How to Choose a Lawyer
Unless you receive a referral from someone you trust (and that person is actually qualified to know if a lawyer is qualified), choosing a lawyer for your personal injury case can be one big crap shoot.
Fancy ads or a nice office can tell you more about a lawyer’s business acumen than his or her competence and skill as an attorney. There are plenty of “successful” attorneys out there making good money by running a “settlement mill” practice, where the individual clients as a whole do poorly, but the large law firm does fine due to a “volume” business model. Asking the right questions can help you avoid these pitfalls.
Most of the questions potential clients are encouraged to ask attorneys provide no insight into how their case will be handled or how effective the lawyer will be. Does it really matter to you where the lawyer went to law school? Some of the best litigators in the country didn’t go to a world renowned law school. Does it matter if the lawyer has 10 years of experience versus 15 years of experience? 15 years of mediocrity aren’t worth more than 10 years of grinding an improving as a trial lawyer. Clients often feel better after asking about a lawyer’s qualifications, but most of the questions they ask reveal nothing about how their cases will be handled. Here are questions to ask which will give you information that is actually useful to choosing a lawyer.
A reminder that you do not have to hire the first attorney you talk with. Most attorneys shouldn’t be annoyed if you want to do your homework first. If an attorney is irritated by your questions, simply thank the attorney for their time, and call the next firm.
“Do you go to trial on cases like this?”
Jury trials in personal injury cases are actually percentage-wise uncommon. The vast majority of personal injury cases settle. It takes the risk out of going to trial for the insurance company, and the injured party. Don’t be surprised if the lawyer you are interviewing doesn’t actually try cases.
For purposes of this question, it doesn’t matter whether the lawyer actually won the case at trial. Most cases that go to trial are not sure things (that’s why they are going to trial), and juries can be unpredictable. It is the willingness of the lawyer to go to trial that should interest you. Every personal injury lawyer will tell you that they are willing to take a case to trial, if necessary. Of course, actions speak louder than words — if your lawyer says that he or she is willing to take your case to trial, but hasn’t tried a case in a decade, you may want to take the claim with a grain of salt. Note that insurance companies also keep data on which lawyers try cases and which don’t. Who do you think is more likely to receive a favorable settlement offer? One that an insurance company knows will hold them accountable by going to trial, or one that will accept the last offer?
Obviously, every rule has its exceptions, and there are lawyers out there who haven’t tried a case in years, but are itching to jump back into the courtroom. Case do and don’t go to trial for multiple reasons. In general, trials happen when at least one side is misevaluating the value of the case. I haven’t heard of a true “no-offer” personal injury case that goes to trial. The other main reason is that some plaintiffs (the injured party) has zero interest in going to trial. Even with a basic straight forward case, the defense insurance attorney is going to at least try to attack the plaintiff’s credibility.
After dropping this pointed question, you’ll want to make it clear to the lawyer that you’re not one of those crazy clients who will insist on “having his day in court” in spite of a good settlement offer. You just want to know that your lawyer won’t pressure you to take a lousy settlement offer just to avoid a trial. Ethically, the decision to settle or go to trial is yours to make, not the attorney’s!
“How Many Cases Are You Currently Handling?”
Lawyers are not used to being asked this question by potential clients. However, it is not only a fair question, but one which clients may want to consider when choosing a lawyer. The more cases your lawyer has, the less time he or she has to devote to each case — and more specifically, to your case. No matter how brilliant a lawyer may be, if he or she doesn’t have adequate time to devote to your case, the quality of his work will suffer. Also, overburdened lawyers are less likely to return your phone calls or text messages (some lawyers don’t even text!) in a timely manner and may be more inclined to settle cases just to help clear their calendars.
Cases handled by an overburdened lawyer may also take longer to resolve, as the “docket” (calendar) may be too full to schedule everything that needs to get done to resolve the case as fast as possible. “Time is money,” and insurance companies would prefer to wait as long as possible to pay out a claim.
How many cases are too much for one lawyer? This is all over the board. I’m in several national lawyer practice management groups, and the answers vary widely. Of course, not all cases are created equal. Social Security cases and workers compensation cases, which many personal injury attorneys also handle, don’t require the same amount of time or attention from a lawyer as a standard personal injury (PI) case, such as a car accident or slip and fall that needs to be prepared (like all PI cases) as if it is going trial.
When interviewing a lawyer, make sure you are speaking with the attorney who will actually be handling your case. Some large out of state firms have an “intake manager” who’s sole job is to sign up cases. They also have “case managers” that basically serve as an answering service to move the case along. Likewise, it does you no good to know that the partner interviewing you has 80 open cases if your case is going to be given to an associate with 200 open cases. Also, if your case is going to be handled by an associate who has little or no trial experience, you’ll want to know whether a more experienced lawyer will “first chair” (be lead counsel on) your case if it goes to trial.
The above questions I suggest are obviously not the only ones you should ask when choosing a lawyer. However, they can save you from falling prey to a settlement mill, or an overburdened lawyer who’s “a malpractice case waiting to happen.” They will also help you find a lawyer who has the time to adequately prepare your case and the willingness to take it to trial, if the need arises.