Edgar Snyder prepares to retire after leading his namesake law firm for decades

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Whether it's on Edgar Snyder & Associates' Web site, www.edgarsnyder.com, or in the firm's recent TV ads and billboards, a subtle but distinct message is emerging: Pittsburgh's best-known personal injury attorney has taken a few steps out of the spotlight and cast it increasingly on other lawyers at his firm.

At the top of the law firm's Web page, for instance, Mr. Snyder appears calm and content in a photo in which he's surrounded by his six partners. Peppered throughout the site are links to the other lawyers' bios, awards and career highlights. They have appeared on TV commercials and are featured in billboards and on bus and subway ads.

After decades of branding the firm with the tall, bearded lawyer who points a finger as he promises consumers they won't pay a fee until he wins their cases, Edgar Snyder & Associates is preparing for the day when its namesake partner will step down.

Not that he plans to do that soon.

Though he is 67 and has not tried cases in the courtroom for the past 15 years or so, Mr. Snyder is still firmly entrenched in running the operations, including about 25 lawyers and more than 90 full-time staff people in five offices.

The Post-Gazette visited the firm's headquarters on the 10th floor of U.S. Steel Tower, Downtown, to discuss its future with Mr. Snyder and his wife, Sandy, 60, the firm's marketing director whom he credits as the mastermind behind his iconic image.

Q: Does the increased media exposure for your partners mean you are planning to retire?

EDGAR: The answer is that, yes, I've been thinking about it for a long time. Without going into detail, which is proprietary, we have a succession plan in this business where I will, over the next years, continue running the company.

But we have a plan for me not to run the company, and we have a plan for my partners to become more involved. I think my responsibility is to do this, to not be the center point. ... I would hope for some definite period of time to continue to do ads but [my partners] are also in ads, and they will eventually take over the whole thing.

Q: Will the name of the firm change? After all, you are the name.

EDGAR: No. There may come a time somebody wants to [change it]. But if you're a brand ... Sandy's whole mantra has been, "We're going to make you a brand." And I think she succeeded. Once you're a brand, you can't let go.

SANDY: Just like there's a Reed Smith .... The brand has to stand for something. Johnnie Cochran passed away, but there's still a Cochran Firm. There's a certain mission and certain standards you hope you imbue in the next generation, and that's our job.

Q: Who had the idea to put Edgar on TV?

EDGAR: We had put an ad in the newspapers around 1982 to represent people charged with drunk driving ... it was the most amazing small, little ad. I represented a lot of white-collar people and learned to beat [the charges] and win cases.

And from that ad, I had the largest drunk-driving practice in Pittsburgh. And I said to myself, "Is this all there is? Is this what my life's going to be? Representing drunk drivers?" So we decided to go bigger.

SANDY: I called my friend at KDKA-TV and found out how much a commercial spot was and said, "We don't have that kind of money." So we tried TV in Johnstown for $50 a spot. I can't tell you when I got my MBA, but I can tell you what a TV spot cost in Johnstown in 1986.

EDGAR: I had never been to Johnstown in my life, but we put a TV ad on the air and I opened up an office.

Q: Who came up with "Never a fee unless we get money for you" -- the slogan that made you famous?

EDGAR: I think there were variations out there.

SANDY: I can tell you exactly. No personal injury lawyer charges a fee unless they get money for you. And all the lawyers knew that. But we told the people. The public at large didn't understand it. We didn't call it a contingent fee. We put it in simple words that the regular person could understand.

Q: How about your signature gesture -- pointing your finger?

SANDY: That was an accident. I was videotaping him one day. Edgar wasn't always such a suave star of stage and screen. He wanted to practice so I took out the old VHS recorder. He pointed his finger when he said his tag line and I said, "That looks really good. Why don't you do that tomorrow?" And that's how it started.

EDGAR: I, even today, talk a lot with my hands, and it was a natural way to express myself.

Q: How did Sandy end up as the firm's marketing guru?

SANDY: I taught science in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for seven years. Then I applied to business school and was one of the first graduates in Pitt's MBA program at night. I was definitely overeducated and underpaid.

I wanted to be in computers, but back then they said they didn't hire women for that. So after I got my MBA, I resigned from teaching and got a job with Thermal Windows in Wilkinsburg.

My degree was finance, but I liked marketing. The company president, David Weis, essentially mentored me and taught me everything I knew about marketing from the ground up. Then I opened my own little consulting business, Unique Marketing Services, around 1980. My niche became dentists.

EDGAR: Then we met and started dating, and Sandy said, "If it works for dentists, why don't we market you?" That was in the 1980s after the U.S. Supreme Court said lawyers could advertise. And we put the tiny little ads for drunk driving work in the McKeesport Daily News, the Post-Gazette and other newspapers.

Q: After your commercials started appearing on TV, how did it feel to be the butt of so many jokes?

EDGAR: I was a pariah in Pittsburgh. I really thought [some of the lawyers] were going to assassinate me ... because I took their business in Johnstown and some places where they had it made.

I had a background as a criminal lawyer. The crowning glory of my career was in 1969 when I represented Stanley Hoss, the famous criminal who killed a police officer in Verona and kidnapped a mother and daughter, and led a chase between here and Waterloo, Iowa.

So when I started advertising [for personal injury cases], the nicest thing they said about me was, "Why would a good lawyer like Edgar do this? Something so unprofessional?" And Sandy and I used to joke, "Let them keep saying it so they won't compete."

SANDY: Now it's not unusual for every law firm to have a marketing department.

Q: How do you handle working together as a married couple?

EDGAR: She and I used to have enormous fights. I used to fire Sandy about once a week. I'd say, "Turn off those phones; get those ads off television. I can't figure out how to do all this business."

And she said, "Listen to me, buddy. My job is to make your phone ring. Your job is to figure out how to do the work. So go back to work." I said, "You're fired." And she said, "You can't afford to fire me, and you can't because I'm your wife." And we still do it. I'm still firing her every once in a while.

SANDY: Did you see where my office is? It's way down the hall. We have instituted rules over the years. One is, he's not allowed to ask me a question in the morning before my eyeballs are open and I've had a cup of coffee. That's because he once asked me about a brand of fax machine at 6 in the morning.

EDGAR: No, it was 3 in the morning.

SANDY: And you have to have separate responsibilities. If I were a lawyer, I don't think it would work because I would be stepping on his toes. I don't practice law, and he doesn't practice marketing .... We're in separate domains.

It's rare for us to have lunch together. We don't play golf together. And there's a mutual respect. When you walk in that office door, no matter what is going on in your house, you establish your business demeanor. You try to keep your personal life personal and your business life your business life. I think we've done a very good job of that.

Q: Sandy, have you thought about retirement? You're younger.

SANDY: No, because I would drive everybody crazy. I'm on my BlackBerry, I'm on the computer, and I'm an inveterate reader. I try to take what's going on in the world and figure out how it applies to us. I don't specialize in legal marketing. Marketing is marketing. I like to be about five steps ahead. I'm still the chief vision officer.

Q: What do you do when you're not working?

EDGAR: I spend a lot of time doing volunteer work -- probably 30 to 40 percent of my time at different organizations. And traveling for organizations. We're very involved in the Jewish community here in Pittsburgh and travel a lot to the state of Israel and the former Soviet Union to help poor people.

SANDY: Our big cause is trying to stop drinking and driving especially among younger people and adults, too. We sponsor a program with Children's Hospital that's interactive and goes out to the middle schools ... and we do a lot of public service ads. Every holiday, we take our [firm's] ads off the air and put on, "Don't drink and drive" ads.

EDGAR: We devote a lot of time and energy to trying to give back because we think we're two of the luckiest people anywhere.

SANDY: That's for sure.

Joyce Gannon can be reached at jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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