You’ve just been in an accident, a victim of somebody’s carelessness or negligence. You’re in pain and your life has been disrupted.
Maybe you cannot work but need your paycheck just to get by. Will insurance cover your loss? Will insurance meet all your expenses and provide compensation for your pain and suffering? How will your doctors be paid? If it was a car accident, who will pay for your car? Insurance contracts are so confusing and contain so many provisos and time limits that they are practically written for the sole purpose of giving insurance carriers loopholes so they can wiggle out of paying legitimate claims.
You know you need an attorney, but with so many out there, how to choose?
You’ve been recommended to an attorney by a friend. You saw a TV commercial advertising legal help. You searched online for an attorney with offices near you. But is this attorney competent to handle your case? Is he or she accessible, knowledgeable, effective, dedicated and honest? Is his or her contract fair and reasonable? Will he or she handle every aspect of your claim … see that your medical bills get paid … help with your property damage … hold the negligent party fully accountable for your loss … keep you informed? Can your attorney stand up to the immense resources of an insurance company in their effort to limit or totally deny you the award you are due?
So much hangs in the balance. Remember, you will be signing a contract for assistance with what could be the largest transaction of your life—maybe even larger than the cost of your car and or the mortgage on your home.
Knowledge is power. Keep these four things in mind to protect yourself when choosing an attorney so you don’t become victimized a second time:
- You are the boss. You hire the attorney … not the other way around. You can always discharge your attorney and it will not cost you additional fees. Your new attorney must pay the old attorney from his or her portion of the settlement (if the old attorney is entitled to anything). Be wary of any attorney who seeks to charge you monies upfront on an accident case.
- Know who will handle your case. This point sounds obvious. It isn’t. When you visit an attorney’s office for the first time, you should be met by the attorney who will handle your case from start to finish. Often, an attorney will leave the intake process to his or her assistants, foreshadowing how your case will be handled in the future.
- Make sure you understand. Do not leave a prospective attorney’s office until you understand every facet of the way in which your claim will be handled. With few exceptions, there are no concepts that are beyond the layperson’s understanding. Don’t be shy… ask questions… you are paying well for the privilege, AND read everything you sign! Don’t leave until you understand everything! For example:
- What is your experience handling cases like mine?
- Will you actually handle my case?
- Is the office prepared to handle the case through trial if necessary? Insurance companies don’t pay out of the goodness of a heart they don’t possess. They are paying to avoid getting slammed by a Jury for an amount greater than what they would pay in settlement. Make sure your attorney is ready willing and able to go to trial.
- The difference between qualified and competent. New York State law says that any attorney with a license is qualified to handle a personal injury matter. However, there is a vast difference between qualified and competent. Qualified means the attorney has a license to practice law. Competent means the attorney actually knows what he or she is doing. Some firms handle personal injury cases almost exclusively while others are general practice attorneys who handle a variety of legal matters. Ask your attorney what portion of the practice is devoted to injury cases. There are firms who devote 100 percent of their time to personal injury work; you should expect nothing less.
Some attorneys aggressively advertise on television for clients. They list their best verdicts to entice you. But, how do you know that that a $2 million result shouldn’t have been $4 million? Also important to note: you may not be assigned to the actual attorney who achieved the results advertised. In many cases, the advertising is just that, meaning that the advertiser assigns you to a firm who pays for phone-call leads. Ultimately, you may be represented by a firm with little more qualification than that they had enough money to pay for a commercial.
If the attorney is recommended by the tow truck driver, ambulance attendant, hospital nurse or comes from an unexpected phone call, run the other way! You get what they paid for. Paying for cases is illegal. How competent can an attorney be if he or she can only get new cases by violating the laws he or she has sworn to protect?
On the other side of the spectrum is the attorney who gets referrals based upon his or her reputation among former clients, family members and peers. Attorneys who rely on their reputation among past clients to obtain new clients are focused intently on maintaining the client’s trust, respect and friendship and obtaining a successful money award. This attitude stems from the fact that the attorney’s next client will come from a happy former client.
Eric Lamonsoff has been handling personal injury cases for 27 years. He, his partners and associates continually update their knowledge of the law by attending continuing legal education courses. While some of these courses are required by New York State, every attorney at Bergman, Bergman, Fields & Lamonsoff willingly exceeds what is required. In fact, the firm’s senior trial attorney, partner Seth Fields, recently taught a course for the Queens County Bar Association. In tandem with experience, passion for representing injured people is a prerequisite to working at Bergman Bergman Fields & Lamonsoff LLP.