Personal Injury

Working with Your Personal Injury Lawyer

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

If you've been injured and someone else may be at fault, you shouldn't hesitate to talk with a personal injury lawyer. In fact, you should talk with several personal injury lawyers. You'll get several opinions about your case, as well as a feel for the lawyer you'll be comfortable with. And the best part may be it costs nothing to look. Here are some tips to go by as you interview, select and work with a personal injury lawyer.

What about Money?

You can afford the luxury of interviewing several personal injury lawyers. You'll not be charged a fee for the consultations. That's because personal injury lawyers commonly take cases on a contingency fee basis. This means the lawyer is paid from a percentage of the money you receive in judgment after trial or in settlement of your case before trial. Until then, and if that doesn't happen at all, you owe nothing in attorney's fees.

So you won't have to pay for that initial consultation, and you don't have to pay as you go for additional time meeting with your lawyer, or for time as your lawyer works on your case. During your meetings with lawyers you'll explain how you were injured. You'll explain what medical treatment you've had, and what your doctors say about your recovery. It's important to give all the details, including the facts that might show you were in part to blame for the accident.

The lawyer will listen to your story. This consultation is a two-way process. Just as you should be thinking about whether this lawyer is right for you, the lawyer will be deciding whether the case, and you, are right for her. Remember, the lawyer won't get paid except from your judgment or settlement. This means the lawyer must be honest and decline your case if you're unlikely to win. This holds true also if you might win but your settlement or judgment would be too small to compensate you and pay the contingent fee.

More about Contingent Fees

As mentioned above, personal injury lawyers work on a contingent fee basis. The fee is contingent on the outcome. The lawyer will be paid only from the funds you receive in a judgment or settlement. This differs from lawyers in most other types of practice, where hourly and flat fees are usual. If you don't recover any money from a judgment or settlement, you don't owe the attorney's fees. It's about that simple.

The fee will be a percentage of your recovery. The percentage may vary depending on where you live and case type. In general though you can expect to pay something like 33 percent if your case settles before trial. If your case is tried to judgment, you probably will pay 40 percent.

You should think twice about pursuing your case if you can't find a lawyer to take it on a contingency basis. This indicates your case might not be worth the resources needed for a lawsuit. There's a chance a lawyer would take it on an hourly basis. But you should think about whether you really want to pay good money for a bad case.

Expenses Are Separate from Fees

The costs of a personal injury lawsuit aren't limited to fees. Other costs include:

  • Copies of records and reports, like medical records and police reports
  • Copying, fax and other office expenses
  • Legal research costs
  • Court costs, such as filing and deposition fees
  • Fees for investigators and expert witnesses

You won't have to pay these out of pocket. The lawyer will pay for these items as the case progresses. As with the lawyer's fee, the lawyer will be repaid these costs out of your settlement or judgment. The order of payment is fees first, then costs. So the fee is a percentage of the gross settlement.

A lawyer may or may not advance medical costs for you, according to the bar rules in your state. If these costs may not be advanced to you by the lawyer, the lawyer may recommend other sources of funding if you can't afford them.

Changing Lawyers in Midstream

It happens sometimes, even if you've done your homework in selecting a lawyer. For whatever reason, you become dissatisfied with the progress or outlook for your case. Personal injury litigation can take many months or longer to settle or set for trial. During this time, financial pressures may mount on you, and you can become frustrated.

A good client-lawyer relationship is based on communication. State your concerns to your lawyer. Don't hold back. Find out what is holding up your case, or why your lawyer's outlook has changed. If the answers don't make sense or aren't satisfactory, it's time to get a second opinion.

If you're not satisfied with the answers you get from your lawyer, there's nothing wrong with talking with another lawyer for a second opinion. You'll want to learn what a new lawyer would do differently in your case. If the answer is "not much," you will want to think twice about changing lawyers. Changing lawyers is likely to involve going over the same ground twice, and may even prolong your case at first.

If changing lawyers makes sense, your new lawyer will contact your former lawyer and arrange for the handoff. This will be accomplished without harming your case. One matter that will be addressed between the three of you is what, if anything, your former lawyer is owed for her services. This usually depends on:

  • What stage the case is in
  • The number of hours your former lawyer has expended on your case
  • State laws

Your former lawyer also will be paid what she's owed from the settlement or judgment you receive, just as if she managed the case to conclusion. In most states your former lawyer will have a lien on the proceeds for what she's owed, to ensure payment for her services.

Working with a lawyer isn't likely to be the most fun you've ever had. Communication is key, both in hiring a lawyer and in working well with one. If you and your lawyer both understand and share the same goals and expectations, your case is likely to go as smoothly and successfully as possible.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I still file a lawsuit if I accepted a settlement offer from the other person's insurance company before I contacted you?
  • The insurance company seems to be taking me and my injuries seriously. Why do I need to hire a lawyer?
  • Is the other person's insurance company entitled to look at my medical records without my permission? Should I let it have access to my records?
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Gregory J. Panzo, Jr. | May 11, 2015
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