Most of the Plaintiffs' lawyers I know believe in their clients' cases, care about their clients, and want to help the clients. Plaintiffs' lawyers have varied practices: personal injury, products liability, professional negligence, various types of class actions, and, what I do, civil rights and employment discrimination. However, for those of us representing plaintiffs in lawsuits - we are only paid if the client settles by receiving money or gets a money judgment. Normally, we get a percentage of the settlement or judgment. I guess sports and talent agents may have something similar, a cut of the pie. But sports figures and actors split a happy pie, a new contract for a movie, or a position on a team. We lawyers profit from our clients' suffering. The more injured they are, the more they get paid. The more they get paid, the more we get paid.
That is not to say we don't work for our money. If we represent a client and try our client's case, our firm has hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in time and money. If our client loses, we lawyers are not paid and are out of a great deal of money. Plaintiffs' lawyers are not like doctors who are paid a generous sum by insurance companies regardless of the outcome. Can you imagine a cancer surgeon's meeting with the family and explaining she or he could not remove all of the cancer, so the doctor will not be charging any medical bills? A lot of risky surgeries simply would not occur.
So, what do we do as a society? Lawyers expect to be paid, but most people cannot afford us without a contingent fee agreement. How should lawyers feel about this?
I am conflicted. Sure, I want to get a jury angry at the racist employer. I want punitive damages to be awarded. I believe in my cases. But, on the flip side, I also know that the more a company or jury gives my client, the more money I get. I get a bonus for clients who are hurt the most, whether the damage be financial or moral. This concept is distressing, yet i must admit that I have suffered no distress when getting paid in a case. If it is early on, we oftentimes reduce our fees. But is this the best
we can do?
How do we balance a lawyers desire and duty to work for the clients' best interest, with the lawyers' desire to get paid a generous sum for his or her work? This essentially is the battle between social conscience and greed. And there sure is a perception in the public, sometimes deserved (heck, maybe most times deserved) that lawyers are greedy. This is a moral and ethical dilemma. What some don't understand is that lawyers, too, like everyone else, deserve to be compensated for their work. But, when the money is more important than the cause, it sometimes causes me to pause. It's hard not to get excited about money, especially when the rent is due, taxes are due, and your spouse wants to pay the mortgage.
There are lawyers today who go to sickbeds to recruit clients, and it hurts the legal profession. I have even had discrimination clients who had other lawyers try to recruit them by calling them at home after a news story. While our firm does not solicit, I worry that I lose perspective and will focus more on greed than justice. I hope that writing these words will help keep me vigilant and never forget why I wanted to be a lawyer - to make a difference in society one case at a time; and to even the playing field so big companies cannot railroad less powerful individuals. I care about my clients and they deserve a lawyer who honors her oath to put the clients first. There is no lawsuit insurance for plaintiffs so that all lawyers are paid a fair fee. We plaintiffs' lawyers are, in essence, professional gamblers with both the fate of our clients and our own income at stake. Being a plaintiffs' lawyer is risky business. I hope we see the dilemma, and act in accordance with the oath we all had to take.