He’s Attorney James Sokolove
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.