Personal Injury

The Attorney-Client Relationship in a Personal Injury Case

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
Here's how personal injury lawyers get paid, why attorney-client communication is so important, and your options when you and your personal injury lawyer aren't getting along.

You've been injured, someone else may be at fault, you've decided to file a personal injury claim. At this point, you shouldn't hesitate to talk with a personal injury lawyer. In fact, you might want to talk with several personal injury lawyers. You'll get several opinions about the merits of your case, as well as a feel for the kind of lawyer you'll be most comfortable with. And the best part may be it costs nothing to look. Here are some tips to go by as you interview, select and work with a personal injury lawyer.

What about Money?

You can usually afford the luxury of interviewing several personal injury lawyers, since you won't be charged a fee for the consultations. That's because personal injury lawyers commonly take cases on a contingency fee basis. This means the lawyer is paid from a percentage of the money you receive in judgment after trial or in settlement of your case before trial. Until then, and if that doesn't happen at all, you owe nothing in attorney's fees.

So you won't have to pay for that initial consultation, and you don't have to pay as you go for additional time meeting with your lawyer, or for time as your lawyer works on your case. During your meetings with lawyers you'll explain how you were injured. You'll explain what medical treatment you've had, and what your doctors say about your recovery. It's important to give all the details, including the facts that might show you were in part to blame for the accident.

The lawyer will listen to your story. This consultation is a two-way process. Just as you should be thinking about whether this lawyer is right for you, the lawyer will be deciding whether the case, and you, are right for her. Remember, the lawyer won't get paid except from your judgment or settlement. This means the lawyer must be honest and decline your case if you're unlikely to win, or if the value of your personal injury case doesn't synch up with what it would take to pursue it.

Learn more about the initial consultation in a personal injury case.

Expenses Are Separate from Fees

The expense of a personal injury lawsuit aren't limited to the lawyer's fees. Costs associated with the case include:

  • obtaining copies of records and reports, like medical records and police reports
  • copying, database maintenance, and other office expenses
  • legal research costs
  • court costs, such as filing and deposition fees, and
  • fees for investigators and expert witnesses.

You won't have to pay these out of pocket. The lawyer will typically pay for these items as the case progresses. As with the lawyer's fee, the lawyer will be repaid these costs out of your settlement or judgment. The order of payment is usually fees first, then costs. So the fee is a percentage of the gross settlement.

Learn more about costs versus fees in a personal injury case.

Communication is Everything

It happens sometimes, even if you've done your homework in selecting a personal injury lawyer. For whatever reason, you become dissatisfied with the progress or outlook for your case. Personal injury litigation can take many months or longer to settle or set for trial. (More about how long a personal injury claim might take.) During this time, financial pressures may mount on you, and you can become frustrated.

Like most relationships, a good client-lawyer relationship is based on communication. State your concerns to your lawyer. Don't hold back. Find out what is holding up your case, or why your lawyer's outlook has changed. If the answers don't make sense or aren't satisfactory, there's nothing wrong with talking with another lawyer for a second opinion. You'll want to learn what a new lawyer would do differently in your case. If the answer is "not much," you will want to think twice about changing lawyers. Changing lawyers is likely to involve going over the same ground twice, and may even prolong your case at first.

Changing Lawyers in Midstream

If you're having problems with your personal injury lawyer, and you think changing lawyers makes sense, your new lawyer will contact your former lawyer and arrange for the handoff. This will be accomplished without harming your case. One matter that will be addressed between the three of you is what, if anything, your former lawyer is owed for her services. This usually depends on:

  • what stage the case is in
  • the number of hours your former lawyer has expended on your case, and
  • your state's laws.

Your former lawyer also will be paid what she's owed from the settlement or judgment you receive, just as if she managed the case to conclusion. In most states your former lawyer will have a lien on the proceeds for what she's owed, to ensure payment for her services.

Working with a lawyer isn't likely to be the most fun you've ever had. Communication is key, both in hiring a lawyer and in working well together. If you and your lawyer both understand and share the same goals and expectations, your case is likely to go as smoothly and successfully as possible.

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