There is no university subject called “plaintiff law”. Torts and negligence come close, but they fail to capture the heart of plaintiff work. Often, when people think of plaintiff law (also called personal injury or PI), they think of ambulance chasing, car crashes, and slipping on grapes. Though plaintiff law might not always have the “sex appeal” of a shiny glass tower or an international secondment, here are the top four reasons I think you should give it another look.
1. You actually get to meet clients
At a plaintiff firm, no matter if you’re a paralegal, grad, or junior lawyer, you’ll get face-to-face experience with clients. The heart and soul of plaintiff law is working with people who have suffered an injury or who have had something go wrong, and part of helping your clients is getting to know them and their story. This means you will get a lot of time on the phone, in meetings, and even at client’s homes. Plaintiff clients come from all walks of life, as well, since negligence doesn’t care about money or status. Your client could be a politician, a scientist, an engineer, a baker, a checkout worker, or a clairvoyant. You get to meet them all. There’s something satisfying about working with real people every day, and that in turn helps improve your time at work and the satisfaction you get out of it.
2. You get to help people
Speaking of satisfaction, perhaps the best part of plaintiff law is that you actually get to help people. You usually meet your client when something has gone very wrong in their life – they’re injured, they’ve lost a loved one, they’ve suffered discrimination. Your actual job is to help them use the legal system to achieve an outcome that will help them get back on their feet. I know that law school tries its very best to stamp out your “save the world” instincts, but working in a plaintiff firm brings them all right back to the surface, and then rewards them by letting you actually see the positive results you help people achieve.
3. Litigation is a real thing that you do
Plaintiff litigation is just that – litigation. Put plainly, it’s about suing on behalf of an individual who has been wronged. No transactional work. No property settlements. No contract reviews. You’re litigating. Your goal, each and every day, is to help your client achieve an outcome, usually a settlement. You’ll take witness statements, draft claims, brief experts and barristers, attend mediations, conferences and, often enough, court applications and trials. The actual work in litigating a matter, combined with working with real clients for a positive outcome, makes for an exceptionally thrilling and rewarding environment.
4. There are some really interesting areas
Medical negligence. Class actions. Personal injuries. Industrial and employment law. While plaintiff firms obviously have a lot of work in general personal injuries litigation, they also work across a number of exciting areas. Employment lawyers need to be ready to respond to union disputes or lockout orders in a very tight timeframe, often with an urgent application to the Federal Court. Class actions lawyers work on pieces of litigation that make the Starship Enterprise look tiny. General injuries litigation sees cases involving everything from motor vehicle accidents to catastrophic workplace injuries, and all things in between. Medical negligence teams combine medicine and law around complex questions of causation and fact. If there’s one thing that plaintiff law isn’t, it’s slow!
Now, I know there are a lot of adjectives in the above list, and it might all sound too good to be true. The truth is that working in plaintiff law is a bit of a calling – it’s not the kind of firm you just work in while you figure out where you’re going. The people that work in plaintiff law are a bit different to those who work in commercial firms, and often getting a job at a plaintiff firm is as much about how you fit with the firm’s values as much as how well you can draft a letter or research the law. You’ll tend to find that the people that work in plaintiff firms genuinely enjoy the work they do and the environment they do it in – which is a refreshing change from the stories of top-tier burnout and disengagement from the profession. So, while plaintiff law may not be everyone’s cup of tea (which is cool – everyone has their niche) if you think that the law should actually be used to do good in the world, or if you think that “justice” isn’t just a name you call someone in a wig, why not find out more about the other stuff you didn’t learn in your Torts tutorial.
This week's guest post is by Matthew Littlejohn. Matthew Littlejohn is a lawyer in the medical negligence department of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Brisbane. He has recently completed his trainee year with the firm, and previously worked as a judge’s associate in the Northern Territory Supreme Court. Matthew graduated from Griffith University and was admitted to practice in 2012.