He’s Attorney James Sokolove
And those cheesy ads of his? They’ve done more than make him a pariah and a punch line. They’ve also created an under-the-radar empire that’s about to reinvent the business of ambulance chasing yet again.
At a typical personal-injury firm, potential clients call with a legal issue and are passed along to a paralegal or a lawyer who determines whether a case can be made on their behalf. Sorting through prospects represents the lion’s share of its attorneys’ work. To find a single malpractice case, a firm might first have to wade through interviews with 125 callers.
The problem with that system, as Sokolove has always seen it, is that it’s inefficient. Plenty of people who need help get turned away from firms that don’t really have the expertise to handle their cases. “If you advertise for personal injury and you get a call for med mal, you have to have somebody to handle the stuff,” Sokolove says. “Waste can kill you.” Meanwhile, lawyers lose time speaking to potential claimants who don’t end up bringing in winnable suits. Sokolove solves all that by matching clients with specialized lawyers who belong to his network of 400 affiliated law firms. Together, they can represent clients in more than 130 types of cases.
Sokolove’s father, Morris, was also a personal-injury lawyer. Sokolove originally wandered into his dad’s line of work without any intention of revolutionizing it. His parents were the children of Russian immigrants who earned a level of status in their tight-knit Jewish community in Revere. Morris was active in the school district’s PTA and a founding member of Temple B’nai Israel. The family was so proud of their ties to the neighborhood of shop owners and community leaders that, even 50 years on, Sokolove can still recite the names of every family on his old street.
Morris Sokolove, who ran his own firm with his nephew, had a knack for putting clients at ease. With his dark-framed glasses and formal dress (“I never saw him in anything but a jacket and a tie, really,” Sokolove says), he projected an air of calm and competence. Morris would often bring his son as he visited clients in their homes, where the lawyer would listen attentively to their stories of work injuries and car accidents. Sometimes James would tag along to the office on weekends, sit at a desk, and organize checks, as if preparing for his future. “Jim was utterly devoted to his father,” says Sokolove’s cousin, Joyce Wiseman.
At home, though, Sokolove’s father didn’t exactly know how to talk to his son. Morris worked long hours, and Sokolove’s mother, Rose, struggled with depression. When Sokolove was 14, his parents sent him to boarding school at Lawrence Academy. He had trouble fitting in and was dogged by insecurity. “I really couldn’t figure out where I belonged—I had one girlfriend—I felt isolated,” he says. “My life didn’t work for me.”
Later, while Sokolove was attending Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, his father encouraged him to join a fraternity—he’d make some friends, he explained, and would later be able to call on those connections. Sokolove ignored the advice. Without much of a plan for what to do after graduation, he enrolled at Suffolk Law School in 1966 and afterward spent two years working for community agencies and as a legal aid lawyer in Chelsea. He had no intention of joining the family firm. But in 1971 his father, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, pulled him aside and asked him to take his place. If for nothing other than fealty, Sokolove complied.
Over the next decade, Sokolove handled a few hundred divorces, maybe 500 accident cases. Not much of a joiner, he didn’t connect with people the same way his dad did. Even after the family firm merged with a larger one, Sokolove never truly threw himself into the work, and the firm suffered for it. In 1978, its last year in business, Sokolove racked up $120,000 worth of expenses for supplies and staff while bringing in only $100,000 in legal fees. He was underwater. When the lawyers ultimately split up, Sokolove says, “everyone went their separate ways, and no one really wanted me to go with them.” As the other partners were emptying out the office, selling the furniture and accoutrements to each other, Sokolove’s family had to convince him to buy his father’s old law books. He had no immediate plan to put them to use.
Sokolove knew that if he were ever going to make it in the legal world, he needed a way to reach potential clients that didn’t depend on the old methods of court-corridor handshakes and chamber of commerce luncheons that felt so unnatural to him.
The legal landscape was fundamentally changing, and those changes gave Sokolove an idea. He had read with interest a 1977 Supreme Court decision that allowed lawyers to advertise, a practice previously banned by state bar associations, which argued it would tarnish the field’s reputation. Only bad lawyers would even bother, they said; good ones got all the work they needed through word-of-mouth recommendations. But the court found that the public’s need for information outweighed lawyers’ self-interest. “Early lawyers in Great Britain viewed the law as a form of public service, rather than as a means of earning a living, and they looked down on ‘trade’ as unseemly,” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in the majority opinion. “The belief that lawyers are somehow above ‘trade’ is an anachronism.” Striking down the ban as unconstitutional, the justices left bar associations to judge what kind of advertising was acceptable in their state.
The Supreme Court’s decision had done nothing to change the way the Boston legal community looked down on self-promotion. To the high-minded downtown firms, even an entry in the Yellow Pages remained unseemly. Still, Sokolove was intrigued by the possibilities. He set out on a cross-country tour of firms that had started experimenting with advertising. In Phoenix he stopped by the offices of Bates & O’Steen, the firm that had gone to the Supreme Court to win the right to run its newspaper ads; in Los Angeles he visited Jacoby & Meyers, which had just run the nation’s first televised law-firm ad to drum up business for a practice that handled divorces and wills for flat rates. Sokolove had considered running a flat-rate business himself, but saw more potential elsewhere. “I said, Why don’t I try the highest-markup items,” he says, “which are personal injury.” (In such cases, lawyers traditionally take one-third of a plaintiff’s settlement or jury award.)
Unable to afford a space of his own, Sokolove rented a corner in the One Boston Place office of Bob Bonin. A former chief justice on the state superior court who was now in private practice, Bonin had been run off the bench the year before by a group of vocal critics. With Bonin’s reputation having already taken a hit, Sokolove realized the attention generated by the gambit he was about to launch wasn’t going to help. “What I’m going to be doing is not white-shoe, lily white,” he felt compelled to tell his officemate, who for his part was curious to see whether Sokolove could pursue his plan without being driven out of town.