“I play for money”- Joey Knish

NeuwirthLawFor Lawyers

In the epic poker film Rounders, Matt Damon plays the young flash in the pan superstar who wants to win it all. Joey Knish, Turturro’s character, is the classic poker grinder, who watches his money, makes good bets on good risks and doesn’t chase cars, ego etc. When Damon needs his help, Knish is there for him, but won’t lend him money. Knish says: “I got alimony, child support, rent” etc.  The message is….. Damon is a bad risk.

I have always looked at plaintiffs’ personal injury practice as a game of poker. The insurance companies are the house and the house usually wins. Big bets against the house are usually not a good plan for long term success. Instead, prudent playing of risk and reward is what generates long term success for the lawyer and client.

Clients do not want their injury compensation to be in the hands of a jury of strangers. No matter how strong they feel their case is, few people are Matt Damon and love the risk. Some people are forced into the trial setting because the insurer is making a bad decision, but few embrace a jury trial. Clients want a fair settlement in a timely manner.

The one problem we face as lawyers in Pennsylvania is that we cannot tell the jury what we think our client’s case is worth. It is simply not allowed. So, how is a jury supposed to know how much money to award? They don’t. They don’t have experience awarding money so they guess, estimate or put round numbers on pain and suffering. $100,000 may be a lot of money in Berks County. But, to me, $100,000 for a single surgery is simply inadequate. How would a jury know that? It won’t. Juries get it right and get it wrong, but usually neither side wants to trust the jury to be accurate on value.

For decades now, I have played Joey Knish. It’s not glamourous, but I run a business that flourishes, maintains a fortress balance sheet, and keeps clients and referrers happy. That is the right play in my mind and it keeps everyone happy. Firms come and go and while it may not be apparent outside of the profession, personal injury firms break up all the time when money disputes break out. I know so many personal injury lawyers who are terrible with money, overspend on personal and business expenses, are loaded with debt and obligations, and have terrible credit. It’s an affliction that may or may not be part of personal injury practice. If we hit a big case, there is a huge dump of money. It may have been four years to get there, but all of a sudden there is a dump of money and it is tempting I am sure to go blow it on whatever is tempting at the moment.

I know lawyers who have killed themselves over their debts. I know lawyers who have been through multiple bankruptcies, have drinking problems, and everything in between. That’s not me. I guess I am Joey Knish. He is looked down on in the movie for not pushing all in and taking his shot. Ah, well, to me that is Hollywood. If you want to read a great book, read A Civil Action about Jan Schlichtmann. He was a bright lawyer, who graduated well before me from Cornell Law. He fought the good fight and pursued an endless toxic tort lawsuit. He went bankrupt, got divorced, lost his practice and lost his way.