Lawyers often get referred all kinds of cases as they develop their practices. Sometimes, lawyers will take the case for themselves, and other times, lawyers will refer the work to another attorney since they do not think that a matter is lucrative or perhaps because it is not within the attorney’s practice area. However, in my own experience, lawyers should take a careful look at matters they might not think have suitable value, and one lawyer’s trash can be another lawyer’s treasure under the right circumstances.
In my career, I have routinely been referred matters that other lawyers have turned down. Usually, having a matter turned down by another lawyer is a big red flag about a file. Surely, there must be a reason why prior counsel turned down a matter, and this either relates to the merits of the matters, the amount of money that might be recovered or other issues. Usually, the more lawyers that have turned down a file, the more problems a file may have, and I have seen clients come to my firm after being turned down by three or more prior lawyers.
However, lawyers usually like to work on easier cases, and might not be willing to invest the little bit of effort that might be needed to turn a stinker case into a goldmine. For instance, I was once involved in a personal injury case that was turned down by three other lawyers. The client tripped and fell, and he had signed a release promising that he would not sue. Either because of the release or because of evidence issues in the case, three lawyers turned the client down.
Thankfully, a fourth lawyer took the case and filed the lawsuit literally the day before the statute of limitations expired. The lawyer went on the offensive and attached the release to the complaint, arguing that defendants were at fault for additional causes of action besides negligence for making an elderly and infirm person sign the release. In the end, the defendants did not even file a motion to dismiss based on the release because of this argument, and a fear of all the lawyers who turned the case down was never realized.
The case proceeded pretty normally, and after a year or two of soft matzoh ball litigation, the matter settled. The fourth lawyer who ended up deciding to take the case made more money on the case than an average person would need to live super-comfortably for a year. Altogether, the fourth lawyer was probably extremely happy that he took a little bit of risk and decided to work on this case even though so many lawyers had turned it down in the past.
Another time in my career, I took a case that had been turned down by a few other lawyers my clients went to before me. The matter not only required a lawsuit against some major corporations, but some extremely big law firms were also sure to get involved. Moreover, in order to win in the litigation, my clients would need to argue an exception to a general rule rather than rely on the rule itself, which is never a comfortable place to be in litigation.
In any case, I painstakingly spent many hours putting together our papers since I knew that I had to make a resounding impression on my adversary in the first instance if I had any chance of resolving the case quickly. The effort paid off, and my adversary reached out to try to settle the matter almost immediately after the papers were filed. With a reasonable amount of effort, and only several months of delay, my firm received an extremely generous payout for our effort. I wish I knew all of the lawyers who turned down the file so I could tell them how wrong they were, and how a little bit of effort turned this file into a goldmine.
Of course, for all of these stories of success at being able to create a lucrative case out of something that seemed like garbage, I also have stories of being bogged down in litigation by pursuing matters other lawyers turned down. I have taken matters on contingency which were turned down by prior counsel and then I ended up litigating them for years with only a small payout for my efforts. I know some people who ended up with nothing after pouring resources into files that were turned down by other lawyers who perhaps had enough experience to know that a case did not have legs.
Nevertheless, lawyers should carefully review all of the potential matters that land on their desks to see if there is a different way of approaching a matter that might have been overlooked by prior counsel. In this way, what one lawyer believed was garbage can turn into a goldmine for other counsel.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.