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.

Sokolove started advertising quietly, placing a small ad deep inside the TV circular of the Boston Globe, alongside listings for The Jeffersons and a new program called Dynasty. The calls that began trickling in were just enough to keep Sokolove afloat. He was able to hire Doug Melzard, an insurance industry vet whom he put in charge of running the office. Melzard’s salary was larger than what Sokolove was drawing, so the newcomer didn’t mind paying for dinner when his boss’s credit card would get declined. After two years, Sokolove knew he needed to reach more people. He needed to be on television.

Sokolove got his hands on the advertisements that firms in other parts of the country had aired, and he studied them closely. “When he first walked into the office, we were shocked,” says John Furst, whose Newbury Street–based Videocraft Productions filmed Sokolove’s first ad in 1981. “He came in with a reel of lawyer commercials. Some of them may have even come from Europe. He was insanely, wonderfully careful to do everything the right way.” Sokolove convened a focus group to review his test spots, to check that they worked as intended. He also hired a respected Suffolk Law professor named Barry Brown, who taught courses on professional responsibility and had previously worked for the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers. Brown’s job was to help make sure the ad wouldn’t get Sokolove shut down.

james sokolove

Sokolove in four of the roughly 200 commercials he’s produced over the past 26 years. (photographs courtesy of omega)

Sokolove’s debut ad, which began airing on Boston stations in early 1982, opens with the squeal of brakes and a slow-motion car crash. Because suitable stock footage was not yet widely available, the stunt was staged on a quiet road in Weston. Sokolove had originally hoped the actor Raymond Burr would star, to lend his Perry Mason credibility, but the bar association told Brown that the use of an actor would cross an ethical line. So Sokolove cast himself. At the 11-second mark, he walks onscreen wearing a suit; as he knew from his father, that’s how people expect lawyers to look. Laying down what would become hallmarks of future ad campaigns, he tells viewers they are entitled to money if they’ve been injured and urges them to pick up the phone without delay. “What you need is immediate legal advice,” he says. “If you are injured in an accident, call us immediately.”

Sokolove didn’t keep a television in the office, but his secretary, Florence Nicholson, always knew when the ad ran: The phones would start ringing. Nicholson, Melzard, Sokolove, and his sister-in-law, who also worked for the fledgling venture, would quickly take people’s names and numbers and go on to the next one, returning the calls after the rush subsided.

Through television, Sokolove was able to do what he couldn’t before. If he didn’t share his father’s knack for connecting to clients in their living rooms, a commercial running there could at least simulate the same effect. Better yet, if Sokolove didn’t get it right on the first take, he could try it again and again until he did.

Of course, Sokolove also got the criticism he expected. Early in his first TV campaign, a Globe story quoted some attorneys then considered the deans of personal-injury law in Boston. One of them, a prolific litigator named J. Newton Esdaile, said advertising was “degrading and avoided by better members of the bar.” Esdaile’s rebuke stung. “That guy was the best,” Sokolove remembers. “I thought, Maybe I’m doing something wrong.”

But not so much that he decided to turn back. Within his first couple of years advertising, Sokolove was fielding hundreds of calls a week. “I was like a kid going to a casino—I kept winning,” he says. He soon realized that the work was getting to be more than he could handle. Before long, there was too much work even for the other attorneys he had hired. “When you advertise that you have widgets, you better have widgets to sell,” says Melzard. Sokolove decided he’d start referring the bulk of his cases to other firms, collecting 10 percent of all fees in return. (As a quality-control measure, he would also track every case to make sure clients were well served.)

It was a bold idea at a time when such a business model was allowed in only two other states (Texas and California). Though the arrangement broke with tradition, many affiliates noticed they could get the business boost Sokolove promised, with none of the risk of looking uncouth by advertising themselves. Even as he remained a pariah in some quarters, plenty of lawyers started seeking his help. “These weren’t fly-by-night guys,” Melzard says. “They were big, staid, New England firms who wanted in on what he was doing but didn’t have the balls—pardon my French—to go out and put their faces on television.” Tom Mysliwicz, who led Sokolove’s in-house legal team, then a half-dozen lawyers strong, says Sokolove confounded his critics with the results he was getting. “No one missed the fact that what he was doing worked. They hated him, but they would be happy to be in his affiliate network.”

By 1988 Sokolove and those affiliates were billing $16 million a year, and he was personally pulling down a salary in the high six figures. As Melzard puts it, “He was a marketing guy in a lawyer’s uniform.”

Not long after his ads began turning heads, Sokolove recalls, he got a call from the office of Jim Esdaile, the son and partner of the lawyer who had criticized him in the Globe. Esdaile and a colleague met Sokolove at the Algonquin Club for dinner. While Esdaile now says it was only an informal sit-down, it seemed to Sokolove that they were hoping to do business with him. Sokolove—who smiles as he recounts the story—told the distinguished lawyers that wouldn’t work out.


Sokolove estimates he’s appeared in some 200 different versions of his commercials over the years. A film scholar surveying his body of work might note that the production values have come down since he went to the trouble of staging car crashes. “At some point he decided the time and effort that went into them just wasn’t worth it,” Mysliwicz says. (“Why would I spend $35,000 on an ad,” Sokolove says, “when a $1,500 one works just as well?”)

That realization was a while in coming. In the 1980s Sokolove tried filming intricate testimonials. One such spot featured a young actress in soft focus talking about a doctor’s failure to diagnose her cancer and included a clip of Sokolove inviting viewers to call for an educational pamphlet. Sokolove was pleased with the result. “I was pitching information; it wasn’t about revenge,” he says. Yet the message that seemed to reach viewers was that lawsuits are complicated, and sorting things out can be tricky, and therefore probably not worth the trouble. The people watching him on television, he came to understand, don’t want a discussion. They just want to know what a lawyer can do for them.


  • Ben

    I have been waiting for this article ever since I got cable in 1990! Fantastic story. It would be nice to see more feature stories like this that don't revolve entirely around keeping up with the Joneses and conspicuous consumption, right?

  • joe
  • omayra

    hello i would like to know if i would be able to recieve workers comp. due to an accident at work. I had gotten injured and my employer refuses to give me money although i had gotten hurt at work and am not able to return to work till my doctor says taht its ok. can james k. sokolove help me?

  • Robin

    I read the article in the Boston Magazine moths ago. My sisters and I are concerned for my dad who is in Boston Medical now going on 7 mo 7-31-09. This is unhear of. Hes 79 originally started with colon cancer 1st surgery to remove then 2 others because of leakage from punctured blatter and kidney, another gallblatter surgery and plastic surgery to close the wound that punctured something. stints put in and taken out. Hes YELLOW, fever and has infection from open wound thats only special nurses can change. Please advise. My dad is affraid to say anything. He wants to get back together. No one else would take this case, its contaminiated.

  • jb

    Sadly, Mr. Sokolove’s misguided ability to convince himself that he is, in some way, doing good in the world has only let to the propagation of his destructive enterprise from within New England to the rest of the country. Though clearly focusing on the quite interesting evolution of this evil empire, I thank Boston Magazine for at least showcasing at least some of Mr. Sokolove’s shameless self promotion and lust for financial gain (at any cost.) Be ashamed Jim Sokolove. I can assure you, your influence on the health care system has killed many more than you have saved…

  • Salvador Angel


  • lynne

    Is Jim still doing coke? Does he have any $ left. He is the worst human being.

  • http://www.facebook.com/richard.slaven.16 Richard Slaven

    After reading this article I think Sokolove’s firm is one of the best firm. Now as a professional member of http://lawyerredmondattorney.com/ I want to discuss here about personal injury law. I know that many people have no idea about this and they are not getting enough compensation. Remember one-thing only a good lawyer can help an injured person to get enough compensation.

  • Jerry C. Allen

    My wife borrowed our uncle car with permission and was in an accident. we seattle the amount but they are greedy to ask more money. how to handle this case

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