Tips for Making Partner in a Plaintiff’s Firm (1/3)

 

old time lawyerThe long and winding road.

There really aren’t any hard and fast rules for forming a consumer trial firm. It follows that there isn’t a straightforward partner track, if what you are planning is a career in protecting consumer rights.

Now my brother, the corporate defense lawyer, always knew exactly what he faced as he set about trying to make partner at his silk stocking firm. From day one he was told what to expect, counseled on his progress, educated in the hallowed tradition of the firm and shown the way through whatever hoops he was expected to jump through in order to make the grade.

I’ve always assumed the only rule that universally applies to my own economic mobility as a consumer lawyer is survival of the fittest. So far, I haven’t seen anything to convince me I am wrong. Of course, I’m only mid-career.

You see, unlike institutional silk stocking firms, consumer firms tend to be smaller, less formal and more practical in how they move employees up into the ranks of owners.

Even the largest plaintiff shop tends to have a mom-and-pop flavor, with the culture generally reflecting the tastes and personalities of the individual owners. The reason is, firms that make up the plaintiff’s bar are, by and large, true entrepreneurs of the legal profession. While large firms tend to cultivate stable client bases built around old school ties, we consumer lawyers tend to focus our efforts on fixing problems that pop up in people’s lives to whatever extent the law, economics and the civil justice system will allow.

This fact of life is both the strength and the challenge of a plaintiff trial practice. The strength comes from our having to be a little smarter and a bit more creative than other lawyers who have the luxury of practicing the same type law over and over. After all, your suite buddy down the hall might get to focus each day on probate or contracts or even insurance defense. You, on the other hand, will be prosecuting sexual harassment on Monday, a truck accident on Tuesday, insurance bad faith on Wednesday, consumer fraud on Thursday and civil rights from Friday through Sunday. Then, come Monday, something else will come along.

It follows that to make it as a consumer lawyer at any level, you need to be tough, flexible and resilient. You also need to be a sharp business person. Not so much because money is a reward, but rather, because cash in the bank is fuel in the tank. Running a plaintiff’s practice can be an expensive proposition. Can’t get far without fuel.

How does this all add up to making partner? Or, perhaps, choosing one?

Well, if you step back for a minute, you’ll see that even though consumer firm structures vary, there are common principles that apply.

Adam Smith wrote:

The uniform, constant and uninterrupted effort of every man to better his condition, the principle from which public and national, as well as private opulence is originally derived, is frequently powerful enough to maintain the natural progress of things toward improvement, in spite both of the extravagance of government, and of the greatest errors of administration.

The Wealth of Nations, Book II Chapter III. I think what Mr. Smith was trying to say was, as people strive to better themselves and their communities, they ultimately succeed despite the hurdles a hostile government and its functionaries raise in their path. This should be encouraging to you as a consumer attorney in an age of tort reform. It also gives us some insight into just what licks it takes to be an owner in a consumer firm.

In my view, the successful plaintiff firm is populated with highly motivated attorneys, all determined not to be naturally selected out of their industry. What they share in common is a passion for the work and an idealism that keeps their hearts fresh in the face of great adversity.

Sound like you? Then God bless, and let these ten basic principles guide you on your path to success.

  1. Be a Believer.

It’s easy to zealously advocate for a client who pays your hourly billing regularly and at the highest rate the market will bear. Heck, if the money is coming in, it’s hard not to over-advocate.

Much more difficult is standing up for someone who might not be so sympathetic. Especially when they have a close call claim and you are financing the case on a contingent fee. Then, it’s a whole different game.

In my experience, the single most important difference between a great lawyer and a mediocre functionary is whether that attorney truly believes in the people and causes he or she represents. Truly, the ability to believe and act on that belief can make all the difference.

A few years back, I took on the case of a young woman who was developmentally challenged. Physically, she was in her early thirties. Mentally, though, she had the intellectual capacity of a third grade child. She was a sweet, kind child, struggling along in a cold, adult world.

Her mother kept this woman-child at home as long as she could. But the mother, who was poor and disabled, eventually had to hand her daughter over to the care of a facility specializing in serving the mentally challenged.

At first the woman-child did well. She was placed in a six-member group home where all of the residents were women. She was happy there.

But the home operator had a sixty bed facility they needed to fill for business reasons. So, off this woman-child went, to a new home.

The sixty bed facility was mixed gender with little supervision in the living quarters. One of the male residents, higher functioning at about an eighth grade level, zeroed in on this young lady who was new in town.

The mother was horrified when her daughter started telling her, in a child-like manner, about having a male visitor in her room. The mother complained frantically to the home operator. She had meetings, made telephone calls. The operator refused to take any action.

Eventually, a child was born. He was beautiful to look at, but suffered severe neurological maladies from a malformation of his brain. So, he was blind from birth, had a chronic seizure disorder and faced a number of other physical and mental challenges. The woman-child’s mother, now a grandmother, came to us for help. She knew her grandson needed special care. She didn’t have any money to help him.

We took the case in as a medical malpractice matter, but it quickly became apparent that wouldn’t pan out. The defense was arguing we had no case at all. They claimed, with good support in law, the woman-child was above the age of consent, had a right to sexual privacy and the group home had no right, let alone duty, to interfere. When I asked one of the other lawyers in my firm to sit in on some medical expert depositions, he came away saying that this wasn’t a case we should be spending our time or money on.

Only, I couldn’t let go so easily. I’m a parent myself and I kept asking, “What sort of people would leave an eight-year-old girl” — because mentally, that’s who this woman-child was — “in close contact with a sexually active teenager?” It didn’t seem right to me, no matter what the case law was saying. The grandmother believed what had happened to her daughter was wrong. I believed that, too.

So, we set aside the law as it applied in general and started documenting why the home operator was derelict in this one particular case.

Discovery uncovered documents confirming the grandmother’s complaints. That led to evidence that the home’s operator had moved the woman-child into the mixed gender facility to enhance their profits. This created an inference that they were deliberately providing inadequate supervision to enhance their bottom line.

We turned up a trail of regulatory citations where the facility had been criticized for not adequately administering medication to the residents, which supported the grandmother’s testimony that she had been promised if her daughter couldn’t be relocated, then the group home would have its doctor administer a contraceptive.

At the end, what had looked like a no liability case settled for $2 million, the total policy limits available. The grandmother was able to buy a home where the entire family could live in dignity. That’s where they all live today. All because we believed.

Now it is true there are impossible cases that cannot be won or maybe should not be won. I’m not talking about those.

Rather, to win the right to partner up with real plaintiff’s lawyers, you need to have a sense of the righteous, the possible and the real. With all that in mind, believing in your clients and your cases will put you a long ways ahead in reaching your ultimate goal.

Bill Daniels is a trial lawyer and shareholder with the law firm of DANIELS LAW in Sherman Oaks, CA.  A graduate of Loyola Law School of Los Angeles, he is a former member of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles Board of Governors, a founding member of Loyola’s Civil Justice Program and a past president of the Encino Lawyers Association.  Since 2007, he has been named a Southern California “Super Lawyer” by Los Angeles Magazine.  Mr. Daniels focuses his practice on serious personal injury, insurance and employment. For information, visit our website at www.daniels.legal or contact us through e-mail: Info@danielslaw.com.