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’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.