Are You a Nobody Until You Win Your Case?

Noted video-expert and medical malpractice attorney, Gerry Oginski criticizes a Jacoby & Meyers television commercial that concludes with the voiceover:

You’re a nobody until you win your case.

Gerry comments – and I agree – that the ad isn’t particularly effective marketing since calling potential clients “nobodies” may instill hard feelings at the outset.

Though Gerry’s post discusses non-winning clients, it got me to wondering something similar:

 As a lawyer, are you a nobody until you win a case?

I think it depends.

Certainly, winning a big case can catapult you into the limelight especially if you’re a solo. Though winning the Casey Anthony acquittal presumably wasn’t Jose Baez’s  first victory, it certainly was his most public and has lead to other headline-generating matters.  Likewise, solo Alan Gura became the go-to Second Amendment rights lawyer in the country after  pulling out a huge win at the Supreme Court while my lawyer in the Rakofsky case, Marc Randazza has pulled out a string of First Amendment wins in high profile cases.  A few of the successful solo/small firm class action lawyers I know in various practice areas made it to the big time after risky cases against corporate giants that earned them huge payouts and lasting notoriety.

For solos more than large firms (but probably less than prosecutors or DAs), winning matters. When it comes to getting referrals from other attorneys, they have nothing else to go by but our record; no partner or superior to recommend our skill.  Sure, blogs and social media presence and speaking at conferences and law review articles all contribute to our reputation, but there’s nothing as black-and-white and clear-cut and verifiable to a potential referral source as a big win in a tough case that you handled on your own.  And of course, if the win is big enough, it can literally turn your practice around overnight, as the examples above illustrate. 

Of course, winning isn’t everything.  First, it’s not always easy for clients to discern what constitutes a bonafide win. For example, clients may be impressed by a lawyer who “wins” a $1 million settlement in a case but don’t realize that that the case was easily worth $50 million.  A lawyer may boast about all of his wins in DUI cases, but not explain that he’s settled for diversions in cases with so little evidence that the offender would likely have been acquitted at trial.  In my practice area, a global law firm recently postered the Internet with press releases about what it portrayed as a mega-victory in a federal appellate case. What the firm failed to mention was that (1) its client was merely an intervenor/respondents in the case (the appeal involved an agency decision, and the firm’s client was the beneficiary of the ruling) so the agency lawyers, not the firm actually wrote the main briefs and (2) these cases of these types have only a 25 percent reversal rate for respondents across the board no matter what you do. Not a win worth boasting about in my book.

Second, when it comes to clients, effort counts.  Starting out particularly, you’re not going to win every case you take.  But even with a less- than-desirable outcome, clients may recommend you to others because they felt that you fought for them as hard as you could and harder than anyone ever did.

Finally and most importantly, that you might not win a case – indeed, that you might lose terribly – should not deter you from taking on a just cause or a matter where there’s a slim chance that you might change the law for the better (with the caveat that the client also understands the risks).  As a lawyer, you may be a nobody if you don’t win a big case.  But if you turn your back on justice to follow the crowd or because you think a case will make you unpopular or worst of all, because you’re afraid you’ll lose, rest assured, you’re far worse than a nobody. You’re a coward.

Please chime in and let me know your thoughts. Do you think won-loss records and results are important, and if so, how important?