When my dad took me to play tennis and ice skate – when we took our yearly Winter trips to visit relatives in Florida – when we shopped at Saks and Bloomingdales – all I ever heard was how my dad’s law practice paid for all of it. What was he doing to make money for all these nice things? I didn’t really know, but sometimes people would chuckle and say he’s an ambulance chaser. I didn’t really like the sound of this and wished that my dad was something cool like an actor or a civil rights leader. It’s been a long road, but I’ve come to understand the value of the business he built that continues to give low income people access to legal services – there’s a great deal to be proud about being a reputable personal injury attorney in Queens.
The Early Days On Utica Avenue
I don’t remember too much about dad’s office on Utica Avenue with his partner Harvey Friedman that they opened in 1958. The first time I saw it was in the 1970’s – a high crime neighborhood in a high crime decade – so my father would park his Cadillac in the bus stop in front of the office and pay the tickets, rather than risk having it towed away. It was a storefront office with several desks in the front area, and two attorney’s offices behind a one way mirror. Everybody there was so nice to me and I loved to try the things they ordered for lunch. It was the first time I had an authentic roti sandwich – chicken curry with bones in it – and I loved it. I knew that the office represented people that had car accidents and they were usually poor people and people of color. When I asked my father why that was, he said it was because most middle class people have a lawyer in their family they already go to. That’s also why many of our clients were recent immigrants that didn’t know any lawyers. An honest and caring personal injury attorney was greatly appreciated in low income communities – a reputable accident attorney in Brooklyn that treated low income people with respect wasn’t so easy to find.
Why Dad Became An Ambulance Chaser
My dad told me that when he graduated from law school, no decent law firms would hire Jews. The only job he could get was with a collection law firm where they would have people arrested when they didn’t pay their bills. You can’t put somebody in jail for owing money to creditors, but you can have them arrested for contempt of court for ignoring a lawsuit filed against them to collect money. This was one of the few opportunities for newly minted Jewish lawyers, so many, like my father started their own firms. Many types of law practices catered to wealthy people with connections from country clubs and Ivy League schools such as estate planning, real estate, and business law. Those types of lawyers charge clients hourly fees that only wealthy people can afford to pay. Personal injury attorneys, on the other hand, handle cases on a contingency fee, so it’s possible to represent people that can’t afford to pay an attorney. Since accident lawyers do all the work and lay out all the expenses for a case, only getting paid when the case is settled or tried, low income people can get what they deserve. This was a win-win for Jewish attorneys that could not get jobs at traditional white shoe firms and low income people that couldn’t otherwise get access to legal services.
The War Against “Trial Lawyers”
You can see why some among the powers that be might find this a bit pesky. Poor people with access to lawyers, asserting their rights? That began to mean they had to be accountable for their actions, and they didn’t like that one bit. The insurance companies didn’t like it because it meant that they had to pay out more money for claims. The lobbyists began swarming the state and federal legislatures howling their cries for “tort reform,” citing abuses of the system. The talk really wasn’t that different from what we heard then, and what we hear now, about people cheating food stamps and other public assistance programs – are excuses to shut down help for poor people. One of the wealthiest groups to throw hissy fits are doctors, who complain that their incomes are so terribly impacted by malpractice suits. For what I can see, they are still living in mansions, buying yachts and sending their kids to private schools – couldn’t be that bad. We’ve seen this play out recently with Covid Relief being held up because McConnell and his band of robber barons wanted to include “liability reforms” which would allow big corporations to skimp on worker safety. Keeping workers safe cuts into profits, so they disparage personal injury attorneys in New York City that hold them accountable. It’s the American way.
I’m An Artist, An Activist, An Ambulance Chaser (And a Mom)
When you Google me, you get a really wide range of seemingly disparate information. I’m a kinda famous filmmaker, known for a while as “The Queen Of The New York Underground,” for my political satire science fiction films and my work curating shows for other filmmakers. I funded my films by working at my dad’s law firm, learning how to help people collect money for injuries caused by negligence, recklessness, and intentional acts. It’s about holding people accountable for their actions. During law school I founded a human rights delegation to Haiti, discovering what pure capitalism looks like. If you didn’t have money to send your child to school – your child did not go to school – and if you built a house, you also had to build a road to it. I enjoyed the privilege of spending a summer studying at the University of Nice with Ruth Bader Ginsburg – how cool is that? Did you know that civil rights lawyers are a type of personal injury lawyer – yup, we’re the good guys holding people responsible for their behavior and keeping capitalism in check. We’re the heroes suing the pullutors, sexual harassers, and drunk drivers – that’s why I’ve learned to love being an ambulance chaser.