Adler, who grew up in Dallas, has been a personal-injury lawyer for 36 years. He is the founder of the Houston law firm Jim S. Adler & Associates and appears in television ads in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio.
I started out doing law enforcement work for the Texas State Securities Board, representing widowed women and unsophisticated investors who’d gotten fleeced of their life savings by sharp promoters in shaky gold deals and oil-and-gas deals. Then, in 1973, I went into private practice. I was doing divorces, I was doing bankruptcies, I was doing personal-injury work—anything where I could service the little person. The first car wreck case I tried was a rear-end collision case, and I tried it to a jury. Unfortunately, I lost—that was a humbling experience. I guess the jury believed the truck driver. My client couldn’t make it to court on time; maybe that was part of the reason the jury took it out on him. Usually a rear-end collision is eminently winnable.
In 1977 the United States Supreme Court allowed attorneys to advertise, and a guy in Denver who had a company called Lawyers Marketing Service sent me a brochure and said, “You ought to try advertising.” I thought, “No, that’s unprofessional.” This brochure sat on my desk for six months, but lawyers have to eat like everyone else, so finally I called the guy. I remember the ad was called “Box of Gold.” A good lawyer is worth his weight in gold. It showed a box of gold, real shiny, and the script went, “He can help you with lost wages. He can help you with medical bills. Don’t be a victim twice. Call Jim Adler now.” We put it on Channel 39. At that time it was just me and a legal secretary. My phone started ringing off the wall, and my secretary started complaining, “I can’t handle all these calls.” I had to hire another person to help. In 1984 I went into partnership with Bob O’Conor; he had been a federal judge. O’Conor came from Laredo, and he said we ought to do a little Spanish advertising. We started doing ads about car wrecks and offshore rigs—if you were injured at the docks, injured at a store, construction work, refinery work, all sorts of injuries.
Now we have twelve lawyers over four offices and a staff of over a hundred paralegals, case managers, receptionists, and law clerks. We have a huge Web site, videos, a blog. We have—what do you call it? A Twitter? We tweet. When someone calls in, one of our intake professionals takes the call, then e-mails the case to an attorney to see if it is one we want to accept. If we do, then we either send an investigator or invite the client to come by the office. We get thousands of calls, but we probably only accept maybe 10 percent of the cases, because people call for a whole litany of things. They may have bought a car that’s a lemon and want to sue for the defective car—it’s unbelievable the things people are unhappy about in their everyday lives. We charge a contingency fee: one third of the settlement. Or, if it goes into lawsuit and we have to litigate the case for an extended period, we charge 40 percent.
In the old days most insurance adjusters were retired military personnel, because they could work outside the office and go see people. Now everybody’s case is in the computer, and a lot of the human factor is taken out of it. Typically, we send the settlement brochure to the adjusters and ask them to come back with a settlement offer in fifteen days, which they never do. Sometimes it takes them months. Then we take the offer to the client and tell him whether we think it’s fair. We’ll go back and forth with the adjuster two, three, four times. We put between 10 to 20 percent of our cases into lawsuit, and maybe one percent actually go to trial. The courthouses are so overcrowded that it’s hard to get to trial. It’s funny—when I went to law school, I thought that you got a personal-injury case and somebody just wrote you a check, but it’s not that way. You have to really do a lot of work on these cases.
I always say I practice safety law. We take cases where people have suffered serious injury, and we look at the liability and try to find all the sources of recovery. One of the hardest parts is that we can’t heal the whole person. All we have to offer is a financial reward, and a lot of people feel these things for ten or twenty years, wind up with a limp or a disability. The saddest cases are children, like the little baby that fractures his pelvis and is in a full body cast. Or we had a case once where a gas tank exploded on a pickup truck and burned this baby over 80 percent of his body. I’d look at him and want to cry. His face was destroyed, his fingers were burned off, he had terrible scarring. Paralysis cases are also horrible. People will be paralyzed in an auto accident or on an offshore rig or from a fall at work. It’s such a small percentage that gets injured, but we see it every day.
I used to visit people in their houses or at the hospital, and when you go to a burn unit, you have to put on sterile clothing before seeing the person. You try to be professional, but really you just want to break down and tell them how sorry you are and wish you could turn back the clock. I think the cases I’m most fond of are the death cases where we help families. They’re the most heartbreaking, but when a young breadwinner gets killed through no fault of his or her own and