FINDING THE RIGHT PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY
You need an attorney and want to retain one for your Personal Injury case. How do you go about finding the right attorney for you?
If you found a lawyer in the past with whom you have been satisfied, most likely you will turn to that lawyer to either work on your personal injury case or to refer you to an attorney who will. That makes sense so long as you are satisfied with the performance of that attorney in a prior case.
Referrals by Attorneys & Friends
If that attorney is a stand-up attorney and does not practice much personal injury law, he should refer you to an attorney who does concentrate in Personal Injury Law. For the referring attorney, it can be well worth it. He will make 1/3 of whatever fee the ultimate personal attorney will charge. Here's an example. Your Divorce Lawyer refers you to a Personal Injury Attorney. The Personal Injury Attorney ends up settling your case for $45,000 and has a 1/3rd Contingency Fee. The Personal Injury Attorney will take a $15,000 fee from your settlement. The referring Divorce Lawyer agreed with the Personal Injury Attorney to charge a 1/3 referral fee. Thus, the referring Divorce Lawyer will make $5,000 (1/3 of the 1/3 fee of $15,000) for simply making sure the case gets to the right lawyer.
Pennsylvania Courts historically have looked favorably on this referral system because it benefits you - the client. The referring attorney who does not practice Personal Injury Law recognizes his limitations and is motivated to find an attorney who concentrates on Personal Injury Law which is in your best interest. Thus, the referral fee paid to the referring attorney is usually worth it. It doesn't cost you anymore to be referred to a Personal Injury Attorney. The contingency fee should be the same. If it is not, make sure that it is the same.
If you don't have an attorney that you used before and trusted, you may ask friends what attorney they used and who they can refer. If you trust your friends' judgment, this could be a good source for referral. Again, make sure the attorney that you're being referred to concentrates in Personal Injury Law and does not dabble in it.
Personal Injury Attorney Advertising
If you don't know of an attorney, have no friends who have used good attorneys, you may turn to advertising. Attorneys pay big money for cheesy full page ads in the Yellow Pages. Even in small markets like Reading, Lancaster, or Allentown, Pennsylvania, there may be up to 100 pages of Yellow Page Lawyer ads, many of which scream "Personal Injury." While it's perfectly legal and ethical for attorneys to advertise in the Yellow Pages or elsewhere, this is not the best way to find the attorney that is right for you.
Attorneys, like all business people, need to advertise to bring in clients. Personal Injury Attorneys especially need to advertise because their client could be anyone from anywhere. Personal Injury Attorneys advertise through phonebooks, billboards, newspapers, church guides, late night television, radio, and you name it. However, be careful. You should not rely alone on advertising to select a reputable personal injury attorney.
If you do select a Personal Injury Attorney only from advertising, I would research the attorney's website to get information about the attorney, the attorney's experience, the attorney's area of practice, etc. At least then you have a fighting chance to learn something about the attorney.
Interview your attorney. I can't believe how many clients wander into a law office, sign a Contingency Fee Agreement to retain the attorney and never talk to another attorney to compare styles, areas of practice, or fees to be charged. It's like the Personal Injury client is so scared to even meet with an attorney that he signs up without asking any questions. You should interview more than one attorney and ask questions. If you get thrown out of a law office, that attorney should not be on your list. You need to reach a comfort level with your attorney. Remember, your interviewing the attorney just as much as the attorney is interviewing you.
Fees. How do Personal Injury attorneys charge? You've heard the Personal Injury ads screaming on the television or the radio. "We do not get paid until we recover money for you!" That is true. Personal Injury attorneys take a percentage of the recovery that they get on your behalf as payment. Two factors determine what the attorney gets paid. The dollar settlement and the percentage of the Contingency Fee. For example, say your case settles for $6,000 and the attorney agreed to take a 1/3rd fee. Obviously, the attorney would get paid $2,000 and gets paid back for any costs spent in advance on your case. You would get paid $4,000 minus any costs the attorney had to spend to get that settlement.
Another example is a Wrongful Death Case. Say somebody runs a red light and slams into a car at 55 m.p.h. killing the other driver. The Insurance Policy Limits are $100,000 on the person who ran the red light. The attorney agrees to represent the deceased for a 1/3rd fee. Since the liability is obviously against the person who ran the red light and the person was CEO of a corporation earning big money, the case is a no-brainer slam-dunk $100,000 settlement. In that case, a lawyer gets paid $33,000 and may not perform nearly as much work as a case where there is a dispute on liability, causation, or damages.
The moral is that you have to look at all circumstances of the case to decide what percentage fee is fair. In a small case, a percentage fee of 50% may not be enough to make an attorney motivated to work on your case. In a larger case, 25% might be plenty to make an attorney want to take on your case. The issues involved in any personal injury case are who is responsible (Liability), did the accident cause any harm (Causation), and what injuries and expenses did the victim suffer (Damages). You have to look at all these issues to decide what a fair fee is. There is no Standard Fee in Personal Injury Law.
A big dividing line in any Contingency Fee Agreement is (1) if a personal injury case settles before having to file a lawsuit or (2) if the case requires filing a lawsuit. Obviously, there is usually less work if the case settles before filing a lawsuit and more if the case settles after filing a lawsuit. So, there should be a lower Contingency Fee percentage if the case settles before filing a lawsuit and more after a lawsuit is filed.
Local Attorney or Out-of-County Attorney
Should your attorney be a local attorney or an out-of-county attorney? I work in Reading Pennsylvania. I've worked for a 25-attorney law firm based in Reading, Pennsylvania with offices throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. I've also worked for a Center City Philadelphia law firm with offices throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania. Does working for a Philadelphia-based law firm verses a Reading-based law firm make you a better Personal Injury attorney. No! It just doesn't matter. I've seen lousy attorneys in both Reading and Philadelphia. I have seen stellar attorneys in both Reading and Philadelphia. You have to look at the attorney and not where he or she is located.
The positive to finding a local attorney is that you can actually talk to and meet the local attorney at the attorney's office when needed. It sure beats having the other attorney come into town once a week or once a month and jockeying for position on a score card of 10 clients that the attorney is going to meet one morning or afternoon. With all things being equal, I would recommend hiring the attorney who lives and/or works where you live and work or where the case will be heard by the Court.
For example, if the case is going to be decided in Philadelphia and you live in Philadelphia I would hire a Philadelphia-based attorney. If the case is a case in Reading and you live in Reading, I would hire a Reading-based attorney. Reading attorneys usually are more familiar with the Berks County Courts and Philadelphia Attorneys are more familiar with the Philadelphia County Courts. In my case, having worked in both Berks and Philadelphia County, I am familiar with both. There are regional attorneys like me who are based in one place but handle cases in many counties. They would be good attorneys no matter what the jurisdiction.
Attorney Should Advance Case Costs
Make sure your attorney is willing to advance the costs of your case. You should never have to pay to get medical records, employment records, tax records, or any documents. You should never have to pay money to an attorney for the attorney to file your personal injury suit should it not settle. And should your case require filing suit, you should never have to pay an attorney for the cost of a deposition, obtaining a deposition transcript, and the biggest cost of all - hiring an expert. Your personal injury attorney should pay for all of those items with your knowledge that should you get a recovery, that money that the attorney advances will be repaid from your share of the settlement proceeds.
Make sure your attorney has jury trial experience. There are some personal injury attorneys who are notorious for never stepping foot into a trial before a jury. They settle all cases, and if they can't settle a case, will refer you to an attorney who is supposedly great at trial.
There is a reason that most Contingency Fee Agreements increase the percentage fee to the attorney from settling a case to having to sue and go to court to get money. That's because having to go to court takes a lot more time, a lot more expense, and a lot more nerve.
Also size up how you believe your attorney will be in court. Most attorneys have to understand that it is good to be firm, but bad to be a jerk. If you don't like a jerk, do you think a Jury would? Of course not. Attorneys who are jerks usually don't get as much money for their clients. At the same time your attorney can't be a spineless wimp. Your attorney should command a jury and help them to understand why your client deserves a recovery.
Finally, use your gut instincts. As we all know, sometimes you can think too much about a question knowing all along that your gut is telling you something. Trust your gut.
Risks of the Personal Injury Attorney
Remember - the Contingency Fee Personal Injury Attorney always takes a risk of no recovery or a limited recovery. In some cases the risk is greater because the reward may be greater. But no matter what the case, there is always risk of not being adequately paid. So you should not be bitter about having to pay back your attorney for advancing costs and time in a case on a contingency fee basis. Assess the risk/reward just like your attorney will do.