Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer
By Aaron Larson
- Why do I need a lawyer?
- How much does a personal injury attorney cost?
- Where can I find an attorney?
- Should I hire the personal injury law firm with the 1-800 number, and all of the ads on TV?
- Should I hire the lawyer with the big "yellow pages" ad?
- Are there special types of personal injury lawers for different types of cases?
- If I meet with an injury lawyer, do I have to hire him?
- What should I ask an attorney before I hire him?
- Should I ask for a written retainer agreement?
- What if I hire an injury lawyer, but I don't like the work he does?
- If I get involved in another legal case, or if I want to appeal my case, does my attorney have to represent me?
- What if a dispute arises?
When you or your loved one suffer an injury as the result of somebody else's action, perhaps it seems natural that the person would offer to compensate you for your injury, or that their insurance company will do the right thing and offer a fair settlement. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. Many people will not take responsibility for their actions, and insurance companies profit from undercompensating injury victims. Insurance companies and their lawyers also know the governing law backwards and forwards, and they know that most non-lawyers have no idea what legal rights and remedies they possess.
An experienced personal injury lawyer knows how to build your case, how to negotiate your case with an insurance company, and, if necessary, how to take your case to trial. While it is possible to negotiate your claim with an insurance company yourself, insurance companies will typically do everything they can to take advantage of you and to effect the lowest possible settlement, while attempting to elicit statements from you that will damage your position if you ultimately decide to sue.
A lawyer is in a good position to help you obtain a favorable settlement that, even with the attorney fee deducted, significantly exceeds what you can obtain on your own.
Personal injury lawyers almost always accept cases on a contingent fee (or "contingency fee") basis, meaning that they if they win they receive a percentage of the award as their fee. If they lose, they do not receive an attorney fee. (Please note that attorney fees are different from costs, and you may be responsible for certain costs associated with your case, such as the filing fee for your lawsuit, even if you lose. While this is rarely an issue, as most civil litigation settles short of trial, you may wish to clarify the issue of costs with your lawyer.)
The amount of the contingent fee your lawyer will charge will vary somewhat from state to state. In most states, the attorney fee will be between one third and 40% of a personal injury award. Attorney fees for workers' compensation cases are more tightly regulated, and are typically lower than for regular personal injury matters. If your case is potentially worth a lot of money, you may be able to negotiate a reduction of the attorney's contingent fee - however, the best personal injury lawyers are usually not willing to negotiate their fees. They know that they are often able to recover substantially more money for their clients than attorneys with lesser skills, resulting in a greater award to you regardless of the percentage taken by the attorney.
You can find the names of attorneys from a variety of sources. You may seek advice from friends, or from your doctor or another health care professional. You may look in the Yellow Pages or an online lawyer directory. You may contact a State Bar lawyer referral service. There are many ways to seek a personal injury lawyer, but there are no magic answers to finding a good lawyer.
Go To An Attorney You Trust, And Seek A Referral
One of the best ways to find personal injury lawyer is to consult an attorney you trust. If you do not know any attorneys, ask your friends for names of attorneys they trust. It is not important that they give you the name of a lawyer who can handle your case - what is important is that the attorney is likely to comprehend the issues of your case, and is well-positioned to know which attorneys in your community have the skills to handle your case. Even if the attorney cannot personally take your case, he will often be able to refer you to a lawyer who can.
You should note within this context that attorneys frequently receive "referral fees" when they send personal injury cases to other lawyers or law firms. The amount of this fee can be significant - it is usually about a quarter to a third of the fee received by the personal injury lawyer who handles your case. This gives the attorney an incentive to refer you to a good personal injury lawyer - but if this possibility makes you at all uncomfortable you shouldn't hesitate to ask if the attorney referring your case expects a referral fee.
Referral Services & Membership Organizations
Many state bar organizations offer referral services to help people find attorneys. Usually, any member of the organization can list with its referral service, and you can't know just from the referral that the lawyer is truly qualified to handle your case.
There are also a number of specialty organizations, such as the American Association For Justice , which offer online directories of their membership. Most lawyers with significant personal injury practices are members of the AAJ. However, most legal organizations are open to all attorneys, and membership means only that the attorney has paid the membership fee.
Internet Lawyer Directories
A number of commercial on-line directories claim to screen their attorneys, or claim to list only highly qualified attorneys. Most are not being completely honest. Regardless of their promises, most on-line directories will list any personal injury lawyer who pays the required fee, and there is absolutely no guarantee that the listed attorneys are qualified to handle your case.
There are also a large number of websites on the Internet which look informational, but in fact are owned by law firms. Be wary of any "injury information" site that lists law firms or offers lawyer referrals, particularly if it does not make obvious the identity of its sponsor.
The issue of attorney advertising is addressed in the next two questions:
Generally speaking, television and radio advertisements are a bad way to find an attorney. Many advertisements are paid for by referral agencies, which collect large numbers of calls and then divide them up between member attorneys. Even when the advertisements are paid for by a law firm, often many of the cases are referred out to other firms who share the enormous cost of advertising. Most of the time, the attorney with the big advertising campaign will not have an office near you. Unless your case is worth a lot of money, you may well find that you are quickly referred to a different firm or that you can't get much attention for your case.
Please note that, when it comes to hiring a personal injury lawyer, many of the best personal injury attorneys do little or no advertising. They get their cases through "referrals" from other attorneys, due to their reputations for doing good work and getting good results.
If you look at the "full page" ads in the yellow pages, you will likely find that there are two types. The first type is an ad for a local attorney, who has chosen to pay for the full page. The second type is an ad for an attorney from outside the area, sometimes from the same attorney who runs the huge television ad campaigns.
Many of the biggest ads will be from personal injury law firms, who anticipate that their large advertisements will bring them large numbers of injury cases. Many of the better personal injury lawyers and firms do pay for full-page ads. However, as was previously noted, some of the best personal injury lawyers do little or no advertising at all. Also, there are many attorneys who buy the largest ad that they can afford in order to make their practices appear better than they really are.
If you look through the yellow pages, you will see that most lawyers claim to specialize in "personal injury" cases. Many of these lawyers have handled very few personal injury cases, and some have never had even a single injury case. The yellow pages can provide some degree of confirmation that a particular law firm is established, but even a big advertisement does not certify that a firm is qualified to handle your case.
Yes. When you are seeking a personal injury lawyer, you should consider that most personal injury lawyers do not practice medical malpractice law, and many do not handle workers' compensation cases. Just as you would seek a specialized doctor to provide a special type of medical care, the practice of medical malpractice law is very specialized and in seeking a lawyer it is almost always best to seek out a lawyer or law firm which has significant experience in that area of law. Some lawyers specialize primarily in workers' compensation law, which is typically handled through a special system of administrative courts.
Further, beyond workers' compensation and medical malpractice, certain law firms specialize in particular types of injury or cause of action. There are personal injury law firms which focus primarily on burn injuries, or brain and spinal cord injuries. There are personal injury firms which concentrate primarily on car accidents, construction accidents, or litigation over defective products. You will benefit from asking whether a lawyer you consult has experience with your type of injury before you make your hiring decision.
No. Although personal injury attorneys rarely charge for an initial meeting with a potential client, before your meeting you should ask if there is a fee for an initial consultation. If there is, you will be obligated to pay that fee even if you do not hire the attorney. However, even when the consultation is free, you have every right to take some time to think before you hire a lawyer, and you have every right to decide not to hire the lawyer. Hiring a personal injury lawyer is a big step, and there is nothing wrong with consulting several lawyers to find one who makes you comfortable.
The questions you should ask will vary with your case. Consider the following list to be a starting point:
- What are your areas of specialization?
- Have you handled cases like mine before? How many? What was the outcome?
- Will you be the only attorney who works on the case? If not, who else will work on it?
- How long will it take for this case to be resolved?
- Will you take my case on a contingent fee basis?
- Are there things I should do to improve my case, or to help you?
- How will you keep me informed about the progress of my case?
- If I contact your office with questions, how long will you take to return my call?
- If you are unavailable or on vacation, who can I speak to about my case?
- How often do you go to trial?
- If I am not happy with a settlement offer and you want to settle, will you go to court anyway?
- If I am happy with the offer but you think we can win more at trial, will you follow my wishes?
- Have you ever been disciplined by an ethics committee, or been suspended from the practice of law? If so, why?
- What "continuing legal education" courses have you attended during the past few years? Have you taught any?
Please note that, as desirable as references may be, it is usually not possible for personal injury lawyers to give references from past clients due to attorney-client confidentiality. However, you may wish to ask for references from other attorneys.
Yes. A written retainer agreement is the best way to ensure that your rights are protected, and in many jurisdictions is required for a contingent fee agreement to be valid. Many personal injury lawyers use a relatively short fee agreement, but even if it looks short and simple you should take your time and read the whole agreement before signing. If there is something you don't understand, ask for clarification before you sign.
Your lawyer works for you, and you have the right to terminate the attorney-client relationship. Please note, however, that your lawyer is still entitled to compensation for work performed on your case. If the lawyer was representing you on a "contingent fee" basis, the lawyer will often be entitled to a portion of the proceeds of your case once it has been resolved.
Usually, before you fire your lawyer, you will want to first talk to a different attorney. Sometimes the new attorney will tell you to try to work out your problems with your lawyer. If you choose to hire the new attorney, the new attorney should be willing to work out the details relating to any fees you may owe to your prior lawyer.
Generally not, unless your retainer agreement requires your attorney to take on the appeal. Your lawyer will ordinarily only have to represent you on the matters specified in your retainer agreement. Once a final judgment has been entered, your lawyer ordinarily has no further responsibility to represent you or to appeal your case.
In the event that a dispute arises between you and your lawyer, many state bars offer dispute resolution services. These services can be of particular benefit in the event of fee disputes. If you feel that your lawyer has acted in an unethical manner, each state has a "grievance" procedure where you can file a complaint against your lawyer and have your complaint investigated.
Copyright © 1999-2011 Aaron Larson. All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you believe you may lawfully use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article under the Fair Use exception to copyright law, except as otherwise authorized by the author of the article, you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.