Most states do not have special certification programs for personal injury lawyers. One result of that fact is that any attorney can simply refer to himself or herself as a “personal injury lawyer.” There is no skill or experience requirement to do so. Since thousands of lawyers (especially in larger states such as California) might do so, selecting an attorney with particular expertise in the field of personal injury can be a daunting task.
Below are some questions you can ask to attorneys that you are considering to handle your case.
What is the documented record of verdicts and settlements for your clients?
If, for example, a firm cannot present to you written documentation showing a jury verdict over $1 million in one or more of its cases, it is a fair assumption that such a firm will never be taken as seriously, by insurance companies or corporate defendants, as a firm that has obtained numerous million-dollar verdicts. That can be significant even if yours is a smaller case. Most states have some sort of professional journal that reports jury verdicts and settlements, so the documentation is there – you need to ask for it and get it from lawyers that you are considering.
How many years of experience do you have?
As in all fields, how long one has worked professionally is not necessarily a defining factor of success, but it is certainly important information to have. It is most important to ask this question of the lawyer in the firm who will be actually assigned to work on your case, not just the more experienced partner who might technically be in charge, but might never actually work on your case. This issue is addressed again below.
Has your law firm been rated by Martindale-Hubbell? If so, what is the rating?
The Martindale-Hubbell Legal Network evaluates lawyers and law firms in the United States and Canada based upon peer review – what other lawyers in the community say about a particular lawyer’s abilities. This is one of the most valuable pieces of information that you can obtain, and you can do so without much time and effort. These ratings are available on the internet at www.martindalehubbell.com That website explains the various ratings it gives, and what they mean. For example, an AV-rated (highest rating) lawyer or law firm is in the top 5% of all law firms nationwide. Martindale-Hubbell also publishes a book entitled the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. There are other companies that provide similar peer reviewed ratings – SuperLawyers, www.superlawyers.com; and Best Lawyers’ In America, www.bestlawyers.com. See if, and how your prospective lawyer, is rated at these web sites and in these books, most of which are available at local law libraries.
What percentage of your practice is devoted to personal injury?
Many law firms practice personal injury law only part time, as part of a general practice that might also include divorce, criminal defense, and other unrelated fields. Law is like many other fields of endeavor: the more an attorney practices in one particular specialty, the more expert he or she becomes. Since, as noted above, any lawyer in most states can call himself or herself a “personal injury lawyer”, irrespective of how many personal injury cases he has actually handled, this is a very important question to ask.
Have you taught courses or authored articles in this field? Do other attorneys rely on your expertise?
Every state has some sort of continuing legal education available, required or not, for its lawyers. Some lawyers teach classes in personal injury law, and its various aspects. Whether or not the lawyer you are considering hiring has done this, or has written articles on the subject in professional journals, is an important factor to consider. Lawyers are generally not asked by bar associations, journals, or schools to instruct others unless they are very competent in a particular field themselves. In addition, non-specialist lawyers throughout the state refer major injury cases (that they do not feel they are able to handle) to other attorneys. Whether other lawyers refer personal injury cases to the lawyer you are considering is important to find out. Ask if other lawyers refer cases to them because of their expertise; then ask who does so; then call up these lawyers and get their impressions of the firm.
What is your fee structure?
Most personal injury cases in many states proceed on a contingency fee basis, which means that the client pays nothing unless or until you win or obtain settlement of your case. Contingent fees can differ, not only as to the percentage of a recovery that goes to the attorney and to you, but also as to how that percentage is mathematically computed. Know and understand what you will be charged by a particular attorney. Know and understand who will advance costs of suit (court filing fees, expert witness charges, etc.), and how those fees will be reimbursed if the case results in a financial recovery. These are important points, and differences in how these matters are handled from law firm to law firm can make a great financial difference to you.
What law school did you and others in your firm attend?
Certainly this should not often be a definitive point in choosing a lawyer, but it is valuable information. Law schools can be fair, good, better or best. You may or may not care that much about the reputation of your lawyer’s school, but the more information you have on your potential lawyer’s background, the better.
Who at your firm will be working on my case?
Law firms generally operate with a hierarchy of partners, junior partners, and associates with varying experience from much to little or none. Less significant than who talks to you at the beginning of your inquiry is the experience level of the person or persons who will be doing the work on your case. Ask about this in the beginning, and insist that the firm honor its commitments in this regard, if you do retain them to handle the case. It does not help you if the senior partner is a leader in the field in your city, if he or she never actually works on your case. Know who your lawyer will really be. This is information that you need to know.
How accessible are you to your clients?
Like all professionals, attorneys are usually busy. Some busy people return all their client phone calls, respond to letters and e-mails conscientiously, and update their clients periodically on the progress of each case. Others do not. Does this law firm strive to be within easy reach of its clients? Ask for the names, as references, of former clients. The attorney will have to get permission from former clients for you to contact them, but usually this can be arranged. Call some of these former clients and ask how they felt they were treated. See if there is a former client comment page on the firm’s web site. Of course, only the favorable comments will be there, but just having such a page shows some acknowledgement by the firm of the importance of client satisfaction. Ask about firm policies concerning return phone calls and correspondence. Don’t hesitate to understand exactly how the firm works in this regard. Ask about whom you would contact if something important came up, meet that person, and see if the relationship feels right. Ask whether you will be able to talk to an attorney if you have questions, rather than a paralegal or secretary. Know yourself – if you are the type of client who is going to want significant “hand holding” throughout the case, say so. It is better to know in advance if the firm’s “personality” matches yours.
Ralph L. Jacobson of GJEL Accident Attorneys represents plaintiffs in personal injury cases.