According to the American Bar Association there are over 76,000 personal injury lawyers in the United States. Finding the right lawyer may seem like a daunting task but if you remember one important fact… that you are the employer… the process can go smoothly and you can be confident in your choice.
OK. You’ve spoken with the prospective lawyer, had a good phone conversation, and now you are meeting the lawyer in his office for the first time. This is your opportunity to interview the lawyer before formally hiring him or her by signing a retainer. Just remember that one important fact… you are the employer. If the meeting doesn’t go well or you just don’t feel confident about the attorney, you have every right to not hire that attorney. Do not feel compelled to decide right then and there on such an important matter.
Almost all personal injury lawyers work on a “contingency fee basis,” meaning they only get paid a percentage of the settlement amount (typically 33%) at the end of the case. As all accident lawyers within the same state tend to charge the same percentage, hiring a truly outstanding lawyer, in effect, will cost you no more than hiring a mediocre one. And why would you want to hire a mediocre lawyer anyway!
Be prepared before that initial meeting with your prospective lawyer. Here are five important questions you need to ask:
1. What percentage of your practice is devoted to personal injury?
If the lawyer is a sole practitioner, you want the answer to be as high as possible, preferably 100%. This is not to say a general practice lawyer or a young lawyer couldn’t handle your case adequately, but do you really want him or her learning personal injury law on your case?
If the law firm has multiple partners, you still want a high percentage devoted to personal injury law. While the firm may have one partner handling divorces cases, another criminal cases, you want the lawyer handling your case to primarily be a personal injury lawyer.
2. How long have you been handling personal injury cases?
If the lawyer is light on experience or just opened his practice, you might want to think twice before signing a retainer. While longer time practicing doesn’t always mean better representation, you want a lawyer who has been around the block; one who is established and well known in his legal community; and one who is skilled at negotiating with defendants. In short, you want a seasoned lawyer with an established track record.
Personal injury claims can be complex. An experienced attorney will know best how to get you the maximum settlement, whether in court or out of court.
3. Have you handled cases like mine before? How many? What were the outcomes?
As the saying goes, past performance does not guarantee further results. Every case is different, even cases with the same fact pattern. A settlement amount often depends on who the insurance carrier is; how much insurance a defendant may carry; who the trial judge is if the case is litigated; which law firm is representing the defendant.
But having said that, it is still vital information. If yours is a complicated products liability claim, and your personal injury lawyer is primarily an auto accident lawyer never having handled such a case, you might want to find a lawyer who handles products liability cases. While personal injury law is a specialty of the law, products liability law is actually a sub specialty of personal injury law!
4. What percentage of your cases are settled out of court?
This is a very important question. If the answer is 100%, or in that neighborhood, this is not a fact to be proud of. It surely should raise a red flag.
Not every case should be settled. Not every case should be tried. You will be relying on the lawyer’s judgment to know which action will result in the largest recovery for you. If a lawyer settles 100% of his cases, this could mean he is just looking for quick settlements. You want a lawyer who is willing to fight for every penny! On the other hand, if almost every case a lawyer handles ends up going to trial, this could mean he is not a skilled negotiator. Such action could significantly increase your expenses and cause the case to be prolonged… without necessarily increasing your recovery.
5. How will you get paid? Am I responsible for paying expenses up front?
Nearly all personal injury lawyers get paid on a “contingency fee basis,” as opposed to other lawyers who bill per hour. What this means is that the lawyer will only get paid if he wins you money. His fee will be a percentage of the settlement or award. This percentage varies from state to state. In New York, for example, the lawyer’s percentage is 1/3 of the money won.
You should ask your lawyer how expenses on your case would be handled. Typically, lawyers will advance all expenses on a case and recoup the expenses from the case settlement. Case expenses can be significant, especially in medical malpractice cases where paying an expert witness could run into the thousands of dollars. If your lawyer wants you to pay your expenses up front, what that tells you is he is either not an experienced personal injury lawyer or he thinks so little of your case he is not willing to risk his own money.
Remember, you are the employer and the lawyer works for you. Do not be shy in asking questions about your case as it proceeds. But do not make a nuisance of yourself either. As a practicing lawyer, I can tell you this is very counter productive!