Whether you want to hire a lawyer to handle all aspects of your personal injury claim, or you just want professional guidance on settling your personal injury case yourself (or preparing it for small claims court or arbitration) you don’t want to hire just any lawyer. You want an experienced personal injury lawyer. And you want one with whom you are comfortable.
The practice of law has become highly specialized, and many lawyers know less about personal injury law than you will after some reading through this site. So, your first task is to find a lawyer who has experience representing claimants (known as "plaintiffs") in personal injury cases. You do not want to be represented by someone who has primarily been a lawyer for insurance companies, even if they’re experienced. Such a lawyer may be too accustomed to taking the insurance company’s side and might not fight hard enough for your claim.
There are several ways to find experienced plaintiff’s personal injury lawyers. The best way to proceed is to comparison-shop. Get the names of several lawyers and meet with each of them to discuss your claim before you decide to hire any one of them.
Contact friends or coworkers who have been represented by a lawyer in their own personal injury claims. If the friend or coworker says good things about the experience, put that lawyer on your list of people with whom to have an initial consultation. But do not make any decision about a lawyer solely on the basis of someone else’s recommendation. Different people will have different responses to a lawyer’s style and personality. Also, at any particular time a lawyer may have more or less energy or interest to devote to a new case. So do not make up your mind about hiring someone until you have met with the lawyer, discussed your case, and decided that you are comfortable entering a working relationship.
You may already know a lawyer, either personally or because the lawyer has represented you before in some legal matter. And that lawyer may be very good at the job. So, when you consider hiring a lawyer to work on your personal injury claim, it may seem obvious to hire this person you already know.
However, this lawyer might have little or no experience representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. And instead of immediately referring you to an appropriate personal injury attorney, the lawyer may hang onto your case, either because of a reluctance to disappoint you, or believing that the lack of experience isn’t important. Regardless of the good relations you have, that lawyer is not right to handle your claim, so immediately ask that lawyer to refer you to someone—either in that lawyer’s office or elsewhere—who is. Lawyers commonly refer cases to one another, and most lawyers know someone else who handles plaintiffs’ personal injury cases. As with referrals from friends or coworkers, however, do not simply take another lawyer’s referral as gospel.
You can search for lawyers through advertising directories. Nolo’s lawyer directory at www.nolo.com/lawyers provides extensive profiles of attorneys, including each attorney’s experience, education, and fee structure. Lawyers.com also has an extensive directory of personal injury lawyers, complete with client reviews and peer ratings.
Most local bar associations have lawyer referral services through which you can get the name of a lawyer in specialty areas. Call your local bar association referral service and ask for the names of a couple of personal injury lawyers.
Unfortunately, bar associations do very little screening concerning the experience of lawyers on their lists. A referral lawyer’s experience level can be a hit-or-miss proposition. Make no decision about a bar referral lawyer until you have met and interviewed him or her.
To find out whether a lawyer is right for you, sit down with the lawyer to discuss your claim and possible ways of handling it. Bring copies of all the documents you have concerning your claim: police report, medical bills, income loss information, and all correspondence with the insurance company, including your demand letter if you have reached that stage.
Most personal injury lawyers do not charge anything for an initial consultation. If the lawyer wants to charge you just for discussing whether to take your case, go somewhere else.
After giving a lawyer a general idea of what your claim is about, there are a few basic things to find out from the lawyer at the outset of your first interview.
Find out a little bit about the lawyer’s background and experience. If you’re interested in where the lawyer went to school, ask that— although it isn’t as important as experience in the real world. Some other questions might be:
In almost every law practice, lawyers work together on cases. Often, less experienced attorneys and paralegals handle routine tasks. This can benefit you if work gets done more quickly than if it had waited for the attention of one of the office’s more experienced attorneys. And if you are paying by the hour, it is to your financial advantage not to have the more expensive senior lawyer handling routine paperwork.
How well you and a lawyer will be able to communicate with each other is an important aspect of choosing a lawyer. Does the lawyer listen to you? Is the lawyer willing to follow your wishes about how to approach the case? Does the lawyer explain things well? Do you get the sense that the lawyer will keep you informed and will truly listen to your input before making important decisions in the case?
A lawyer’s willingness to listen and ability to understand you may affect how much you can help the lawyer and whether you can control somewhat how the lawyer does the job. A lawyer’s willingness and ability to explain what is happening in your case will likewise affect your ability to make good decisions. And your ability to talk to one another may make the entire process much less stressful.
After you have discussed with the lawyer the facts of your case and the history of your negotiations with the insurance company, the lawyer may give you a general opinion of how much your case is worth and how difficult it may be to get the insurance company to pay something in that range. This is when you should discuss with the lawyer the different ways your case could be approached, and whether the lawyer would be willing to handle it in the way you prefer. These approaches include:
Asking to approach a case in a certain way when you first hire the lawyer does not mean that you are stuck with that approach. As the case goes along, you are always free to ask the lawyer to change tack. You may get tired of the whole process and want the lawyer to wrap things up as soon as possible. Or, the cost of taking your case through the lawsuit process may begin to eat up too much of your potential compensation. On the other hand, as the case goes along it may seem to you and your lawyer that the odds have improved of obtaining a higher settlement than you originally anticipated, and so you are willing to have the lawyer fight longer and harder than you were initially.
This article was adapted from the book, How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo). We highly recommend it, whether you handle your own claim or hire a lawyer.