One of my favorite topics in my Law Firms as a Business Organization course is the plaintiffs' bar, which runs the gamut from soft tissue personal injuries ("car wreck cases"), to product liability and mass torts, to class action litigation. Law students and law professors know very little about this practice area. From the student perspective, this gap may be due to the fact that firms that specialize in this area tend to be small and rarely recruit students through on-campus interviews. Similarly, the corporate bar heavily recruits from top national law schools, where most law professors were educated. So legal educators are top-heavy with corporate law practice.
In some respects, the plaintiffs' bar appears to reflect an idiosyncrasy in the market for legal talent. On the one hand, successful plaintiff-side trial and class action lawyers often earn
higher incomes than partners at the nation's largest and most
prestigious law firms. On the other hand, these lawyers tend to be graduates of
non-elite law schools. Below is graphic (generated for my class), which compares the educational backgrounds of members of the Inner Circle 100, which is the 100 best plaintiffs' side trial lawyers in the nation (and includes Joe Jamail, John Edwards, Phil Corboy, and, until his death, Johnny Cochrane), and a sample of five Am Law 200 law firms.
Granted, some (or possibly all) of this differential can be explained by the more stable earnings trajectory of corporate lawyers. But I also wonder whether successful trial practice may entail attributes that are not strongly correlated with law school entering credentials (e.g., LSAT and UGPA). For example, effective trial lawyers may have better affect recognition, and thus have a superior ability to size up their adversaries and communicate with a jury.
Along these lines, my Law Firms class read a excellent ethnographic study by Sara Parikh and Bryant Garth, entitled "Philip Corboy and the Construction of the Plaintiffs' Personal Injury Bar," 26 L & Soc. Inquiry 269 (2005). Philip Corboy is a famous Chicago personal injury lawyer (and Inner Circle 100 member) that worked to institutionalize the modern plaintiffs' bar, creating novel legal theories that compensated for serious injuries, lobbying the Illinois legislature for pro-plaintiff legislation, and training several generations of skilled practitioners through this law firm, which was informally known as "Corboy University."
Yet, according to the article, Corboy was drawn to mentor people like himself -- non-establishment ethnics (Corboy is Catholic, which worked against him in the early Post-War era) who attended local law schools, such as Loyola or DePaul. But perhaps, implicitly, this was a demographic that was likely to be well-received by Chicago juries?
This is a research topic that will have to wait as I finish up many other projects, but I would like to parse out how social forces and individual skills and personality traits (e.g., risk adversion, extroversion, affect recognition) impact the career trajectories of young lawyers. The plaintiffs' bar might be a good place to start.