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How to choose a personal injury lawyer

Countless TV and radio ads begin with: “If you’ve been injured in an accident…” 

The internet is filled with personal injury attorney websites touting “No Fees Unless We Recover Money,” “Available 24/7” and “No Fees Until

We Win.”

They all seem ready and able to win your case, but how do you decide which personal injury lawyer to go with when they all blend together? 

One of the best approaches is to ask friends, neighbors and colleagues about their own experiences and get a referral. But in an absence of someone with first-hand experience, there are numerous ways to learn a personal injury attorney’s credentials.

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Here are some questions to ask and explanations and answers from veteran personal injury attorneys Bryan Pope from The Cochran Firm in Dallas and Christopher Nace, of Paulson & Nace, PLLC in Washington, D.C.

Do personal injury attorneys specialize? 

Attorney Bryan Pope
Bryan Pope

“You definitely want to hire somebody who is a specialist in whatever field you are looking for,” Pope said. In other words, if you are involved in medical malpractice you want somebody who has had a lot of experience with that, and not largely auto injury and only one or two medical cases. 

Can you take their word for their level of expertise?

The content on a firm’s website gives a good picture of their expertise. Most sites have a profile of each attorney along with the specialties within the firm, with videos and extensive writing about their experiences in different fields of the law, said Pope, who is an affiliate member of LegalExaminer.com. If the website says the attorney handles five different areas of personal injury but all content and testimonials from clients are only about auto accidents, that’s a red flag. 

And if the attorney has a website, but not much content about experiences and history, consider going with one who has a well-organized, well-documented site. 

What is a typical contingency fee? 

It’s a little different state by state. But a pretty good rule of thumb is it’s usually a third or 33 percent in injury cases … an auto injury, a case of slip and fall, or premises liability case,” Nace said. “When you start getting into wrongful death or medical malpractice you’re going to be looking at closer to 40 percent.”

The reason is the time and outlay of money to handle these types of cases is extensive. A medical malpractice case could easily take 24 months and cost $75,000 to $100,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

Whatever the percentage the attorney takes, it’s important to understand how a recovery is dispersed after it’s received.

Generally, an attorney’s contingency fee is on the gross settlement. So, if the fee is 33 percent and there is a $100,000 settlement, the attorney fee would be $33,000, After the fee is taken out, then a lawyer who advanced costs will be reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs such as expert witnesses. Suppose those costs came to $25,000, leaving a balance of $42,000. Then medical bills are paid out of that. The money remaining would then be disbursed to the client.  

Will the attorney always advance the cost of expenses of the case?

Attorney Chris Nace
Chris Nace

Most of the time they are going to cover the costs of the case. If you have a legitimate case you will find a lawyer who will advance the costs,” said Nace, who is also an affiliate member of LegalExaminer.com. You definitely want your lawyer to have the financial means to see the case through, there’s no question about that.”

But there are times when an attorney may ask a client to pay for a second or third expert to review the case before they agree to take it. 

“A lawyer may say: ‘This is a close call. If you want your case to be evaluated, I need you to put a couple of thousand dollars in to get an expert to review your case,’’’ Nace said. In these situations, the attorney asks the client to cover costs as a protection, not because the firm can’t afford the cost. 

How can you know how many cases an attorney has won or lost?

A potential client can ask attorneys for the names of parties involved in a case and look them up online in a court docket to see the outcome. 

Are wins and losses a good way to measure an attorney’s track record?

Nace believes it’s not. 

“There are a lot of things to be mindful about when an attorney starts talking about their record,” Nace said. “I can tell you I got a $1 million jury verdict. That sounds amazing until you find out the damages in the case were $10 million.”

Then there are cases with multiple defendants. An attorney can negotiate a very good settlement with two defendants, then go to court with the third and lose, but the client may have received a very favorable recovery. 

“At the end of the day, the attorney-client relationship is a pretty personal relationship, and you want to make sure you have a good rapport with the lawyer,’’ Nace said. “I think that’s more important than wins and losses.”

How many cases have you tried all the way to a verdict?

“That’s a good barometer. The fact that somebody is willing to go to trial is an important thing to find out. You don’t want a lawyer to just take the last dollar offered,” Nace said. 

Since the vast majority of cases are settled out of court, however, Pope doesn’t place as much emphasis on a record of going to trial. 

“You want an attorney who has definitely tried a lawsuit,” he said, adding that a strong track record of successful settlements is also important. 

Will you represent me in court?

If the answer is “no,” that’s a mark against them. It’s very common in personal injury law for a lawyer to take a case they are not prepared to litigate. As soon as they get the case, they refer it to another firm in exchange for a potential referral fee. 

“Before you hire someone, you want to know if they will be representing you in court,” Nace stressed 

Who is going to be my point of contact? 

 “Ask who is going to be your point of contact and how easy it is to communicate with that person,” Nace said. “But you need to have reasonable expectations. If you have a $25,000 auto case, you’re not going to spend a lot of time talking to your lawyer.”  Whether it’s a lawyer, or staff, try to find other clients to ask how quickly calls and emails were returned. 

Pope agreed, not every potential client will talk directly to an attorney. 

“Often you are talking to the intake person, and that’s not a bad thing I might be a little worried if you’re always talking to the attorney because the attorney should have more to do than that,” he added with a laugh. “But if you never get to talk to your attorney, that’s a problem, too. You should expect to have good service from the staff or intake specialist and have some kind of follow-up. You want to make sure you have some level of comfort.”

Have you been published? Have you spoken at conferences? What is your community involvement? 

Lawyers who are also speakers and have been published are experts in their field and have something to teach others. Lawyers who speak at conferences are respected by their peers, Nace said.

Also, an attorney who does substantial pro bono work or other volunteering shows a commitment to the community and not somebody who is hiding from a bad reputation, Pope said. 

Are you board certified? 

Many states will certify attorneys in their specialty. Attorneys who are board certified in trial law have met additional requirements. 

“If somebody is board certified that’s a big plus for them,” Nace said. “But it’s not like medicine (which is a field in which board certification is the rule). Certainly, there are many, many very good trial lawyers who are not certified at this point.”

In Florida for example, a board-certified attorney must meet the following requirements within three years of applying for application. 

  • 50% or more of their case history must have been in civil trial law
  • Handled at least 15 contested civil cases, including cases before juries as lead counsel.
  • 50 hours of approved civil trial law certification continuing legal education in the three years immediately preceding application
  • Peer review and a written exam

Pope places less importance on board certification. Because since so many cases are settled out of court, not all attorneys have tried enough cases to qualify. 

“Back when the only way to find a lawyer was in a phone book, it was good to say you were board certified,” he said. “Now they get business through websites and social media.” This allows them to share much more about their experiences and expertise far beyond the confines of a small block in the Yellow Pages.

Does the firm have an app? 

Again, this is a new trend in personal injury law firms. But it can be a mark in favor of a firm with an app that can streamline communication and keep clients updated at all times. Apps enable them to see at any moment where their case stands, what the attorney is waiting on to go to the next step. Clients can also use the app to track pain, upload medical reports and more.

RELATED: Need to track your lawsuit? There may be an app for that.

How many firms should you consider when you have a personal injury case? 

“Not many. I don’t think you need to interview five or six attorneys. You can probably talk to two or three to get a good feel,” Pope said. 

Will attorneys always jump on the chance to take your case? 

“A lot of times I’ll get a referral from somebody looking for an attorney and I’ll give some free advice: ‘Deal with your doctor, deal with the insurance company. This doesn’t rise to the level of needing an attorney,” Pope said. This is the scenario about a quarter of the time, that a lawyer is not needed, and the case is resolved. Another quarter of the time the potential damages of the case are low enough that he refers the caller to a younger attorney who handles smaller cases. 

“Then half of the time I end up taking the case,” he added. 

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at Katherine@legalexaminer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @snowsmith.