1.2 million lawyers are currently practicing in the United States. They vary greatly in skill, experience, commitment to their clients, and willingness to zealously litigate a personal injury case. Yet the practice of law, unlike fields such as medicine, comes with no residencies, no mandatory internships, and no state-required certifications. This means that anyone with a license to practice law can market themselves as a personal injury lawyer—even if they have no experience, no respect in the legal community, and no idea how best to manage your case.
When you're facing a catastrophic injury, choosing the first lawyer you find in the phone book is almost always a mistake. Though referrals can be helpful, the word of a single friend tells you little about the experience and skill the attorney you hire brings to the table. When your life and money are at stake, it's worth taking some time to interview a number of attorneys.
At minimum, successful trial lawyers specialize in a specific area of the law. Most lawyers litigate cases in a few practice areas, but an attorney who does everything simply does not have the specialized skill necessary to master the intricacies of personal injury law. Before you narrow down your options, ensure that each lawyer you consider is a specialist in personal injury.
1. Knowledge of the Law
The law is a complex, ever-changing animal. A new Supreme Court ruling can change an entire field of law, and local trends figure prominently in how skilled lawyers litigate cases. The most successful personal injury lawyers remain up to date on both statutory changes and recent legal precedent. They also remain active in bar associations relevant to their field, and routinely attend continuing legal education (CLE) seminars.
You can tell that your lawyer is knowledgeable about the law by the way he or she discusses your case. The most skilled lawyers don't just give you vague assurances, but instead talk about how the law applies to the facts of your case.
2. Knowledge of the Medical Industry
Personal injury lawyers often joke that they have back-up careers as doctors and nurses. Of course, your lawyer is not qualified to give you medical advice, but the best trial lawyers know the topics they litigate inside and out. That means that highly skilled personal injury lawyers are knowledgeable about the injuries they litigate—diagnostic criteria, prognosis, estimated cost, etc. The best lawyers may also be able to refer you to skilled medical providers.
Knowledge of the medical field becomes especially important when your lawyer must cross-examine witnesses. A lawyer who knows little about your injury may ask vague questions that bring you no closer to victory. An attorney who understands the specifics of your injury, the standard of care, and the prognosis can ask pointed questions that highlight your suffering, pin a medical provider down to the facts, and ensure you get a fair settlement or verdict.
A lawyer does not necessarily need 40 years of experience to excel at trial. Indeed, some of the best lawyers are those who are eager to prove their worth in the industry. But this doesn't mean that you should use your case to train a new lawyer. Trial advocacy takes more than just academic training; it's a valuable skill that must be honed with real world practice. Only select a lawyer with previous trial experience—the more cases he or she has litigated that are similar to yours, the better.
It's easy to fall for flattery and promises, but ultimately, you're hiring a lawyer because you want to win. The best attorneys are honest with their clients—even when they're breaking news the client does not want to hear. Good lawyers tell their clients about potential weaknesses in the case, including things the client can do to address those weaknesses. For example, your client might tel you that your aggressive demeanor makes you an unsympathetic witness, or that your goals for the case are simply unreasonable. It's not easy to hear that you're wrong, and you might even want to dismiss your lawyer's critiques. You hired him or her for a reason, though. Flattery doesn't win cases; honesty does.
5. Commitment to Your Cause
Your case is the most important thing in the world to you, and you cannot reasonably expect the same of your lawyer. You do, however, deserve a lawyer who takes your pain and suffering seriously, and who sees real value in your case. The best personal injury lawyers want more than just a paycheck. They truly want to see justice done. This spurs them to act as zealous advocates for their clients, even when a case proves challenging or opposing counsel is unwilling to entertain reasonable settlement offers. If the attorney you interview seems indifferent, refuses to speak to you in person, or pushes you to pursue settlements you do not want, consider someone else.
6. Respect in the Field
It's hard to assess a lawyer's skills on your own, particularly if you lack legal training or experience within the court system. One of the best ways to objectively assess a lawyer, then, is to explore how other attorneys view him or her. The best lawyers gain the respect of their colleagues, even when they sit on opposite sides of a case.
Don't choose a lawyer who can't get along with opposing counsel, no matter how satisfying it may be to see your attorney give the other side grief. Instead, look for a lawyer who can work with anyone. That ability will serve you well when it's time to negotiate a settlement.
7. Trial and Negotiation Skills
The best trial lawyers are, of course, good a trials. Trial preparation begins long before the trial itself, though. Look at how effective your lawyer is at negotiating on your behalf. Does he or she have a good working relationship with opposing counsel? Is he or she able to effectively communicate with you? Trial advocacy requires excellent social skills and a finely tuned ability to tell a compelling story. If your lawyer lacks both, there might be trouble when it's time to go to trial.
Ask your lawyer if you can see him or her at an upcoming trial to judge his or her skills in person. Better yet, see if there are online videos of your lawyer at trial, or news stories discussing his or her courtroom performance. Then you can judge for yourself.