Hiring an lawyer for the first time can be really intimidating.
In this article, we’ll try to explain in easy-to-understand language what a car accident lawyer can do for you and give you some tips to hire one.
How Do Car Accident Lawyers Work? (EXPLAINED)
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How Car Accident Lawyers Get Paid
There are a few ways lawyers can get paid.
Hourly (with a retainer deposit)
Flat Fee (lump sum up front)
Contingency Fee (attorney doesn’t get paid until money is recovered)
In most cases, car accident attorneys are hired by clients on a contingency basis.
This benefits the client in many ways.
First, the client does not have to come up with a large retainer deposit to secure the attorney’s assistance (which could be thousands of dollars).
Second, the client doesn’t have to worry all that much about every minute spent talking to the attorney or how much the attorney is working on the case.
After all, the amount that the attorney will be earning at the end of the case will be the same, regardless of how much you talk to him or her.
In general, a contingent fee agreement means that the attorney gets paid a percentage of the eventual recovery.
The percentage can vary, but it is fairly common for the attorney to request a third of the recovery–33.33%.
In some instances, that percentage might increase to 40% if the case has to go to trial.
If the case is unsuccessful (meaning the attorney isn’t able to recovery any funds for you), he won’t get paid.
Contingent Fee Agreements Do Not Include Case Expenses
Clients sign up for a contingent relationship with an attorney, but fail to realize that the contingent fee only relates to “attorney fees.”
The contingent fee does not cover case expenses, which include filing fees, transcript fees, medical records requests, expert fees, postage, and more.
It is a good idea to talk to the attorney at the beginning of the case about how the case expenses will be paid (and when).
The client should ask for an estimate of what the case expenses will be.
He should also ask that the attorney get his permission before spending a large sum on his behalf for an expense, like a professional witness.
Many Attorneys Do Personal Injury Consults For Free
People often worry about the costs of lawyers.
But when it comes to car accidents, many of the attorneys who specialize in this work do consults for free, either on the phone or in person.
If you have recently been injured in a car accident and you have questions about your situation, you should feel free to reach out to an experienced personal injury lawyer to get help for those questions.
You can use this opportunity to get information, but also to get a feeling about the lawyer and his office.
This is a low pressure situation for the client, who could call more than one potential attorney to get information and advice.
Attorneys Are Evaluating You Too
When you contact an attorney for a consult, treat the interaction like a job interview.
Yes, you are trying to find the right attorney.
But they are also looking for the right clients.
Successful attorneys have the freedom to turn down clients.
The client might have a great case, but if they are rude to the attorney or staff, the attorney won’t take the client’s case.
Personal injury cases can last for a long time.
It is best for all involved to be sure that they want to be tied to each other for a long time.
Be prepared to put your best foot forward at every aspect of your contact with your attorney.
If you don’t, it could cost you the assistance of a skilled firm and ultimately impact what you recover at the conclusion of your case.
Who Does The Work In A Car Accident Case?
In most personal injury firms, the attorney initially handles the client interaction.
But after the client has been signed up, the attorney will usually hand off the case file to his legal assistant or associate attorney.
The file needs to be worked up, which generally initially involves a lot of administrative work.
The legal assistant/paralegal will do several things, such as:
- helping the client to fill out an extensive medical history form
- get the names and information about the locations of all treatment sought or received
- get the names of any witnesses
- obtain client’s signature on a medical records request form
- draft and send out a public records request for any police reports or accident reports
- initiate contact with the client’s insurance company and the adverse party’s insurance company
- help the client fill out a PIP application if necessary (personal injury protection)
- send out medical records requests to all providers
- assemble the medical records and organize them
- send out medical billing requests to all providers
- assemble the bills and make a spreadsheet to total up the amount of medical bills
- help the client to assemble other documents requested by the attorney that help establish damages in the case (like financial records, business records, photos, witness statements and more)
The client might feel upset about getting handed off to the legal assistant for the case workup.
But the honest truth is that the paralegal is probably way better at getting the medical records assembled than the attorney is.
The attorney will definitely supervise her staff as the case is investigated and developed, but having the paralegal work closely during the initial investigation and work up is really common and not a sign that the attorney does not care about the case.
Once the case file is put together (and all the records are assembled), the attorney will review all the records and analyze the case.
Then the attorney and the client will have more direct contact about where to take the case.
How Does A Car Accident Attorney Get Money For His Injured Client?
In general, a new personal injury case will progress like this:
- initial client meeting with attorney
- attorney’s staff requests documents (records and bills)
- attorney reviews documents
- attorney talks to client
- attorney makes a monetary demand on the adverse party’s insurance (formal letter with a packet of the documents substantiating the amount of money demanded)
- the insurance company counters with less than the attorney demanded
- the parties negotiate
- if the client is happy with the resulting amount, the parties sign a settlement agreement, release of future claims, and money is paid to client’s attorney
- client’s attorney holds the money until the check clears
- client’s attorney pays himself his attorney fees
- client’s attorney reimburses himself for expenses incurred
- client’s attorney resolves liens by third party providers
- attorney then disburses remaining funds to client
If the client is not happy with the proposed settlement amount, the client and attorney will discuss taking the case to trial.
When Does The Car Accident Attorney Make A Demand For Settlement?
In general, a settlement demand will not be made until the total damages is known.
This means that in most cases, the case cannot move towards settlement until the client is “medically stationary.”
This generally means that the client is about as recovered as he is going to be.
This doesn’t mean “back to normal,” as this might not be possible.
Ideally, it would be after the conclusion of the client’s medical treatment.
The reason: medical expenses are part of the amounts demanded in the settlement.
Once the case is settled, the defendant (and his insurance company) won’t have to pay any more for treatment incurred by the client.
In most cases, right after a car accident (or even in the months afterward), the client doesn’t really know what’s wrong with her, or how bad it is.
The extent of the damages are not known for a long time.
For the case, this means a lot of waiting.
The attorneys wait for the client to get treatment, and work on getting better.
It can take months, or even years.
A settlement demand can be made before treatment is complete (especially as a statute of limitations approaches), but generally the attorney waits.
The Statute Of Limitations Is Really Important
Be aware of how long your statute of limitations is, and when it expires.
In all states in the United States, there is a law that starts a timer when you are injured.
You have to resolve the case by settlement or file the case in the court (just file, not finish it) before the timer expires.
If you fail to file by the deadline (or settle), you are barred from pursuing the case further.
In many states (like Oregon), you have two years to file your personal injury claim or resolve it.
The best thing an injured person can do is contact legal counsel where they live to confirm how long they have, as this time period might not be the same.
Treatment Is Really Important
Many valuable car accident personal injury cases are harmed when the client fails to follow up with their doctors, or to engage in the treatment recommended by the medical professionals.
For examples, let’s say the client was involved in a car accident and is now suffering from neck pain.
Let’s say the doctor refers the client to physical therapy.
Let’s also say that the client chooses not to go to physical therapy, or just goes to one or two sessions, when 10 sessions were recommended.
The client still suffers from neck pain.
Client wants damages for the pain he is suffering in his neck, as he can’t work or sleep that well.
Defense counsel will argue that client is exaggerating his pain and should be given less money for his pain and suffering.
After all, if he was truly in pain, he would have engaged in treatment.
Client’s often fail to realize just how important it is to be committed to medical treatment and follow up.
If the client has questions about whether physical therapy is really necessary, or if there’s a problem with PT, he should talk to his lawyer and his doctor about it to develop an alternative plan, rather than just ignoring it.
Having Realistic Expectations Is Also Important
A really bad car accident is not a golden egg.
It is rare (if ever) that there is enough insurance money available to truly compensation the client for long term pain and suffering.
People should be given a lot for their damages, but it rarely happens.
A client who thinks that they’ll be coming out of a case with fistfuls of cash is going to be disappointed.
It is a good idea to get a realistic evaluation from the attorney as early as possible, and then update expectations as the case progresses.
Don’t let your eyes get full of dollar signs.
If you do, there is little chance that you’ll be satisfied with the outcome of the case.
Want to learn more as you get ready to meet with your lawyer for the first time?
Browse our free legal library guides for more information.
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