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Career Talk: Being a Personal Injury Lawyer

Ambulance chaser. A lot of careers are known by their pejoratives. Few have one worse than that of personal injury lawyers. After all, these are highly-educated professionals doing seemingly honorable work: working on behalf of the bereft. But there it is again. Ambulance chaser. How does Jonathan Rosenfeld, a personal injury and medical negligence attorney based in Chicago (the 26th-best city for lawyers), react when he hears it? "I laugh," he told ValuePenguin. "You have to be able to laugh at yourself." And at your job, even at its perception, fair or not. Of course, ValuePenguin also asked Rosenfeld about his start in the field, building his own firm in 2010 and what aspiring attorneys can do to make a name—a good one—for themselves and their peers.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. To contribute to ValuePenguin’s coverage on careers, follow us on Twitter @VP_Careers. Please also feel free to use the comment section below.

How did you come to be a lawyer?

There are a lot of "lawyers" in my family, not many of whom are actively practicing law. While all had their unique perspective on the law, they all said how useful a legal education was in the work that they gravitated to. Hearing this unifying response was really was pushed me to apply to law school. After getting my bachelor's in journalism at Lehigh University, I went to Chicago's Kent College of Law.

What was your first experience in a law office like?

My first job was pretty miserable actually. I was literally thrown into the fire from the day I started working there. With little guidance, I was immediately put into situations that I had never done before: going to court, taking depositions, handling a case at trial. I was also expected to work long hours and Saturdays. Don't ask if I was happy during those days, but looking back it was a real eye opener for me as I not only learned things I likely wouldn't have until much later in my career, but also made me realize how much I needed to learn. Thank goodness I can laugh at those days now.

Do you have a moment of pride from those early days?

Probably my first jury trial. After being on my first job for a week, I was asked to try a car accident case where the insurance company refused to make an offer. I remember stumbling through the file trying to learn everything the night before. When I asked my boss for advice, he said to present the case to a jury like you were having a conversation with a friend. I probably made the judge cringe with my lack of understanding for the rules of evidence, but the jury wound up giving my client more money than I asked for. It wasn't the biggest verdict I've gotten, but I saw that jurors were everyday people who didn't want to be talked down to. 

Where did you go from there?

Most of my early jobs were sweatshops, where I was a body needed to complete a task, certainly not an ideal situation. After a few years of doing that, I was fortunate to work in a family-based practice for a number of years before starting my own firm. There was a really unique atmosphere where people really cared about one another and you could walk down the hall and ask questions about anything under the sun and without judgment. 

Did you have a mentor along the way?

My grandfather, who was an incredibly smart man that taught me early on of the importance of treating people with respect and dignity. Despite his education and experience, he really took the time to talk to clients and explain things to them in a way they could understand. To this day, I always think of his patience and kindness when meeting with my clients. No matter what they say about me when they leave, I want to to feel like I care about them. 

This seems especially important to personal injury law—why did you decide to practice this niche?

What drew me to this area of the law was this fact: Unlike many areas of law that tend to be on the cerebral and abstract side, when someone calls me, they have a real problem. They may have been in an accident at work or have a loved one who lost their life unexpectedly due to the fault of another. No one can ever plan for the physical, financial or emotional toll an accident has on them or their family. My job is to listen to their problem and figure out a way to get them back on track by getting them the compensation that the law entitles them to. While I always try to empathize with my clients, I am very direct with them about what the game plan is in terms of moving forward. Some people are initially disappointed when I explain to them that they may not receive the amount of compensation they think they are entitled, but most are very grateful that I was direct with them from the start.

How many clients are we talking?

We are a small law firm—four attorneys and five support staff members From the time I opened my practice, I wanted to maintain a tight-knit group where every person in my office knew clients by name. Maintaining a small-firm environment while working on larger cases is something I strive to maintain. Sometimes, we need to refer perspective clients to other attorneys in order to maintain this balance. 

Having a startup-like atmosphere in place, what is your individual day-to-day routine like?

The technology today really enables me to have a much higher quality of life than I would be able to have had with an earlier generation of attorneys. I am lucky to have a great office manager and staff who keep our office system updated daily. I can access every document and client file from my home office. This enables me to have a lot more flexibility than if we had the traditional paper files. Typically, I get up early, around 4 a.m. I may return some emails from the day before. Then I try to get a workout in. I used to be a big swimmer in high school and college, but I still try to swim a few days a week. Depending on our docket, I may take the train downtown and head to the office. If I have a deposition or court matter I need to prepare for, I will try to work from my home office so that I can really hunker down and focus. I am usually home by around 5 p.m. to help shuttle my kids to their activities. While they're at their activities, I'll usually check in with my staff and discuss what's going on with various files. Wherever I go, I always have my phone and encourage my staff to call or email when they need me.

How else has technology affected your day to day in recent years?

My practice has a very large web presence with both our main website and other niche sites that we have created. These sites are an important part of our communication with current clients as well as for marketing purposes. 

While face-to-face, personalized connections will always be the best source of business, having a website means bringing the message to a larger audience. Particularly for mass tort cases we work on involving recalled drugs and medical devices, we're able to bring in clients from across the country through our sites.

I spend time everyday working on these site and adding content to them. While SEO trends come and go, I find that bringing something truly useful to clients continually resonates with them and the search engines. I consider this to be as important as any part of my job.

What makes being a lawyer—and, more specifically, the leader of a firm—difficult?

Competition. The truth is that there are a lot of lawyers out there and you have to be hungrier and willing to work harder than the next guy to have a full practice. Because of this, there's really no such thing as a break. The best thing you can do is accept it and try to balance your life around it. 

Are there any surprising advantages to being an injury lawyer?

I've gotten to know some doctors quite well over the course of repeatedly seeing them as treaters on some cases. It's sort of a mutual respect thing when they see that you are prepared and are an advocate for your clients—they tend to appreciate that. I can now call on a number of doctors if I have a question about a medical issue for myself or for a client. It's pretty cool to pick up the phone and get an honest, no-BS respose to a situation as opposed to setting up an appointment and going through an entire intake.

Of course the other side of this is that I know the doctors and hospitals to stay away from. Sure an incident can happen anywhere, but when you see things pop up again and again, it's a cue to stay away.

How about any lesser-known inconveniences?

Nothing's perfect, but perhaps the biggest drawback is that most injuries don't occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. I tend to get a lot of calls at nights and on weekends, which can be a little difficult sometimes. Sometimes, it would be nice to put my phone away, even just for a little bit.

Positives and negatives inside, what separates an average injury lawyer from a good one?

A good injury lawyer is willing to spend the time, money and effort to fully develop a case. In most cases, this also means being selective enough with your cases that the attorneys are not so overwhelmed by the volume of cases that resources get spread so thin. There are some personal injury law firms that are set up like factories; unfortunatley for the client, their file will likely never get the attention that it deserves and consequently get resolved for less than the case is actually worth.

What would you recommend to an aspiring injury lawyer?

I'm very surprised when young attorneys think they are capable of doing a lot more than they really can. I find a law school education does surprising little to prepare people for a "real world" work experience. New lawyers need to realize this and know that they are starting at the bottom.

Is the bar exam not a good way test for future lawyers?

Probably not. The bar exam requires test-takers to essentially memorize lots of information on an incredible breadth of topics. While there are some writing portions on the test, there isn't much focus on applying the law to a real-world situation. When you're actually practicing law, you are typically focused on one area of the law. Very rarely do you need to react so quickly to a presented situation. I find that some of the best lawyers really take their time to evaluate a particular situation before giving a response to a client or court. Many times, opinions or approaches will change after you've had time to really let things marinate. The bar exam certainly doesn't test this.

Are aspiring lawyers in a good place now compared to where you were at their age, experience level?

I'm not sure things are all that much different today than when I started practicing. Nonetheless, I'm usually surprised by how much freshly-minted lawyers think they know. The truth is most of them really have very few skills that can be immediately incorporated in the the daily practice of law. While it may be daunting to them, it takes years—many years to become skilled enough in an area that they can really help a client. I always get worried when a younger attorney doesn't ask questions. Most of the time they are doing the task improperly and are not helping their client.

When hiring, what does your firm look for in new lawyers?

We're a lot more interested in finding people who are truly committed and have a passion for this type of work. We would never hire someone based upon their academic record. We want to see that they are going to be around in the long-run and not just looking to use their experience with our firm as a resume enhancer.

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