An accident is a major life stressor, and sustaining life-changing injuries is often the beginning of the end of normalcy as you know it. If you have decided to seek legal representation, you may find selecting a personal injury attorney is one of life's more difficult choices.
There is no foolproof algorithm to follow; Important life decisions are complicated, and making them is hard. When we feel victimized, our decisions become more complex, and the ramifications of our choices are significantly more impactful. With very few exceptions, decisions made on the spur of the moment are usually wrong.
Take a moment, take a breath and take the time you need to feel comfortable and confident about your choice. Personal injury claims, such as motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, premises liability, or workplace injuries, have time limits, so the sooner you choose a lawyer, the better your chances for recovery.
Use All Your Available Resources
We connect with friends, neighbors, family, and local business owners daily. We have Google, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and many other online sources at our disposal. Sometimes, the adage "ask, and you shall receive" will give those seeking the best legal counsel for a particular situation a good starting point.
Use what you have available— friends, co-workers, and employers may have had a similar experience. You may know a lawyer who practices in another specialty; see if they have any recommendations. Check with your physician, banker, or minister for possible referrals or leads.
Personal and professional references can often provide you with a shortlist of potential law firms. Armed with a few references, begin some research. The internet makes it fairly easy to dive into a lawyer’s background and credentials. We live in a digital age; information is usually just a point and clicks away. Social media can be a powerful tool—use it wisely.
Curate what you can to develop a list of potential candidates who may be a good fit for your needs. Make this list the core of your evaluation process. The process can take time, but this is time well spent with much at stake.
So, how many firms should you look at before hiring a lawyer? Generally speaking, two or three. Meeting with a few lawyers can give an accident victim an insight into the strength and validity of their case. Arrange a consultation with each one, and go prepared to glean as much information as possible from each visit.
Make the most of the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a potential attorney.
If possible, bring the following information and documents with you:
- The accident report
- The names and contact information of any witnesses
- Any photographs you have of the accident scene
- Any relevant medical information ( details of doctor’s visits, prescription medications, Emergency Room reports, etc.)
- Pictures of your injuries
- A copy of your health insurance coverage
- A copy of your auto insurance policy (if a motor vehicle accident injured you)
- Verification of your salary structure
- Documentation of missed time from work
- A list of everyone you have spoken to about the incident
Anything you say to a lawyer is confidential, so be open and honest—withholding information serves no purpose. Prepare to answer questions.
To properly evaluate your situation and render an educated opinion as to the viability of a case, the lawyer may ask:
- The full extent of your injuries, and if your family was inconvenienced by them
- If you have spoken to your insurance carrier and/or the other person’s insurance representative
A lawyer may ask if you were ever in a lawsuit or if you have had previous accidents.
Manage Your Expectations
If this is your first experience dealing with a personal injury case, you may not know what you don’t know. There are hallmarks of quality in the legal profession that can help you make an informed decision.
What shows, matters
Image and appearance matter in the practice of law. A well-appointed office says competence, and it can inspire confidence. A professionally decorated workspace designed with the client in mind can make a lasting and memorable first impression. Is the reception area comfortable? Is there a separate and private meeting room? Is there disturbing background noise? Can you hear others' conversations?
Appearance affects perception—maybe it should not, but it does. This analogy applies to the lawyer’s attire as well. Whether the office opts for business casual, or business suits, all that matters is a lawyer should dress well.
A personal injury lawyer is a person who tells an accident victim’s story to those who will determine the amount of compensation. Clear articulation is a given. Beyond that, a lawyer should be able to explain the legal process of a particular case in easily understandable language.
A good lawyer will ask thought-provoking questions, and a good lawyer will be a good listener. How can you tell? You’ll know if they are attentive, empathetic, and open-minded.
Once they are actively listening, ask those important questions, such as:
- How will I be kept advised as the case progresses?
- Can I call if I have a question?
- Will you call me personally, or will I deal with other staff members?
- Have you dealt with many cases like mine in the past?
- What steps will be involved in my case? What are the possible outcomes?
- How long should I expect my case to take?
- What are my responsibilities going forward?
- What percent of your cases go to trial?
- What may be possible in terms of a financial recovery
Ask if other lawyers refer clients to their firm. For the most part, when one lawyer recommends another to a client, they do so out of respect for the competence and reputation for their expertise in a particular area. Everyone's time is valuable, and timing can be critical in a personal injury case. Ask when they expect the legal process to begin and if they can give you a general estimate of how long it may be, from start to finish.
The questions the lawyer asks can be insightful as well. Did they ask how you feel about your situation? Those looking for a high-quality lawyer should pay close attention to the attorney’s questions during the initial consultation.
Did they seem genuinely concerned about your situation? Did they explain your options in terms you could easily understand? Did they give you all the time you needed to feel comfortable? This is an important decision for an injured family. This is the time and the place to select a legal advocate who will handle your case effectively, efficiently, and with the personal attention you and your family deserve. No question should be off-limits, and no question should go unanswered.
Honesty & integrity
Unfortunately, the court of public opinion questions legal ethics and professional responsibility. Attorneys' personal lives are private matters and should have no bearing on their competency, but the moral character needs to be above reproach. Honesty and integrity are significant in personal injury law.
When members of the legal community have a stellar reputation among their peers, they are perceived as trustworthy when detailing the facts of a case to insurance claims adjusters, judges, and juries. An honest lawyer will tell you there are no guarantees for insurance settlements or jury verdicts. An honest lawyer will explain the worst-case scenario as clearly as they portray the best you can hope for.
Tenacity is the innate quality that gives one the ability to work through adversity to pursue a particular goal. Speaking personally, this one would be high on my list. Persistence of purpose—just saying. When you find a lawyer who is willing to aggressively pursue justice for what they believe is right, you may have found a keeper.
References, awards, associations & accolades
A lawyer should take no offense when asked to provide professional and client references. Due diligence is a two-way street. Ask for a list of a few people with no vested interest in the firm who can attest to specific skills and qualities that align with your core values.
Industry awards show a history of success and expertise well beyond the norm, and these honors differentiate both the firm and the individual practitioners from others in the profession.
It is relatively easy to research those local Philadelphia lawyers who have received special recognition by checking sites such as Super Lawyers and Avvo. Other online sites such as Martindale Hubbell can provide basic background information and peer reviews.
These awards show not only accomplishments but ethical standards, social awareness, diversity, and community ties. Legal associations can indicate a commitment to social activism, continuing education, and community support. Check out an attorney’s legal blogs, often posted on their websites. They frequently write about civic accomplishments, community service projects, and corporate-sponsored educational scholarships.
Why You Must Use a Local Lawyer
Lawyers who handle cases on their home turf have the advantage of knowing that legal community. They have valuable inside knowledge of the inner workings of the local court system, they have experience dealing with available professional resources, and they have a reputation to protect.
Additionally, having your attorney’s office close by throughout the entire claims process can mean less time away from medical treatments and home or business responsibilities. This is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it does merit some consideration.
It truly is not an insensitive question to ask. Does the firm have the financial resources necessary to take a case to trial if needed? You have a right to know.
Expert witnesses, investigators, life-care planners, and financial experts are expensive; so are court costs and administrative fees. A lot is at stake, both for the lawyer and the client. Before establishing any professional relationship, make sure they answer your important questions.
Conduct a Background Check
Before hiring any lawyer, check to ensure they are in good standing with the appropriate state’s agency or disciplinary board. For example, to check in Pennsylvania, one would access the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Florida Bar provides information for lawyers practicing in their state.
Understand a lawyer’s fee schedule and payment arrangements before signing any agreement. Although most personal injury law firms offer to take a case on a contingency basis (a percentage of the settlement award), there may be administrative and court costs a potential claimant should be aware of. These are common concerns, and asking about case-related costs will not surprise a lawyer. An honest lawyer will always give a potential client a clear answer.
Not all client-lawyer relationships are a good fit. Everyone's needs are different, and every case is unique. At the point when you feel comfortable working with a particular lawyer— when you believe they have the experience and skills you need—and when you believe you fully understand the extent and constraints of your particular legal situation, make the choice that feels right, and trust your lawyer to work for you.