a year of operating on his own, said his long-term goal is to establish a law firm.
“I can do a one-man show, but for how long?” he said. “If you want your business to grow and prosper, you can’t do it by yourself. You can maximize your potential, but there is strength in numbers and it is always nice to have a shoulder to lean on.” ?