Joe Bornstein, a personal injury attorney who became a household name through ads for his firm on television and on an electronic sign atop an iconic Portland high-rise, has died. He was 74.

A spokesman for the firm confirmed that Bornstein died after a brief illness Thursday, but would not provide other details, including the cause of death.

Bornstein’s firm, which he opened in 1974, has for years run television ads soliciting personal injury cases and encouraging potential clients to “CALL JOE.” That message also frequently flashes from the sign atop the Time & Temperature Building in Portland.

Bornstein was buried Friday.

Nate Bergeron, spokesman for the firm, noted that many of Bornstein’s “family of lawyers” vow that “they will continue the law firm to represent injured and disabled Mainers as it has.”

The firm’s television ads probably made Bornstein the most famous lawyer in the state, even though he never appeared in them. For many, the face of the firm was actor Robert Vaughn, who appeared in the ads and urged prospective clients to “Call Joe” to work out a settlement for their injuries or losses.


Bornstein once explained that the Vaughn connection was through a marketing firm in Massachusetts that prepared his ads. The actor and the lawyer never actually met, he said.

A native of Portland, he earned his law degree at Suffolk Law School and returned to Maine in 1974, opening an office in what was then a seedy section of the city – the run-down Old Port. Although the firm now has seven offices throughout the state, it still maintains a presence on Moulton Street, Bergeron said, where Bornstein initially shared his office with his cat.

Bornstein was a big supporter of his profession through the Maine Bar Association, said Angela P. Armstrong, executive director of the lawyer’s association.

Bornstein was both an individual member and a sustaining member of the bar, she said, meaning he voluntarily paid higher dues than most members. He also regularly advertised in Maine Bar publications, she said, with some of the ads touting the “Arrive Alive” program. That effort was started by Bornstein and his firm to discourage drinking and driving among teens, and has since expanded to focus on discouraging distracted driving among young drivers.

Students could submit artwork in support of the effort and send the pieces on tours throughout the state, although that practice was suspended this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bornstein was a big supporter of nonprofit organizations in the state. Bergeron said he would often give over the space he leased on the flashing Time and Temperature Building sign to groups looking to raise funds. Bergeron said that, over the years, space has been donated to more than 300 local nonprofits and community groups.

He preferred to do his work with nonprofit groups behind the scenes, following the Jewish moral obligation of “tzedakah,” or charitable giving.

“Joe Bornstein was an exceptionally kind, humble and compassionate man,” said Susan Greenwood, executive director of the Cromwell Center for Disability Awareness in Portland. “He was so generous to local nonprofits and never accepted any recognition or public thanks. The Maine nonprofit community has lost a quiet hero and dear friend.”

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