Yesterday, after reading a CCTimes article regarding a case I just filed involving alleged civil rights violations in Sandwich, a friend asked me how I decide whether or not to take on a case. He asked whether or not the fee I might earn was a determinative factor.
When discussing his family's consigliere and lawyer, Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall in the movie), Vito Corleone said "A lawyer with a briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns". While this comment certainly has negative connotations, I have always viewed this quote quite differently. From my perspective, it also implies that that same lawyer with a briefcase can also be a strong agent for good and for needed change.
The two cases in my 30 year career about which I am most proud are cases I worked on for years, took to trial and was never paid. One case was one I tried in 2001 in Worcester. It involved a hemophiliac that died from HIV infected factor concentrate that had been administered to him as a child in the early 1980's during the AIDS crisis. Over 10,000 hemophiliacs died in the same fashion, almost all of them infected as children. I'm not certain, but I believe that my case was the only case tried to jury in which it was alleged that physicians were negligent for administering clotting concentrate even after they knew it could be infected with the HIV virus. My expert witnesses in the case were the same doctors whose story was chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize winning book, "And the Band Played On". I worked on this case for 6 years and came to love Billy Modestino's parents, Bill and Brenda. They were courageous parents that felt this story had to be told. We knew from the outset that the case was the longest of longshots. The jury found one physician negligent, but also found that they could not determine which lot of concentrate caused the death. This is called negligence/no causation, the most feared result for a plaintiff's trial lawyer. So; we won but we lost. However, this important story was told. As Bill told my wife after closing arguments, we had given his son dignity.
The other case was one tried in Barnstable in 2011. It involved a marvelous mother and wife, Mary Callahan, who died from a self inflicted gunshot wound after being on SSRI antidepressants. My Harvard expert felt strongly that the Cape psychiatrist that treated Mary negligently administered those antidepressants by not carefully monitoring the patient and not adequately treating a dangerous combination of depression, anxiety and suicide. I have long felt, and continue to feel, that the negligent administration and use of antidepressants in this country, particularly to children, is a serious problem. This issue alone has been the subject of many books and movies and I have handled a number of these cases, including one involving the death by hanging of a 15 year old girl. The result in the Barnstable case...the jury found the doctor negligent, but could not conclude that the negligence caused the death. Same result as the hemophilia case ten years earlier. Ironically, one defense lawyer in Boston was one of the lawyers involved in both cases.
What did both cases have in common? A case that I believed in, a family that I believed in, a story that needed to be told and the opportunity to make a statement and perhaps promote awareness and change. Trial lawyers can do this. In both cases, no fee was earned after years of work. Did I ever consider whether or not I would be paid? No; in fact if you do, you'll merely drive yourself crazy.
Now; don't get me wrong. Law firms are businesses, no different than any other business. I have employees to pay, three offices to pay for, and my wife Nancy (who runs my offices) and I have to earn a living. And, we don't want to end up like the lawyer in "A Civil Action" in bankruptcy court. So, we also diligently handle the day to day cases that every other lawyer handles; the personal injury cases, the domestic cases, the business disputes and negotiations, the start of businesses requiring counsel, the non profits needing help. These cases are as important to our clients as the two cases discussed above. But, just like some of the elder abuse and fraud cases that we handle today, I have also been blessed to be able to take on some of the high risk cases in which a lawyer can make a difference in some small corner of the world, or have a lasting impact in the lives of a family and give them closure. That is truly an honor and a privilege. That is why I love being a trial lawyer.
So; I view Tom Hagen's briefcase as that change agent and an opportunity to do good. Vito Corleone could not have said it better. I hope this answers my friends question.