Once upon a time, all lawyers were like Atticus Finch – small-town generalists who took whatever case came in the door. This broad range of practice is no longer commonly found. Today, even though lawyers cannot call themselves specialists, they tend to concentrate their practices in certain kinds of law. There are corporate lawyers, transactional lawyers, and litigators.
Among litigators, attorneys usually practice fairly consistently, either with defendants or plaintiffs and even then, in a particular area of law. You have corporate litigators, bankruptcy litigators, intellectual property litigators, and, of course, personal injury plaintiff and defendant litigators.
What Is a Personal Injury?
Personal injury cases are those in which one person claims to have been harmed by another person or entity and seeks money damages for that injury. The lawsuits usually claim negligence on the part of the defendant. Negligence does not require proof that the individual or entity intended to injure the victim. Instead, the victim will have to prove that the defendant owed the victim a duty of care, the defendant breached that duty, and as a result, the plaintiff suffered an injury.
Who Are You?
When you begin your search for a personal injury lawyer, be sure you know who you are in the case since that will control the type of lawyer you need. If you are looking to sue someone for an injury, then you want to work with a plaintiff’s counsel in personal injury. If you’re afraid someone might sue you, then you are looking for defense counsel. The side a firm will take is not always clear in their advertising or website, so you’ll want to define your status right away.
How to Start Looking
You can begin by talking to any of your friends and neighbors who have a satisfactory experience with a personal injury attorney and consider that firm or individual. Plus, you will have seen dozens of personal injury lawyer advertisements on television and online. Finally, your local bar association may (or may not) be able to recommend someone. It might be a bit more productive to search for a personal injury lawyer online as their websites will give you more detail as to precisely what kinds of cases they handle.
A Personal Injury Isn’t Just a Personal Injury
Personal injury lawyers will generally handle one or more of the following practice areas.
Many others are not listed here, and not all personal injury attorneys take cases involving all of them.
- Motor Vehicle Accidents – Cars, Trucks, Motorcycles
- Train Accidents
- Uninsured Motorist – These claims differ because there is no insurance company involved
- Boating Accidents – Maritime law is not the same as land-based law
- Common Carrier Accidents – Any public transportation
- Bicycle Accidents
- Birth Injuries
- Traumatic Brain Injuries
- Spinal Cord Injuries
- Industrial Accidents
- Medical Malpractice – Generally, particular types of claims and experts required
- Medication Errors
- Nursing Home Negligence
- Slip and Fall Injuries (Premises Liability)
- Animal Attacks (Dog Bites) – varies significantly by state law
- Product Liability
- Work Injuries – Worker’s Comp is not the only issue
- Wrongful Death
As you can see, there is a tremendous variety in the kinds of personal injury cases. Further, there is a certain amount of crossover and blending of the claims. You may, for example, have a car accident claim in which you suffered a traumatic brain injury. In that case, you will want a lawyer who has experience with both.
Free Initial Consultation
Most personal injury firms will accept the first appointment to meet with you to evaluate your case. They will look at your documents, listen to your story, and consider the other parties in the potential lawsuit. The firm will then decide if it is willing or able to represent you. There is usually no charge for this initial consultation.
Prepare for Rejection
You should not take this personally. Any lawyer you approach may choose not to accept your case. There are two principal reasons that they will do so.
Any time a law firm considers taking on a new client, the firm must run a conflicts check. They will enter the names of all the potential parties, plaintiffs, defendants, insurance companies, etc., to determine whether the firm is currently representing any of those parties or has done so in the past. If the answer is yes, the law firm must reject your case. A law firm cannot ethically represent both sides of a claim and may not represent someone adversarial to an existing client.
Case Does Not Look Worthwhile
Most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. This practice means that the lawyer only gets paid for the work if they win (or settle in your favor) your case. In a contingency fee case, the lawyer will not receive an hourly fee but will receive a percentage of the award or settlement in the case. Thus, while you consider whether this is the right lawyer for you, the lawyer evaluates whether your claim is suitable for the lawyer.
If the lawyer thinks that your case may be valid but, because of your level of fault or other considerations, may not result in significant compensation, the lawyer may decide not to take your case. Similarly, the firm may reject your case because the other party has no insurance and few personal assets, limiting the potential recovery. In the end, taking your case has to be potentially profitable to the law firm, or it will reject your claim. This policy may sound cold-hearted, but law firms must pay their operating expenses to stay in business.
The attorney may have any number of reasons for declining your case. The attorney you want may have a full calendar and may not be able to take your case on the timeline that it requires. Or, just as you are deciding if you can work comfortably with this lawyer, the lawyer is making the same kind of decision. The Canons of Ethics require that an attorney reject a case if that attorney does not feel able to provide zealous representation of the client’s interests.
Making Your Decision
Assuming that the lawyer you are considering retaining is willing to take you, you will want to be confident that:
- The case is in the firm’s practice area(s)
- The lawyer is someone you can work with comfortably
- The fee arrangement is to your satisfaction
- The firm has no conflicts
If you are comfortable with your conclusions in all these areas, you should be happy with your selected attorney or law firm.