WHAT YOU SHOULD EXPECT WHEN YOU HIRE A PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY

INTRODUCTION

If you have decided to retain an attorney to help you on your injury case, chances are this is your first time to hire an attorney. Considering that you will be in a relationship with whoever you hire until your case is resolved, you should go into the process with some idea of what to expect from your attorney. Here, I will share with you some insights and information which you will find helpful throughout your attorney/client relationship.

THE BASICS

Attorneys are bound by Rules of Ethics that set minimum standards for how a lawyer is to comport him/herself when dealing with clients, other attorneys, and judges. Regarding the attorney/client relationship, the Rules require a written contract which spells out the work your attorney will perform, how case expenses will be paid, and the fee you will pay for the attorney's services. The Rules also require the attorney to keep his client informed as to the status of the case. There are many other standards imposed, but they can be categorized as those rules that require upmost professionalism, rules that require complete honesty, and rules that require complete transparency in itemizing case costs, expenses, and fees.

THE CONTRACT

In personal injury cases, attorneys work on what is called a contingent fee contract, which means the attorney's fee is paid only if he is successful in recovering money for his client. The fee amount is usually 33.333 % of the gross recovery, but most attorneys escalate the fees to 40% if suit has to be filed and 50% if the case has to be appealed. Lawyers have complete discretion on their fees. For example, on the small to medium cases, I charge the same 33.333% no matter whether the case settles without filing suit, whether suit is filed, or whether an appeal is necessary after a trial. What's more, in the small cases I frequently lower my fee in order to keep from making more money than my client. I don't, however, ever negotiate my fee. It is always my decision whether the situation warrants me reducing my fee. In any case, the contract must be in writing and signed by both you and your attorney.

KEEPING THE CLIENT INFORMED

This is the easiest rule to follow, yet it is the one that gets most lawyers in trouble. This is because many lawyers simply do not want to take calls from their clients, don't want to answer clients' question, and don't make the effort to call the client when they have information that should be shared. I have never understood why some lawyers work this way. Perhaps they are not well organized, do not want to give a client bad news, or perhaps it is because they have dropped the ball on something and don't want to confess this to the client. All of this can be avoided, however, if the lawyer is well organized, keeps a good calendar, recognizes that he works soley for the benefit of his client, and understands that, while he may have many cases, this is the client's only case and its progress is very important to the client.

Now, this is not to say that the attorney should call the client on a daily, weekly, or even monthly schedule. The client needs only to be called when there is something to inform the client about. For example, an offer of settlement has been made, a statement or deposition has been scheduled, the defense attorney has called and suggested mediation, etc. I always tell my clients not to expect me to call them just to say there is no change in their case status or just to say I haven't heard from the adjuster, or I'm still trying to gather medical records. Most attorneys are much too busy for those types of calls. However, I also tell my clients that if they have a question or if they would like to know if anything is happening on their case, please call me and I will be glad to answer their questions. My rule is: if you're sitting there wondering what is happening with your case or why you haven't heard from your attorney, pick up the phone and call.

YOUR ATTORNEY SHOULD STAY INFORMED ABOUT YOUR CASE

Until you have been released by your doctor for all treatment resulting from your injuries, you should expect your attorney or his staff to check on you on a regular basis. He should stay informed about your treatment, whether your doctor is addressing all of your concerns, whether you have seen any new doctors or had any diagnostic tests since he last checked, and whether you think you are improving, reaching a plateau, or feeling worse. In my office, calling each client on a regular basis is crucial in order to make sure my client is not creating a gap in his or her treatment, know when to order medical records and where to order them from, and to make sure my client is progressing well in treatment. Many times, such calls result in me being able to identify the need to send my client to a specialist, to ask the doctor to consider certain tests, or simply to clear up a miscommunication between the doctor's office and my client. In my office, each client's case is calendared at least once a month for such reviews.

Communication is a two-way street. You, the client, should call your attorney with any changes in treatment status, referrals to a new physician, orders for a diagnostic test, any change of address or phone number, or anything else which may impact your case.

Finally, your attorney should keep a log that documents each time something is done on your case and each time a call is made. The log should contain a place for notes to be entered contemporaneously with the event being recorded, and identify who entered the note as well as the date and time it was entered. There are many databases that allow law firms to do this quite easily.

AVAILABILITY

Aside from keeping you informed, your attorney should be available to answer your questions. Many attorneys are very bad about this to the point where they spend more time dodging their clients than they would talking to them and answering their questions. Many insist that their staff should handle the client while they tend to the "lawyerly" work. This is nonsense. While it is ok to have staff answer the simple questions, you have every right to talk to your attorney directly and have him, not his staff, answer questions about your case. You hired an attorney, not a legal secretary. You have a right to reap the benefit of his education and experience. If the attorney is too busy to talk to his clients, then he should either hire associate attorneys or stop accepting new cases until he can catch up.

PROFESSIONALISM

This starts with the attorney's staff. Everyone in your attorney's office should be courteous, organized, polite, attentive, respectful, and dedicated to helping each client navigate through what is often a very trying experience. You should expect complete confidentiality, which means the staff should not be gossiping about what is in your medical records, your settlement offers, or gossiping about you in general. Unless you have given me express permission to discuss your case with your spouse or anyone else, they will be politely told that we cannot discuss your case with them. In fact, we cannot even disclose that you are a client.

After many years of helping clients, I fully understand that physical pain can make a person crabby, irritable, and hard to deal with. Even on those days when the client is all of those things, the lawyer and/or his staff should respond with courtesy, respect, and understanding. I also understand that nothing makes a client feel more frustrated than being disregarded and ignored. The most common complaint I hear when clients call me about firing their attorney and hiring me is that the attorney has never talked to them, never returns their calls, and is never available to meet with them and discuss their case. No wonder they're crabby. Since I always make myself available to my clients, I very seldom experience an irritable or rude client.

HONESTY

You attorney should be honest not just with you, but with opposing counsel and judges. If he promised you he would file suit on Monday but suit wasn't filed, he should explain why it wasn't filed and not mislead you by falsely stating it was filed. If he thinks the settlement offer is too low and a jury would probably do better, he should tell you that even though it would be more expedient for him to take the offer and close the case. In other words, he should have your interest in mind and not his. This is what the Cannons of Ethics require and this is only right. My law school Ethics professor used to say, "If you take care of your clients, they will take care of you." And this is just as true today as it was when I was a law student. A lawyer should keep his focus on his client's best interest and everything else will fall into place.

More importantly, your attorney should enjoy a good reputation with opposing counsel and judges. Not as a pushover, but as a zealous fighter for his clients, a worthy opponent, a man of his word, a man of integrity, and a lawyer who is always well prepared. He should be early to hearings and appointments. His word should be his bond. He should treat opposing counsel and judges with respect, courtesy, and professionalism. He should observe all of the Rules of Ethics and stay out of trouble with the State Bar. Your lawyer's reputation, after all, reflects on you and your case.

TRANSPARENCY

When your case closes, your attorney should disburse funds with a full accounting of case expenses, medical payments, and fees. He should do this in writing. In my office it is called a settlement breakdown. Every penny is accounted for so that the client knows exactly how much is going to expenses, which doctors have been paid, how much the attorney is collecting as his fee, and how much the client is netting. All expenses are documented in the file with check stubs showing date of payment, amount paid, and check number. The client should keep this breakdown for his records in case any questions come up about who was paid and who was not. Sometimes, for example a hospital or doctor fails to record a payment. My client can call me and I can produce a copy of the check and the date my bank posted it for payment.

CONCLUSION

You now have a better idea of how your attorney should be conducting himself in his relationship with you. Asking that your attorney be available to discuss your case with you, expecting him to return your voicemails promptly, not having to leave more than one voicemail in order to get a response, being treated with respect and courtesy are all reasonable expectations. You have every right to demand these things and if your demands aren't met, you are within your rights to consider firing that attorney and hiring someone who will treat you the way a client should be treated.

Good luck.

Robert Rodriguez

Law Offices of Robert Rodriguez

robert@robertrodriguez.lawyer