Joe Fried is one of the most well-known and respected trial lawyers in the country. Practicing out of Atlanta, GA with his firm Fried Goldberg, Joe has received countless stellar verdicts and settlements all over the country. In his interview with Lawyer Minds, Joe talks about how he started to really challenge himself on the beliefs he had about case values.
Lawyer Minds: Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Joe. Tell us a little about yourself.
Joe Fried: My practice is primarily out of Atlanta, but I handle cases all over the country. I think I’ve handled cases now in either 36 or 37 states. And my focus is on commercial motor vehicle crash cases primarily, but I sometimes get pulled into other catastrophic injury and death cases.
Lawyer Minds: How long have you been a plaintiff’s personal injury lawyer?
Joe Fried: 26 years. I went to the University of Georgia, did a federal clerkship for a year, and in 1994, I started in private practice with a plaintiff’s medical negligence firm. I’ve never worked on any side other than the plaintiff side.
Lawyer Minds: I assume, early in your practice you were like the rest of us and you handled what I would consider average size cases when it comes to monetary damages. Now, you have some of the biggest settlements that I’ve ever seen in a plaintiff’s personal injury case. At what point was there a transition where you had to start thinking in numbers that were so much larger than what you had dealt with before? How did it go from settling $100,000.00 and $150,000.00 cases to the kinds of numbers that you’re getting today?
Joe Fried: Well, I would say it is more of a process and a journey than it was an event. When we come out of school, we don’t know the value of anything. What a case is worth is not intrinsic knowledge. It’s learned and accepted as true. Let me give you an example: When I came out of school, I didn’t know what cases were worth, so I listened to others. There was a saying about the value of a wrongful death case: “Argue me up or down from a million dollars.” I heard that a few times from people I thought should know, so I accepted that as my truth. So when it came time for me to value a wrongful death case, I would parrot back “argue me up or down from a million dollars.” I would judge how I did with a case based on that metric.
The same was true for the value of other kinds of cases. In the early stages, I used the good name of my firm to go out as a young lawyer and get all kinds of cases. I didn’t know what a broken arm case was worth or a cervical fusion case or anything else. I learned from others. I sometimes read verdict reports. I was taught to be scared to overreach. I accepted other people’s truths as my own. I judged myself against these metrics. That’s the world I lived in and it’s a convenient world — especially if you’re pushing a significant volume of cases. It almost becomes what social scientists call a “heuristic.” You know how you’re doing in a case by the values you’re getting in cases compare to this norm that you’ve accepted as your truth.
And, I wish I had to do it over again. The biggest thing I’d want people to get from this interview is the challenge to quit accepting the frame of how others value your cases.
I’m going to ask everybody who reads this to answer the question, “Where did that frame come from? Who informed you about that frame? Who told you that X kind of a case is worth X and Y kind of a case is worth Y? Why is it so?” Challenge the paradigm. Challenge the precursor which is your belief. Your beliefs are the biggest limiters to the value of your cases.
I have done a lot of work on myself as a human and as a lawyer. Self exploration about my beliefs, especially my limiting beliefs. And along the way, certain cases came to me, one in particular that I’m thinking of, involved the death of two children. I remember talking to all these great lawyers about “What’s the value of a child death case?” They’d say, “Oh, child death cases, you don’t get much money in those cases because people don’t think that parents ought to profit off the death of their children.” Of course, when you say it that way, gosh, I don’t believe people should profit off the death of their children either. Who would think you should profit off the death of your children? So, initially I started to accept, “Okay, so that case just isn’t worth very much.” Yet on the other hand, as a human being, I can’t imagine that loss. The thought of losing one of my kids is the biggest fear I have, and I have lots of friends and certainly lots of clients who have, and I’ve seen the torment it causes them. You just have to learn to breathe again after that, and it challenges you to the core when you have a loss like that.
How can that loss not be worth a lot?
How can that loss not be valued in our legal system the way it’s valued in our society?
With that type of loss, your heart breaks over and over again and if you allow yourself to really think through it, that type of loss is a life sentence for the parents and the family. It’s the worst kind of a loss, and so how is that not “worth something”? And so, what happened to me is a shift happened in my mind, looking at certain cases where people were telling me things aren’t worth much. Somebody would say, “well, this case is a pain case and there’s no objective evidence of the pain. He can still go to the office and do a little bit of work, so he can still earn a living. So, that ought not be worth very much.” I remember another case where somebody said to me in a death context, “the decedent was an adult who had Down Syndrome.” And the suggestion was, “it’s just not worth very much.”
And you can hear the arguments in your head. I know you can and I know everybody else who reads this will. But if you stop and think as a human being, “Why should that person’s life not be worth something?” And not just something, but a lot. So, what started to happen to me is I started to challenge myself about these so called truths. I started to challenge myself and asked myself where I was getting the messaging that I had accepted as true about value. So, I started asking for bigger numbers and magic happened. I started asking for bigger numbers and I started getting bigger numbers. But, I didn’t just ask for the bigger number because I picked it out of the air. I sat, and I struggled with it, and I prayed over it, and I struggled with, “what is the value of pain?” Or, “what is the value of a death of a person?”
I remember thinking, and I remember making the argument to jurors and adjusters, “If this isn’t real pain, if it’s not significant, then don’t give them much of anything at all. But, if this is pain every single day, in every single way, and he’s got to live with this forever, and it’s never going to get better, it might get worse. How is that not worth a ton of money? If it were me, you couldn’t pay me a $100,00.00 to trade places with this dude. Or a million of two million. There’s no way in the world.” And so, I started just coming to challenge these accepted limits and realized I just don’t accept them.
And let me tell you, when you start to do that, the first thing that happens is the world fights back. The adjusters start sending you “you’re crazy” messages, and they start sending you “it ain’t ever going to happen” messages, and they start sending you verdict reporters and statistics and data. But I know this much to be true: None of that means anything, because on any given day, in front of some jury, guess who else doesn’t know the value of the case until they’re taught? The jurors don’t. They are a clean slate, unaffected by messages about value.
And so if you live a credible existence, and you do the time, really spend the time thinking and contemplating what the values ought to be for something, and you get to a place where inside of you, you believe the number is bigger than what anybody else is telling you, please take that case to trial. Please take that case to trial and don’t be afraid to put it out there. And if you’re credible, if you’ve lived credibly in the courtroom, you will shock yourself at the numbers you get.
And so, to answer your questions — it’s a process, but it’s a process that really has to do with you as a developing human being and a lawyer. When I say that, I’m not challenging only those people who are new to the practice. I’m talking about people who are 25 years in like me, 27 years in like me, who are letting other people’s beliefs about the value of cases define them, define their client’s case. That’s the challenge.
Lawyer Minds: What advice would you give to those newer lawyers to get where you are now, to have that transformation, to change the heuristic, so to speak?
Joe Fried: My whole life as a lawyer, and really in my life generally, feels sometimes like an exercise in the management of my own fear and doubt in my own self capabilities and work. So, it’s not fun for me to say that, but I say it because my bet is I’m not alone. And some of the people who read this might say, “Okay, this guy has done well, he’s successful. He’s got nothing to worry about. It’s different for him.” That’s not true. It’s not true. I struggle with fears, and people who say they don’t, they’re either a different kind of animal than me, or they’re not telling you the truth.
So, I do have the benefit of going through life making mistakes. But, the floor doesn’t open up. I don’t fall into the dungeon. So, experience does matter, I’m not suggesting otherwise. But, I just want people who feel that way to know that they’re not alone. And even some lawyers who’ve done pretty darn well for themselves continue to struggle with those issues. So, you can’t let that be an excuse.
And so what I would say to any lawyer, whether they’re a brand new lawyer, or they’re later in life and they want to finally break out of some cocoon that they feel has prevented them from getting to the next step, is just take a baby step.
You could make this so big of a deal in your life that you can’t do it. Or you can just take small steps. Take some small steps and think about a case that’s under your skin right now. Think about that client. Think about what that client’s really going through. Try to really put yourself in their shoes, kind of really make it personal for yourself. Ask yourself if these are the limitations that affect me. Or maybe there are people who you love more than you love yourself, which is another topic we could talk about. Think, “if this is affecting your most loved person and someone else did it to them, then what’s that case worth? Why is your client’s case worth any less than that?”
So, I think that you’ve got to, I almost want to say “fake it till you make it”, but I really don’t mean that. I mean do the work on the front end where you can see a different value. Where you get to a place where you believe the value is different, and then trusting that you have as valid a point, or as valid a position as anybody else does. Because even all those companies that have all this data and even all those lawyers who have a lot more experience than you do, they can’t tell you what’s going to happen in a given case. They have no idea what’s going to happen in your case.
And so, you have to talk about why your case is different than the other case. A lot of times my internal dialogue is I know that most of the time a case like this is valued at X. Is my case different than that? Should my case be treated differently than that? If the answer is no, then okay, go resolve the case for that amount and don’t worry about it. Don’t feel bad about it. Feel good about it. But, if you think about the case and you say, “God, there’s this feeling in my stomach.” And I know you know what I’m talking about. I’m sure you’ve had it like I have — where you almost feel like if you accept this number, you’re going to have sold something inside yourself a little bit short.
You have got to honor that voice. And if you really believe the case is worth more, then challenge the voice that’s limiting the values of the case. Where’s it coming from? Who is that voice? And is it really true? Or have you just accepted it as true without your own self evaluation?
We are grateful to Joe for sharing these invaluable lessons and we are hopeful the lessons he imparts will sink in.
For more about Joe or his practice, visit https://www.friedgoldberg.com/the-firm/joseph-a-fried/.