Not that long ago, personal injury lawyers frequently supplied prospective clients with something called an accident tool kit. Small enough to fit in a glovebox, this kit usually included little more than a brochure explaining a driver’s legal rights in the event of an auto accident, a small notepad to jot down pertinent information and a disposable camera for taking photos of an accident scene and damage.
These days, traditional accident kits are being replaced by digital ones as an increasing number of personal injury law firms enter the smartphone app game. These apps are similar to ones already offered by several auto insurance companies.
“If you do get into an accident, your lawyer really is right in your pocket,” says Jason Turchin, a Florida personal injury lawyer whose My Attorney smartphone app was one of the first of its kind to hit the market in late 2009.
Turchin developed the app as a marketing tool for his fledgling firm; at the time, he was one of only two lawyers in the country with an accident app. Since then, he’s seen the market grow, with more than a dozen law firms adding accident apps to the iTunes and Android stores in 2010, and at least 15 more in the first half of 2011.
“The idea was to create a common medium that would break down the barrier, and even the fear, that a lot of clients feel in contacting an attorney after an accident,” Turchin says. “No longer do you have to wait to get home before you figure out your legal rights. With the push of a button, there’s now something to help guide you through process.”
Lawyers' apps: 'Handy and immediate'
Most lawyers’ accident tool kit apps offer a similar suite of features, including a 911 icon, various ways of recording insurance and vehicle information, myriad options for documenting details about the accident, and even state-specific checklists regarding legal rights.
“One of the things we see over and over again is that there is a lot of discussion about driving safely and avoiding accidents, but not a lot of conversation about what to do at an accident scene,” says Emily Krause, marketing manager at Virginia law firm Allen Allen Allen & Allen, which has been offering consumers a free smart phone app called My Lawyer since February 2010. “We face this problem daily, and we wanted something that would take the guesswork out of it when you’re in that stressful situation.”
My Lawyer, which is available for free on the iPhone and Android platforms, provides three separate menu options in the event of an accident: Now, Later and Future.
The “Now” tab, which is meant to be activated at the time of the accident, lets users enter important details such as the names and auto insurance information of all drivers involved, the names and contact information for witnesses, and the name and badge numbers of police officers who respond. It also allows users to take photos of the accident scene with the phone’s built-in camera.
The “Later” tab, which is designed to be used once a driver has returned home from the accident scene, provides a step-by-step tutorial on auto insurance claims, injuries and other information related to an accident.
“I have two sons who have both been involved in car accidents, and it’s a really confusing and potentially frightening time,” says Suzanne Bachus, director of marketing at Colorado law firm Bachus & Shanker, which has been using My Lawyer since late 2010. “With this, they can refer to something handy and immediate.”
Finally, through the "Future" tab, a user can email all of this information to an attorney for evaluation and consultation.
Using these apps does not mean accident information automatically will be shared with a lawyer. In most cases, the app will have a "send" feature. Once a user has compiled all the pertinent information about an accident, he can hit "send" and it will be submitted directly a law firm. Of course, if you don't hit "send," the lawyer won't get your information.
Auto insurers have their own accident apps
The accident app market is not new. For several years, auto insurance companies have been offering their own accident apps, which have been growing in popularity and functionality.
Eli Winn, State Farm’s mobile and tablet manager, says that since 2009, the insurer's Pocket Agent has been downloaded by more than 440,000 iPhone users and 300,000 Android users.
“Our focus is on allowing our customers to interact with us the way they choose, and increasingly people are choosing to interact with us through their mobile devices,” Winn says. “Sometimes you want to talk to an agent. Sometimes you want to go online. And sometimes you want to use your phone. It would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t take advantage of that.”
Regarding the growing trend in lawyer apps, Winn says State Farm doesn't consider them direct competition for her company's mobile app, but rather another tool for a driver recently involved in an accident to seek professional help. After all, a lawyer's job following an accident differs from an insurance company's, she says, so a lawyer's app is going to fulfill a different need.
What’s the difference?
Gururaj Potnis is director of Manthan Legal, a technology company in India that developed the Car Accident Tool Kit app in late 2010 and is working on customizing the app (and several others) for dozens of personal injury attorneys in the United States. He says that while lawyer and insurance apps may share many of the same features, the needs they meet are different. The main goal of an auto insurer’s app is to file a detailed, accurate claim, he says, while the basic purpose of an attorney’s accident is to make sure proper legal evidence is obtained.
Tuchin says his app “levels the playing field” between insurance companies and personal injury lawyers.
“From my experience, insurance companies are not always on the same side as the victims of an accident,” Turchin says. “They’re looking out for their own pockets, and I think this provides accident victims with someone on their side to help walk them through the process.”
For those who may liken a personal injury app to little more than digital ambulance chasing, Evan Fetterman, founder of Florida personal injury law firm Fetterman & Associates, says there’s no need for such cynicism.
“People don’t always need a lawyer to analyze what happens after a crash,” says Fetterman, whose firm offers the Call My Lawyer app. “We don’t create cases out of this, we don’t manufacture cases, and we don’t encourage people to bring cases they don’t want to. But when legal help is needed, when people need professionals on their side to handle the insurance companies, this evens the playing field.”
Word of caution
Amber Yoo, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, does have a few pointers for consumers who may be interested in these apps. She says it’s important to find out exactly what data the app is collecting and with whom that data is being shared. For example, if any of these apps feature ads, users may be sharing their data not only with an attorney, but with the advertisers as well.
Yoo points to a December 2010 investigation by the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper looked into 101 apps to see what data they were sharing with advertisers. It found that 56 apps shared the phone’s unique ID number, 47 transmitted the phone’s location, and five shared the user’s age, gender and other personal details.
“The data collected and shared can be used to build a detailed profile about you, re-packaged and sold to the highest bidder,” Yoo says. “Since these attorney apps are designed to collect potentially confidential information, such as witness and case details, consumers should make sure the data is not being shared inappropriately.”