We recently had the pleasure of getting to know South Carolina personal injury attorney Mark Chappell. Here's what we learned:
Mark Chappell's humble beginnings and a life-changing day
For decades, high school career day has been a rite of passage for students nationwide. Some stumble through halfheartedly, but for Mark Chappell, it was the day that set him on the path toward a legal career.
As part of his high school education in Chester, South Carolina, Mark attended a career day with a local attorney. The lawyer was respected in the community and gave Mark aspirations to do the kind of work he saw that day. Mark didn't know at the time what area of law he would choose as his specialty, but he believes today that he selected the best specialty to help clients and to support his family.
Though dedicated to his studies at the University of South Carolina School of Law, there were a few bumps along his path to success.
Mark remembers cringing when his first-year criminal law professor said, “Once again, not a clue, Mr. Chappell?”
Yes, he had shown up to a law school class unprepared with an answer. But that moment taught him that preparation is both the key to being a successful student and a successful lawyer. He knows now that when an attorney is unprepared, it's not just his own reputation that's at stake—but his client's case.
Stories from the trenches: legal practice
A lawyer will usually help their clients to be compensated for their losses by maximizing the effects of existing laws.
Mark took it one step further.
Years ago, he represented the family of a child killed in an ATV crash. Afterward, he worked with his clients to have an ATV safety bill passed. He also lobbied for legislation related to properly investigating deaths on college campuses. That was after representing a client whose daughter died from a fall out of an 8th-story window in her college dorm on the first night of her freshman year.
Mark Chappell will first help the family whose lives are changed forever by unimaginable tragedy and then do all he can to make sure the same tragedy doesn't happen to other families.
One case that Mark is especially proud of involves his having represented the family of a child who was beaten to death by a foster parent. After an extensive period of discovery, he determined that the policies in effect at the time did not properly screen, train, or monitor a foster parent with serious mental health issues.
After a week-long trial, the jury returned a verdict for the defense. However, the South Carolina Department of Social Services changed its protocol in order to prevent this type of tragedy from happening to another child or family — to Mark, this is a true victory.
Mark's advice to clients and prospective clients
Mark says, “Don't believe everything you hear (particularly on TV or radio ads)!” (That probably also goes for the internet.)
Seriously, though, he points out that he's been a trial lawyer for nearly 40 years, and the ads are full of fast numbers and double talk that don't reflect what the legal profession is actually about.
He says, “You don't have to hire me, but I know most of the ‘real' lawyers in South Carolina because I've seen them in action. They're not on TV—they're in the courthouse.”
Mark encourages any person seeking a lawyer to look at the attorney's experience and the reputation of their firm. He adds that there are younger lawyers in his firm who haven't been practicing as long as others but who learn from the senior lawyers' experiences, and that is tremendously valuable.
Before coming for an initial consult, Mark asks clients to bring all of their documents. For a typical car accident, that would include things like their FR 10 (accident report), insurance information, photos and medical records. This streamlines the process and helps him to evaluate whether he can take the case. It's also helpful for a client to be prepared with their questions and familiar with the firm so they'll have a sense of whether the firm will be a good fit.
Highs and lows of the practice of law
Mark loves being in the courtroom—that's the best part of his job. He says he gets an adrenaline rush from the contest of his skills versus his opponent's. Even without even meaning to, his mind is running non-stop the night before a trial or before his closing argument, thinking of the next move, the next argument, or the next “aha” moment of the trial.
The lows of his job? He's pretty happy, but there definitely are days when he has to sit in front of his computer screen for 8 hours at a time, reading, writing or researching. He knows his success is due to the amount of time he spends in preparation, but it doesn't give him the rush that he gets when actually putting that material to work.
Also, Mark dislikes that so many people have misconceptions about personal injury attorneys. He knows that some people perceive his profession as greedy and causing problems by filing frivolous lawsuits. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Every client comes to him because someone has treated them unfairly, and he's proud that he's spent his career standing up for those people who can't get relief otherwise.
Mark believes his job is to give clients honest advice and to be their advocate. Sometimes the clients don't love his advice, but he'd rather be truthful even when it's not what they want to hear than lead them astray with false promises or assurances. He'd rather they hear the truth from him than get an unfavorable result from a jury.
Reflections on the legal profession
As a personal injury lawyer, Mark has devoted his career to helping people who are experiencing tragedy in their lives. It could be the loss of a loved one, a totaled car, or some other event. He says he wants to solve all of their issues, but he can only do so much.
Sadly, he knows he can't take away their disabilities, ease their physical pain, or replace their lost income immediately. Many cases take several years, and in that time, Mark says he often spends 40 percent of the time as their lawyer and 60 percent as a psychologist.
Mark's favorite fictional lawyer is Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch stood up against racism and bigotry to defend a Black man accused of murder. Even though Finch's innocent client is found guilty by the jury, the spectators rise from their seats as Finch leaves the courtroom because he is owed so much respect and gratitude.
Getting personal with Mark Chappell
When he's not at the office or in the courtroom, Mark spends time with his 4 children and his grandchildren. When his kids were younger, he'd coach their sports teams, teach Sunday School, and serve as a scout leader. Now that they're past that stage of life, he heads to his farm when he can so that he can relax and drive his tractor.
He says that if he wasn't practicing law, he would have become a furniture maker. He likes woodworking and the sense of accomplishment he gets from seeing a piece of wood transform into something that can be used and appreciated for generations in the future.
For now, though, he is happy to go to his office on Devine Street, which is only 8 minutes from his house. He appreciates that there are a variety of small law firms, restaurants and bars within walking distance.
When asked what Mark would choose as a superpower if he could, he responded that he'd love to be able to require people to be honest. Throughout his career, he's seen people, companies, doctors, politicians and some lawyers who weren't truthful about important facts. He's spent years developing his skill for uncovering lies and digging for the truth and says that telling the truth is easy—but remembering lies isn't.