A few weeks ago I took a whirlwind trip to St. Louis. I had been invited to speak to a class of third-year law students at my alma mater about life after law school. As the conversation progressed, I found myself answering the same question I have been asked numerous times throughout the years by family and friends: “Plaintiffs file all these frivolous lawsuits; how can you do that kind of work?”
I always knew I wanted a career doing something that helped other people, which is what lead me to apply for law school in the first place. With only one exception, I have never represented defendants. The reason for that is simple; attorneys who represent defendants are typically preemptively retained to represent a company or person who has harmed another individual. This results in defendants’ attorneys having agreed to represent their client before a case is filed and without knowing what, if anything, their client did. The defense attorney then has to do their best to win for their client—even when their client has tortuously hurt or killed someone. I knew it would not be gratifying for me to work for a company or person that hurt someone else, which is how I knew plaintiff work was the right choice for me.
Now, to answer the ever popular question, “What about all the frivolous lawsuits brought by plaintiffs?” What most people don’t realize is, unlike defense work, working for plaintiffs allows me to choose my cases. If a person asks me to represent them and it is a frivolous case, I can and do tell them no.
This usually leads to the follow up question, “If you turn the case down, won’t another lawyer bring it?”
Fear not. There are a number of safeguards that prevent the majority of frivolous lawsuits from ever being filed. First, most attorneys who work for plaintiffs do so on a contingent basis (like we do). That means that unless I can win a case, I won’t get any money for my work. So while I am willing to take on difficult cases, taking a frivolous case just means that I will lose money and time that I could spend on a case that will actually help someone in need and let me keep my business open.
Second, there are court rules in place to discourage frivolous lawsuits. In Colorado, whether in federal or state court, the attorney must sign their name to any filing, representing that it is not frivolous (though that word is not used). If the court where the lawsuit is filed finds it to be frivolous, the lawyer can be personally sanctioned for filing the frivolous lawsuit, and forced to pay the defendant.
Frankly, the idea of frivolous lawsuits is propaganda. This article explains how some of the more famous “frivolous” lawsuits were not frivolous at all, as well as citing to some good research on how frivolous lawsuits are not a problem in this country. Almost every lawsuit that appears frivolous at first glance makes sense when you look into the details.
All of this is not to say that attorneys who represent defendants are evil, or that all plaintiffs’ attorneys are great and only file great cases. Just that at the end of the day, representing plaintiffs is right where I need to be. Not only do I get the privilege of helping the person who can’t help themselves, but I can also walk away from any case I think is frivolous, while attorneys representing defendants do not have that luxury. If you find yourself complaining about plaintiffs’ attorneys and frivolous lawsuits, remember this: most of my clients said the same thing until they found themselves in need of an attorney.