By Gerry Oginski, Esq.
Being injured is no fun. Not knowing where to turn, who to trust, and what to do about your medical bills is frustrating.
Most people will never need a car accident lawyer. That's good. But there are folks who do get injured because of someone else's fault, and they're the ones who DO need an attorney.
Maybe you know of a friend of a cousin who was related to someone who knew an attorney. You could call him to ask him questions about your accident. Maybe you could look in the Yellow Pages and call someone who has a big ad. Maybe you could walk into a storefront lawyer's office, right off the street. Maybe you could call the 800 number on a billboard you saw. You could do all of these things and maybe you'd be ok. Then again, maybe not.
The purpose of this article is to provide you, the consumer, with information about what you need to know BEFORE you ever step into a lawyer's office. I know some lawyers who want to wait till the client gets into their office to explain to them their options. This way they can show off how brilliant they are- and maybe they are. But why not give the client information about how to choose an attorney, and let the client make their choice about who to use.
But, how do you choose among the many lawyers who advertise for your attention? The answer is not an easy one. Remember, not every lawyer advertises. Of those that do, not all of them are trial lawyers. You must ask.
So, here are the top ten most important things you need to look for in a medical malpractice or personal injury lawyer:
How many years has the lawyer been in practice? The greater experience, the greater likelihood this lawyer has seen cases like yours, and knows how to handle your case.
2. What type of firm does the lawyer have?
Is he part of a big law firm, or is he a solo practitioner? Just because the lawyer works in a big firm doesn't necessarily mean it's better for you. Likewise, just because an attorney is a solo practitioner doesn't mean he's not capable of successfully handling your case.
There are many advantages to using a solo practitioner- you get individual, personalized attention; an attorney who knows everything about your case; an attorney who returns your calls promptly; and someone who doesn't take on more cases than he can manage.
With a large firm you might have multiple attorneys handling different aspects of your case; different attorneys appearing in Court for conferences; your phone calls may not be returned as quickly as you'd like- but at the same time a large firm might have more resources than a solo practitioner such as paralegals and associates.
Ask your prospective lawyer whether he delegates his work to his junior people, or does he do it all himself? Does he return your calls, or does the junior lawyer call you instead? Does the paralegal do all the paperwork, or does a lawyer do it?
3. Where is the lawyer's office?
This is important only for people who are solely concerned about convenience. Some lawyers have multiple offices. If you're concerned about going to someone whose office is in the City, and you live in the Suburbs, keep in mind that most likely, you will not need to physically go to his office more than a few times. He should be readily available by phone or email.
If travelling to an attorney's office is still a concern, ask whether the lawyer can travel to your home. Most attorneys will accomodate a client, if they are physically unable to travel. However, if the client is simply reluctant to travel, then there is a very important reason to have the prospective client come to the lawyer's office: (1) To see how the lawyer operates, and (2) So the lawyer can see how the client adjusts to being in an unfamiliar setting. This last part is vitally important to an attorney who evaluates you as a potential witness at trial.
4. Do you email clients?
Do you send regular updates by letter or email? If I have a quick question, can I email you instead of calling you on the phone?
5. "When my case comes up for a deposition (a question and answer session with your lawyer and the lawyers for the people you have sued) will you be there with me, or will I have one of your junior associates?"
This is very important. You're hiring a lawyer. Some people hire a law firm and don't care who works on their case. An injured victim SHOULD care, because they want to be treated with resepect and attention they deserve. In some firms, the lawyer you meet with will not be the one who appears at your deposition with you. In fact, depending on how busy the law firm is, it's possible that the lawyer you meet with may not even try your case!
That's why you've got to ask: "Will you be there at my deposition?"
6. "When my case comes up for trial, will you be there with me, or will I have one of your junior associates?"
Again, this is a very important question. The lawyer you get to know at your first office visit may not be the lawyer who tries your case. You may only get to meet your trial lawyer a few months before your trial starts. I know many people who don't like that approach to lawyering, and others simply don't care. As an injured victim looking for a lawyer to represent their interests, I can only suggest that you should care.
However, keep in mind that there are law firms in New York, and elsewhere, that have dedicated trial lawyers. Their job is ONLY to try cases. Their other partners or associates handle the other parts of your case. In some other firms, you get one attorney and he (or she) handles your case from start to finish. Find out from your prospective attorney which one you can expect.
7. ASK THIS QUESTION TO EVERY ATTORNEY YOU SPEAK TO: How much is my case worth?
Why? Because there are some attorneys who will claim, on your very first visit that your case is worth a ton of money- some even say "Millions!" Others are not so cavalier, and take a more cautious approach.
If a lawyer tells you your case is worth Millions, ask him to put that in writing. Why? Because no lawyer can promise or guarantee any outcome to a client. Watch what happens when you ask that lawyer to put his 'guarantee' in writing. He'll quickly backtrack and make some excuse for not putting it in writing. Be careful of an attorney who makes such promises without thoroughly knowing all the facts of your case, and without having reviewed your records.
8. What are your success stories? What's your record?
It's important to know how an attorney has done in the past on other types of cases. What results has he achieved recently?
Obviously every case is different. But you still need to know whether he's ever achieved large settlements or verdicts. If the biggest case he ever handled was small claims court, then maybe this attorney isn't right for your type of case.
9. Does he have a web site? Does he advertise?
Does he have a presence on the internet? Why is this important? You want to know what type of material he has on his website. Is it a basic information card with bland material, or does he provide a reader with important information they need to know to educate them, BEFORE, they ever call him or walk into his office.
10. Does the lawyer offer a prospective client free reports to educate them about their options BEFORE, they ever call?
Ask if they have free reports about your type of case. Not some canned brochure that anyone can stamp their name on, but a real substantial report that discusses your type of case. Can the reports be obtained directly from the lawyers website, or by calling his office for a copy?
Knowing this information will make you a better informed consumer. Hiring a lawyer is an important part of learning about your legal rights. Ask lots of questions and trust your instincts about any lawyer you speak to. Good luck.