You've been seriously injured in an auto accident. You've got a broken arm, an out-of-whack disc in your back, and numerous cuts and bruises. The other driver ran through a red light, so he's at fault.
You remember seeing a late-night TV commercial for a personal injury attorney who claims to have collected tons of money for clients who've been injured in car crashes. But is he the right lawyer for you?
How much an attorney forks over for advertising doesn’t necessarily mean he's a good or bad attorney, legal experts say. Here are 10 tips on how to find the right personal injury attorney if you've been hurt in a car wreck.
1. Know when to contact a personal injury attorney.
Auto accident injuries run the gamut from minor to serious. If you think your injury may warrant legal action, contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible, legal experts say. The longer people you wait, the harder it is to take a case to trial. As time goes on, witnesses and evidence may be hard to locate, warns Jim Wells, an attorney with Haines & Associates in Philadelphia. Wells is chairman of the Tort and Trial and Insurance Practice Section of the American Bar Association.
2. Find a law firm that specializes in your specific issue.
It’s important that a client find an attorney who has dealt with the specific issues related to your case, says Lawrence Saftler, a New York attorney. If a client has a spinal cord injury, he should seek an attorney who has handled that issue.
Steve Thayer, an attorney who specializes in estate planning at Chicago law firm Handler Thayer LLP, contacted a personal injury attorney when his mother broke her neck in an accident involving a van.
Thayer discovered some manufacturing issues with the van and located an attorney who had handled similar cases. But the attorney told him that these cases had unsuccessful in court. “At least I tracked down a personal injury attorney who knew what our chances would have been,” Thayer says.
Friends and family are the perfect place to get referrals. Furthermore, many Americans have used attorneys to prepare wills, for instance; these attorneys usually can provide unbiased recommendations for a personal injury attorney. Keep in mind that a lawyer who refers clients typically earns a referral fee for this, amounting to about one-third of the personal injury attorney's contingency fee.
Thayer says he interviews other attorneys for his clients to find the right ones for them. “You almost need a lawyer to hire a personal injury attorney lawyer,” he says. “If you walk in the door and have a good case, they’ll take it regardless if they’re the right lawyers for the case.”
4.Do your research -- beyond the ads.
While some upstanding, reliable attorneys fork over big bucks for advertising blitzes, other reputable attorneys don’t spend a dime on marketing. Consumers shouldn’t make a decision simply based on clever advertising, Wells cautions. To find a reputable attorney, check an attorney's record on the website of your state bar association, and contact a lawyer referral service operated by a local or state bar association.
5.Make sure you know which attorney will oversee your case.
Oftentimes, the firm’s lead attorney may not be handling many cases, particularly smaller ones, says Howard Ankin, a personal injury attorney at the Ankin Law Office LLC in Chicago. For instance, Ankin says that of his firm’s 2,000 cases each year, he works on only a small percentage.
That’s why it’s so important that a client meet the attorney who'll be assigned to the case so that there are no surprises, says John Digiovanna, a personal injury attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y. “When it comes to trial, you want to make sure you have the lawyer of your choice,” he says.
6.Interview the attorney.
Consumers should ask an attorney an array of questions to learn more about him or her, American Bar Association President Stephen Zack says.
“Ask a lot of questions to find out if this attorney has the skills and experience that match your needs,” Zack says. He also suggests obtaining professional references from an attorney you're looking at hiring.
The American Bar Association's public service website, www.findlegalhelp.org, features advice about finding a personal injury attorney.
7.Ask whether the attorney leans toward settlements or trials.
Ankin, the Chicago lawyer, says you should ask how many cases the attorney takes to trial each year and how many he settles out of court. “I can show clients at least three jury verdicts each week,” he says. “I love when people interview me.”
8. Find out whether the attorney is a sole practitioner or has a large staff.
Some clients are more comfortable with larger firms, while others prefer a sole practitioner. Each type of firm has its pros and cons. Solo practitioners say they're readily available to serve their clients, and client matters won’t get lost in the shuffle. But lawyers at bigger law firms argue that a large staff ensures clients’ needs are met, even if some attorneys are busy with other cases.
“There can be an attorney who is a one-man band who is great, but he’s only as good as he is that day,” Ankin says. “I work 15-hour days, but there’s always the day my son has his school thing or I get sick.”
9. Inquire upfront about costs.
Auto insurance companies won’t cover the cost for hiring an attorney to file a lawsuit after an injury. In most cases, attorneys who handle personal injury cases do so on a contingency basis. This means the lawyer doesn’t get paid unless the client wins.
Payments to lawyers vary by state, but in most instances, lawyers collect about one-third of a personal injury settlement or judgment, says Wells, the Philadelphia attorney with Haines & Associates. “As a general rule, the consumer won’t pay anything in a loss,” he says.
Still, some lawyers do ask for upfront costs, regardless of a loss. That’s why it’s critical that consumers are clear about costs from the outset, says Zack, the American Bar Association president.
10. Be leery of promises.
A thorough attorney will spend a great deal of time investigating your case and won’t make predictions about an expected payout or settlement, Wells says. “If a personal injury attorney is promising you a lot of money, you might want to be skeptical,” he says.