Welcome to Misnyland
Neatly arranged on a long table in the foyer of Tim Misny's Waite Hill estate are a dozen-or-so travel coffee mugs, waiting like supermarket samples to be handed out to passersby.
Each bears a color photo of Misny — bald head, black suit, arms crossed — looking piercingly into the camera. On the back, the mugs also list the cases the Law Offices of Tim Misny takes: birth injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death, catastrophic injury, workers' compensation — just about anything that could bring about pain, suffering and a legal settlement. And, of course, his ubiquitous, and trademarked "I'll make them pay!" tagline in 60-point black type.
"Here, have one," Misny says. "Actually, here's two."
It's Misny swag. And there's more: a black T-shirt bearing his visage and menacing pointed finger, and emblazoned with the words "Tim Misny Made Me Pay ... For This Shirt." Nearby, there's a black baseball cap embroidered with the words "Misny to the Max." He had it made when his son Max was born in 2009.
Everybody who visits Misny's home and primary workplace, which he's dubbed Misnyland with tongue nowhere near cheek, leaves with a trinket, or two, or three.
It's not the kind of merchandise you'd expect to have pressed into your hands when visiting an attorney. A pen, maybe. Perhaps a stress ball that looks like the Earth or a pack of branded Post-it notes.
Then again, it's hard to settle for the word "attorney" when describing Tim Misny.
He's a Don Draper-style pitchman for the infotainment age who just happens to be in the business of personal injury law. He's funny, smart, opportunistic and endowed with all the subtlety of an online pop-up ad.
Just about any human contact is a seeming opportunity for Misny to build his brand as a modern-day, arrow-at-the-ready Robin Hood extracting justice from big business and handing it off to the common man in the form of big bucks.
Even the delivery guy who arrives with Max's Christmas gifts leaves with $20 stuffed in a mug with a business card, along with Misny's nudge to go have a cold beer that night on him.
"This guy will say that he delivers to the Osbornes, the Marouses, the Sherwins, but Tim Misny was the only guy who came out, shook my hand and thanked me for making a delivery," Misny says. "He's going to talk about that forever."
And possibly throw a referral Misny's way?
"Absolutely!" says Misny. "Yeah, baby!"
Go ahead and say what you're thinking: ambulance chaser. Some look at Misny and his ilk as the reason our health care costs and insurance premiums are so high. They view him as the driver behind friviolous lawsuits that award huge sums to people looking to cash in on their tragedies. When people make lawyer jokes, Misny's the kind of guy they have in mind.
Misny knows it's coming. To those people, he says: "They haven't met me."
To family and close friends, Tim Misny is Timo, the Croatian name for Timothy, ascribed to him by his maternal grandmother and Croatian immigrant, Veronica Vulich.
Grandma Vulich is the central character in Misny's oft-told story about the inspiration for his career.
His grandfather, Joseph, was a bricklayer who was part of the construction crew that built the Terminal Tower in the 1920s. While on that job, he fell from scaffolding to his death, leaving Grandma Vulich with three young children and only her husband's final paycheck. She took in laundry by day and cleaned offices by night to get by.
As a 7-year-old, Misny recalls visiting downtown with his grandmother, taking three bus transfers to get there from his childhood home, a one-bedroom bungalow in Euclid. She pointed to the terminal's grandeur and said, "Timo, you see that? Your grandfather helped build this place."
Misny recalls being wide-eyed at the thought and asking his grandmother who lived in such a place. No one lives here, she told him, but lawyers have their offices here.
"She told me, 'Someday, if you work hard, you will have an office here too, because there will always be someone who needs you,' " he says. "I knew then that I would be a lawyer helping people. I know it sounds ridiculous from a 7-year-old."
But Misny set out to make it happen.
Raised in a home where his dad never made more than minimum wage, Misny got his first job scrubbing toilets in a public golf course at age 12, trying to save up enough money to attend St. Joseph High School.
At St. Joe's in the early '70s, Misny became a class officer, member of the National Honor Society and reporter for the school paper. On the side, he covered high school sports at the Journal Newspapers. But it wasn't enough for Misny, he wanted more.
John M. Urbancich, editor at the time, recalls it was a busy day in the newsroom juggling phones and paper carriers when Misny called. "He was like Eddie Haskell," recalls Urbancich. "He wouldn't take no for an answer."
Misny used the reporting job to help pay his way through John Carroll University. He went to night school at Cleveland State University's Cleveland-Marshall College of Law while working in the Euclid prosecutor's office and eventually started his own practice in 1981, setting his sights on that office in the Terminal Tower.
Misny was flat broke, but he managed to negotiate his first six months free on a lease on a 38th floor office.
"So I move in and say, 'OK, I have six months to bust my ass and make it happen,' " he says. "Every night I was at a bar, handing out my cards, getting to know people."
He got his first personal injury case that way, and it settled just weeks before his first lease payment came due.
It was a huge risk, but maybe not his biggest. That came in 2008 when the U.S. Supreme Court took the case Wyeth v. Levine and agreed to decide whether patients had the right to sue for damages when injured by a pharmaceutical approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Plenty of personal injury attorneys watched the case closely, standing by to see if the court would open up new ground for lawsuits.
Misny didn't wait. He launched a national ad campaign on 55 stations, soliciting pharmaceutical-injury plaintiffs.
"I borrowed money, I mortgaged my house, and I went in big, deep," he says. "It was the biggest risk I had ever taken in my life."
Misny managed to come up with $3 million, most of it borrowed. He says he would have spent more if he could have. He laid a massive bet that the court would rule against the pharmaceutical companies.
When it did, he was already way ahead of his fellow attorneys. He racked up about 1,000 pharmaceutical tort cases in a one-year period. Two blocks of cases settled over the last year for $50 million and $42.5 million, respectively.
"He has a lot of balls," says Urbancich, who became president and CEO of Sun Newspapers and has remained friends with Misny for 40 years. "I've never met anyone who takes the bull by the horns and just does it."
Disneyland has its mouse, but Misnyland is overrun by bears.
Carved, stuffed, sculpted, even colored by Misny's 3-year-old, bears populate the 16,000 square feet and 55 acres of Misny's Waite Hill homestead, which he shares with his wife of five years, Stephanie, their son, Max, and pug, Lola.
There's about a half dozen scattered throughout the living room, which has been converted into Misny's office. It's spacious enough for two workspaces and a sitting area, which surrounds a flat-screen-topped fireplace where a white sculpted bear rests.
Clients and colleagues visit him in his home. He has a staff of five paralegals and a marketing staff working in his official law office in Kirtland, but he is the sole attorney. "When I moved in, someone got me a Christmas present that said 'Misnyland,' " he says. "I thought it was a little over the top. I objected — for about 3.5 seconds."
From his S-shaped desk, he can look out the windows onto Misnyland's circular driveway or through windows behind him overlooking an English garden, along walking paths with names like "Self-Made Man Boulevard," which lead to a wooded ravine where a creek flows from the Chagrin River. A full-sized carved bear leans on a stone pillar marking the entrance to Misnyland, and two cartoon bears smile out from a sign at the security gate to say "Tim & Stephanie Welcome You To Misnyland!"
It's an apt mascot for a 6-foot-5 guy with a shaved head and a voice that easily fills a room.
Sitting down for a chat in a crisp pink shirt, tan slacks and cuff links studded in orange agate, he's more Timmy Bear than grizzly. He discusses Stephanie and Max with the devotion of a man who, at 52, finally found the family he'd hoped for.
He and Stephanie met nearly 20 years ago, but he wasn't ready for a committed relationship and she moved on. Fifteen years later, she called him up on a whim. They made a date and were married eight months later. The couple experienced four miscarriages before Max arrived in 2009.
But as Misny begins talking about his work, he sits up straighter and his feet go flat to the floor. His soft side disappears as he scoots to the edge of his seat, his voice booms and his pointed finger scissors the air.
Bubbling just below Misny's skin is a pot of righteous anger, simmering on behalf of his clients, whom he calls the "down-trodden and disadvantaged."
"You go after that bear, you go after that bear's cubs, you have an aggressive, vicious animal coming after you," he says. "I will respond based on how much you piss me off."
Consider the case of a Cleveland man whose arms were severed at work when a hydraulic lift malfunctioned and the vehicle he was working on fell. His doctors surgically reattached his arms, but he was left with limited mobility and sensation. When he brought his case to Misny, his insurance company was arguing that the cost of his long-term rehabilitation was too high. It recommended that his arms be amputated for good.
"I'm the one guy in town who will look them in the eye and say, 'I don't believe a goddamn thing coming out of your mouth,' " says Misny. "I will never, ever apologize for being aggressive. The only thing an insurance company recognizes is a show of force."
Tim Misny sweeps into a production studio at Channel 19 with an entourage in tow — Stephanie, Max, his mother-in-law and two members of his marketing team. The ceilings are low, and his big voice echoes through the hallway as he pops into various offices, shakes hands and shouts greetings to people he knows from his years advertising here.
He's here to film a new set of "Make them pay" commercials and some holiday charity spots with his family. He goes through this routine about once a month, cutting slight variations on his signature theme.
Clad in typical Misny-wear of a blue pinstriped suit with a crisp white shirt and presidential-red tie, he banters easily with the Channel 19 production team, led by senior producer Chris Stabile, as they review the script.
Misny hams it up, feigning sobs as he reviews the line, "Please like me on Facebook!" He's in a push to reach 50,000 likes, at which time he'll enter all of his followers into a drawing to win a trip to Las Vegas plus $1,000 spending cash.
With each script tweak, he asks for critique. He takes suggestions. And he follows every bit of a feedback with a gracious "thank you."
"See, it's a collaborative process," he says. "Everyone parks their ego at the door. Except mine takes up four parking spaces."
After 20 years of advertising, Misny is a pro.
Yet the current concept for the commercials grew out of Misny's friendship with Hollywood producers Eric Manes and Martin Kunert, whom he met when they came to Cleveland in 1998 to shoot the movie Renegade Force. They needed a mansion to shoot several key scenes, and a location scout found Misnyland. Misny didn't just say yes, he invited members of the crew to stay on the property in his guesthouse.
"Every day he would come out with cigars for the crew," recalls Manes. "On Sundays he would arrange softball games for us on his lighted baseball diamond."
The trio became friends and stayed friends, and Kunert and Manes even gave Misny bit parts in two of their movies. During one of their visits, in 2005, Misny asked them for their feedback on his commercials.
"They weren't horrible. They were just standard," recalls Manes. "Martin and I said, 'Just for fun, f--- it, we'll do it for you.' "
Manes conceived of a simple ad made up of interviews with clients, each talking about their accidents and the help they got from Misny. Each testimonial gradually built toward the client saying, "We called Tim Misny. And he made them pay."
"Both of them busted my balls on 'making them pay,' " says Manes, who came up with the signature line. "Tim said, 'I don't know. What does it really mean?' We were arguing about it for two weeks."
Manes won that argument. The response the catchphrase received convinced Misny to stick with it.
Once the prompter is loaded and the lights go on at the Channel 19 studios, Misny strides from off-camera to his mark as he temples his fingers and begins: "I'm Tim Misny. For more than 30 years I've represented the injured victim ..."
He never flubs, never flusters. Periodically his marketing team shouts out a comment or revision, but in short order he's nailed 30-, 15- and five-second versions of the ad.
"Other [advertisers] come in and say, 'I want to be like Tim Misny' or 'I don't want to be like Tim Misny,' " says Stabile. "[He] is their line of reference."
It's not just advertisers. Plenty of lawyers scorn what he does, even if they won't admit it. Especially the ones who have sat opposite Misny in litigation; the Village of Waite Hill, which settled a two-year lawsuit with Misny in 2010 over work he did on his land, refused to comment, and the Louisiana lawyer Misny sued for infringing on his trademark "I'll make them pay" slogan didn't respond to calls.
Misny says some attorneys are envious of his success. Others feel advertising is beneath them. But he says that disdain masks a financial reality. "It's a tremendous financial gamble," he argues. "There's no guarantee."
Misny actually doesn't like very many other lawyers. Too many of them were born in a country club, he says. He's never felt he fits in with that crowd, and he doesn't want to.
"There are a lot of people who were born on third base and go through life believing they hit a triple," he says. "They truly believe they are better than me, better than my clients, just because their dad set up a trust fund for them and they went to Yale."
Shortly after Misny moved to Waite Hill, he attended a block party where a purple ascot-wearing neighbor sauntered up to him with a warning: You will never fit in here.
Misny responded by taking off his nametag and pinning it to his crotch.
"Anytime you are a high-profile person, it has a tremendous polarizing effect," he says.
Like a late-career William Shatner, Tim Misny is in on the joke. Being called an ambulance chaser actually doesn't bother him. He may be serious in his ads, but Misny can't help but ham it up when a camera is around.
Last Halloween, he filmed a "Thriller" parody music video at his home, with actors dancing around him in Tim Misny masks.
When he heard about the song "Make 'Em Pay Like Misny" by local rappers T Killa and Rick Ruin, he helped them make a music video for it, starring him. Now he's sponsoring a Facebook contest for the best song or parody about him.
A few years back, local comedian Mike Polk cut a 50-second YouTube parody of a Misny television commercial. Sporting a rubber faux-bald cap, Polk glares into the camera Misny-style, growling, "Did someone hit you with a shovel? I'll hit them with a bigger shovel. All I want to do is hurt people for you."
When he caught wind of the bit, he emailed Polk, saying, "I laughed so hard that for a whole seven minutes I didn't think about suing anyone," he recalls.
Now he's launching a reality show with Manes and Kunert called Misny Makes Them Pay that will chronicle his adventures in law and at home. It is being cut into five-minute episodes that will air weekly on Misny's website. A 25-minute pilot will premiere at a Misny-sponsored party at Peabody's next month.
One of the pilot's opening scenes is an emotional meeting between Misny and the client whose arms were severed at work. As the man and his wife sit on the couch in the Misnyland office, he demonstrates how limited his mobility now is while pleading with a comforting Misny: "I need your help, so I can live a normal life."
On screen Misny then approaches Jonathan Mester, a plaintiff attorney at Nurenberg Paris, to discuss working as co-counsel on the case. He's brash and loud, in contrast to the other lawyers' conservative suits and boardroom, loudly declaring his enthusiasm for their arrangement this way: "If I were a broad, I'd be wet right now."
Cut back to Misnyland, and he's on the phone with an insurance claims adjuster discussing the same case, yelling into the phone: "No shit you should pay for it! What the f--- is wrong with you people?"
But the show also highlights the ups-and-downs of Misny's family life. In one scene, he's a befuddled dad left home alone for the first time with Max by a teary Stephanie, proceeding to completely botch a poopy diaper change as expletives fly. He struggles to fold up a stroller to pack in the car, and he snoozes in Max's playroom watching a baseball game even though he promised Stephanie he wouldn't.
Over years of visits, Manes and Kunert had heard Misny's tales of personal injury triumph, met his clients and listened to his expletive-packed phone calls with insurance claims adjusters. They thought it was ideal for reality TV.
"Great shows are about great characters, people who are larger than life but at the same time relatable," says Kunert. "Tim has all of that. [The show] has its funny sides, its crazy sides and its heartbreaking sides."
So the pair and a crew spent time throughout 2011 and 2012 filming Misny's home and work life to create Misny Makes Them Pay.
At first Stephanie wasn't on board. There were cameras around 24/7. "At the beginning of the show, it just wasn't fun," she says. Eventually the camera crews started coming for five days at a time and loading up on scenes to make it more manageable for the family.
Manes and Kunert say the show fits a unique niche. There aren't any other reality shows exposing Misny's line of work, other than shows like Judge Judy, and for good reason. They can't film or discuss any ongoing case, so some scenes — like Misny's touching sit-down with the severed arms victim — have to be re-enacted after the cases are settled.
"He's incredibly open and willing to do whatever we ask him to do," says Manes. "The 'him' as a brand, as a lawyer, as a husband, it's all one guy. You think, How can that guy be real? But he is."
The show was never intended for network broadcast, Manes insists. Instead, Manes, Kunert and Misny have formed a 50-25-25 partnership to experiment with Internet-only weekly webisodes akin to the new Jerry Seinfeld show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which airs on Sony's Crackle.com. Misny won't reveal his cash outlay on the project, but says, it's "approaching seven figures."
"This is the future of television," Manes says. "You find a great character, cut out the middleman and take it right to the people."
Manes anticipates he may get a call from a network at some point. "But I'd rather get a call from Ford. I'd rather get a call from a big advertiser than from a network."
It wasn't until October 2012 that Misny discovered how big the payoff really was from that risk he took in 2008. While sitting in a meeting with Fox 8 executives negotiating an ad buy, he got a call from his co-counsel in one of the blocks of cases to tell him that it had finally settled for $50 million, on top of the $42.5 million settlement in 2011.
"I went back into the meeting and said, 'Maybe the question is not how much for this advertising, but how much to buy the whole damn station?' " he says. "The real Tim Misny, that obnoxious kid who always had an opinion, he still peeks out now and then."
Despite years of success, this is the milestone that has finally convinced Misny that he's made it.
"I won. Game over," he says. "Those resolutions were the icing on the cake."
It's also been helpful in his efforts to mellow out. That anger he visits upon insurance claims adjusters was once more abundant in other areas of his life as well.
"I was famous in my office for smashing phones," he says of his earlier and angrier years. "It was a joke with the phone guy: 'Hey, we'll see you again in a couple of weeks!' "
Misny's biggest pet peeve was once frustrating clients, but he's now reached the point in his career that he can be selective about the work he takes on — only clients and cases he truly believes in.
He's approached with about 100 new cases a week, but only takes about 5 percent of them. He focuses on defendants with deep pockets, like insurance companies, pharmaceutical giants and health care systems, but insists the potential size of damages isn't one of his criteria. From that high of $50 million, his recent settlements have ranged as low as $75,000.
Misny goes by the philosophy that, as he says, "trials are for losers."
He's quick to clarify that his trial attorney colleagues aren't losers themselves. But in his practice, he looks for cases that can be settled before they reach a courtroom. If they can't, he says it's because there's an inherent flaw in the case that should have been resolved earlier.
About 40 percent of his time is spent maintaining his marketing, working on commercials and TV appearances, Web content and social media. The other 60 percent is spent practicing law, negotiating with insurance companies or participating in mediation on his clients' behalf. If his cases do reach a courtroom (only about 1 percent of them, he estimates) he often solicits co-counsel from attorneys such as Mester.
But when Tim Misny takes your case, you get him. He brings his clients and their families to Misnyland for meetings. They meet his family. He even gives out his personal cell phone number to every client.
"You won't find another lawyer in the country who does that," says Mester. "He has chosen the right profession. He is a man of the people."
Leaving the Channel 19 studio after shooting his latest round of commercials, Misny tosses on his signature Kangol hat — he has about 150 of them — and walks north on East 12th Street past the Embassy Suites. Three valets stand shivering in front, and one of them breaks a huge smile as he passes.
"Tim Misny! I got someone who's messin' with me. I oughta give you a call!"
In a second flat, Misny has produced a 2-inch-thick stack of business cards and is pressing them into the hands of each of the valets.
"Yes, you should," Misny responds. "You tell him Tim Misny is your lawyer and he won't want to mess with you."
"See?" he says following his interaction with the valets. "That happens every day."
Stephanie won't take him along to the grocery store anymore. It takes her twice as long to get through, with people stopping him for his autograph and asking to have their picture taken with him.
If it were Stephanie's choice, "Tim would take down the shingle, and we would have a great life traveling, cooking, working out, being an anonymous family," she says. "But this is what he wants. He's worked very hard for this. ... I want to support him."
Misny's favorite song is "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel. His favorite line: "... well, you started out with nothing and you're proud that you're a self-made man ..."
"That was me. I started out with nothing. Less than nothing," he says.
Misny has one criteria for how he spends his time today: It has to be fun.
"I'm at a stage in my life that if it ain't fun, I ain't doing it," he says.
Having his office at Misnyland is how he ensures that Stephanie and Max — the family he says has made him complete — are a part of his daily life.
"I'll never retire," he says. "The epitaph on my gravestone will be: 'Here lies Tim Misny. He's still making them pay.' "
12:00 AM EST
December 17, 2012