REMEMBER THE SPARTANS: Why you should consider becoming a plaintiff’s lawyer by Ram Fletcher
Since graduating from law school in 2005, I have spent most of my professional career representing people damaged as a result of the negligence or unlawful conduct of others. In virtually every case I handle, I am faced with the task of seeking justice for my client against people and businesses that have more lawyers, more money and more political influence than either myself or my client. As a result, sometimes I imagine that the relatively few but fierce plaintiff’s attorneys are like the famous Spartan warriors from ancient Greece depicted in the 2007 movie 300; we willingly fight for clients and causes against adversaries of seemingly insurmountable wealth and might. Fortunately, unlike the Spartans portrayed in the film, plaintiff’s lawyers are often victorious.
In my experience, most people go to law school hoping that one day—preferably sooner than later—they will get a job working with a large firm, make lots of money and represent the interests of powerful companies or government agencies. This is particularly true of individuals who aspire to be litigators. And why not? We like to win and the sad but often true reality is that the outcomes of disputes are driven as much (if not more) by money and resources than by fairness and justice. So it stands to reason that when considering a career path, many prospective litigators choose to offer their talents to large, influential defense firms. You know the old saying, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
So why would anyone want to be a plaintiff’s trial lawyer? Let me suggest a few reasons a new lawyer should consider becoming a plaintiff’s lawyer that go beyond the romantic and commonly cited—though true—notions that we “serve the people,” “protect the community,” and “hold wrongdoers accountable.”
1. You get to be a lawyer
Because plaintiff’s attorneys typically work in smaller firms that are less hierarchical, new lawyers actually get to practice law. In fact, the expectation at most plaintiff’s firms is that new attorneys will interact with clients, take depositions, negotiate settlements, argue motions and even try cases. The smaller the firm—and certainly if you work for yourself—the better chance you will have to develop the professional skills necessary to become a skilled litigator. Additionally, in a smaller firm you often will have a closer relationship with the attorneys in the office, offering more meaningful opportunities for mentorship. In short, I have found doing plaintiff’s work accelerates the learning curve every new attorney goes through, making you more capable, accomplished and marketable than attorneys of similar vintage.
This is in stark contrast to what most associates do at large firms where they are often relegated to tedious document review projects, drafting memos for more senior attorneys, crafting written discovery responses and perhaps occasionally observing depositions, mediations and trials. Essentially, after all the work they do to become lawyers, they end up being highly paid research clerks. It is quite rare when new attorneys at large firms get meaningful client contact, trial experience or exercise any decision making authority over how a case is handled. It always amazes me when I interact with attorneys who have been practicing for a few years at big firms who, though quite intelligent, have not developed the abilities necessary to be good lawyers.
2. No billing requirement
Doing plaintiff’s work allows you to avoid the billable hour requirement most firms impose on their associates. In the plaintiff attorney’s world, it’s all about achieving optimal results in the most efficient way possible. There is no incentive to “bill the file” just to meet some arbitrary requirement intended to increase firm profits. In many instances the billable hour requirement is nothing more than a “pyramid scheme” where associates work tirelessly to generate huge payouts to partners. While you might earn a $150,000 salary in the process, when you consider that your billable hour requirement may generate over $750,000 in attorney fees, the tradeoff doesn’t seem as attractive. Moreover, as we have recently seen, firms that employ this model are starting to collapse under their own weight with savvy clients refusing to participate in the billable hour game. This has contributed to mass layoffs, stagnant hiring, and numerous large firm closures.
3. Every case matters
One thing you can be sure of when representing plaintiffs is that every case matters a great deal to the client, and therefore should mean a lot to you. In contrast to attorneys who represent insurance companies that view litigation as just part of the cost of doing business, plaintiff’s attorneys deal with people in crisis who may be interacting with the legal system for the only time in their life. There is great professional satisfaction in avoiding the banality that some defense attorneys experience in their practice when, instead of representing real people with unique claims, they are compelled to regurgitate defenses in support of a client for whom the case is one of thousands just like it.
4. You don’t need to wait for a job
A wonderful aspect of doing plaintiff’s work is that you don’t need a job; all you need is a client. Particularly in today’s uncertain legal market, there is no assurance that you will be offered work after you graduate and pass the bar. Instead of waiting around for a job to materialize, you can start helping plaintiff’s pursue claims large and small as soon as you have your license. If you have a sizeable case that may be too complex for your current experience level, or you cannot afford to take the case on a contingency fee basis, consider finding a more experience attorney who can work on the case with you and help advance case costs in exchange for a percentage of the recovery. You went to law school and passed the bar to be a lawyer, so go do it!
5. Good sleep
Okay, maybe I’m stretching here on the good sleep part, since engaging in high-stakes litigation—usually on a contingency fee—doesn’t always lend itself to great sleep. What I really mean here is that as plaintiff’s lawyers, since we generally choose our cases, we are able to serve causes that are in accord with our conscience. We aren’t forced to compromise our values or our decency to defend people or companies in cases where they engaged in unsafe or illegal conduct causing harm to others. This is certainly not to say that all defense attorneys are immoral or lack conscience. It is simply to point out that when plaintiff’s lawyers go to bed each night, they can rest well knowing that they can zealously advocate their client’s interests without checking their morals at front door of the firm.
Unfortunately, throughout the country legal rights protecting consumers and those injured by the wrongdoing of others are under attack. We need more outstanding plaintiff’s lawyers not simply to withstand ongoing tort reform efforts, but to provide all people with access to excellent legal representation. To be sure, being a plaintiff’s lawyer is not for everyone; it takes passion, creativity, courage and resilience. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, historically it has been the great plaintiff’s and criminal defense attorneys (also Spartans in my view) who are honored as being the finest examples of our profession. So if you think you have what it takes, when deciding which side you will fight for in the ongoing battle for a more just society, I encourage you to remember the Spartans!
Ram Fletcher is a partner at Bohn & Fletcher, LLP in San Jose representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases (www.bohnlaw.com). He graduated from Santa Clara University’s School of Law in 2005 and has recovered millions of dollars in damages for his clients. Ram is a past President of the Santa Clara County Trial Lawyers Association (SCCTLA) and currently serves on the SCCTLA Board of Governors as well as the Board of Trustees for the Santa Clara County Bar Association. In 2013 Ram was recognized as a “Northern California Rising Star” by Super Lawyers, a distinction achieved by less than three percent of eligible attorneys.