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Practicing With Relish : Legal hassles a pain in the bun? Here's a place that serves hot dogs with a side of law advice--for free.

L.A. STORIES. A slice of life in Southern California.

August 17, 1993|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the humble corner of Sherman Way and Hazeltine Avenue, talk is beyond cheap.

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It's downright free, which just about fit Frank's budget the night he came looking for help to deep-six a ticket he got for failing to yield the right-of-way.

"I didn't want to spend any money on a traffic ticket and it irked me," the securities analyst said.

So he went to one of the few places in the Valley where legal advice is free--and the only one that has been serving up chips and dogs along with counsel for a dozen years now.

Law Dogs hot-dog stand is resplendent in bright lights and the de rigueur red, white and blue stripes befitting its status as a Van Nuys institution. Here amid the steaming buns and Bar association plaques, Van Nuys attorney Kim Pearman still spends Wednesday evenings doling out five-minute portions of advice.

"Everybody's pretty relaxed and it's a funky little deal," says Pearman, who's casually but nattily dressed in black slacks and paisley shirt. "You can wear your bathing suit if you want. When you go to a lawyer's office it's pretty intimidating."

Not to mention costly. Pearman charges $250 an hour in his 9-to-5 incarnation--a sometimes-frightening figure that has been known to beef up his Law Dogs clientele.

"One lady came to my office and wanted to know what I charged," says Pearman, who lives with his wife, Carol, in Virginia Mayo's onetime Encino home. "She couldn't afford it, so the next week she came in here. She said, 'You're gonna tell me the same stuff for free.' So I told her for free."

Says Susan Keating, San Fernando Bar Assn. executive director: "I think it points out that for the average person legal assistance is very, very hard to come by."

Of course, average people aren't Law Dogs' sole clients. One woman came from Beverly Hills in a Mercedes and mink to wait in line.

"She said, 'I don't trust my husband's lawyer,' " recalls Pearman, 53.

And average might not be the adjective that describes the divorcing couple who asked Pearman to help them get a custody order.

For their dog.

"The judge (had) laughed them out of court," Pearman says. "I said, 'I don't see any reason why you couldn't have a custody visitation situation with the dog like you have with a child.' So I drew the order for them just for fun, and they went to court and it was signed by the judge."

One of Pearman's more surprising freebie clients seemed particularly organized in the face of his big upcoming trial.

"I said, 'Gee, you've done a pretty good job for someone who's representing yourself,' " Pearman says. "He said, 'No, I'm a lawyer. I just need a consulting opinion.' And he's been back twice."

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Pearman, a veteran of 28 years practicing personal injury, real estate and criminal law, snappily steers law doggers toward game plans for every sort of legal woe--from pandering arrests to drunk-driving deaths and landlord-tenant tussles. Sometimes he tells them to bite the financial bullet and actually hire a lawyer.

"We don't open a file," Pearman acknowledges. "There's only so much you can do in the back of a hot-dog stand in a couple of seconds, but you know something? There's a bottom line in everybody's case. What's the bottom line?"

And that bottom line, he says, reflects an ever-changing "social barometer."

"I only had one bankruptcy come in here tonight," Pearman said on a recent evening. "A couple of years ago it was 10. Everybody was having problems: 'How do I get out of this contract?' 'They're suing me for this,' 'they're suing me for that.'

"Now it looks like the economy is coming back up. People come saying, 'Look, I want to file a corporation.' 'I want to be in a partnership.' Those are positive things."

Pearman says the inspiration for Law Dogs stemmed from his days as an undergrad business student at USC, where he learned the cardinal rule of running a small business: "You need a hook."

So when he and business partner Dan Tynon decided to open a hot-dog stand in December, 1981, Pearman found his hook on the television news. A lawyer in Venice was reportedly hanging out on the street with his own shingle, shooting the legal breeze with passersby.

Pearman decided his hot-dog hook would be free advice. He announced it in a press release and one reporter showed up.

Nobody else did.

"I said to Dan, 'I don't have anybody to give advice to. Go round up some people,' Pearman says. "So we got Dan's mother to come in, his brother, somebody else, to ask a few questions."

Word of press and mouth spread fast and Law Dogs soon became a small empire of six Southern California stands. But with the fast-food market heating up and dogs losing their bite of the pie, the stands weren't cost-efficient to operate. The other leases were allowed to run out until only the original stand on Sherman Way remained. That stand just about breaks even, the owners say, monthly serving up 4,000 Judge Dogs (mustard, onions and chili), Police Dogs (mustard and sauerkraut), Jury Dogs (mustard and onions) and, of course, plain Plaintiff Dogs.

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