When most accident victims call an attorney for advice or representation, they let the attorney interview them. Don’t forget that your relationship with your attorney is a two-way street, and you should be prepared to ask your prospective attorney questions as well, to be sure he or she has the expertise you need, and that the two of you will work together well.
But what, exactly, should you ask them? What questions will be most effective in learning about whether or not you have made the right choice? Many accident victims who are interviewing prospective attorneys ask standard questions that elicit very little in the way of helpful or useful information, such as “where did you go to law school?”, or “how many years have you been in practice?” While any information about your attorney can be helpful to a certain extent, here is a list of questions to ask which are specifically designed to determine if the personal injury attorney you are thinking about retaining is right for your case:
1. How many lawsuits did you file last year, and how many went to trial?
While it is true that everyone would prefer to quickly and easily settle their personal injury case without ever going to trial, or even filing a lawsuit to start that process, the fact remains that your attorney must be ready, willing and able to do so if a satisfactory settlement cannot be achieved. Some personal injury attorneys run what is known as a “settlement mill”…attempting to sign a huge volume of cases and settle as many as possible without ever filing lawsuits or going to court (indeed, investing as little time in each as possible, often having them handled exclusively by paralegals and other staff employees).
Insurance companies are well aware of these firms, and rarely offer full value for cases because they know that they do not have to…when push comes to shove, these attorneys prefer to accept low offers rather than invest the time and work litigation involves.
Having an attorney who knows how to litigate and try a personal injury case is much like having a guard dog…while you HOPE he never has to bite anyone, it is nice to know he is there if such an occasion ever arises! More importantly, if the burglars (or insurance companies!) know he is there, it actually reduces the chances your guard dog will need to become aggressive.
2. Do you practice in any other field?
The practice of law, much like medicine and many other professional fields, has become increasingly more complicated and specialized in recent years. Just keeping up with the changes and developments in one field of law is a full-time job…trying to keep up in multiple fields can be difficult at best. However, many attorneys attempt to “specialize” in multiple fields to attract more business and often add divorce, criminal, estate planning or other legal areas to their practices for this purpose.
Once upon a time, there were quite a few “general practice” attorneys, just as there were “GP” doctors, but both have largely given way to specialists.
When you have a legal problem, you want a specialist in YOUR problem area, and not a “jack of all trades, master of none”.
3. What are the strengths and weaknesses in my case?
All cases have both strengths and weaknesses, yet many attorneys are reluctant to point out the weaknesses for fear of losing a potential client. Instead, they prefer to sign the client first and worry about the weaknesses down the road.
You want an attorney who has the experience to quickly and accurately assess both the strengths and weaknesses, truthfully communicates both to you so you can make an informed decision, and then creates a strategy for dealing with both.
4. Have you worked with my doctors and therapists in previous cases?
In addition to having a good working relationship with you, you want to select an attorney who also has a good working relationship with your health care providers.
Your attorney’s office and your chosen therapists will need to work together, not only to achieve a prompt and satisfactory settlement but especially if a lawsuit is commenced and your doctors will need to furnish declarations and effective testimony.
5. What percentage of my recovery will go to attorney fees?
Nearly all personal injury attorneys work on what is known as a “contingency”, or a percentage of your financial recovery, rather than on an hourly fee basis. This means that if there is no recovery for you, there is no fee for your attorney (although under Washington law the client remains liable for any costs which the attorney incurs on the client’s behalf).
While the standard contingency fee is one-third, or 33%, do not assume that all attorneys charge the same contingency. Many attorneys have increased their contingency fee to 40% or more in recent years.
It is common for attorneys to charge more than one-third should your case require litigation and/or trial, but the vast majority of cases are settled without the need for litigation or trial, so be sure you are not paying more than one-third if the matter does not require the filing of a lawsuit.
6. Will your office provide my doctors with a letter of guarantee if my insurance runs out before my treatment has been completed?
A LOG, or “letter of guarantee”, is a promise from your attorney to your doctor to pay any remaining health care charges not covered already by insurance, first and foremost out of any recovery.
You want to obtain the therapy and treatment which your health care providers feel you need, and not just the therapy and treatment your insurance company agrees to cover. Since this means that the attorney cannot simply take his or her one-third right off the top, but rather must cover unpaid medical charges first, many offices will not provide them.
You want to pick an attorney who puts your recovery, and the treatment you need to achieve it, ahead of his or her own financial interests.
7. Will you be handling my case personally, or will it be handed off to paralegals and staff? If I have a question, can I reach you personally to discuss it?
Many attorneys hire extensive staffs of people to do the actual work on your case, which enables them to accept more cases than they could handle if they were involved in each one. Ironically, they STILL charge the same contingency fee!
While most attorneys have staffs to assist in the handling of your case, you want to be sure that an attorney is supervising each and every step, and is available to personally answer your legal questions about strategy, value, options, and other key matters.
8. How often can I expect a status report on my case and what is happening in it?
Personal injury matters can proceed at a maddingly slow pace.
Recovering one’s health after a motor vehicle accident, for example, can often take a year or more. The obtaining of the medical records and bills and the preparation of the demand package is time-intensive. The negotiations with the insurance company can take what may seem like forever and, if they are not successful, the slow, slow march to the courthouse begins…the longest step of all.
It is easy to become frustrated with all of the delays, and oftentimes there is little to nothing the attorney can do to “speed up the process”. This does not mean, however, that you should not be able to speak with your attorney whenever you wish, about how things are progressing, what is being done and why, and when results might be forthcoming.
As a client, you must be prepared for months when little to nothing is happening, but beware the attorney that says “my staff are always available to assist you”!!
9. Can you refer me to some of your former clients who can speak to the quality of your representation?
While it is unlikely that the attorney will refer you to anyone who might be critical of them, chatting with former clients of the attorney is an excellent way to become familiar with the overall process, and what to expect from your new attorney.
Beware of on-line reviews. These are generally written by folks who often have unrealistic expectations of the system.
There are many things about the system which an experienced attorney can improve for you, but just as many which are out of the control of your attorney. The delay between filing a lawsuit and the trial date is one such delay over which your attorney has little control.
10. May I have a few days to think about our discussion and decide whether or not I wish to retain you?
It is always a good idea to think about major decisions as opposed to rushing into them, and hiring the right attorney is one such decision. Interviewing several attorneys is recommended as well. While there are many qualified legal professionals from which to choose, it is also important to hire an attorney with the right “fit” for you.
Beware of the high pressure “salesperson” who tries to push you into signing a retainer agreement on the spot, and likewise, beware of the attorney who sends a staff member to the initial client meeting instead of personally meeting with you. Paralegals, clerks and other “non-attorneys” are not permitted to give legal advice.
As we have discussed in previous blogs, hiring at attorney is not an irreversible decision. If you find you have made the wrong choice, you can usually hire other counsel. However, it is always much better for all concerned if you make the right choice from the outset, and the answers you receive to these ten questions should help you along the road to that choice!