He's Attorney James Sokolove

By Francis Storrs | Boston Magazine |

If the average American were to classify members of the legal profession the way biologists have constructed a taxonomy of the animal kingdom, the proud white-shoe counsel would be an eagle; the slick entertainment lawyer, a shark. The personal-injury attorney—way at the bottom of the chart—would be some sort of primordial ooze. He is the much-derided ambulance chaser whose frivolous lawsuits drive doctors from their calling, the slip-and-fall trial lawyer to blame for out-of-control insurance premiums. He is the reason takeout coffee cups come with warning labels.

And among personal-injury lawyers, nobody ranks higher than Newton’s Jim Sokolove. Or maybe it’s lower. Either way, his is a singular perch in a field where a premium is placed on staid respectability and status has long been earned by the dignified dispensing of professional counsel. Cutting against his industry’s mahogany grain, Sokolove has refined the chore of landing clients into a science, which he practices with the kind of marketing most of his peers regard as tacky, if not altogether abhorrent. No lawyer in the country advertises more—or spends more doing it. In 2007 he paid over $20 million to promote his firm, twice as much as the next-biggest spender. Across the United States, on the radio and on cable networks like Lifetime, a Sokolove spot runs roughly every eight seconds. Which is another way of saying that, somewhere, a Sokolove ad is always running.

All the airtime has made Sokolove into a celebrity and a punch line. Generations of New Englanders can quote his tag lines from memory ("I’m Jim Sokolove. I fix problems"; "I’ll get you the money you deserve"). People say that Sokolove will represent a client for just about anything—in one of the many YouTube spoofs of his ads, a client wants to sue because his carnival bumper car got bumped. It sounds ridiculous, but then Sokolove does have a section on his website labeled "amusement park accidents."

Sokolove’s firm is currently keeping tabs on some 10,000 open cases. Approximately 300,000 calls and e-mails come into his office each year, more than at any other firm. On behalf of his clients, Sokolove has won more than $2 billion in damages or settlements, while he and lawyers working with him have pocketed some $500 million for their trouble. The amount of money he’s delivered is so large that Sokolove figures publicizing it might scare away the clientele that sees him on daytime TV—they’d think he’s out of their league—so in an apparent stab at modesty, his marketing material lists his winnings simply as "more than $1 billion."

Despite his prodigious success and his omnipresent image as a bulldog attorney, Sokolove hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom in nearly three decades. Truth be told, he’s argued only one case before a jury; it was back in the early 1970s, and he lost. It wasn’t tenacious lawyering that allowed Sokolove to build a legal empire, but rather his prowess as a businessman and an innovator. He and his staff of 80 don’t try cases; instead they connect prospective clients to other lawyers, who pay Sokolove a cut of their fees for ginning up business. As the American Bar Association Journal once described it, Sokolove is America’s "middleman of lawsuits"—a distinction that hasn’t made him particularly popular.

Lawyers say it’s easy to make fun of them until you need one, but even visitors to legalveterans.com, one of the hundreds of Internet domains that Sokolove maintains, are inclined to regard Sokolove in an uncharitable light. Asked in a recent poll hosted there how they would categorize Sokolove, only 6 percent of respondents chose "attorney who is focused on helping people." Most people—about a third—went with "ambulance chaser." But Sokolove regards his image with a measure of pride. When he’s insulted for the volume and types of cases he handles, when he’s called an ambulance chaser, Sokolove has a ready response: "Yeah, the best you’ve ever seen."

The law offices of James Sokolove, on Centre Street in Newton, don’t look much like a law office at all. There’s no sign on the outside of the stucco building it shares with a business that gets people out of IRS trouble and an outpost of the Fuller Brush Company, which peddles cleaning supplies to door-to-door salesmen. Inside, Sokolove has no reception desk, none of the shelves stacked high with the volumes of case law that occasionally appear in his commercials, just two floors packed tight with cubicles. Painted on the wall is the firm’s utilitarian tag line, "We fix problems."

Most mornings, Sokolove arrives around 9:30. He works less than a half a mile from his home, a mansion on Crystal Lake. There, he maintains a more lawyerly office—big desk, framed commendations, requisite picture of himself with President Bill Clinton—that he barely ever uses. At age 64, Sokolove has a retired boxer’s slumped shoulders and a newscaster’s head of hair. He wears khakis and brightly colored dress shirts left open at the collar; just about the only time he dons a suit these days is when he’s filming a commercial. Meeting a practicing attorney in Sokolove’s office is so rare an event (there are only three) that it practically demands comment. "She’s a real lawyer" is how he introduces one.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wherever he goes these days, Sokolove carries two battered folders in his leather shoulder bag. The first folder is for business, the second for everything else. Filed in the latter is a one-page list of goals, typed as dutifully as a high school book report. He prepared it for a life coach he recently hired to help organize his priorities. ("I sort of went through a thing when I turned 64," Sokolove says.)

Turning his mind once again toward retirement, Sokolove has cut back his hours in the office by two-thirds, freeing up his schedule for some more-satisfying pursuits, including spending more time with his 11-year-old daughter and his wife, who in March will open her second restaurant, on Tremont Street in the South End. He’s also working with Stanford Law School to fund a philanthropic project, Roadmap to Justice, that aims to make the civil justice system more accessible to poor people. Sokolove says he’d be surprised if he doesn’t experience a "liquidity event" that would buy him out of his business within the next three years.

Sokolove’s commitment to getting more involved in outside pursuits led him to Manchester, New Hampshire, on a bright afternoon this fall for the second of two days he spent canvassing for Barack Obama. He’d given a good deal of money to Democrats—$250,000 over the past decade—but found a new thrill knocking on doors. Yet he couldn’t seem to prevent his thoughts from sometimes circling back to his business. "I told my wife how many people have front steps where you can fall," he said, as his car rolled into a quiet neighborhood near the river.

Later Sokolove introduced himself to an elderly gentleman who was out walking his dog. "Not the lawyer on television?" the man asked. "I’ll tell my wife—she won’t believe it." Before long, Sokolove had invited himself into the couple’s living room, where they were happy to answer his too-personal questions: What sorts of medications were they taking? Why was their retirement money in stocks and not bonds? (Sokolove has added financial mismanagement to his list of practice areas.) Standing up to leave, he and the man embraced in an awkward hug.

Outside, Sokolove was pleased. "Sitting in houses and talking to people. This is my father," he said. He seemed to feel he’d just made the kind of old-fashioned connection that had always eluded him. Of course, it was something altogether different. What the lawyer from TV had forgotten was that he’d already been in that living room at least a hundred times before.         

 

Staff writer Francis Storrs detailed the Beacon Hill exploits of con man Clark Rockefeller in the November 2008 issue.

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