Every August the Las Vegas strip is inundated with Los Angeles-style glitterati of the plaintiff-lawyer persuasion. Some come in traditional business attire, with others in Armani suits and T-shirts. But anyone who is anyone—and has won multimillion-dollar jury verdicts—attends the annual Consumer Trial Attorneys Association of Los Angeles meeting there.
It was an event Los Angeles lawyer Michael J. Avenatti didn’t want to miss. Which was somewhat odd, since he was a third-year associate at O’Melveny & Myers, a firm prominent for its defense work. Yet the dream of switching sides fueled his four-hour drive.
That evening renowned plaintiffs firm Greene, Broillet, Panish & Wheeler was hosting its annual reception, and Avenatti hoped that if he could show the firm how passionately he wanted to try cases—plaintiffs’ cases—they’d be willing to overlook his desk job with the dark side.
It worked. Avenatti managed to engage name partner Bruce A. Broillet in a 45-minute conversation, and Broillet says he saw a bit of himself in the young lawyer.
“He had a wonderful demeanor, a great presence and a great deal of jury appeal,” Broillet says.
Five months and four interviews later, Avenatti got the job. His legal background surprises some, and he thinks his defense background influences how he approaches cases. “I have a tendency to be very detail-oriented, as far as the Code of Civil Procedure,” Avenatti says. “I get teased about that quite a bit, because I’m always looking at the technicality of things.”
Broillet estimates that his law firm gets hundreds of resumés each year from young lawyers. The 14-lawyer firm does little hiring, he says, and when it does, a big focus is placed on the candidate’s personality. “It’s a combination of the drive, the ability and the commitment,” he says, adding that because the firm is small, lawyers there consider whether the person will get along with everyone.
In the past decade the firm has won billions in verdicts and settlements, so it’s not surprising that so many associates want to work there and at similarly successful plaintiffs’ shops. But Avenatti debunks the idea that plaintiffs’ work is like hitting pay dirt. Although he ended up breaking even with a bonus, he took an initial $25,000 salary cut to join the firm.
Most plaintiffs lawyers only earn between $25,000 and $45,000 a year, says Vincent B. Browne, who chairs the Association of Trial Lawyers of America New Lawyers Division.
SINK OR SWIM
Since plaintiffs lawyers generally don’t count billable hours, associate bonuses are usually based on the ability to get clients and win cases. If you can’t make the kill, you don’t eat.
Browne says associates often only get a percentage of the fees from business they generate, and that percentage often hovers around one-third. And if a plaintiff lawyer doesn’t bring in any cases—or gets outlawyered by an opponent—things can get rough, says Gary J. Greener, assistant dean for career services at Los Angeles’ Southern Western University School of Law.
“We hear about multimillion-dollar jury verdicts and say, ‘Wow, I’d love to work there,’ ” he says. “But there are a lot of plaintiff firms that survive hand to mouth. For the most part, plaintiff lawyers tend to be more conservative, simply because they’re small. You may hit it big one month, and be dry for six months.”
Avenatti is happy that he got his wish for more trial experience, but he does admit the workload can be challenging. With O’Melveny, he made a few court appearances over three years. Now he has five trials scheduled in the next six months.
“My caseload is four times larger than it was,” Avenatti says. “It’s good, but it’s much more difficult to juggle 16 smaller balls than four larger balls.”