Advocating from the Future: How to Survive Changing Legal Trends with Chris Dolan

22 May, 2020

Katie Wolf

Katie Wolf


Chris Dolan is the founder of Dolan Law Firm in San Francisco, CA. He's repeatedly been recognized as one of the top trial lawyers, even earning the California Lawyer of the year award. He's obtained settlements of over $1 Million dollars in over 26 cases. And, in addition to all this work, he is constantly thinking about the future of law, and how plaintiff-side lawyers can create a legacy of positive social change.


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Join us as we sit down with the country’s best attorneys to talk about their processes and practices, as well as their outlook on the always-changing legal landscape.

Full Transcript

Katie Wolf: Welcome to The Filevine Fireside. I'm Katie Wolf. As self-driving cars come on the scene we might have far fewer collisions. This is fantastic news for our society, but some personal injury lawyers might wonder what they'll do next. Well, Chris Dolan has some ideas. Chris Dolan is the founder of Dolan Law Firm in San Francisco, California. He's repeatedly been recognized as one of the top trial lawyers, even earning the California Lawyer of the Year Award. He's obtained settlements of over $1 million in over 26 cases. And in addition to all this work, he is constantly thinking about the future of law and how plaintiff's side lawyers can create a legacy of positive social change. Thank you so much for talking with us today, Chris. Christopher Dolan: Thank you for inviting me. Katie Wolf: So before we dive into some of these issues about the trends that lawyers are going to be seeing ahead, I want to ask you how you came to do this work. Did you always know you were going to be a lawyer? Christopher Dolan: Well, it's a personal question to which I'll give you an honest answer. I'm the youngest of five children. I grew up in a household of scarcity and a certain amount of violence, and I was not powerful physically, but I developed the ability to advocate for myself orally. And having experienced injustice, I have a strong belief in justice and in representing individuals in ideals against the powers of major corporations, governments, and insurance companies. So I often tell people that my greatest hero, the person I think of in terms of when I'm asked the question, "For whom do you have great respect?" It's the guy in Tiananmen Square who held up his hand in front of a tank- Katie Wolf: In front of that tank. Yeah. Christopher Dolan: He was committed. Katie Wolf: So as a sort of underdog in your childhood, you decided to be someone who would fight for underdogs then. Christopher Dolan: So I do believe that my experiences of being disempowered as a child and having really nowhere to turn to fueled my desire to be someone who has the ability to be somewhere people can turn to. In addition, I do a great amount of policy work that is beyond the representation of individual people, but to try to make sure that the system remains fair. The legal system is an amazing thing. It's where you can have a dispute with someone, hopefully with a impartial referee, though that's changing as we politicize the judiciary, where nobody's going to punch you in the face. Katie Wolf: Yes. And ostensibly, it stands on the merits of the case and your ability to make a strong argument. Christopher Dolan: The adversarial system is a phenomenal system because in front of a group of people each side is able to set forth the facts in sufficient detail that a reason consideration can be made. We have turned to Twitter for democracy. We have people who used to be diplomats are now people who can't spell properly, who put forward public policy on a limited basis. So we have people forming opinions with incomplete information and a trial allows skilled advocates on both sides to provide complete information to a jury, to make an educated decision. Katie Wolf: Mm-hmm (affirmative) Yeah. Thank you for that answer. That is a very honest and thorough answer. And I want to ask about the regulatory and legislative work that you have been doing. Do you believe that that's something that lawyers in general should just do, or is that something that is a unique thing that you are called to? Christopher Dolan: Do I wish everyone would do it? Yes. Do they? No. Why do I? Because I believe that I want to, and this sounds trite, but I want to leave this experience of my life here, where there is some lasting change and some lasting protection for people as technologies evolve and corporations seek to use that to their benefit, to say that the existing framework for accountability does not apply to them. I've gotten to a point in my life where I've actually told people that I'm now thinking of what will be my legacy. And legacy doesn't mean something that's braggadocious, but what will be the legacy. I'm extremely proud to help families make it possible to keep their homes, or to send their children to school, or to cause change in roadways or bridges, but on an institutional and on a macro level, I want some legacy whether it's recognized or not, but I want to know that there's a legacy of an improvement in a system to preserve and protect people from an imbalance of power. Katie Wolf: I just want to keep asking you about these issues, but we should dive into the trends- Christopher Dolan: If that's what you want. Edit out what you don't want. Katie Wolf: Okay. Let's dive into the trends that lawyers might be seeing in the future because in addition to doing your practice, you're thinking hard about how our culture is and things we need to do both on the regulation side and on the legal side, in order to keep up with those changes. I first learned about you through your writing on self-driving cars and some of the questions that they raise for our society. Do you want to just share some of the thoughts you have about the changes that we might be seeing with these self-driving cars? Christopher Dolan: So the self-driving car work was something that about four to five years ago, I began making presentations to lawyer advocacy groups, and to try to participate and encourage people to wake up to the fact that this change in transportation was going to have an effect on people. And it was rife with the danger that the companies were going to push an agenda that would eliminate their accountability. And that states in a rush to try to get these dollars to entice these manufacturers and developers to their states would create an insulation from them being held accountable for their own harms. And I saw this happening in California, even to this simple question of who is liable if there is a collision in an autonomous vehicle, it's always been the operator of a vehicle, which was easier to identify when we're dealing with, what I'll call analog vehicles, which are ones that you turn a key in. But who is the operator under the circumstances of an autonomous vehicle? Christopher Dolan: And I did push for that definition to include the person who initiates the automation sequence because they're the ones making a decision to depart from the normal decision-making and accountability process. And that then makes sure that whoever's making that decision has a degree of confidence, that the decision can be made in a way that will be safe because they will have personal accountability otherwise. Katie Wolf: Right. So do you think that personal injury lawyers specifically need to be thinking differently now or preparing now for this future of transport and new questions of liability? Christopher Dolan: Five years ago, I said to people, "Wake up." I will tell you that as it relates to personal injury as a whole, that is a significant, if not the complete focus of many lawyers who are working on the plaintiff's side. And of personal injuries, the majority of those are related to motor vehicle collisions. The statistics that are put by the Department of Transportation and by industry groups indicate that the full implementation of what they call level 5 automation, that the number of collisions in related injuries and deaths will drop off precipitously. So that is a social good. For people doing the work that we're doing if they are going to maintain a livelihood for themselves, they need to begin to diversify the portfolio of what types of cases and what areas of consumer protection that they're going to be involved in and looking at trends. In my firm, for example, we have developed an elder abuse practice because we see a demographic of people who are ballooning from the post World War II area, often referred to as baby boomers. Christopher Dolan: I resent the term boomer, and they are going to create a profit center for corporations in terms of their maintenance, because we're also living longer. And therefore there's an area in which we are seeing a lack of safety and security because people are trying to extract the most money out of care. So there's an area in which lawyers can play a positive role through helping people on that framework, the employment laws, another area that we've diversified into, but I've been doing that for 20 years because there are workplace protection rights, both in safety and in terms of the right of people to be free from discrimination and harassment. But I think people need to diversify their practices away from auto liability because the amount of injury is going to be reduced up to 80% they say. So people need to be forward thinking about how can they continue to utilize their skills for the benefit of the public while also maintaining a living for their families. Katie Wolf: So I want to ask about some specific ways that lawyers can begin pivoting toward these other areas of law, or diversifying as you've been talking about. So elder law, if you're a lawyer and you haven't yet been getting into that, what are some of the things you should be thinking about now, or skills you should be picking up now to become a good lawyer in that field? Christopher Dolan: So unlike personal injury, that's largely a development of common law, elder abuse has largely evolved from statutory construction. So one needs to read not only the code sections, that codify what is elder abuse and neglect. For example, you need to understand that it's someone who's involved in custodial care. What is the definition of custodial care? Someone who is dependent upon others for the maintenance of their day-to-day activities and feeding, bathing, et cetera. You need to understand what is the definition of neglect and abuse. They're not what one might believe them to be based upon a common understanding of the words. And then you need to understand the different types of facilities that are providing this type of care, whether it's a skilled nursing facility, or residential care facility for the elderly, because they have different requirements for staffing and different requirements under the law to promote safety. Christopher Dolan: And then you need to understand the evolution of the case law as to how it has defined what is neglect, because there is a potential for crossover between a medical negligence action and an elder abuse action. And in California, there are caps on the damages for medical malpractice cases. So these entities want to make elder abuse cases, malpractice cases, to benefit from the cap. So it's an understanding of the statutory, regulatory and common law frameworks that that is not insurmountable, but it takes energy to understand it because it's evolving. And usually when we see the evolution of law, we see it evolving for the benefit of corporations, unless there are people who are actively fighting for it to promote the safety and welfare of the elderly, which I think is a noble cause. Katie Wolf: Another area that you've done some high profile work in is, well, we've been talking about it throughout this consumer protection issues. You're currently taking on Amazon over exploding hover boards, I'm aware, and you probably can't discuss the specifics of that- Christopher Dolan: Oh, I'm happy to discuss, trust me. I'm happy to discuss specifics of the case because they're public records. And it's very important to have this dialogue at this point in time. So when one looks at consumer protection, we have to look at it through the channels in which consumers are being affected because consumer protection is about protecting people from the effects of the products that are being manufactured and delivered. Under the law and economics approach to both policy and decision-making under the law, a product should incorporate its true costs, which means not only the cost of manufacturing, production, assembly, packaging, distribution, marketing, but it should also embody the costs of any harms that it causes. If not, then it has an artificially low price, which means it's going to have less incentive for the manufacturers to make it safe and more unsafe products will reach the market because the manufacturer, distributor, wholesaler is disincentivized and we call it a moral hazard from conducting inspection testing, and evaluation of the products. Christopher Dolan: There is no greater villain on the dark star of retail than Amazon because Amazon, although it calls itself the world's largest marketplace and it calls itself a retailer, claims that it is not responsible for products that are sold through its website from third-party manufacturers many of which are in China. And people do not have recourse against companies in China. They are not actively promoting the tort system for consumer protection. So in cases that we've had, there's been a product manufactured in China sold through Amazon and arriving at someone's home, including the exploding hover board cases where the person when harmed sues the US distributor, wholesaler, and they just fold up and go out of business. And then we looked to the company that made the sale, and I mean that, made the sale not made the sale possible, which is what they claim for accountability. Christopher Dolan: And they claim, "We are not accountable because we are nothing more than an electronic bulletin board." Now, I will tell you that that's what Uber and Lyft said when I took them on, I don't know, six, seven years ago. And we were able to demonstrate that Uber is actually a transportation company, not merely a billboard for people to obtain ride sharing. And when we look at Amazon and the effect that it's having on our economy, you see vacant stores all over, you see the loss of retail jobs. And if Amazon is not held accountable for the products itself, what motivation do they have to make sure that the products they're selling are safe? And I will tell you what's Amazon's role in this that shows that they should be held accountable. First, they have complete control over whether someone can post or not post on their system. Christopher Dolan: So they have direct control over whether a product will be sold. They have the exclusive right to change content and to make sure that the content is acceptable to them in the manner in which the product is displayed. They provide alternate product choices. When one looks at a product and direct people to other products, they may wish to buy where they say, "Others have looked at this." They charge a fee for each posting from a seller. They charge anywhere from 10-15% of the sale price, which includes packaging and shipping. So they're making a profit off the sale of each unit. They have the ability to require their sellers to carry a liability insurance policy. That's written into their business services agreement. They have the ability to tell manufacturers, "You must meet certain safety standards," such as what they call UL laboratory safety protocols. They have the right to pull down a product for any reason. They have an A to Z guarantee that if you are unhappy with the product, they will make sure that you have it bought back even if the manufacturer will not accept it. And one of the most important things is there is no ability to directly communicate with the seller. All communications must go through Amazon and Amazon handles all the money. But they say, "We're not a retailer." It's a lie and it's a lie and an effort to not be held accountable for the harms that its products cause, and since they are the world's largest retailer that has an enormous impact on consumer safety. So they must be held accountable so that the products they sell can be properly valued. And people who are spending good money on them can have some assurance that the products that they're purchasing aren't going to kill them. Katie Wolf: The last trend that I want to talk to you about is anti-discrimination law and how you see that might be changing or adjusting. You were famously involved in the largest verdict ever in world history as far as I can tell for individuals subjected to racial and ethnic discrimination. And that was two Lebanese Americans who were being harassed by their manager and coworkers. You want to talk about that? Christopher Dolan: So an example of some of the work that I've done involved post 9/ 11 representation of two Middle Eastern Americans from Lebanon who worked for FedEx Ground, which was an evolution of Federal Express that bought a company called Roadway Package System. And they were called camel jockeys, Hezbollah, terrorists. They were demeaned on a regular basis. Their routes were made more difficult by the way things were packaged. They were told they should work on Christmas because they don't believe in God. They were routinely and repeatedly subject to abuse. And they went to they went to everybody, they went to the ACLU, they went to the Anti-Defamation League. They reached out for help to everybody, and no one would take their case. And they came to me and they were the most interesting pair of people. They were Camille and Edgar, and I love them dearly. And they would come in and they would fight like two old ladies in Arabic and talk to me about what's going on. And I took that case simply because it was the right thing to do and what was happening was wrong. And people told me I was nuts and I guess I am a little bit nuts and I'm okay with that because if nuts means willing to take a risk and go out on a limb for justice, I'll be nuts. So I sued FedEx and FedEx Ground, and it was a very challenging legal battle because they claim that these were independent contractors, which is also a major trend we see in corporations trying to avoid liability. And the court agreed and California had passed a law that went into effect that protected independent contractors under our anti-discrimination laws. But despite the fact that they had been abused for years, there were only 21 days in which their abuser remained in contact with them and abuse them following the passage of this law that protected independent contractors. Katie Wolf: Wow. Christopher Dolan: So the challenge was what's 21 days worth? And these folks didn't get fired, they persevered and they made more money every year because they were hustlers and hardworking people. So again, people told me, "Dude, you're nuts. It's people from the Middle East. After 9/11, they're making more money. It's 21 days. What are you thinking?" And what I was thinking was, that it was just recently the anniversary of when the Japanese were rounded up because of their identifiable ethnic origins. They had their property stripped from them. They were treated as criminals without a trial. And they were put in abhorrent conditions, similar to concentration camps because they were part of an ethnic minority that we were in conflict with. So that case took five years and it was tried in front of a jury in Alameda County. And part of what I did was talk to the jury and say, "Listen, we are not a society that is fair and equal. We didn't start off that way. We started off with slaves and women were property and they didn't get a chance to vote. And we'd been hobbling along towards this concept of justice." And I had people on that jury that were very risky. These were people whose children were in Iraq. And I was talking to them where their lives were literally at threat from people who were Middle Eastern. And what it boiled down to is I said, "You know the only way that the system changes is if 12 people who are the purest form of democracy go back in that room and they tell their government and they tell these corporations, "No." And I said, "You have to go in there and decide what kind of America do you want to be? And when you come out, you can change the way that we operate, and live, and treat people." And it was the largest verdict as it related to Middle Eastern discrimination and independent contractors. And it was very challenging because it's 21 days. I said to the judge, "The treatment over the two years should come in." And they said, "No," because it [inaudible 00:25:33]. And I said to the judge, I said, "Your honor, if a person is given 20 lashes, is the first lash more or less painful than the 20th lash?" I said, "Because these men have been lashed for years and they were lashed again, when it became illegal and they therefore suffered a greater pain because of the fact of the rooms that they've had all along." And the judge agreed and the jury agreed. It was the most incredible moment because I asked the jury for at least $2.5 million for each of my clients for their emotional distress. I didn't ask for a penny in economic loss. And the jury came back with $5 million each. I thought "Christ, they should ask for $10 million" Katie Wolf: Chris, I'm so grateful for your work. And I'm so grateful for you taking this time to talk with us. And I wish you the best of luck in your work. Christopher Dolan: Thank you. I hope there's a takeaway here for lawyers that listen. This is not just a vocation, it's an advocation. And I do believe that I have been certain abilities and opportunities, and I have my own spiritual beliefs, but I think that there has been a gift to me from a higher power to which also comes a responsibility to act in the best interest of people who need protection. So I often tell people when I speak to them about these subjects, "You have the ability to change things that no one else does because you have the golden ticket called a law license. Use it for more than your own pocket book." Katie Wolf: It's good, good, final words. Thank you so much, Chris.