ambulance chaser (noun; North American derogatory): a lawyer who specializes in bringing cases seeking damages for personal injury.
It is 2001 and law school had been in session for a month or so. I was having a beer with a fellow first-year law student at a party. We discussed what fields of law interested us. My classmate said that he would “rather shoot himself in the head” than chase ambulances. I remember thinking that “personal injury” law must be a pretty god-awful field to practice in. I did not know too much about the law or lawyers at the time.
From my class at Yale Law School (2004), 76% of the graduates worked in private law firms after graduation.1 Unfortunately, the survey does not break down law firms into whether they are defense firms or plaintiffs’ firms. The survey also does not break down whether the “public interest” category is private practice or not.
So I really don’t know how many of my classmates decided to enter the noble profession of signing retainer agreements with flesh-and-blood people who have suffered torts.
I suspect the number is very low. The law firms that trooped through during On-Campus Recruiting season in 2002-2003 were almost all BigLaw defense-side firms, with a client base of multinational corporations. They offered students a starting salary of something like $120,000 and all the hors d’oeuvres you can eat in the Hospitality Rooms at the local hotel where they conducted interviews. Students lined up for a job offer.
No one talked about becoming a plaintiffs’ lawyer. You might as well have considered using your law degree to run away and join the circus as a clown.
Plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers are the butt of the jokes in the legal community:
Who wants to be this guy? 😐
How about this less-than-ethical paralegal, literally chasing ambulances here? 😯
Some people despise lawyers generally, which I get. In an utopian society, we would not need lawyers at all. Everyone would be honorable, and no one would get screwed over. Heirs would respect the dying’s last words, criminals would turn themselves in out of remorse, and arrangements for payment would be made if someone’s car hit you. But I guess we need lawyers as a necessity due to the frailties of human nature. And if we accept that, then we should accept that we need plaintiffs’ lawyers.
I like to think that plaintiffs’ lawyers show up when you are in a jam, feeling nervous, and don’t want people to take advantage of you, or someone has already taken advantage of you, and your name isn’t Warren Buffett, Nabisco, or Philip Morris. You may even get satisfactory results just by invoking them:
“Now, I got business across the river, and if you interfere with me,
you may end up in court, which you don’t want to be. I got a good
lawyer in J. Nobel Daggett.”
“Lawyer Daggett again.”
“She draws him like a gun.”
Plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyers are the lawyers that represent people. And most of us plaintiffs’ lawyers are too sedentary to chase anything, much less ambulances. So despite the media images of us in bad suits, with dubious home lives, many vices, and prone to breathtaking incompetence:
This “alcoholic ambulance chaser who has had only four cases over the
last three years, all of which he lost” is Frank Galvin. Who wants to be
We are usually just ordinary lawyers, who do what we do because we like people and trying to make their situations noticeably better (if you don’t like people, I don’t think you can do this job). And if you don’t make their legal situation better, well, at least they don’t have to pay you any legal fees. Most of us don’t look like Paul Newman or Mickey Rourke either.
1 See Yale Law School’s 10th Year Report, available at https://www.law.yale.edu/student-life/career-development/employment-data/10th-year-career-development-survey.
Thank you for reading.
–Elizabeth Lee Beck, Attorney-at-Law