TEN QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE YOU HIRE AN ATTORNEY FOR YOUR PERSONAL INJURY CASE
1. What areas of law does the attorney handle most often?
Most lawyers focus on handling only a few areas of law. By doing so, a lawyer can make better decisions and develop tactics from one case that can be used successfully for clients in the next case. There are many technicalities in almost every area of law. To know which areas the lawyer handles most often, ask if they are a generalist, or specialist in any area of law. Especially if you have a personal injury claim, you will want an attorney who is specialized in that area of law.
2. What is the attorney’s track record for cases similar to this one in the past? How did their prior cases turn out?
Just because someone claims to be an attorney practicing in a particular field does not mean they are proven to be successful for their clients or able to recover large sums from insurance companies. Because insurance companies encounter lawyers more often than injured claimants, they know better than most who the best lawyers are in personal injury practice. In Virginia, the State Bar now allows attorneys to provide information about prior cases and results, but they are required to make a disclaimer that every case is different and recoveries depend on the facts of each case. So when possible, you should ask your attorney what other recoveries they have made, and in what sort of case, to see if it is a case like yours. Most important, any attorney’s past performance in making a settlement or getting a large verdict is no guarantee of future results. It may give you a better idea for what to expect from a particular attorney or law firm.
3. Which attorney will be handling your case?
Many people hire an attorney they see on TV, thinking that the person they saw in the ad will actually be representing them. Often, however, much of the law firm’s work is handled by non-attorney case managers. In some law firms, even court hearings might be argued by junior attorneys in the law firm. If so, they may be qualified and do a good job of representing you, but if you expect to have a particular attorney represent you in court, you need to ask who will represent you in court, on a person by person basis. On the other hand, many lawyers form relationships with attorneys in other states and localities, where the local lawyer is more familiar with local customs, judges, and juror attitudes. In such cases, having an additional or alternate attorney may actually be a benefit to your case. The moral of this story is to ask who, and why an alternate attorney is arguing your case in court.
4. How long will it take to resolve your case?
In most personal injury cases, your case cannot or should not be settled until your medical condition is at a level of maximum medical improvement. This means that you may still have future medical care needs in the future, but the primary injuries and conditions have been identified and narrowed to a point that the future care and medical costs can be properly estimated. Medical bills and time out of work can increase substantially beyond what you first expected, if your medical condition does not improve with time and treatments. Therefore, you need to know for a particular type of injury and procedure, what is the likely recovery time. Once you know that, you can judge how long your case will take to resolve, and decide whether you need to file legal proceedings, get opinions on your future medical care costs, and then you can get a reasonable estimate of the length of time it may take to resolve your case. Settlements frequently take at least six months to complete, and if a trial is required, particularly where substantial surgery costs and disputed medical conditions are involved, could take years to resolve. A seasoned attorney will see those issues from an earlier stage, and can keep you advised on the time line to likely case resolution, or file suit sooner to get the ball rolling more quickly toward a final result in your case.
5. Will the attorney work for you on a contingency fee basis?
Most personal injury attorneys will not charge you a cash fee up front to handle your personal injury case. Instead, most will take a legal fee at the end of the recovery in your case, based on a percentage of the total settlement or verdict recovery. This percentage payment from your final recovery is known as a contingent fee. The attorney payment is contingent upon you getting paid. If your attorney charges an hourly fee for a personal injury case, it could become very expensive for you very quickly, at the same time when medical bills are being demanded for payment.
6. How do you improve the chances of the case being successful?
The most common reason for a reduced recovery in personal injury cases is the failure of the patient to follow through with recommended medical care to treat their injuries. The second most frequent problem is a dispute regarding the need for treatments, or what is referred to as “over treating” by the insurance companies. The best attorneys will reach out to your treating doctors to discuss the necessity of medical care and work with the doctor to develop the medical evidence needed to convince a court and jury that the care you receive is medically necessary and reasonable in amount. Your attorney is there to help you, so you have to be willing to help the attorney help you by cooperating with your medical providers and following their instructions for care.
7. How frequently does this attorney go to trial?
This question can be important because of its implications for receiving a larger payout. Insurance companies, who usually end up paying for your injuries in a personal injury case, will often offer settlements that are much less than what you might be able to get if your case goes to a trial. Your attorney will need to analyze the factors of your particular case to determine the appropriate course of action for your case, but having an attorney who rarely goes to trial may be a sign that he is looking for a quick payoff over getting you the maximum amount to which you are entitled.
8. Has the attorney ever been censured or disciplined by a legal licensing agency or ethics committee in the past? If so, why?
Most attorneys will not have any history of disciplinary hearings or censure, and such problems can be a red flag. You will want to know why charges were filed, and what the outcome was. In some cases, the attorney’s reputation may be known to the judges or court that will hear your case, and could decrease the judge’s opinion of your case. Similarly, if an attorney is disciplined, it may affect their ability to effectively represent you, or could suggest that there are dangers regarding the safety of your money in their trust account.
9. If client and attorney disagree on accepting a settlement will the attorney yield to the client’s wishes?
Some attorneys will recommend a quick settlement for a lower figure rather than making sure you get every dollar you are entitled to. Others might demand that you accept a settlement, even if you do not agree with it. While fighting a case “for principle” is almost always a terrible idea, as it signals that something other than a desire to seek compensation for injuries has taken over and that client’s expectations will never be satisfied, you should not settle a case until the reasonable value of similar cases is explained, and the facts of your case are carefully evaluated. Sometimes, a smaller settlement is the only way to have any chance of recovering any money where liability is disputed. Most attorneys, however, may withdraw from representing you if they believe it is in your best interest to take a settlement and you do not.
10. Can the attorney provide references from past clients?
Many states allow attorneys to give you references from their past clients. Past client references can provide a good indicator of satisfied clients who have worked with that attorney. They can also share the results obtained, an expected time frame for case resolution in a local area, and any other concerns you may have about the attorney.