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Meet Russell Nicolet, the New Billboard King of the Upper Midwest

His shades, beard, and bald head have achieved regional advertising ubiquity—so who is he?

8:07 AM CST on January 25, 2024

Nicolet Law Office

Growing up outside of Green Bay, Russell Nicolet didn’t know anyone in the legal world. He didn’t appear destined to practice law, let alone become the Upper Midwest's most visible lawyer. But, some 200 current billboards and concurrent TV ad campaigns later, that’s what happened.

"I wasn't actually the most studious high school student,” Nicolet (that’s pronounced nick-oh-lay) says. “My mom asked me to take the ACT and apply to one school at least."

The first member of his family to attend a four-year university, Nicolet matriculated to the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he majored in history and, later, political science. He got involved with the school’s legal society and, in a bit foreshadowing, sprayed the campus with PC-designed posters advertising its services.   

After applying to two law schools, Milwaukee’s Marquette University and St. Paul’s William Mitchell College of Law, Nicolet eventually decided to attend the latter—in part because of scholarships, mostly because his girlfriend/future wife lived in nearby Hudson.

"Law school is much [more daunting] than college,” he says, recalling warnings he heard about the profession from other students and alumni. “And you're competing with a lot of really hard-working, intelligent people. That was a wake-up call; I thought about dropping out."  

Nicolet stuck with it, and ended up graduating early and passing the bar exam in early 2007. (In another bit of foreshadowing, he says he’d already built a website and printed biz cards before knowing whether he’d passed or not.) 

He scored a law clerk job in Hudson, which is where he’d later rent the first office for his practice—a tiny, 144-square-foot room without a reception area. He says the Washington County Law Library in Stillwater, with its vast (and free) resources, was an early life preserver for his business. Practicing general law in those close quarters invigorated him, and soon relationships started forming with clients who needed help with divorces, traffic violations, injuries, DUIs, bankruptcies, and real estate.   

Ideas for self-promotion were always bubbling underneath Nicolet’s not-yet-bald head. 

"Internet marketing was really new, but I had a little bit of understanding of how to do it,” he remembers. “I just continually tried to put money back into marketing. I always thought: If you're not figuring out more marketing, you're probably gonna find yourself in a position where the phone stops ringing."

The first Nicolet Law billboard went up in 2008, along I-94E heading from St. Paul into Wisconsin. "It wasn't really well done... way too much writing for someone driving 75 mph,” says the attorney who, in conversation, summons a genuine-sounding Midwestern modesty that feels more Kent Hrbek than Saul Goodman. Right around that time the Great Recession hit, and Nicolet reports bankruptcy law began booming, causing his office to pivot mostly away from family law. 

The next great crisis would push Nicolet to change course yet again. Perhaps counterintuitively, bankruptcies dried up almost entirely during COVID-19, he says, which inspired Nicolet Law to push most its chips in on personal injury law.   

“Coming out of that thing, we were determined to hit it hard in 2020,” says the father of five who still lives in Hudson. “I decided, ‘Well, if we're going to do a billboard campaign, let's make it memorable: Take my face and make it into a cartoon face.’ We added the Northwoods, the sunglasses; it was memorable, but I wondered: ‘Is it gonna be memorable because people think this guy's an idiot?’"  

As Nicolet’s mug has come to dominate billboards and TV ads over the past few years, he says reactions have been mixed. Unlike some (sometimes unsavory) billboard lawyers, he still practices law throughout the region and, unlike most lawyers more broadly speaking, he’s now a known commodity among laypeople. “I will say, more and more, it's difficult for me to go anywhere and not get recognized, but most people are really supportive,” he says. 

Others… not so much.   

“I think someone on Reddit said, ‘That Nicolet guy has become more annoying than Kris Lindahl,’ but our brand works for us,” he says, adding that he has “nothing but respect” for the inescapable real estate agent. Another person, this one advertising themselves as a well-wishing supporter, reportedly called into the office last month to decry the TV spots as “ridiculous and stupid.” 

(Reached for comment about his newish competition for attention, Lindahl, ever the salesman, offered: “Hey, successful campaigns are GUARANTEED to be imitated! If he wants to keep up, I hope he's ready to keep it going for another 20 years! All jokes aside, what many people don’t know is that those billboards and other marketing aren’t about ego; in my case, I know that every billboard, banner ad, TV and radio spot I do helps our clients sell their houses.”)  

When it comes to his branding, Nicolet prefers the adjectives “fun and folksy,” adding that his marketing blitz has coincided with a period of tremendous growth. (Remarkably, instead of contracting outside creative firms, Nicolet cooks up his company’s advertising campaigns in-house with the help of marketing manager Cassandra Laabs.) Nicolet Law’s 50+ employees now populate 22 offices scattered throughout the region, though the face of the biz is reluctant to credit his, well, face for all that expansion; a “perfect storm” of brand awareness combined with almost two decades of dedicated client service is the reason, he says.

Nicolet wouldn’t specify how much his marketing budget has ballooned, but did yield it has done so by “... a lot, by multiples.” His exact number of current billboard buys will also remain a mystery because, believe it or not, the law firm is running a $1,000 TikTok contest/promotion that asks folks to guess. He does admit there are “over 200” throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota.      

Nicolet insists he didn’t set out to become Upper Midwestern billboard royalty. But, in the grand tradition of Denny Hecker, Dick Enrico, and, yes, Lindahl, his face is now everywhere. Local personal injury law competitors like TSR Injury Law and Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben haven't managed to imprint their likenesses and names at that level. "The Beard," as he sometimes bills himself, has managed to fill the vacuum. 

“I never expected to be that guy,” he says. “We have a lot of fun with it, and it has helped people notice us—for good and bad.”

In either case, Nicolet’s market saturation is only set to grow via an upcoming partnership with cult-loved Wisconsin-based gas station chain Kwik Trip.

"When people get off the road, and they think they'll get a break from seeing my face, you'll see me at the pump!” the increasingly ubiquitous lawyer says with a hearty laugh.

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