Informant: “We [corporate lawyers] call personal injury attorneys “ambulance chasers.” We mean this as a joke, obviously, but sometimes we … don’t. There’s this stereotype that personal injury attorneys chase around ambulances in order to add the injured persons to their clientele. It’s… it’s a real thing that people do. I know it’s unbelievable but people do it out of desperation. But this is actually illegal and it goes against Rule 7.3 of the ABA (American Bar Association), because you’re basically seeking out people who are in a time of severe distress and are unable to properly think about what they’re doing and who they’re hiring.”
My informant is a General Litigation Lawyer at a major corporate law firm based in Century City, California. He has been working in his field for over five years. My informant admits to using this term a few times when describing unethical practices by personal injury lawyers.
This phrase is used often in a professional environment, but not professionally and in private from one lawyer to another. This phrase can be used in the office, courtrooms, and depositions, but it would not be told in front of others. One lawyer might use this term when speaking to another fellow lawyer, but it would not be said “on record.” This kind of language would be considered unprofessional, so it is told in private. This term is almost always used as a degrading term pertaining to all personal injury lawyers.
Since I am planning to pursue a career in law, I was familiar with this phrase. The first time I heard this phrase was from one of my political science professors. I believe, like all other stereotypes, that this phrase is not an accurate representation of all those that it pertains to. But, like some stereotypes, it may hold some truths to it. Since ambulance-chasing goes against American Bar Association ethics codes, using this phrase helps to discourage unethical behavior on behalf of the personal injury lawyers. Therefore, the use of this stereotype may be a helpful one as it shames unethical behavior.
This is a term that neither I nor my informant have ever heard used outside of legal occupations. Therefore, this phrase is a good example of occupational folklore, or folklore that is better understood or widely used within a particular folk group. This is not to say that those outside of the lawyer folk group are not allowed to use it; they will just not be able to extract the full meaning of the word without working in that occupation.
The use of this phrase suggests that there is an unwritten hierarchy in the field of law. Corporate lawers, like my informant, tend to see themselves as higher-ranking and better lawyers than personal injury lawyers. This can give us insight into lawyer culture because we can see that higher-paid lawyers will look down upon lower-paid lawyers and fail to realize that both positions in the field of law are honorable.
For further reading about occupational folklore, see Robert McCarl’s chapter in Elliot Oring’s Folk Groups And Folklore Genres: An Introduction titled “Occupational Folklore.”