Frank Azar loves two things in this world: lawyering and winning. These two things feed off each other, as every motion, jury selection, and verdict is an opportunity for victory. But according to Azar, 65, one metric of success stands above the rest: “My brother said, ‘What’s the test of who’s the best lawyer of them all?’ ” Azar says. “You know, like, Mirror, mirror, on the wall, right? And he said, ‘Well, it’s the richest of them all.’ And then I go, ‘That’s right.’ ”
“Are you the richest of them all?” I ask.
“No, I wish,” Azar responds, rolling an unlit cigar between his thumb and fingers.
“Pretty close, though?”
“In Colorado? Probably. But, see, they all think I’m just this schlock guy. But I do a lot of other stuff.”
“You know. Car wreck guy. We do a lot more stuff than that. I don’t advertise it,” he says.
The admission is perhaps a little surprising. After all, this is the same man who made his name flooding airwaves and plastering roadsides with commercials and billboards. That name? “The Strong Arm.” “Before I was ever interested in doing plaintiffs’ work, I thought of Frank Azar as a Colorado institution, similar to Jake Jabs, similar to Dealin’ Doug, similar to the guy hawking jewelry at Shane Co.,” says Joshua Hotchkiss, an attorney at Franklin D. Azar & Associates (FDA). “If you grew up in Colorado, if you hear those voices or those names, it feels like a Sunday morning at your house, because that’s where you always heard them.”
Azar idolizes larger-than-life characters: Portraits of John Wayne and the Rat Pack hang on his walls. The door to his office—a massive wooden entryway lined with brown-buttoned leather and featuring a gold nameplate that announces an impending audience with “Franklin D. Azar”—was made to resemble the one MI6 boss M uses in the early James Bond films. But even Azar has grown tired of the Strong Arm persona. “I wish I’d never thought of that,” he says, leaning back in his desk chair. Wearing a white polo shirt open nearly to his sternum, his close-cropped hair grayer than it looks in his ads, Azar appears more prepared for a golf course than for the courtroom, and for good reason: He’s got a tee time later this afternoon.
Even if Azar is one of the richest attorneys of them all, the infamy his alter ego has engendered is a burden. Azar remembers being in Denver District Court and inquiring if members of the jury knew him. “No, Mr. Azar,” the judge interjected. “That’s not the question to ask. Has anyone seen him on TV?” Every hand shot up. He rarely takes cases to trial anymore because his very presence can be considered prejudicial. His lawyers routinely file motions asking judges to preclude discussion of FDA and its advertising in front of the jury.
Next month, however, the Strong Arm will get an opportunity to defend himself. In State Farm v. Claudio E. De La Cruz-Arellano, lawyers for the insurer are expected to cast Azar, whose firm is representing the defendants, as a money-hungry ambulance chaser who games the system for his own benefit. In order to thwart what he says is a mischaracterization, Azar plans to make a rare appearance in the courtroom. Says DezaRae LaCrue, an FDA attorney, “We’re hoping Frank’s presence will mitigate any bad feelings people have about Frank Azar.”
Because, the thinking goes, if people just got to know Azar, even a little bit, they’d see the guy his friends back home in Trinidad see. The guy who saved the local golf course, who funds an after-school program in town, who’s always willing to write a check for the private school. Azar might live in ritzy Cherry Hills today, but he says he’s not all that different from the kid who grew up in Las Animas County in the 1960s. “Like my friend Mark Wahlberg,” Azar says. “Everybody’s got this perception of him, and he’s really a small-town guy like I am. That’s why we get along.”
For most of the 20th century, lawyers considered themselves above advertising. But in 1977, two attorneys in Phoenix took out a simple advertisement in a local paper to market their new legal clinic: A divorce cost $175, an adoption $225. The promotion violated an Arizona ban on advertising for attorneys, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in favor of the clinic, citing free speech.
After getting his bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado Boulder, Azar graduated from the University of Denver’s law school in 1982, when lawyers were still figuring out how far they could push the bounds of commercial decorum. In the years after he got his J.D., he lived in Alaska and Denver before returning in 1984 to Trinidad, where he worked as an assistant district attorney for three years. He moved back to the Denver area in 1987 to open Franklin D. Azar & Associates. He says he preferred helping people to putting them behind bars.
At first, the only “associates” were Azar’s sister (who was in law school at the time), an adjuster, and a college fraternity buddy who had failed the bar exam five times. Azar built a successful firm over the next three years but had to spend much of his 16-hour days looking for people to represent by networking at clubs, restaurants, and golf courses. “I knew how to do the cases,” Azar says. “It was just getting the business.” His first attempts at advertising on TV—looking grave in front of a shelf of law books—failed to attract clients.
Then, in 1990, Azar attended a seminar in Dallas where he met Brian Loncar. Loncar built a thriving personal injury firm on the back of ads that promised a uniquely Texan brand of tough justice, including one spot in which he drove a tank through an intersection. He connected Azar with a New Orleans ad agency owned by Richard D. Sackett that specialized in producing commercials for lawyers. (Sackett’s “One Call, That’s All” for New Orleans lawyer Morris Bart remains the “Just Do It” of personal injury law.) The agency didn’t believe in subtlety in advertising: Instead of law books, Sackett’s first ad for Azar featured a car smashing into a desk.
Loncar and Azar became best friends, sharing a love of golf and, once the money started rolling in, expensive cars: Bentley for Azar, Rolls Royce for Loncar. They shot identical commercials in a Dallas warehouse Loncar owned, with the only difference being the star of the ad. When Loncar felt he needed a catchy phrase to counter a competitor named Jim Adler, “the Texas Hammer,” the pair came up with “the Strong Arm” name together. Both men used it in their ads, though Azar was the one who trademarked the term.
The commercials changed everything. Azar, generally speaking, doesn’t think much of lawyers who advertise. “Most of these guys on TV—most of them—they’re a joke,” he says. But clearly, the practice has worked for him. Today, FDA has about 300 employees in eight offices around Colorado, and the firm handles 4,000 to 6,000 car-related injury cases each year, many of them undoubtedly brought in by FDA’s advertising. When I tell Azar that it’s rumored he spends $12 million a year on marketing, he laughs. “Let them think that,” he says. “It’s a lot more than that.”
Azar has profited greatly from practicing his particular brand of law, and his fortune buys him access to elite circles. His office is filled with photographs of a smiling Azar, usually in a golf shirt, standing with celebrities such as Dick Butkus, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, Dianne Feinstein, and, yes, Mark Wahlberg.
Azar met the Boogie Nights actor at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where both are members, along with A-listers such as Adam Sandler, Tom Brady, and Larry David. Azar says of Wahlberg, “He’s always pushing me. ‘Frank, you got to lose weight. You got to work out.’ He’s a good friend. He really likes to see people better themselves.” Next to the Wahlberg photo on Azar’s desk is one with Tiger Woods, whose tournaments and charities Azar often supports. “He’s a trip,” Azar says. “You know what he’s saying in that picture? ‘Gunga dunga.’ I’m not shitting you. ” (Neither Woods nor Wahlberg responded to requests for comment.)
Along with wealth comes attention—and in Azar’s case, that has manifested as rumors of plaintiff (or settlement) milling, which is the practice of luring large numbers of clients to a firm only to push them toward fast settlements. It’s about volume. “Given the tremendous amount of advertising expenditures,” Loncar’s former office manager once explained in a lawsuit, “the success of the business required quick turnover of clients and quick settlements.” A former Loncar lawyer told the Dallas Observer in 1997 that many of the firm’s clients were represented by people who didn’t even have college degrees.
Azar downplays the impact that advertising has on his business and instead points to the money he’s obtained for clients over the years. Not everyone, though, has been pleased with Azar’s results. During the 2000s, a construction worker sued FDA, claiming the firm practiced deceptive advertising and that his lawyer had pressured him to take a $4,000 settlement despite $25,000 in medical bills. FDA beat the case and won a $300,000 countersuit in 2008. The same year, a jury awarded another former client, Shawna Jimenez, $145,000 after she, too, said her attorney convinced her to take a lowball settlement. Azar appealed, and the sides settled out of court.
In recent years, Azar has hired a number of skilled trial attorneys, including Natalie Brown (whom Colorado Law Weekly has named as the best litigator in the state) and LaCrue (who, along with her mentor Brown, has earned a spot on this magazine’s list of Denver’s Top Lawyers three years running). “The whole point of [hiring talented attorneys who could go to court] was to change his reputation and to be a more serious litigation firm,” LaCrue says. “And I think we’ve done that, because you used to hear from attorneys, you know, ‘Frank settles everything.’ And now what I hear from people is, ‘Frank litigates everything.’ ”
One day this past November, I got a text from Azar: “Give me a call.” A lawyer in his firm had just won a $2.5 million verdict for his client, a motorcycle driver with nearly $940,000 in medical expenses after a car turned left in front of him, clipping his vehicle. Azar was elated. “I knew the damages were big, but I didn’t think they’d be that big,” he said between sips of Coors Banquet. Victory must have tasted particularly sweet because the insurer was State Farm, which Azar views as one of his chief nemeses. “They need to respect us,” Azar says of insurance companies, “because we will go in there and get these big verdicts on them if they don’t pay on time.”
Another benefit of having a large war chest is that you can subsidize cases when necessary. As a boss, FDA lawyer Hotchkiss compares Azar to Bill Belichick—he doesn’t deploy wild motivational tactics. He’s clear about the direction he expects his lawyers to take a case. “But on a personal side, he’s exceedingly giving,” Hotchkiss says. At least three times in the past year, Hotchkiss asked if the firm could waive its fee so that clients could take home a little bit extra toward their medical bills. Azar agreed every time.
Plenty of Azar’s fortune also finds its way back to Trinidad. For more than three decades (before the pandemic interrupted the event), he hosted a charity golf tournament to support the municipal golf course, which now resides on Franklin D. Azar Drive. He financed a $250,000 scholarship fund at Trinidad State College and donated more than $100,000 for an after-school program for the town. Andrea Jimenez, who married one of Azar’s close childhood friends, writes him a letter every time her beloved Holy Trinity Academy needs money. He toured the K-12 private school once: “I don’t know who was more excited,” Jimenez says, “Frank or the kids.”
The Azars have a long history in Las Animas County, and perhaps no family member was more prominent than Franklin W. Azar, who had a distinguished law career. A photo in FDA’s conference room captures Azar’s bookish father in a dark suit with a horseshoe of hair, studious browline glasses, and a tight-lipped expression. Born in 1912, Franklin left the family ranch near Trinidad for the University of Colorado Boulder, then received a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude. The elder Azar taught at what’s now called Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh until his wife persuaded him to move his young family home to Trinidad in the 1940s.
Franklin became the town’s district attorney in 1967, and although Azar remembers Trinidad as a quiet, insular place when he was growing up, it did have moments of Wild West drama—like when someone stormed the DA’s office, held a gun to Franklin’s head, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun misfired.
It was a heart attack, not a gunshot, that ended Franklin’s life in 1971. His namesake, the youngest of Franklin’s three children, was in eighth grade at the time, but Azar’s favorite story about life in Trinidad didn’t occur until years after his father’s death. When Azar returned to town and was working as an assistant district attorney, a man approached him on the street and, apropos of nothing, said, “ ‘If you can be an honest, hardworking lawyer like your dad, you’ll be a success,’ and walked off,” Azar says. “Never seen him since. Didn’t even know who he was. And I know pretty much everybody in Trinidad.”
It was one of those connections to his hometown that led to the biggest case of Azar’s career. In the 1990s, Azar learned through an old friend from the Trinidad district attorney’s office that the Walmart in town had been claiming to pay its pharmacists on salary when it was really compensating them hourly—a violation of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. Azar filed suit on behalf of the pharmacists, then got to thinking: If Walmart was taking advantage of its white-collar employees, what was the company doing to its minimum-wage workers?
Azar’s intuition was correct: Walmart had been forcing employees to work off the clock, altering timecards, and refusing to let people take breaks. Azar says some employees at the Trinidad Walmart brought unpaid relatives to the job to help them finish their work because they were afraid of being fired. But the misconduct wasn’t limited to Trinidad. Azar discovered that Walmart, then the largest private employer in the country, was cheating its employees in stores all across the United States.
Azar was one of the first attorneys to recognize the malfeasance—and its potential rewards. Working with a network of lawyers, he filed class-action lawsuits against the company in 26 states. Walmart settled most of the cases, but the company forced Azar and his partners to trial in three jurisdictions: California, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. FDA first filed suit against Walmart in 1995 but didn’t see a courtroom until 2005. “It requires confidence in your case and a lot of money to stick it out [that long],” says Michael Christian, a San Francisco lawyer who represented Walmart plaintiffs in California. “Frank had those things.”
Still, in an attempt to spread FDA’s resources thin, Walmart named about 400 witnesses it could’ve called at the Philadelphia-based trial. Azar moved a handful of lawyers to Pennsylvania full time to ensure they were prepared. “That, I think, is his strongest attribute,” says Nate Axvig, a former FDA attorney who worked on the Walmart cases. “If he sees something, he will stick with it. Other lawyers would have stopped. They would have given up.” In the end, only four of Walmart’s potential witnesses ended up testifying.
Azar’s persistence (and the risk FDA took by spending millions to cover the expenses of the yearslong litigation) paid off—literally. In California, the jury awarded a $172 million verdict to plaintiffs; in Pennsylvania, $188 million. A judge in Minnesota determined Walmart was liable for up to $2 billion in damages, so the company settled before a jury could put an exact figure to its liability. The judgments, along with the other Walmart settlements Azar was involved in, made the Strong Arm a rich man. Proponents of tort reform would probably say too rich: According to an April 2020 study from Jones Day, a multinational law firm that often advocates for tort reform, plaintiffs in U.S. federal courts receive less than 40 percent of all class-action settlements, with most of the money going to attorneys. Individually, meanwhile, employees involved in the Walmart class-action cases received from $1,500 to $3,000 for each year they’d worked at the company.
When Congress was looking into class-action reform, Azar says he met with Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. Azar remembers Dodd remarking that an individual Walmart settlement didn’t amount to much money, to which Azar responded, “It is, Senator, if you’re making $17,000 a year.” But the most important thing, which Azar says he considers “the crown jewel” in his legacy, is that he and the other attorneys forced Walmart to treat its employees better. “I don’t know if [Azar is] a brilliant legal mind,” FDA’s Hotchkiss says. “But he’s tenacious, and he works hard to see the angles that other people don’t see.”
Over the decades—through the various lawsuits and accusations, the burned bridges and bad press—Azar remained best friends with Loncar, the Dallas lawyer who helped him become the Strong Arm. But Loncar had long struggled with substance misuse, and in 2015, he suffered a relapse. Azar got him into rehab in January 2016, but it didn’t take. Loncar’s teenage daughter died by suicide later that year. Azar met with Loncar after the funeral and brought up Len Bias, the college basketball star who died from a cocaine overdose in 1986. “Don’t do anything stupid,” Azar implored his friend.
A few weeks later, Loncar was found dead in his brand-new Rolls Royce convertible at 8:30 in the morning, Azar says: “He’d OD’d on cocaine.” It felt like Azar had lost a brother. “I belong to Dallas National Golf Club, which is probably one of the greatest golf clubs in the country,” Azar says. “I went down to Dallas twice, and I just felt so bad. I haven’t been down there since.”
But the Strong Arm doesn’t dwell. Rather than using Loncar’s death as an excuse to retreat into a more relaxed existence, Azar seems more inspired than ever to defend—and extend—his empire. This year, FDA filed suit against Slocumb Law Firm, which used Google ad words and metadata so advertisements for the Alabama-based firm appeared when people searched for Azar. Azar is also involved in a suit-countersuit with the former head of his class-action division. He says she tried to steal clients; she says he defamed her.
And then there is the case of Judge Edward Moss. As a judge in Colorado’s 17th Judicial District, Moss presided over Adams and Broomfield county courts for nearly two decades, which means he came into frequent contact with FDA lawyers. “He did not like Frank,” says FDA’s LaCrue, “and he would often make it very well known.”
Because of Azar’s commercials, juries frequently enter trials carrying preconceived notions about FDA lawyers. “More often than not,” LaCrue says, “it’s detrimental.” In an attempt to sidestep that prejudicial land mine, many FDA attorneys—though not LaCrue, she says—ask judges to forbid the defense from mentioning that they are in the employ of Franklin D. Azar & Associates. When Azar attorneys filed one such motion in Moss’ courtroom, the judge replied, “If you think your advertising prejudices your client’s ability to get a fair trial, and rule 1.7 says you shouldn’t do things because there’s a personal interest of the lawyer, why don’t you just stop advertising?” Moss says he held no special animus toward Azar and meant no harm by the comment. “Mr. Azar never appeared in front of me in 16 years, so I’ve never met him,” Moss says. “I’ve never seen him, except for on TV.”
Colorado state judges are appointed to their seats for an initial term of two years but are up for general election after that (every four years for the county court, six years for district court, eight for appeals court, and 10 for the state Supreme Court). The state organizes bodies called Judicial Performance Commissions to evaluate candidates and to recommend to voters whether judges should be retained or not—and they almost always are. According to a 2016 story by 9News, only three state judges had been voted off their benches during the previous two decades, a statistic that explains why hardly anyone ever wastes money contributing to judicial races. But in 2018, Azar surprised many, including the judge, by spending more than $300,000 in an effort to remove Moss from the bench.
Azar claims he didn’t act alone and that a group of 50 to 60 area lawyers wanted to oust Moss, although he declines to name names. And, he says, his crusade wasn’t just against Moss: It was also against the system that allowed Moss to keep his seat. “You tell me there’s only been three bad judges [in 20 years]?” Azar says. “You have to basically assassinate somebody on the steps of the courthouse as a judge before they’ll do anything about it.”
Voters retained Moss, who worked for two more years and then vacated the bench when he hit the mandatory retirement age of 72. Moss says he bears no ill will toward FDA attorneys: “They’re in court a lot, they know what they’re doing, they specialize in this one area of law, and they’re good lawyers.” On the day Moss retired, LaCrue says the judge said to her, “Today is my last day. I’m sure there’s a giant party at Frank Azar.” (Moss denies the exchange.) If there were a celebration—and Azar says there wasn’t—it would’ve been because there’d now be no chance Moss could preside over State Farm v. Claudio E. De La Cruz-Arellano.
The case dates to 2015, when a teenager lost control of his vehicle while drag-racing and crashed into another car. The victim, De La Cruz-Arellano, accumulated medical bills of greater than $600,000 and later that year sued parties involved in the accident who were insured by State Farm. But the defendants entered into an agreement with De La Cruz-Arellano, who was represented by FDA, that shielded them from personal financial liability greater than the insurance policy’s limits (in this case, $25,000). In return, the defendants agreed not to dispute the damages sought by the plaintiff, which a judge later determined to be $1.38 million. The arrangement paved the way for De La Cruz-Arellano to try and collect that money directly from State Farm, as opposed to the defendants.
Not surprisingly, the company wasn’t pleased with the newfound alliance between plaintiff and defendants. In 2016, it sued all three, and Moss, then the judge on the case, ruled in favor of State Farm, determining De La Cruz-Arellano had no claim against the insurance company. (Moss’ ruling came down in 2018. Azar started funneling money into a campaign against the judge later that year.) FDA appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which sided with Azar. The case will finally go to trial next month—but this time with a new judge on the bench.
In a twist worthy of a courtroom drama, the FDA team believes it needs the Strong Arm’s help to win this suit. LaCrue and Brown tried a similar case against State Farm in 2016 and believe they lost the trial because the insurer’s lawyers, the same ones they will face next month, attacked Azar by characterizing him as a greedy ambulance chaser. LaCrue, who will try the case for FDA, has asked her boss to return to the courtroom for the first time in a long time. Azar will handle jury selection. He will likely ask about backgrounds and beliefs. Biases. Do you know who I am? Then, the thinking goes, the jury will see that Azar is a human being—not just a billboard. If they just get to know him a little, maybe he can win them over.