Alabama’s interstate highways are dotted with billboards featuring plaintiff attorney Alexander Shunnarah.
Some are side by side, some are stacked one atop the other, and there are lots of singles. There are a few featuring other law firms — Morgan and Morgan, Wettermark Keith, Andy Citrin — but Shunnarah is king of the road.
Coincidence or not, three are within a few miles of the Talladega Superspeedway.
The billboards are a large part of Shunnarah’s aggressive marketing program, but his “Call me, Alabama” advertisements are all over television, too.
“If you would have told me 17 years ago when I started by myself, with no assistant or no help, that I would be on pretty much every billboard in Alabama and every television station, maybe one of the most recognizable people in the state, no, I did not envision that,” Shunnarah says.
Shunnarah is sitting at a table in the building that bears his name on the east side of downtown Birmingham, overlooking the railroad tracks and Sloss Furnace. His law firm serves five states — Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida — with a total of 19 offices, 24 areas of practice and 75 attorneys, 55 of them in Alabama. He has a degree from Samford University and a law degree from Birmingham School of Law, where he says he was an “A-B – student.”
Shunnarah, 52, is a Palestinian Christian. “The Christian population of Palestine is only about 10 percent, so Dad left Palestine after the Six-Day War on a boat to the U.S. and ended up in Birmingham.
“I think my dad was probably the most influential person in my life, and I know a lot of people tend to say their dad, but he really shaped me. He was a military man, he was in the United States Navy. I was the only son. I was the oldest child. He would take me to the flea markets when I was a young kid, in the summer time. He was what we call a salesman or a peddler or a merchant. I think the first business he ever purchased was when he was about 40 years old,” Shunnarah says.
“My dad, the first business he owned was a package store. My dad would work the morning shift. I would work the midnight shift. And in between I would go to law school, come back and close up and then by the time I would get home at midnight, I would have some law school homework to do or just needed to unwind. I bet for the last 30 years of my life I haven’t gone to sleep before 2 a.m.”
Shunnarah says he has only had three jobs in his 52 years. “I had one with my dad, two was when I was a lawyer with a law firm called Cory Watson, and then 17 years ago I opened up my own firm, so I have only had three employers.”
He says Ernest Cory, of Cory Watson Attorneys, a Birmingham law firm, was a mentor who taught him the “law business.”
“He taught me a plaintiff’s practice. He gave me an opportunity when I graduated law school. I worked there for five years and eight months, and I was able to work at a high level plaintiff’s firm and it was definitely an apprenticeship and a learning experience. Obviously, a lot of the things I saw there I implemented in my firm and over the years, I implemented them in my own style.”
Tort reform has been a hot topic for several years, and last October a new report released by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) is highly critical of the tort system in the United States.
“If you think about it, it is really simple,” says Shunnarah. “One of my lawyers wrote a paper for a Christian magazine that said corporations don’t have a soul. A human being has a soul. Once again, we live in a capitalistic society, and the United States is a wonderful place to live, the most incredible place in the world, and I would be the first American to die for this country. However, you have to have some kind of accountability for companies. They can’t make money at all costs and disregard human lives. For example, if a car manufacturer is going to make a car, it needs to make it to a certain standard. If it is cutting corners and people are dying because of it, how do you prevent it, unless there are laws to protect those people?
“A lot of the people who get hurt are unsophisticated, don’t understand the laws, can’t read the law, can’t interpret the law and can’t take on these types of corporations. So you need lawyers like myself to fight for the smaller man.”
At this point in his life, Shunnarah says, he has “no itch” to get back in the courtroom.
“I own the firm, and I supervise all the lawyers who work here. I am available to any attorney on a day-to-day basis. My lawyers are very accomplished, very competent, but if they need my help I am always here for them, my door is open. I am not intrusive, but if they need my help I am available. Obviously I finance everything,” he says.
Shunnarah says his lawyers are “probably in court every day somewhere. In the last four years we have tried more cases than anyone in Alabama, 35 last year.”
“We are in Alabama, so to quote Bear Bryant, I hire people that are smarter than me.”
Shunnarah says his schedule varies daily. “As the firm has grown, I have had a lot more speaking engagements, I travel more often than I used to, but you will find me here most of the time. You know the saying ‘The law is a jealous mistress.’ I am 24-7, 365 hands-on in my firm. One thing my dad taught me is a strong work ethic, and there is no absentee ownership here.”
His work habits, he says, are “a little different.”
“I am not an early riser. I still work 17-18 hours a day, but I am the kind of guy whose brain starts working about 10 a.m. I get up about 8:30 or 9. I go to bed about 3 a.m. every night. I do most of my creative thinking at night.”
He’s also a fitness buff — working out frequently at the gym and watching what he eats.
“I like a good steak, a good lean piece of steak,” he says. “I don’t take any medication. I don’t have time to go to the doctor. I don’t want to go to the doctor. I don’t want to take pills.”
He says he has not read any of John Grisham’s lawyer novels and prefers non-fiction.
“As a young man, I read a lot of self-help books, a lot of business books. I like motivational type stuff. ‘Tools of the Titans,’ ‘Game Changers: What Leaders, Innovators, and Mavericks Do to Win at Life.’ John Morgan (of Morgan and Morgan law firm) who is a competitor and probably has the largest law firm in the country, he wrote a book called ‘You Can’t Teach Hungry.’”
Shunnarah speaks fluent Arabic and says he has picked up some Spanish from his Colombian wife. The couple has three daughters.
Shunnarah often quotes the Bible and says, “Yesterday is in the past, and tomorrow doesn’t even exist. I come to work and I thank God every morning that He allows me to wake up. I try to give 120 percent on a daily basis.” And he quotes Proverbs 24:16 — “A righteous man shall falleth seven times,” adding that he thinks he has probably fallen 77 times. “We are all flawed, but I know where I am going when I die,” he says.
“I think there are a couple of verses in the Bible that talk about not suing, but there also is a verse in the Bible that talks about standing up for your fellow man, and, obviously, in this capitalistic society that we live in, you need trial lawyers to level the scales of justice and to hold corporations accountable.”
Shunnarah says he enjoys sports, likes Auburn University football but covers his bases by saying that he “really admires” University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, and adds:
“I think the misconception about television lawyers sometimes is that they will take any type of case, but if the case does not have merit, we are not going after somebody just for the sake of going after someone. We carefully look at all of our cases, and we make a decision based on: Is this claim valid? Is this person civilly wronged? Does the law apply, and can we get them compensation?
“If all those factors line up, we will accept the claim, and, once we do, the game is on. We are going after them like Alabama football. Relentless. It is an all-out blitz.”
Bill Gerdes and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover and Norton in Birmingham.