Choosing an injury attorney can be a challenge. There are so many out there. Some attorneys have their names and faces plastered on billboards, while others don't even advertise. Some have offices in high-rise buildings, while others work out of strip malls.
Some attorneys limit their practices to catastrophic injuries from medical malpractice and wrongful death. Others concentrate on asbestos and related toxic poisoning cases. Many have expertise in car accidents, slip and falls, and workers' compensation.
Attorneys come in all shapes and sizes. They seem to be everywhere. When you've been injured, choosing the right attorney can be overwhelming. Here we discuss how you can find and choose an attorney who will be your best advocate.
You must have total confidence in your attorney. You don't want to be second guessing him throughout your case. Using your existing network is a great way to find someone who's trustworthy and accountable.
There's nothing wrong with reading an attorney's advertisements. Those ads can tell you what types of cases the attorney handles and where they practice. But advertisements should not be used as the sole basis of your decision.
How to use your network to find an attorney
Check the attorney's rating
Regardless of where you find your attorney, make sure they are a member in good standing of their state and local bar association. Larger bar associations have attorney referral lists you can access at no charge.
You should also use online rating guides to get an idea of the attorney's standing. Ratings serve as an objective indicator of a lawyer's skill and reputation. Some reliable rating programs include:
Once you've gotten recommendations and checked ratings for all your potential attorneys, narrow down your options and create a shortlist of 3 or 4 candidates. The next step will be making calls and setting up appointments.
A personal injury attorney can have many years of experience or relatively few. If the attorney has been practicing for many years, he may have such a heavy caseload he won't be able to give your case the time it needs. Or he may just not be as enthusiastic as he was when he started out. Maybe he won't put his entire effort behind your case.
On the other hand, an experienced attorney may know lots of claims adjusters from years of dealing with the various insurance companies. He may have developed a good working relationship with them. He also may have a reputation for not settling cases if the offer isn't high enough, or as a tough litigator with whom insurance companies don't want to fight.
An attorney who's just starting out may be looking for cases. She may be trying to build a practice and be eager to accept new clients. Many rookie attorneys have much more time to spend on your case than busier attorneys do. There's a good chance they'll fight as hard or harder for you than any attorney you'll find. Their fee depends on it.
In addition, because young attorneys don't have a substantial caseload yet, they'll probably be more accessible and willing to take smaller cases. You may have a much better chance of getting them on the phone or seeing them in person to discuss the status of your case.
Graduating at the top, middle, or bottom of one's law school class may have little to do with how an attorney will represent you. Whether he graduated from Harvard Law or a state law school won't matter if doesn't have the negotiating skills needed to get high settlements for his clients.
Not all great lawyers graduated from Ivy League schools at the top of their class. There's an old expression often heard around law schools, "The A's make the teachers, the B's make the judges, and the C's make the money."
Websites and Advertising
When you look at a personal injury attorney's website, billboard, or television spot, you're seeing only what the attorney wants you to see. You won't see the cases he lost, or hear about clients who fired him for non-performance. Never take what you see on a website or TV at face value. Use the information as one of many factors you'll consider when making your selection.
Having a luxurious office in a fancy building is no guarantee the attorney will do a good job on your case. Choosing an injury attorney based on appearance alone can be a mistake. Some attorneys choose to locate their practices in sleek office buildings, while others prefer to maintain a lower profile.
For an attorney, choosing an office location is a personal preference. There's no legitimate correlation between an expensive office location and an attorney who will best represent your interests.
Choosing an injury attorney now becomes more personal. Advertisements and recommendations from friends and family can be helpful, but you'll ultimately have to rely on your own personal experience. You must have confidence in the attorney and his ability to represent your best interests.
Reputable personal injury attorneys don't charge for initial consultations. Make an office appointment and bring all your documentation with you. That's the best way to get acquainted and develop a good feel for how the attorney will handle your case.
Your relationship with the attorney and staff may last for months, even years. Your decision should be based on the relationship you expect and deserve to have. That relationship begins with your first call and initial consultation. Afterwards, an honest evaluation of your experience will help you decide if it's the right firm for you.
How long did it take to answer your call?
If your call isn't answered right away, or you are put on hold for a long time, that's an immediate indication the attorney is either overwhelmed with too many cases, or his staff is inadequate.
Was the receptionist polite or indifferent?
If the person answering your initial call is impolite or insincere, you won't get a positive first impression. You want to feel welcome as a client, especially later when you call for updates on your case. You don't want to be dismissed or made to feel like you're a bother.
Were you able to speak with the attorney?
While a good attorney will be busy meeting with clients, if the attorney can't make time to speak with you, that's a pretty fair indication it will be difficult communicating with him or her as a client. Choosing an injury attorney who doesn't have enough time to take your calls is a big mistake.
Who was your initial appointment with?
If you can't speak with an attorney on your first visit, it's possible you never will - at least until your case settles. Some attorneys have their paralegals or even secretaries screen cases. It's inappropriate for an attorney not to at least give you the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting.
Is there any charge for your first consultation?
Reputable personal injury attorneys never charge a fee for an initial consultation. Any attorney who charges administrative fees for initial office visits should be suspect, especially if you won't be able to meet with the attorney personally.
Was the attorney's office clean and organized?
A cluttered and disorganized office is often a sign of a cluttered and disorganized attorney. Disorganization can lead to lost files and documents, missed deadlines and court appearances, and improperly handled cases.
Did you have to wait a long time to see the attorney?
Like a doctor's office, sometimes there's a wait before seeing the attorney. A staff member should greet you and give an estimate of how long you'll have to wait. Sometimes meetings with clients go longer than expected, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the future, it could be you who's getting the extra time with the attorney.
Did the attorney appear well-groomed and professional?
Your attorney may have to attend court hearings or depositions with other attorneys. A professional appearance and demeanor is important.
Did the attorney give you their undivided attention?
If the attorney can't even give you 15 minutes of his attention the first time he meets you, there's a good chance your case will be handled the same way. If he's distracted by telephone calls and interrupted by his staff, you may want to look elsewhere. You want an injury attorney who will give your case the time and attention it needs.
Did the attorney answer all your questions?
You don't want to walk out of your first meeting with unanswered questions. It may be unrealistic to expect the attorney to give you an exact dollar value for your case, but he should cover the following:
Who will be working your case?
There are personal injury attorneys who delegate much of the work on their clients' cases to paralegals, assistants, and even their receptionists. The attorney only handles the actual settlement negotiations. Believe it or not, there are even some attorneys who have paralegals negotiate their clients' settlements.
When choosing an injury attorney, you want to know who will be working on your case. Will it be a paralegal or the attorney? Unfortunately, just about anyone can call themselves a "paralegal" or "legal assistant." Although there are some certification degrees, an attorney can bestow whatever title he wants on a non-attorney employee.
Do you feel confident in this attorney?
After weighing all the factors, your decision will likely come down to your gut feeling about the attorney. If they inspired confidence and made you feel comfortable from your first contact, they may be the right attorney for you.
The initial office consultation is the best time to ask questions about your case. Evaluating the attorney's answers, and how he delivers and explains his responses, will help inform your final decision. All of the following questions are reasonable, and should be answered to your satisfaction. If you don't understand the attorney's answer, ask for clarification.
Remember, YOU are the client, and YOU will be paying the attorney's fees. If you aren't satisfied with the answers you receive, you have good reason to eliminate that attorney from your list and move on. Here are some questions you should ask:
Although board certification is no guarantee the attorney is a successful negotiator, to become board certified means the attorney has passed a rigorous state bar examination qualifying him as an expert in personal injury trial law.
The attorney may not be able to give you a specific number of times he's taken his clients' cases to trial, but he should at least be able to tell you if he's in trial weekly, monthly, or at other intervals. If he tells you he's in trial once or twice a year, he's either an excellent negotiator or would rather settle a case than fight it out in court.
Insurance companies keep detailed records on which attorneys go to trial and which ones settle. Attorneys who are known for not going to trial almost always settle cases for less than they're worth. Because they are known for settling, they have less leverage with insurance companies.
On the other hand, attorneys known for taking claims to trial frequently get higher settlement offers. They pose a greater threat to the insurance company's bottom line.
If an attorney has too many cases at one time, he can't afford the time to go to trial. A weeklong trial might be disastrous for his caseload. A longer trial could result in upset clients, missed deadlines for settlement offers, breakdowns in communication with insurance companies, and other problems.
Many personal injury law firms make their money in bulk work. These firms take on a ton of cases and then stay in the office to hammer out insurance settlements. They often accept marginal cases expected to settle for nuisance value. These firms are often referred to by other attorneys and insurance companies as "settlement factories."
Whereas more reputable attorneys would refuse to accept a case with uncertain liability, less reputable attorneys take cases because they know they can force the insurance adjuster to make a token offer. The fees per case are small, so the attorneys have to maintain a high volume.
If an attorney decides not to accept your case, that's fine. But if he accepts it, he has a responsibility to do everything possible to protect your interests. You have a right to know that the attorney will take your case to trial if the insurance company refuses to settle.
It's a bad sign if the attorney won't give you a straight answer. Too many attorneys accept cases just to get them in the door. It happens every day in law firms all over the country. These attorneys have nothing to lose and everything to gain by accepting as many cases as possible.
An attorney has a duty to communicate all offers he receives to his client. You have a right to know if and when the insurance company makes an offer, and for how much. You want to be sure any offer, no matter how small, is communicated to you promptly. And you want to be absolutely sure the attorney will not settle your case without your approval.
Although an attorney can't tell you the exact date your case will settle or go to trial, he should give you a general idea of how long it will take. If he's got a fair amount of experience, he will know how long it took to resolve cases with similar fact patterns. Of course, there are no guarantees.
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