Deciphering a Lawyer's Ad or Website

When you look at lawyer advertisements on television or in the phone book, they often contain claims or information that is somewhat confusing. The following are examples of claims often found in ads for personal injury lawyers, and what they typically mean.

"We Only Represent Plaintiffs"

A law firm that advertises that it only represents plaintiffs is indicating that it represents the party that brings a lawsuit (the plaintiff), and not the party who must defend against the lawsuit (the defendant).

Most personal injury firms only represent plaintiffs, and there does not appear to be any marked difference in the quality of representation available through a firm which only represents plaintiffs and one which represents both plaintiffs and defendants.

"We Don't Work For Insurance Companies"

Personal injury firms often advertise that they don't work for insurance companies. Most personal injury litigation is against a defendant who is insured. The insurance company typically pays for the defense lawyers and other costs of defending the case, and then pays the ultimate settlement or judgment within the policy limits of the defendant's insurance policy.

Given that insurance companies won't hire law firms to provide defense services where those law firms are also representing plaintiffs litigating cases against defendants they insure, this claim has little practical import for a client. In short, the claim is almost meaningless unless, for some reason, a prospective client wants to be certain that their injury firm never performs defense work.

"No Fee Unless You Recover"

This particular representation essentially means that the firm handles its personal injury cases on a contingency fee basis. Law firms that work on a contingent fee basis, where they accept a percentage of the ultimate verdict or settlement as the attorney fee, often advertise that they do not charge a fee unless the plaintiff recovers money. 

This claim refers to attorney fees, and does not necessarily extend to other costs of litigation. That is, even with a promise of "no fee", a plaintiff will typically remain liable for certain costs of litigation, such as filing fees paid to the court, even if the law firm does not prevail.

"We Win 99% Of Our Cases"

A lawyer I know once joked that he could advertise that he wins 100% of his cases, because he only files cases he knows he is going to win. It is difficult to know what to make of this type of claim. Most attorneys are careful about the cases they litigate, and try not to bring cases which are likely to be dismissed by a judge or result in a defense verdict following trial. If settlements are included in the "victories" column, given that most cases resolve in settlement, the figure becomes even more confusing. Similarly, if a law firm is in the practice of voluntarily dismissing its weaker cases, but is not including such dismissals as "losses", the figure loses meaning.

Some of the very best trial lawyers cannot claim similar percentages of victories, as they try their tough cases to verdict. The harder a case is, the more likely it is that the attorney will lose the trial. But when defense attorneys know that a lawyer will take a tough case to trial, it helps the lawyer press for larger settlements in cases the defense attorneys might regard as marginal. Also, if a lawyer has a reputation for obtaining large verdicts, that reputation can serve to increase settlement offers.

On its own, a claim to have won a certain percentage of cases has little significance and may distract a potential client from another firm which, although winning a lower percentage of its cases, does a better job with the hard cases, is better at trial, and is ultimately likely to secure a larger verdict or settlement for its clients.

"Millions Recovered For Our Clients"

Most personal injury law firms which have been in business for an appreciable number of years can make this claim, simply by summing up the total proceeds of the verdicts and settlements they have obtained since they opened their doors. This claim may be a mark of experience, but it does not guarantee either quality or that the firm will be able to recover millions for a particular client or case.

"150 Years of Combined Experience"

A representation about "combined experience" refers to the sum of the years of practice of all of the lawyers in a firm. A law firm with four lawyers who claim 150 years of combined experience is likely to have four experienced lawyers. A fourteen person law firm may have two or three experienced partners, and a large number of inexperienced associates.

The important measure is not combined experience, but actual experience: how experienced are the attorneys who will actually be managing your case? For that matter, how much experience do they have with cases like yours?

"We Are Rated Superb"

Many websites include claims that they are rated as "superb" or have a "10 out of 10" rating from an organization or website. Some ratings can give you a degree of assurance that the lawyer is qualified, but others are deeply misleading.

While some ratings are based upon surveys of other lawyers, who independently report to the company providing the rating their impressions of a lawyer's competence and ethics, many ratings have no such basis:

  • Sometimes the rating means little more than that the lawyer has paid a fee to the company that provided the rating.
  • Sometimes the rating is based on factors that have nothing to do with the lawyer's actual experience, the quality of the lawyer's services, or the lawyer's past history of success or failure.

 Never trust a lawyer's rating before you investigate how and why it was issued. If you find that a lawyer is posting a misleading rating, one that does not in fact represent an objective measure of the lawyer's skill, consider hiring a different lawyer.

Copyright © 2005 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing 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.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.