By David Ashenfelter
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
First, it was billboards.
Now, it’s transit buses.
Attorney Joumana Kayrouz’s face is popping up all over metro Detroit these days as the queen of legal advertising, rivaling such icons as Sam Bernstein and Geoffrey Fieger.
“I call her the Helen of Troy of legal marketing, because her face has launched a thousand lawsuits,” said Clinton Township lawyer William Dobreff, who knows and works with Kayrouz. “Her law firm is growing in a market where a lot of other firms are struggling.”
Dobreff and others attribute Kayrouz’s success to drive, determination and eye-catching ads, which feature a larger-than-life photo of Kayrouz and few words: “Injured? 1-866-YOUR RIGHTS. Millions recovered. Attorney Joumana Kayrouz.”
“In a profession that trades on words, she trades on image,” said Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. He said Kayrouz has a face that invokes trust, an asset in a profession that rates low with the public.
But there’s more to Kayrouz than flashy ads.
She’s a Lebanese immigrant who is fluent in four languages, a mother of two adult daughters and the only woman who owns a major personal-injury law firm in Michigan.
Kayrouz, 48, said the secret of her success is simple.
“God is my CEO. That is how I get inspired,” she said in a recent interview in her seventh-floor office at Southfield Town Center. She speaks with a distinctive accent. “When you have a strong faith in God, what are mere mortals to you? My story is the story of David and Goliath.”
Kayrouz, who is Catholic, was born and raised in Beirut, the youngest of four children of middle-class parents.
She said her father was a high-ranking military officer, who guarded the country’s presidents. Her mother was a homemaker who insisted that her children attend the best schools.
Kayrouz was still a child when Lebanon’s 15-year civil war broke out in 1975.
After high school, she enrolled at American University in Beirut, married a fellow student and immigrated with him to the U.S. in 1985 so he could attend medical school at Yale in New Haven, Conn.
Kayrouz, then 22, enrolled at South Connecticut State University and graduated with a degree in philosophy. Later, she got an academic scholarship to Yale to get a master’s degree in ethics.
They moved to Michigan in the 1990s so her husband could pursue his medical career.
Kayrouz raised their two daughters, attended night classes for four years at Wayne State University Law School and got her degree in 1997.
Afterward, she went to work for the late Harry Philo, a nationally known and pioneering personal injury and product liability lawyer in Detroit. When Philo retired in 2000, Kayrouz went into private practice in Southfield and started growing her law business, focusing on Wayne County’s Arab-American community.
Along the way, she and her husband divorced.
“We were like oil and water,” she said.
Though she had always dabbled in billboard advertising around Dearborn, she went big in mid-2010. This April, she started advertising on Detroit-area transit buses.
Today, she boasts 150 billboards and nearly 600 bus ads in metro Detroit.
CBS Outdoor said on its website that she dominates billboard and transit advertising in southeast Michigan: “You cannot drive anywhere in Metro Detroit without seeing her name.”
Kayrouz also has a talk show on WNKZ-AM (690) radio, an Arab language station, where she offers legal advice to the Arab-American community. She’s active in Arab-American political, social and professional organizations.
Her law firm, which includes a dozen lawyers and nearly 50 support staff, operates out of two floors of the Town Center.
“We’re all trying to get our names out there, but there is no one — no one — who has done a more effective job in a shorter period of time than Joumana Kayrouz,” said Vernon (Ven) Johnson, a top Detroit personal injury lawyer and former partner of Fieger.
Kayrouz specializes in personal-injury auto accidents under Michigan’s no-fault insurance law. Her clients say insurance companies denied or shortchanged their injury claims.
The cases are fairly uncomplicated and usually settle out of court for less than $50,000. To make money, lawyers try to handle them in volume.
Kayrouz said she pays her $350,000-a-month advertising budget with attorney fees from cases she settles. She said she has 3,000 active cases.
Lawyers and judges said Kayrouz’s firm grew so fast, her staff had trouble keeping up with the volume. But they said Kayrouz solved the problem by hiring lawyers who could handle the volume.
Kayrouz concedes that her success has spawned rumors: that she’s a front for a male-owned law firm, that her law practice was bankrolled by her ex-husband or a rich boyfriend and that her bus ads are financed by medical providers to whom she refers clients.
“I challenge anybody to come forward with proof of these rumors, but they will never find any because it doesn’t exist,” she said.
Kayrouz said people will come up with every reason to explain away the success of a woman, such as giving credit to rich husbands or boyfriends.
“I don’t even have a boyfriend,” she said. “I’m married to my job.”
Contact David Ashenfelter: firstname.lastname@example.org