Finding the right lawyer to handle your case can be a challenge. Being in a serious accident or having to deal with the death of a loved one is a traumatic and life-changing event. Choosing the right lawyer is one of the most important decisions that you can make on your path to recovery.
In serious injury and wrongful death cases, it is vital that you speak to a qualified personal injury lawyer as soon as possible. Witness statements should be taken by the lawyer or his or her associates and potential evidence needs to be preserved. Photographs of the scene of the incident and inspections of any products or machinery that was defective or malfunctioned need to be taken before changes occur and repairs are made. The lawyer may want to have an expert in the field, such as a traffic accident reconstructionist or metallurgist, visit the scene of the accident or inspect the product and gather evidence in your favor.
An experienced personal injury lawyer or law firm will know the type of investigation and fact finding that needs to be done in your particular case. The longer you wait to retain a personal injury lawyer, the worse it is for you. Witnesses may move out of the area, the product that injured you may be destroyed or repaired, and the company of the employee that hurt you may go out of business.
In California, there are more than 160,000 active lawyers. While the State Bar of California provides certification in some specialized areas of law—such as family law, taxation, and criminal law—it does not provide specialization certificates in the area of personal injury and wrongful death law. However, if you have been seriously injured or had a loved one killed in an accident, you will want to focus your search for an attorney in the area of personal injury lawyers.
There are many places you can begin your search for an experienced personal injury lawyer. With just a few keystrokes, the Internet will pull hundreds of lawyers for you in seconds. Whether you are blindly searching the Internet or researching a lawyer or law firm that was recommended to you by a friend, it is important to choose a lawyer that you are comfortable with.
It is always a good idea to meet and speak with more than one lawyer before making your final decision on which lawyer to hire. You should make a list of questions prior to meeting with the lawyer to ask him or her to help in your determination if this is the right lawyer for you. Decide what matters the most to you and what you hope to achieve and make a list to discuss with the lawyer.
Here are some suggested questions to get you started:
Have you handled this type of case before and what was the result?
What should I expect throughout the legal process?
How involved will I be in the case?
Will you keep me regularly informed of the progress of the case?
Will you be handling my case personally or will others in the law firm be handling much of the case?
Do you feel comfortable in representing me?
Make sure that the law firm understands your objectives and goals, and knows what it means to be in your shoes. It is of the utmost importance that the lawyer representing you can effectively convey your message and your struggles to others. Whether it is to an insurance adjuster who will attempt to make a settlement or a jury that will make a monetary award, it is critical that your lawyer knows exactly how your life has been changed by the accident and can effectively communicate that to the insurance adjuster or a jury.
7. THE “CONTINGENCY FEE” AGREEMENT
Accident cases involving personal injury or wrongful death are usually taken on a “contingency fee” basis in the United States. This means that your lawyer gets paid only if she is successful and gets a settlement or jury award for you. Some lawyers use a hybrid form of fees in which they ask for a certain non-refundable fee up front—such as $2,500— and then take their full percentage of the fee after the case has settled or a jury has awarded you a specific sum. Sometimes an attorney will ask the client to pay for costs and expenses as they are incurred, rather than waiting until the end of the case. This is especially true of newer lawyers or lawyers who do not have much confidence in your case and don’t want to put up a couple of thousand dollars getting expert witnesses to testify on your behalf.
In personal injury cases, the amount of the lawyer’s fees generally ranges from 25 percent to 40 or 50 percent of the gross settlement or jury award. Some lawyers have a standard 33 or 40 percent of the gross settlement or award regardless of when the case settles. Other lawyers have fees that increase as certain landmarks are passed. For instance, an attorney may charge 25 percent if the case settles before a complaint is filed (the formal document filed in court to start a lawsuit), 33 to 40 percent after the complaint is filed but before a trial date is assigned, and 40 to 50 percent after the trial date is assigned. Some lawyers are now charging 50 percent of the gross settlement or award, regardless of when the case settles (e.g., before a complaint is filed).
Note that the lawyer’s fee normally comes out of the gross settlement or jury award, before any other costs are deducted. Costs and expenses that come out of your share after the lawyer has been paid can include:
An expert in traffic accident reconstruction
Medical doctors testifying to the extent and permanency of your injuries
Court reporter’s costs
Court costs and expenses
You should try to negotiate with the lawyer that her contingent fee will be based on the net recovery, after costs and expenses have been deducted.