Litigators, Money, Plaintiffs Firms, Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Some Small Firm Lawyers Are Worth Big Bucks

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Johnson, asked all of her students to write an essay on who we admired most. My best friend Marni wrote about President George Bush, Sr. She loved America. I wrote about my dad. I loved my family. A classmate named Jay wrote about Ted Turner. He loved money.

Apparently, Jay is not the only person to love money. In fact, I am told that some lawyers chose the profession because they too love money.

Those lawyers work at Am Law 100 firms, right? Not all of them. Not the country’s richest practicing attorney….

Joe Jamail is the only practicing attorney on the Forbes list of the 400 Richest Americans. He is currently number 269. Old boy is even on the Forbes list of World Billionaires.

Jamail is often referred to as the “King of Torts.” He represented Pennzoil in the eighties and won a jury verdict for his client in the amount of $10.53 billion. This remains the largest verdict upheld on appeal. Jamail’s cut (the case ultimately settled for $3.3 billion) was reportedly around $400 million.

Jamail has also been involved in high-profile personal injury cases over the years. He was the attorney responsible for the national recall of Remington 600, Honda All Terrain 3 Wheelers, and the prescription drug Parlodel.

Why am I extolling the virtues of Joe Jamail (minus the “Texas style deposition”)? Am I trying to make up for my lame sixth grade essay (sorry Dad)? Perhaps. But, more importantly for present purposes, Jamail is a small-firm attorney — who has some criticism for Biglaw.

When people talk about why they chose to work at small law firms, they often say they wanted to get better and earlier experience, that they wanted to be more in control of their career, or that they did not want to be an anonymous worker bee. I rarely hear that they did it to get rich. But, clearly, that can be one of the benefits of small firm practice.

I recently had coffee with a legal recruiter who has been studying law firms and law firm business models for many years. She explained to me that partners at small law firms can do very well because of the drastically reduced overhead (this is even more true if they bill out at rates equal or close to Biglaw rates). I mean, check out the way Lea Black lives, based on her husband’s lean, mean, money-making machine. And, per the recruiter, plaintiffs’ work and personal injury cases — while often maligned and sometimes less prestigious — can be quite lucrative.

To test this, I did a Google search for “rich” or “wealthy” and “plaintiffs’ lawyer” and I came across the following small law firm; Henry Spiegel Milling LLP. (Note: the result appeared in a document prepared by the firm recounting the stereotypes of plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the website does not suggest that the attorneys are rich or wealthy plaintiffs’ attorneys.) Under “Verdicts and Settlements” the firm lists many multi-million dollar awards. Hmm, well maybe they are rich or wealthy plaintiffs’ attorneys.

So what is the take away from this?

(1) Practicing at a small law firm does not mean you will make a small salary.
(2) Mr. Jamail, if you are reading this and would be willing to sit down for an interview, please email me.
(3) Mr. Jamail, if you are reading this and would be open to adopting a thirty-year-old daughter, please email me.
(4) Dad, if you are reading this, sorry, but Jay was right.

Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small law firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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