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 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.
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.