After almost 40 years of practicing law, Palumbo Wolfe founding partner, Tony Palumbo, explains why he is still proud to defend the rights of injury victims.
STILL PROUD TO BE A PLAINTIFFS’ LAWYER… AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
What I am about to say will not necessarily be very profound. Nor will it be very creative. It won’t give you any insight into how to try a lawsuit better. My purpose here is different. It is prompted by the tort deformers who try to paint us as monsters. It is an unfortunate reality that this is all too prevalent a thought. Indeed, for me, someone who loves what he has done for 35 years and believes that our’s is truly a bona fide service to our clients, it is discouraging and depressing.
Have you ever sat at a dinner table with strangers, been asked about what kind of law you practice, and equivocated? Because you had been asked that question in the past only to encounter strained silence? Or the veiled contempt of "Oh, one of those." with a forced laugh to take away the sting? Well, if you are like me, the laugh doesn’t work. The sting still hurts and it doesn’t go away. And so, I often equivocate with my answer and say something like "Oh, I have a referral practice." or "I represent the little guys against the big guys." hoping to diffuse the subject.
I am not happy with myself for dodging the issue. At almost 64 years old and with almost 37 years of practice, I wish I had the fortitude to simply stare these people straight in the eye and challenge them with the truth. To remind them of the good that we do, the services we perform, and how we contribute to the benefit of our society each and every day that we go to work.
And that’s what I’m here to do today. To give you all a pep talk.To encourage you to respond to those negative social slights by continuing to hold your heads up high and by refusing to apologize for what you do. I am here to tell you why, after 35 years, I’m still proud to be a plaintiffs’ attorney and why you should be, too.
I would like to begin with some quotes that I found when I went looking for favorable comments about lawyers and what they do. (If you have a fragile ego and a tenuous concept of your work as an attorney, I urge you not to repeat that task. Most of the available quotes are far from flattering). But, some favorable comments do exist and some of them are worth repeating here.
True, we build no bridges. We raise no towers. We construct no engines. We paint no pictures - unless as amateurs for our own principal amusement. There is little of all that we do which the eye of man can see. But we smooth out difficulties; we relieve stress; we correct mistakes; we take up other men's burdens and by our efforts we make possible the peaceful life of men in a peaceful state. John W. Davis
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all. Aristotle
I don’t know who John Davis is but he is in pretty good company with the other two fellows. And if, for starters, we just contemplate what they have to say, we will come away with the notion that lawyers do good, especially when they protect the little guy and the victims, which is exactly what we do.
We plaintiffs’ lawyers, we are the easy targets of the Chamber of Commerce, the AMA and the insurance industry (those paragons of virtue, those who worship at the alter of the almighty bottom line, at the expense of quality, safety and human rights). Despite all the propaganda that they spew, and the public misinformation that they purvey, I am here to say to you, stand up and be proud of what you do! Why? Because, united in pursuit of the rights of victims, we preserve justice and hope for those who cannot fight alone. Through the Rule of Law, that magnificent concept that guarantees equality for the downtrodden as well as the elite, we can vindicate grievances against corporate monoliths which exploit unwary consumers who otherwise would have nowhere to turn.
How do we do this?
Let me remind you of the little ways that we stand up for victims on a daily basis, even when we are not necessarily engaging in the "litigation lottery" or "jackpot justice" as our "friend," Senator John Kyl, so often accuses us of doing.
At least we speak with these people, these little guys, who couldn’t come within ten miles of a commercial, transactional, insurance defense law firm. We give them a voice to speak and an ear to listen. They are not ignored. They are treated with respect . . . even if ultimately there is no recourse. We provide empathy, sensitivity and compassion.
Not every case has merit. But that does not mean clients can’t get closure. We can provide answers for them that allow them to move on. It is amazing how even this moneyless resolution goes so far in their efforts to reconcile their losses. And how often do we do this without any remuneration to ourselves? Do we get any credit for this? Of course not. We don’t even ask for it. It is just one of those things that we do and why we should be proud of ourselves for doing it.
- Initial Interview
- The Turndown
- Watchdog Activities
Have you ever thought about how our ability to do what we do keeps the other side honest? How we are able to mitigate the propensity for corporate greed? The examples are myriad whether it be through product safety, pursuit of consumer fraud or the protection of vulnerable adults. Despite all the political rhetoric, we don’t cause defensive medicine, we actually improve the quality of care provided. We force our opponents to think twice. We hold them accountable. They look over their shoulder because they know we are there. We are a threat. Is that why they hate us? Probably so. But everything else is incidental. The Rule of Law properly applied gives us the power to hold defendants responsible. How great is that?
D. We Provide Justice
Let me emphasize right here, THE MONEY IS INCIDENTAL! Most, if not all of us, do not do this for the money. Nor is that our client’s primary motivation. Money is just a symbol. It is what the money represents that is important. Simply stated, WE RIGHT WRONGS! We give the little guy a forum. We allow them to feel empowered, less the victim than they already are. We achieve for them vindication and retribution; the recognition of a wrong committed; an acknowledgment of responsibility on the part of the adversary and an acceptance of accountability.
This is what our clients really need, what makes it right for them and better. That, and the hope that future such occurrences can be prevented. How? By our "watchdog activities". Our clients know, intuitively, that their pursuit of justice will teach their adversaries to be more careful, more responsible and more vigilant so that there will be fewer such victims in the future. That, ultimately, is their hope and the goals that they espouse from the first time they set foot in our offices.
The Benefits Outweigh The Burdens
The forgoing are noble concepts, for sure. Utopian? We hope not. But, make no mistake about it, all of this is not easy. There are many risks and the representation of victims and the little guys is not always safe.
If you want that, then go bill hours someplace. But, I warn you, I tried that once and it was awful. It was the least gratifying time of my career. I had no goals. I wasn’t inspired. There was no passion and there was no motivation to live my cases. Which is to say . . . I did not embrace my clients, their quest for justice and their search for vindication.
That is so great about what we do. How many times have you stepped back and said to yourself "I did good for them," and felt proud about it. I hope many times both your sake and your clients. Knowing that you made a difference makes it all worth it . . . the anxiety, the fear and the fatigue; the tremendous investment of blood, sweat and tears; heart and soul. If you have never experienced that, then you have not given enough of yourself to your clients. However, I suspect that there are few, if any of you, who have never felt the exhilaration of knowing that you have made a difference because that is who we are… Champions of the downtrodden.
The Greedy Plaintiff’s Lawyer Is A Myth
Those who don’t know, experience or feel what we do, think we just clip coupons . . . the magic 1/3. I cannot tell you the last time I or anyone from my firm took a full fee. That is not to suggest that you should not, assuming it is a fair fee consistent with ethical constraints. You have earned it. You took the risk, invested your time, effort and expense. You either put up or shut up. You won or lost. There were no hourly guarantees.
But, there will always be envy from the other side. The veiled, sardonic remarks such as "It must be nice"; "How’s moneybags?"; "Your tax man must be happy". This is precisely the same kind of attitude which prompts the type of reaction that I described at the outset of my remarks. Those that accompany the questions at the dinner table, "What type of law do you actually practice?" They are ignorant. They have no clue of what you do and how hard you work to do it. And, most importantly, all the good you accomplish.
Their ignorance and/or jealously is no cause for shame. If you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and you can honestly tell yourself that you have been fair to your client then you have earned your fee, whether it is a full fee or a reduced fee. Be satisfied in that realization and move forward.
Some Recent Bursts Of Pride
Let me share with you a couple recent events which have validated the concepts we have been discussing; examples which are graphic reminders that we can make a difference and provide help for those who need it.
- Just the other day, I was contacted by a 14-year old high school freshman whom I represented as an infant when he had his left leg amputated because of a medical mishap. We obtained a very substantial settlement for him which has enabled him, amongst other things, to obtain the most sophisticated, high-tech prostheses available. He called because he wanted to invite me to his first high school track meet using his artificial limb.
And, probably more support from my young track star, was the middle-aged Hispanic construction worker who came into my office recently fearful, timid, and unsophisticated. He had been horribly injured in a surgical burn case. He was in constant pain, drugged into a stupor, unable to support his family. Essentially emasculated, based on his culture and responsibilities. We discussed his case, reviewed the medical records he brought with him, and after a couple of hours, told him that we would investigate it further. He was so grateful. He shook my hand, and with tears in his eyes, he said "gracias, seň
or, gracias". In his own humble way, we gave him hope.
You don’t do that just for the money. You don’t do that because you are a greedy trial lawyer. You do it because, in your heart of hearts, you know you have something to contribute.
Others’ Thoughts Re Pride
Realizing that I clearly did not have a monopoly on the topic, I thought it would be interesting to ask several of our colleagues to share their thoughts on why they are proud to be a plaintiffs’ lawyer, Some of these thoughts are reflected below. On reading/hearing them, there was, perhaps not surprisingly, a remarkable unanimity and consensus. When you think about it, it is probably because most of us are cut from essentially the same cloth. We wear the white hat for a reason, and those reasons permeate everything we do as a group. Here is what our colleagues had to say:
- Because we care.
- I am proud because I am gifted with a privilege of helping those truly in need.
- To be on the team of the little guys. I like those odds.
- The battlefield is level in the courtroom and under the law. With persistence, a willingness to work hard and creativity, justice can be achieved.
- I am proud to be able to help the powerless against the powerful.
- How can you not be proud making a significant difference in the lives of those who need it.
- It is important to our society that a vulnerable, sick, grieving person who has no money can come to one of us and we will help them hold doctors/insurance companies/big business accountable. We establish, maintain and improve safety standards that protect the people. That is what keeps me going when I question this insane job!
- I am using my God-given talents to be the "Someone" our clients truly need and deserve. We take the public opinion beatings and we do not quit. If we do, then countless people will be left without answers, without hope and without someone to stand up for them.
Ultimately, the difference between a trial lawyer and a sociopath may come down to compassion. That may seem like small praise, but it is a critical distinction. What redeems the trial lawyer is that as messed up, insecure and driven as we might be individually, we put our wounded psyches on the line for the service of others. G.K. Chesterton once said that "The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." To me, that is a description of what trial lawyers do. We care about our clients, even when we don’t want to. We refuse to let the bullies win. We act brave when we are not. We gamble resources (personal and financial) that we can ill afford to lose. We keep getting up to go another round. We do the right thing when it hurts. In our work as a profession, we are honest, charitable, compassionate, committed and courageous. I love and admire trial lawyers and the work they do. We may be screwed up, but we are magnificently screwed up. That’s why I am proud to be one.
And so, that is my pep talk. Was it necessary? I don’t know. But, in my experience, it never hurts to be appreciated. It is always nice to be reminded that you do good things and that you make a difference. On my own behalf, these comments constitute a sincere, passionate reflection on 35 years of representing victims; of standing up for the little guy; of giving them hope, listening to their pleas and making a difference in some small way.
We do good things. Don’t ever forget it. Now go out and keep it up.
Thanks for listening.