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For this project, we ask you what you want us to investigate and what stories you'd like us to tell.

How does Thomas J. Henry make any money when he spends so much on ads all over Austin?

A sign showing Thomas J. Henry, advertising a $50 million judgement for a client
Michael Minasi
/
KUT News
Thomas J. Henry's high-dollar judgments and settlements are frequently featured in the lawyer's advertising.

This story premiered at the ATXplained Live show at the Paramount Theatre on Oct. 11, 2023.

At the corner of Westgate and 290 in South Austin, there's a tall electronic sign that periodically flashes Thomas J. Henry's name or face — along with warnings not to text and drive or asking if you've been in a truck accident.

It's hard not to know who Thomas J. Henry is because he is, frankly, everywhere. His ads are on TV, radio, newspapers, websites, YouTube, billboards, etc.

Ads like this:

In fact, this KUT story might be the only piece of media in Austin that Thomas J. Henry has not paid to have himself talked about in.

"After a while, I came to realize that what really bothered me was that intense, sort of Rasputin-type stare that he always has," Suzanne LaPinta tells me outside his South Austin office. "It's kind of like, 'I will hypnotize you into securing my law services ...'"

Suzanne doesn't need a lawyer. Never has. And all of these ads made her curious.

"I just was trying to figure out how any business could actually make money when they were spending that much money on advertising," she says.

And that was her question for ATXplained.

But before we continue, I want to go back a couple decades.

Bates v. State Bar of Arizona

Not long ago, lawyers in Austin didn't advertise at all. In fact, it was rare for lawyers anywhere in the U.S. to advertise. Lawyering was seen as a more genteel profession — as a public service — and advertising for that service was perceived as somehow beneath it.

It was basically outlawed.

An advertisement with the headline "Do you need a lawyer?" with listings of various legal services and prices
Attorneys John Bates and Van O'Steen put an ad for their low-cost legal clinic in the Arizona Republic on Feb. 22, 1976.

But in 1976, a pair of attorneys in Phoenix named John Bates and Van O'Steen put an ad in the Arizona Republic newspaper for their low-cost legal clinic providing services like divorces and name changes. It's pretty tame by today's standards — just a black-and-white, mostly text ad.

But they got in trouble.

The State Bar of Arizona told them they couldn't do that, and the pair had their law licenses suspended. So they did what any good lawyer does: They sued.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1977, where they argued the ban on advertising violated their right to free speech.

"The question seems to me that has to be asked in this case is what is it in this ad that the consumers or the public really ought not to know?" their lawyer, William Canby, asked the justices. If someone can call a law office to ask about rates, they should be able to be given that same information in an advertisement, he said.

The Arizona State Bar essentially argued that allowing advertising would corrupt the legal profession.

"The plain truth of the matter is that advertising law business leads to incompetence at best — but it leads to lying, cheating and swindling at its worst," the state bar’s attorney, John Frank, argued. "Even when our guard is all the way up, there are persons who solicit the widow and the orphan and the sick to bring actions which are first and foremost intended to line the pockets of those who represent them."

You know how this turned out: The court sided with Bates and O’Steen.

The ruling toppled advertising bans in other states — including Texas — clearing the path for things like this:

It's not that anything goes in lawyer advertising now. In fact, there's a guy whose whole job is to make sure it doesn't get out of hand. Every lawyer has to submit their ads for approval from the state bar — the body that oversees the legal profession in the state. They have rules about what is — and isn't — allowed.

"The foundation of the rules is that you can't be false, misleading or deceptive in your communication,” says Gene Major, who does ad review and compliance for the State Bar of Texas. "You can say that you have a winning experience. You can't say you've won every case. That's a classic example."

And he says lawyers' ads are ubiquitous — even though most people won't need a lawyer, maybe ever. But when they do, it's in a lawyer's interest to be first on their mind.

A brief history of Thomas J. Henry

Thomas Jude Henry graduated from Saint Mary’s Law School in San Antonio in 1988 and started his own practice in Corpus Christi a few years later.

It seemed like right from the start, Henry had a knack for getting his name out there. Lots of ads, of course, but also sponsoring fireworks, pumpkin giveaways, Easter egg hunts, Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, dog festivals, a tennis center.

In 2002, one ad got Henry in trouble.

He had opened an office across the street from the children's hospital in Corpus Christi and put up a sign advertising his services.

A newspaper clipping from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times showing the sign in front of Thomas J. Henry's office, reading ""Loving parents always protect their children and justice demands that children be protected"
Corpus Christi Caller-Times
The front page of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times on April 11, 2002, shows the sign Thomas J. Henry put up across from Driscoll Children's Hospital.

The sign said, "Loving parents always protect their children and justice demands that children be protected," in an apparent effort to get distraught parents leaving the hospital to walk across the street to Henry's office if they thought a doctor had done something wrong.

Doctors were upset and they protested. Eventually, Henry took the sign down because it was bigger than the city's rules allowed — but not before tons of free advertising for his firm from local newspapers and TV stations covering the controversy.

His reputation and his law firm were growing.

Around 2014, Henry moved his main law office to San Antonio. It was a bigger market with more potential customers — and lots more ads. Then came the offices (and ads) in Austin, Dallas, Houston and Puerto Rico.

Today he employs hundreds of people, though the San Antonio Express News reported he laid off more than 150 employees in November.

Life of luxury

The man is, apparently, raking in money. And he doesn't make a secret of it.

Henry famously spent $6 million on his daughter's quinceañera in 2016. Pitbull and Nick Jonas were there — not for free.

There was his own $4.5 million birthday party in Miami. And then a $3 million Super Bowl party for friends and staff this year.

He shows off his fancy cars and private jet on Instagram. He even self-produced a Kardashians-type reality Youtube show about his family called “Hangin’ with Los Henrys."

Henry built a whole ecosystem of social media and marketing assets all clearly designed to present an image of a man who is unquestionably, exquisitely successful in life and in the courtroom.

A volume business

Henry’s firm never answered a request for an interview for this story.

So, I called another lawyer who advertises: Betty Blackwell, an Austin criminal defense lawyer whose legendary ad started airing in the early '90s. Blackwell came out of law school right around the time the Supreme Court legalized attorney advertising. For a long time, she resisted, instead building her practice on word of mouth. That was going fine, until she noticed other lawyers were picking up some of her clients.

“One of [my former clients] grabbed me at the courthouse and said, 'Oh my god, Betty, I couldn't find your phone number, and so I just went with the first lawyer that advertised!'” she recalls. “And I went 'OK, so it sounds to me like if you can't beat 'em, you gotta join 'em.’”

But she never went full Thomas J. Henry. Her ads appeared only once in a while on late-night TV.

She's also a defense lawyer, not a personal injury lawyer, so there’s a difference in strategy.

“I think the clearest reason is that personal injury lawyers tend to just have a client once,” says Nora Freeman Engstrom, who studies attorney advertising at Stanford University. “There are actually few people who are repeatedly tortiously injured. Most people are not that unlucky.”

In other words, personal injury law is a volume business. The more people calling you, the more volume you do. And the more ads you run, the more people calling you.

Whether we like it or not, advertising works. If it didn’t, lawyers like Thomas J. Henry probably wouldn’t be doing it.

“They wouldn't continue to spend that money,” Blackwell says. “You know they're tracking that. They can track how many calls and how many cases they get. And I just know that with that amount of money they're spending on those ads — it has to be working or they would not be doing that many ads."

Brand recognition

But back to the question we started with: How does Thomas J. Henry make any money when he spends so much on advertising?

The reason he makes so much money is because he spends so much on advertising.

But his advertising strategy isn't hard to figure out: Dominate the market. Be the Coca-Cola of personal injury lawyers, the first name that comes to mind when someone gets hurt and needs a lawyer.


Support for ATXplained comes from Meals on Wheels Central Texas and World Interiors.

Matt Largey is the Projects Editor at KUT. That means doing a little bit of everything: editing reporters, producing podcasts, reporting, training, producing live events and always being on the lookout for things that make his ears perk up. Got a tip? Email him at mlargey@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.
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