How to hire a personal injury attorney and what to consider when making that decision in California?

Daniel R. Tamez - Personal Injury - General - Super Lawyers

Answered by: Daniel R. Tamez

Gnau & Tamez Law Group, LLP
San Diego, CA
Phone: 619-446-6736
Fax: 619-684-3500

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There are several factors that I feel are important when considered who to hire for a personal injury claim. That is different from the question of whether or not to hire a personal injury attorney for a personal injury claim. Unequivocally, the answer to that question is "yes" based on my years of experience. Almost always, I see unrepresented claimants being told to jump through unnecessary hoops and red tape, I see them signing authorizations for access to their medical and employment records that are wildly too broad, and I see claims that are delayed because the unrepresented claimants do not use the correct terms, words or phrases to make the insurer respond. Where these delays continue for two years, the claimant can be surprised to learn that their claims (even though known and documented) are legally barred due to the expiration of the statute of limitations applicable to their claims.

So, getting back to the question of the factors to look for when hiring a personal injury attorney, I think the following factors are fundamental. There are other factors which some may feel are more important or more important for a particular case. However, these are my top five:

Regular Trial Work - The value of each case and the settlement of each claim is driven by the likely outcome the claimant will receive at trial. Even though, very few cases go to trial and the vast majority of claims settle, actual trial experience is very important for several reasons. First, the defense industry knows which injury attorneys take cases to trial and which attorneys always settle. An injury attorney who always settles is likely to get lower offers for their clients’ claims and be less of a threat to an insurance company. Second, portions of evaluating the client’s claim may be based on the application of the Evidence Code to the introduction of evidence for or against the client at the time of trial. Certainly one can understand the Evidence Code without going to trial but having the experience to know how that application may or may not play out in front of a jury comes from doing trial work. Third, understanding how jurors process information, respond to different forms of evidence, and frequently engage in the deliberation process is critical since the end game is trial for those cases that do not settle. 

Experience – Although some people think car accident claims are pretty simple, in my experience they can be complex. The client is hiring the attorney to ensure a proper and complete recovery. Where the attorney does not have the experience to obtain and understand insurance coverage information, the client may not get a proper and complete recovery. Where the attorney does not have an understanding of how the client’s health insurance applies and that carrier’s right of recovery impacts settlement, the client may not get a proper and complete recovery. Where an attorney lacks the experience to resolve the various liens that may apply against the client’s settlement, the client may not get a proper and complete recovery. Where an attorney lacks the experience to discredit the insurance industry defense "expert witnesses" the client may not get a proper and complete recovery. Where the attorney lacks the experience to effectively evaluate the client’s injuries, harms and damages, the client will likely not get a proper and complete recovery. Despite the fact, that these points may seem obvious, accident victims will often contact a bankruptcy, family law or criminal defense attorney they know concerning their car crash case instead of an attorney (like me) with the experience to fully evaluate the claim and all of the claim details.

Network – The adage is, “it’s who you know, not what you know.” In this business, it’s both. An attorney should have access to investigators, expert witnesses, qualified health care providers, and other forensic witnesses. I emphasize "qualified" because simply sending a client to a doctor to get treatment on a lien is ineffective if that health care provider inaccurately charts, codes or bills for the treatment, or worse simply will not testify effectively in their patient’s case. Based on my experience working with insurance adjusters in California to resolve clients’ claims, I also know how different insurers evaluate their claims, what attorneys they use, and what their litigation procedures and practices are. 

Communication – The No. 1 complaint we hear from prospective clients is their prior inability to communicate with a former attorney. I have trained all of my employees to take a team approach to all of our clients’ cases. In that vein, we all answer the phones, we all seek to answer our client’s questions, and we all respond to inquiries to provide information and documents requested by clients. Clients in smaller law firms often complain that they never hear from their attorney or don’t receive timely responses to their inquiries. 

Patience – The trait of patience is surprisingly important for this business. Seriously injured people take a long time to heal and sometimes never fully heal. Not surprisingly they can become frustrated, impatient and depressed. Their attorney needs to be resilient in their interactions in order to be able to overcome their frustration and impatience as well as empathetic to their frustration and depression. Often insurers will more closely evaluate a claim and make a greater effort to resolve a claim when the matter is close to trial. Having the patients and resources to work the case to the end can result in an improved outcome.

Regardless of which attorneys you are considering to hire and their individual characteristics, there are two other considerations. A relationship of trust is necessary for successful representation. The attorney should not give an inflated and unattainable evaluation of the client’s claim in the beginning of the claim in order to get the client to hire the attorney. Even though you may want to hear a big number or a big promise, if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is and your relationship is not founded on trust. Instead of only telling you what you want to hear, you should respect an attorney who provides bad news and realistic expectations. An attorney with financial resources to properly litigate your claim is the second consideration. Again not a character trait, financial resources are necessary where the client retains the attorney on a contingency fee and expects the attorney to advance all of the case costs while their matter is being prosecuted. An attorney who accepts the representation of an injury victim who cannot fund investigations, medical experts and litigation costs will likely end up being a disservice when money is needed to prosecute the client’s claim.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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