As far as bankers were concerned, until this spring Jonathan L. Alpert was just another attorney with a law degree from Harvard University.
But with a series of legal actions against brokerage affiliates of two Charlotte, N.C., banking giants -- NationsBank and First Union Corp. -- Mr. Alpert has landed on bankers' radar screens in a big way.
The reason is that in each of four actions by Mr. Alpert, a partner with Alpert, Josey & Hughes, of Tampa, Fla., he has asserted that the banking companies are recklessly misleading customers.
His goal, Mr. Alpert said in an interview, is not only to win compensation for his clients, but to change the way investments are sold by banks.
"What's happened is a regulatory laissez faire based upon an assumption of bank probity and honesty that's proven to be unwarranted," he said. He said his suits should spark debate on whether banks should be allowed into the retail investment business at all.
The most recent of Mr. Alpert's claims was filed last week against First Union's Brokerage Services Inc. unit.
In an arbitration filing before the National Association of Securities Dealers, Mr. Alpert contends that a former broker for the company, Laura A. Park, was wrongfully dismissed after complaining of improper sales practices. Ms. Park was fired in June on grounds that she had violated company rules.
According to the legal papers, First Union accused her of placing an order for a customer that had been "solicited and presold" by a bank employee who wasn't licensed to sell securities.
Ms. Park doesn't deny placing the order. Instead, she says that bank employees were encouraged to make such sales, whether or not they had the required licenses.
"I was fired for what was a widespread practice across the bank," said Ms. Park, a resident of Palm Harbor, Fla., who has been a broker since 1981.
The suit contends that Ms. Park had objected to several practices she considered improper, and that this was the real reason for her firing.
Among other alleged improprieties was the deliberate confusing of investments and insured deposits, and training and compensation that obligated brokers to push First Union mutual funds even when other investments would have been better.
Ms. Park seeks more than $1 million in compensatory damages and another $100 million in punitive damages.
First Union dismissed her charge as "ludicrous" and said that "her discharge was appropriate and consistent with company policies." The company added that its sales procedures are designed to put "the customers' best interests first" and declined further comment.
Undaunted, Mr. Alpert said he expects to file additional suits against First Union on behalf of other brokers and customers. The suits, he said, will cite similar instances of improper sales practices.
These claims would mirror Mr. Alpert's litigation against NationsBank, against which he has three suits pending on behalf of brokers and customers allegedly harmed by improper sales practices.
"I wouldn't expect any of our clients to ignore [the cases]," said Mary Anne Houlahan, a senior vice president in Los Angeles with the Winsbury Co., a bank mutual fund distributor owned by the Bisys Group Inc. of Little Falls, N.J.
But she added that the suits aren't changing the way banks operate. That's because First Union and NationsBank have been perhaps the most aggressive banks in the country over the past two years in expanding retail investment sales.
Both are adding hundreds of branch-based brokers in what could be largest investment sales force expansions ever attempted by banks. Other banks are expanding at a more modest pace that officials believe exposes them to less risk of litigation, Ms. Houlahan explained.