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Sunday, July 11, 2004

HoustonChronicle.com - Lawyer corners Latino market

HoustonChronicle.com - Lawyer corners Latino market

July 11, 2004, 2:40PM

Lawyer corners Latino market
Solis building immigrant cases, some say too fast
By MIKE TOLSON
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

On any given evening, the nondescript waiting room at the corner of Navigation and Cesar Chavez swells with the hopeful and the desperate, drawn by the calm voice they hear daily on the radio.

Manuel Solis does not claim to be the smartest lawyer in Houston. Certainly he is not the richest. But among a certain segment of society — the below-the-radar world of the illegal or tenuously legal — he may be the best known.

Long after most lawyers have gone home, Solis and his crew are interviewing new clients. They are there Friday night. They return early Saturday and stay most of the day. They’d be there Sunday if anybody would come.

"I’m very accessible to the people," Solis said. "I’m always in my office."

Successful immigration lawyers have a steady flow of clients. Solis has a torrent. He advertises heavily in Spanish-language publications, has a daily radio call-in show and has been the on-air legal adviser for the local Univision and Telemundo affiliates. The result is one of the largest immigration practices in Texas, if not the United States.

In little more than a decade, Solis has expanded from a 1,500-square-foot storefront, part of which doubled as his apartment, to four locations in the Houston area and offices in five other cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles. He also has moved beyond immigration law into personal injury, family, workers’ compensation and consumer bankruptcy work — and recently beyond Latinos to a broader customer base.

"In many ways he’s the Wal-Mart of the law profession," said Bruce Clark, a friend and local business consultant who has helped him devise several ad campaigns. "He does high volume, and you know what you’re going to get up front. Compared to other attorneys, his prices are very reasonable. For the masses, he’s very good."

Many of his clients pay only a few hundred dollars, and more than 70 percent are on payment plans. But just as Wal-Mart spawned detractors in spite of its prices, so has Solis’ booming practice.


Fellow lawyers criticize
Some fellow Houston immigration lawyers complain that high volume makes for minimal client contact at best and sloppy legal work at worst. As evidence, they cite some of their own clients who have come to them after a dissatisfying experience with Solis’ firm. These clients have complained of no personal time with Solis and a lack of ongoing information, as well as missed deadlines and improperly filed paperwork.

"I don’t think he’s an unethical attorney," said lawyer Martha Garza. "I do think he has so much volume that some people are just casualties. Some come out OK, some don’t come out OK. It’s not the sort of practice most people have. He also does things that are like, I don’t know, sort of cheesy, like these cards that he sells people."

Solis sells "customer identification cards" that an immigrant can present if picked up by the immigration authorities. The photo ID card informs authorities that the person is a client of the Solis firm and that the firm should be informed if the holder is detained.

Solis said the cards are part of a prepaid legal plan, similar to legal insurance. For $500 a year, usually paid in installments, the client gets up to 12 consultations, representation if needed and half of their bond paid. And, of course, the official-looking laminated plastic card.

Other lawyers say many people who pay the $500 mistakenly believe the cards will give them some protection from legal action.

"The person who showed hers to me was convinced that if she got arrested it would keep her from being deported," said immigration lawyer Elizabeth Mendoza. "But legally they are worthless."

Solis vigorously defends the program, which he refers to as a retainer, as a good deal for clients who are picked up. Many illegal immigrants cannot afford the $5,000 or so for a bond and a lawyer, and end up agreeing to voluntary departure, which can kill their hopes of future legal status.

"No one should ever, ever sign an immediate voluntary departure," Solis said in his windowless office in a converted Navigation Street warehouse. "Even if it turns out there is nothing we can do to fight deportation and they eventually leave voluntarily, they will have three or four months here to get prepared."


Making a household name
If competitors don’t care for Solis’ mass-market practice, none will argue with his flair for marketing. He has become a household name in much of Latino Houston. Clark, his occasional ad man, likens him to Jim McIngvale, Gallery Furniture’s "Mattress Mack."

"Like Mattress Mack, he is driven," Clark said. "Unlike Mack, who is a micro-manager, Manuel has a more professional managerial style and can delegate responsibility. He has a recipe that is very successful with a population that is becoming increasingly Latino. He had an ideal niche with immigration, but things change over time, and he has changed his message and changed his offering."

Clark said he expects Solis to become to the legal profession what Seiko is to watches and Toyota to the auto industry.

Solis was born in Chicago and later moved with his family to Branson, Mo., where his parents operated a restaurant. He arrived in Houston in the mid-1980s to attend the University of Houston law school, which he started after a yearlong stint as a Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits manager as he established his Texas residency.

"I heard that Houston was the place to be," he said. "It was doing well when other places in the country weren’t."

That changed when the boom economy turned to bust as oil prices plummeted. By the time he finished in 1990, some young classmates were looking for greener pastures. But Solis knew by then that he wanted to do immigration law, and even in lean years Houston was a magnet for Mexican and Central American immigrants.

"With immigrants, the beautiful thing is you’re bringing families together," he said. "That is a very rewarding feeling. I have been doing this for 14 years, and some of those little girls who were the children of clients back then later ended up working for me."


Focus is on major growth
His practice grew gradually until Congress made changes in immigration law in the late 1990s. Suddenly the workload of most immigration lawyers exploded. Immigrants had to file paperwork by a series of deadlines or risk being barred from ever receiving permanent residency status.

"We were open seven days a week," said Solis, who admits the mushrooming cases meant he was not always able to give good service to clients. "We were here at 5 or 6 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night every day. I was told by INS then that we had captured 25 percent of the attorney-represented market."

Today, long past the deadlines and the heyday of Latino immigration filings, Solis knows that his business can only flourish with diversification. He is pushing hard to get more routine personal bankruptcies and family law work, and he cites some high-dollar verdicts and settlements in cases involving asbestos, pharmaceuticals and personal injury. A 2001 asbestos case produced a $55 million verdict, one of the biggest in the state that year.

Typically, he works tort and personal injury cases with firms that specialize in that litigation. Solis is satisfied to come up with the clients in the first place, which was a big reason why he opened offices in other cities.

Growth is the prime directive for Solis’ operation. That helps ensure a lucrative future, but some lawyers are skeptical that a law practice, especially one focused on a field as technical as immigration, can have a high degree of quality control if caseloads are pushed ever higher.

"He looks at law as a business," said Timothy Hart, an immigration lawyer who worked for Solis in the early 1990s. "You’re just turning over cases, like products on an assembly line. A few of them will be duds. He makes a lot of his clients happy, and some are dissatisfied. He doesn’t mind that dissatisfaction rate."


Work, family are priorities
Even Jacob Monty, a good friend of Solis and a lawyer with a corporate immigration practice, acknowledges the hazard of having so many clients with so much at stake — economically and emotionally.

"The practice is so mass-driven, very much different from my practice or any practice in town," Monty said. "He’s focusing on the retail, such as the Hispanic worker who needs a labor certification. When you have that many clients, there are going to be some people who are not happy."

Nevertheless, Monty insists Solis is a good lawyer who takes his responsibility seriously.

"I don’t think you will find a harder-working attorney. Is he ethical? Absolutely. He is genuinely concerned with helping the community," Monty said.

Solis lives down the street from his East End practice in another converted warehouse. He said he would never move to a fancier part of town, in part because he would have even less time to be with his wife and three sons, who are home-schooled. Work is his passion, his only real interest other than his family.

That he is not always popular with other lawyers does not seem to faze him. Business is good. It will get even better. He has a strategy that is working, and as anyone can see on a Saturday morning, he has plenty of people looking for his help. He says he will never retire.

"Anybody can do what I’ve done," Solis said. "I’m not special. I just put in a lot of hard work."

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