What Should I Ask Before Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer?

Before you hire a personal injury lawyer, make sure all your questions are answered. Here's what to consider asking during your initial consultation.

If you're thinking about hiring a personal injury lawyer, you may have noticed that the playing field is quite crowded. With so many attorneys available, it may be difficult to know who to hire. In this article, we'll discuss the kinds of questions that could help you find the right fit for you and your personal injury case.

What’s your level of experience handling my type of case?

"Personal injury" is a large practice umbrella, and a number of different kinds of cases can be found under it, including:

Many of the above categories can be further subdivided. For instance, medical malpractice can include birth injuries, traumatic brain injuries, surgical errors, and misdiagnosis.

Most personal injury attorneys handle several of the above-listed types of cases, but almost none will handle all of them. Some of these categories are unique and require an extra level of knowledge and experience.

You should look for an attorney who has experience handling your type of case. Experience means familiarity with common legal issues as well as connections with investigators and other experts who can help with your case.

Will I win and if so, how much will I get?

When you ask these questions, don’t expect a precise answer. In fact, the attorney may be ethically required not to give you an exact answer to avoid exaggerating your case’s potential and creating unrealistic expectations. Remember, personal injury lawsuits are unpredictable, and anything can happen, even in the middle of trial. However, your attorney should be able to provide at least a rough prediction regarding your chances of winning and what kind of compensation you can expect should your case settle, or should you win at trial.

One way to make sure an attorney isn’t overpromising is to keep track of the answers from multiple attorneys and see if they are all in the same ballpark. They should be, but if you come across an attorney promising your case is worth significantly more, be wary unless they can adequately explain why they think your case is worth much more. (Learn more about personal injury claim value.)

Also, keep in mind that unless the attorney says otherwise, they won’t take your case unless they think they can recover something on your behalf. To accept your case expecting a loss would make little business sense.

Who will do the work on my case?

Many personal injury attorneys don’t handle every single part of a client's case. They may have a legal secretary or paralegal assist in the preparation of letters and legal documents. If you hired a senior attorney, they may have a junior associate do much of the legal work, with your attorney handling the more complicated legal concerns and overseeing the junior associate’s progress.

Having an attorney farm out work to others may not sit well with you. But not only is this very common, it helps keep legal fees down.

What is your fee for taking on my case?

The vast majority of plaintiff's-side personal injury attorneys will work under a contingency fee agreement. This means they don’t get paid unless they can obtain some sort of recovery. Most personal injury attorneys charge around 33% of whatever you recover. So if you win at trial or your case settles and you get $100,000, your attorney will get $33,333. But this exact amount is subject to a number of variables.

Who pays case "costs" and when are they paid?

Besides contingency fee percentage, another major financial concern is how costs are handled. The method employed can mean having a few thousand extra dollars in your pocket when your case is over.

To file a personal injury lawsuit, you do not have to hire an attorney. However, even if you represent yourself, you will still incur a number of legal costs, such as:

  • court filing fees
  • expert witness fees
  • administrative fees, and
  • information-gathering expenses.

There are a few things you need to know about when and how these costs get paid.

First, if you win your case, you will pay these costs. The only question becomes when you pay them. If legal costs are paid “off the top,” that will usually mean more money for you than if they are paid after your attorney gets paid. Let’s use an example where your case settles for $100,000, your legal costs are $10,000, and your attorney charges you a 30% contingency fee.

If your legal costs are paid “off the top,” the $10,000 is subtracted from your recovery first. So your attorney will receive $27,000 (30% of $90,000) and you will receive $63,000 (90,000 minus $27,000).

However, if your legal costs are paid after your attorney gets paid, your attorney will take the 30% contingency fee first, then you will pay the $10,000 in legal costs. So your attorney receives $30,000 (30% of $100,000) and you will receive $60,000 ($70,000 minus $10,000).

A second consideration is who pays these costs if you lose your case. The answer will depend on your specific fee agreement with your attorney. Depending on your financial situation and the strength of your case, you should try to find an attorney who will absorb these costs even if you lose your case. But if you’re willing and able to pay these costs no matter what, you might be able to negotiate a lower contingency fee with your attorney.

Learn more about costs in a personal injury case.

What is your level of courtroom experience?

Despite what television and film might portray, most civil cases do not go to trial. Therefore, even an experienced attorney may only have a handful of cases that made it to verdict.

On the flipside, you don’t want an attorney who has very little trial experience. This can be detrimental for two reasons. First, if your case goes to trial, your attorney won’t give you the best chance of winning. Winning in court is as much about experience as it is about skill.

Second, it can mean your attorney is afraid of being in court. If that’s true, there’s a good chance the defendant will get a sense of it and make a lower settlement offer, knowing your attorney may encourage you to accept it in the hopes of avoiding trial.

No matter how likely your case is to settle, you should choose an attorney who isn’t afraid to take a case to trial and can do a good job in the courtroom.

Learn more about finding a personal injury lawyer.

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