To Represent or Not to Represent
For an attorney, taking on representation of a personal injury client is a commitment on several levels. First, you must believe the client needs help and you can provide it. Second, you must believe you will be successful in providing said representation. Third, you must believe the potential recovery (and resulting fee) is an efficient use of your time. That is, you will profit once the case is resolved.
The Economics of Personal Injury Law
It would be nice if the practice of law was only concerned with the pursuit of justice and every case is one where we “fight the good fight”. But there is the way things should be, and the way it actually is. Like it or not, business drives the legal profession.
At first blush, this may be a depressing thought, but the situation is certainly fair. In “free” market economies, efficiency is the name of the game. It makes sense that the lawyer (business) which provides the best service, in the most efficient manner, will thrive.
Because business concerns (profit and loss) are of primary importance, they play into every decision a personal injury lawyer makes. This is true from the time the attorney tries to determine if a particular case is worth the time.
For example, a personal injury case where the client didn’t go directly to the emergency room, didn’t see a doctor until two weeks after the accident, and had soft tissue injuries will likely only yield a small recovery and fee. A potential client who was airlifted to the hospital and spent a week in intensive care is obviously a more valuable scenario for the client and the attorney.
But much of the work still takes the same amount of time as far as the attorney is concerned. So the determination ultimately comes down to the amount of money made vs. the amount of time spent on the file. In other words, what is the attorney is making for his time – the only commodity he/she has to offer the marketplace?
Making the Determination
I was taught to never take a case unless you are willing to put in the time it would take to bring that case to trial. I still think this is a good rule of thumb for attorneys trying to build a practice.
I realize that many attorneys take on cases to see if they can settle the matter “pre-suit”. And especially for an attorney looking for cash flow, this can be an attractive policy. The idea is to try to work up the case, make a few phone calls and send a few letters to see if the adjuster will put some money on the case. If not, the client is released to try to find another attorney before the statute of limitations runs. I think this practice is short sighted though and could bite you in the backside later on.
Even if you are just starting out, you will undoubtedly be getting new clients. As you practice, old clients sometimes become recurring clients and more importantly, referring clients. Many older attorneys will tell you past clients are a large source of their referral business.
If you are unable to settle a case, and unwilling to take it into suit, that client will surely not be happy. A client who is only half-heartedly represented is not a referring client.
In addition, you will have wasted time on a case that yielded you no fees whatsoever. Further, when the case is finally ready to settle, you forego possibly working on larger cases with more profit potential.
So how do you decide which cases to take? First, decide how much you want to make per hour of your time. In the personal injury game, we don’t bill hours, so you are probably better off deciding which cases by their estimated case value. Then you can calculate your expected fees in rough terms, divide that number by the amount of hours you work and you will have a rough estimate as to how “heavy” a personal injury case must be for you to consider representation.
If you are just starting out and need some, albeit rough, estimates as to what a case is worth, you can ask some of your peers. You can also use the crude method of multiplying the medical expenses by three. These are not perfect estimations by any means. However, they will give you a general idea of your potential fee if all goes well.
Once you decide your threshold, make sure to you stick to it. I remember taking cases not trying to disappoint a friend or acquaintance. These will undoubtedly cause you to work the hardest for almost no revenue. Resist the temptation to be a people pleaser and politely pass.
Obviously, these are some broad strokes, but the concept is clear – make sure you are providing value, and don’t forget that business drives the profession. Keep this in mind and you and your clients will be that much better off.
Thanks for listening.