General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionSolo Newsletter
Taking on Goliath:
Gird Yourself with Confidence
By Martina A. Silas
If you’re David facing Goliath, you need more than a big stone; you need self-confidence.
I began my legal career at a large firm representing huge corporate clients. I was good at defending bad faith insurance claims, but the game grew boring and billable hours left me unfulfilled. Five years ago I walked away from my partnership and went solo.
At first I feared ending up like the "Maytag Repair Man," sitting in an empty office with a silent phone. I had no specific plan, but knew I wanted to represent consumers and those injured by corporate wrongdoing. I never advertised or listed my practice in the Yellow Pages. Instead, I put out the word to everyone I knew, even casually.
Within a few months, an old acquaintance retained me to prosecute a film-processing laboratory for on-the-job exposure to toxic chemicals. About the same time, a painter in my office told me his son had died while under a hospital’s care, but no lawyer would take the case.
Although I’d never handled either a toxic chemical or a medical malpractice case, I had the litigation experience. I decided that with the proper expert guidance and a great deal of research, I could do the job.
First I arbitrated the medical malpractice/wrongful death case for my painter and won the client a substantial judgment.
Then I filed the toxic exposure case against my other client’s former employer, a company now owned by media giant AOL/Time Warner, and several large chemical companies, including Eastman-Kodak Company. I was immediately bombarded with thousands of pages of motions and discovery demands, keeping me busy morning, noon, and night. I had no associates, and only one inexperienced paralegal. It was difficult at first not to be demoralized and intimidated by the big-name firms with their specialty lawyers and limitless finances. But I knew that large firms use inexperienced lawyers to do the pre-trial work, reserving the big guns for the trial. So I turned a disadvantage into an advantage. I was the only lawyer familiar with every piece of paper in the file, making me the best prepared to go to trial. I handled the paper blitz one motion at a time in order of priority, ignoring the growing pile in the hall.
The case became the most fascinating experience of my career with its cutting edge legal and scientific issues. I tried the case alone, facing Time Warner’s highly successful and very smug lead trial lawyer. His settlement offer was insulting—a mere $100—which we declined.
In my first ever plaintiff case, I accused the company of being too cheap to buy gloves and respirators for their workers and ripping labels off the toxin containers so no one would ask for protection. The results? The jury came back with a $6.65 million verdict in our favor. (I have a 50 percent contingency interest.) The case is on appeal.
The press played up the David-versus-Goliath aspect of the battle, which drew me to the attention of the legal community. As a result, I received great referrals, including a multi-million dollar copyright suit.
There are two important lessons I learned from these experiences:
1. Talk to everyone. If I hadn’t struck up a conversation with my painter, I wouldn’t have gotten his malpractice case. If I hadn’t put out the word that I was now doing plaintiff work, my old acquaintance wouldn’t have sought me out for the toxic case, the biggest of my career.
2. We solos don’t have to be pigeon-holed into a specialty just because it is what we’ve always done. The key is to stay organized and not to be intimidated by the "big name" opposing law firms. A good lawyer is a good lawyer. If you’re good at insurance or wills, you will also be good a copyright, consumer law, or anything else that interests you. Do what you love, even if you have to teach yourself.
Martina A. Silas is is a solo in Encino, California, with a practice that concentrates on 50 percent bad faith insurance cases, 30 percent toxic exposure and personal injury cases, and 20 percent medical malpractice cases. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org..