Joel Hyatt may no longer be a persistent TV presence, but the innovations that he brought to the legal profession and television industry have made indelible marks on American business and culture. He's a leader in both thought and action, for not only did he conceive practices that we now take for granted, he brought them to life.
Mass Market Law
Hyatt Legal Services transformed the practice of law from its aura of stuffy dignity to a more accessible service with convenient locations, fixed fees, and advertising that competed with commercials for food, drink, and cars. In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona cleared the way for mass-market legal advertising. Since that ruling only applied to newspapers, Hyatt pursued a broader interpretation that extended legal advertising to large print ads, radio, and TV. He then founded Hyatt Legal Services, a national chain of law offices that revolutionized how law firms presented and sold their services. He used storefront sites and took "the fear out of legal fees" by replacing the traditional billing system with upfront quotes. His face became a fixture on national TV ads as he pitched his approach to law.
While Hyatt Legal Services enjoyed high demand, profit margins on fixed-fee storefront law were thin. Hyatt used the pricing lessons that he learned from Hyatt Legal Services to bring the concept behind employee health coverage to legal service. Hyatt Legal Plans took advantage of tax reform legislation that let employers apply the same tax treatment to employee legal coverage as they applied to employee healthcare plans.
Hyatt Legal Plans brought legal services to working Americans without the overhead of running storefront offices. Instead, it used a network of attorneys to serve employees. Without the overhead of law office operations, Hyatt Legal Plans profits soared. It split from Hyatt Legal Services in 1991 and became the U.S.'s largest provider of employer-sponsored legal coverage.
Social Networking Meets TV
Hyatt's success helped him connect with former Vice President Al Gore. After Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential race, the two men conceived a television network designed to present the world to the 18-to-34 age group in a way that would catch that tech-savvy generation's attention. The result was Current TV, announced on May 5, 2004. Soon after, an interview with Joel Hyatt on sfgate.com appeared in which he described the networks inspiration and goals.
Hyatt described Current TV as a cross between "Brave New World" and "better, faster, cheaper." Viewer-supplied content made Current TV brave and new. Such content was "better" because it reflected the views of its target demographic more accurately than professional newscasts. It was "faster" because of multiple content sources and a lean approval process. It was also "cheaper" because programming no longer came as multi-million-dollar pilots, which were far more likely to fail than succeed.
Current TV resembled a cross between Facebook and YouTube. Like Facebook, viewers created profiles, reached out to others of compatible interests, and offered feedback on their peers' productions. Like YouTube, viewers could generate content and upload it for peer review. The online viewer feedback methods that Current TV pioneered are still in use today.
Viewer-supplied content did not work. Hyatt reinvented Current TV as a 24-hour news channel. But he still wanted to focus on the 18-to-34 age group, an audience who has social networking in their DNA. He brought shows that they knew from cyberspace, such as YouTube's hit "The Young Turks" with its star Cenk Uygur. Viewer interaction through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter continued, forming a model for other networks. The strategy didn't save Current TV, but it established precedents for viewer interaction that evolved into industry standards.
Hyatt's Twitter page promises "an exciting new venture soon." If it's anything like his contributions to the legal and television industries, it will introduce new approaches for doing old things. It will find a way to meet unmet needs. It will exploit some form of change, such as legislative, regulatory, or demographic.
If he were writing this piece, he would probably agree, using his former slogan, "I'm Joel Hyatt, and you have my word on it."