A lawyer can handle your personal injury lawsuit, help you settle your personal injury claim, and prepare your case for small claims court or arbitration. But you don't want to hire just any lawyer. You want an experienced personal injury lawyer you can trust.
The practice of law has become highly specialized. Many tax lawyers, for example, may know less about personal injury law than you will after you read a few AllLaw articles. So, your first task is to find a lawyer who has experience representing people who initiate lawsuits (called "plaintiffs") in personal injury cases. You probably don't want to be represented by a lawyer who primarily defends people and businesses against personal injury claims. But an experienced plaintiff's lawyer who has some experience on the other side (representing personal injury defendants or insurance companies) can be a real asset. Here are some suggestions for how to start your search for the right personal injury lawyer.
Contact friends or coworkers who have been represented by a lawyer in their own personal injury claims. If they say good things about their lawyer, put that lawyer on your list of candidates. But don't make any decision about a lawyer solely based on 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 don't make up your mind until you've met with the lawyer, discussed your case, and decided you're 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. So, when you consider hiring a lawyer to work on your personal injury claim, it may seem obvious to hire this lawyer you already know.
But this lawyer might have little or no experience representing plaintiffs in personal injury cases. If so, ask the lawyer to refer you to someone—either in that lawyer's office or elsewhere—who might be a good fit. Lawyers commonly refer cases to one another, and most lawyers have someone in their network who handles plaintiffs' personal injury cases. As with referrals from friends or coworkers, however, do not simply take another lawyer's referral as gospel.
Online resources like Nolo.com and AllLaw.com offer free legal information and attorney directories to help you put together a list of potential attorneys to talk to about your case. You can connect with a personal injury lawyer directly from this page for free.
Most state bar associations have lawyer referral programs that can match you with a lawyer with experience related to your legal needs.
No matter how you initially connect with a potential lawyer, it's best to sit down with the lawyer in person to discuss your claim. 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 don't charge for an initial consultation. Here are a few basic things to find out from the lawyer at the outset of your first interview.
Find out 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. And if you're paying by the hour, it's better for you not to have a more expensive senior lawyer handling routine paperwork. But you'll want to be sure you know and are comfortable with the lawyer who will spearhead settlement talks and represent you in court.
Your ability to communicate with your lawyer is critical to the outcome of your claim. Does the lawyer listen to you? Does the lawyer explain things well? Do you get the sense that the lawyer will keep you informed and truly listen to your input before making important decisions in the case?
A lawyer's willingness to listen and ability to understand your viewpoint will affect how satisfied you are with the lawyer's approach to your case. 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've talked with the lawyer about the facts of your case, the lawyer may give you a ballpark estimate of how much your case is worth and how difficult it may be to get the insurance company to settle for something in that range. This is the time to discuss with the lawyer different approaches to settling the case, including:
Asking to approach a case in a certain way when you first hire the lawyer doesn't mean that you're stuck with that approach. As the case goes along, you are always free to ask the lawyer to change tactics. 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 of getting a high settlement have improved, so you're willing to fight longer and harder than you initially expected.
Finding a lawyer you want to hire is one thing. But that lawyer also has to want your case. Lawyers have several reasons for rejecting clients.
Most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. This arrangement means that the lawyer's fee is a percentage of what you ultimately receive in compensation. And if the amount you're likely to receive is small, most lawyers won't take on the claim. That's because a lawyer's overhead—the cost of operating a law office—is too high to make small cases economically worthwhile.
However, even if your case is too small to have a lawyer take over the entire claim, you might still be able to hire the lawyer on an hourly basis to give you advice on particular parts of your claim.
Even if your injuries are serious and your potential compensation is high, a lawyer might decline to take your case if the odds of winning full compensation are low for some reason. For example, you might have been partially or largely responsible for the accident, or it might be difficult to prove that someone else was at fault, or the person responsible for the accident may have little or no insurance coverage.
Finally, a lawyer might refuse to take your perfectly good case for the same reason that you might not want to hire a perfectly good lawyer—the two of you might not like each other or feel comfortable with each other. If your personality and the lawyer's clash right away, the lawyer might simply decide that handling your claim is just not worth it.
If you a lawyer rejects your case, don't give up right away. Ask the lawyer why—the reason for the rejection may have nothing to do with you or your case. If the lawyer is too busy to take your case or the case is outside the lawyer's scope of practice, ask for a referral. If the lawyer thinks your case is too challenging, get a second, or even a third, opinion. A case that doesn't seem winnable to one lawyer might look very different to another.
This article was adapted from the book, How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Attorney Joseph Matthews (Nolo).