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 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.
Sokolove has since also discovered that his most successful ads are the most formulaic. Unadorned with fancy graphics, they speak to very specific audiences (patients who once took a drug the FDA has pulled off the market is a big one). These ads always display his toll-free phone number and website address for the duration of the segment, to allow plenty of time to write it down. Sokolove—wearing his lawyerly suit—speaks directly to the camera, in a style he describes as “serious but not stern.” He knows from his research that most people think hiring a lawyer means paying up front, so he always explains that it costs nothing to talk to him. He never brings up any of his affiliates, because that only confuses viewers. And he always, always mentions the potential rewards. The message behind his ads, he says, is simple: Injured? Free money.
Sokolove is equally direct when people attack that approach. Even in the halls of academia he’s unapologetic. During a recent talk at Suffolk Law, a student spoke up to challenge Sokolove’s explanation that it wouldn’t be cost-effective for him to pursue a malpractice suit he couldn’t win or settle for at least a million dollars. “I’m proud of my values, I give a lot to charity,” Sokolove said, “but I’m not in the religion business.”
“You just called helping your fellow man ‘the religion business,'” the student pointed out.
“Do you see a problem with that?” Sokolove shot back. “You can’t help anybody if you go bankrupt.”
Sokolove’s own family has gotten used to people thinking of him as a heartless ambulance chaser. “We all understand why he’s made fun of,” says his wife, Stephanie, who operates the popular eatery Stephanie’s on Newbury. “What you don’t get from TV is how gentle Jim is. On a personal level he would just as soon get along and work things out. The biggest misconception about Jim is that he’s a scumbag.”
The couple first met in 1996, at the wedding of a mutual friend. Stephanie remembers thinking, “Oh, here’s that guy I’ve been seeing on television for 20 years.” Not five minutes into the reception, Sokolove sidled up to her. “I think I’m falling in love with you,” he said. “Do you want to have a baby with me?” After that opening line, Sokolove didn’t speak to her for eight months. Then: “He came by the restaurant one day and put his arm around me and said, ‘How have you been?'”
Stephanie entered Sokolove’s life during a difficult stretch for him. He had recently divorced from his second wife, and, at 53, had been slowly edging his way out of his business, contemplating retirement. He was in the process of dropping down from 65 employees to just seven. Before they married in early 1997, Sokolove told Stephanie he wasn’t sure where his career was headed. “Look,” he said, “I got a couple bucks, but I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
By the end of the year, Stephanie had given birth to a daughter. It wasn’t long, though, before Sokolove realized that his quasi-retirement wasn’t going to take. He began consulting for firms that wanted to follow his lead. And as he saw other lawyers succeeding with his playbook, he began to wonder if his regional firm, for all its success, had accomplished everything it could have.
Beginning in 1999, Sokolove started to rebuild. This time he wouldn’t keep any cases for his own firm; he’d refer them all out. By 2003 he had nearly quadrupled his number of affiliates, from 14 to 50. Five years later, he has 400 relationships set up in all 50 states. And he’s not stopping there. Convinced he’s the vanguard of another change in the legal business, Sokolove is rolling out a marketing effort next month that seeks to add another 200 affiliates to his network. “It’s all about national branding,” Sokolove says. “If you’re a Realtor, you can’t exist unless you become part of a system. That’s the same thing that is going to take place in legal services—consumers want to have trust in a name.”
Until 2000, Sokolove had advertised only in New England, but to feed all his new and far-flung affiliates, he needed national advertising. As before, the vagaries of legal culture conspired to complicate matters. No other personal-injury firm had ever tried advertising nationwide, since the rules for what bar associations allow differ from state to state. In Iowa, for instance, a member of the firm being advertised cannot appear in the spot, while in Florida, a member of the firm must appear in it. To get around all that, Sokolove’s commercials now feature only the name of the firm in block text, the phone number, and an actor’s voice-over. The face that launched a million lawsuits is gone, but his name is everywhere.