By Blake Johnson, Personal Injury Attorney
A common question/issue that I get from potential clients is that they have a family friend, cousin, neighbor, etc., that is a lawyer, so can’t they just handle my injury claim/case? The short answer with a huge caveat is “Yes.” Personal injury law is on the surface pretty simple. Someone does something wrong (runs a red light, doesn’t fix a dangerous condition, makes a dangerous product, etc.,) and as a result, someone is harmed and makes a claim for their damages. So why does it matter what kind of attorney handles the case?
The simple truth is that while all attorneys technically can handle the claims, there is a wide gap in the knowledge and specialization between attorneys.
Think of it this way, if you injured your knee and had to have surgery, which of the following surgeons would you choose?
Surgeon A: Specializes in shoulders, performs over 100 shoulder surgeries per year, has attended continued education on new techniques in shoulder surgery/reconstruction, and typically does 6-8 knee surgeries a year.
Surgeon B: Specializes in knees, performs over 100 knee surgeries per year, received continued education in knee surgery techniques, and only does a few shoulder surgeries per year.
Obviously, you are going to go with Surgeon B for your knee injury. Surgeon A is qualified, has done it before, but he doesn’t specialize in knees, and that is the problem. This is why you will sometimes hear people call their surgeon the “knee guy” or the “foot and ankle guy.” Because while other surgeons are able and qualified to do the surgery, they just haven’t spent the time or practice and as a consequence, they will probably not be able to do as good a job as the surgeon who specializes in that particular joint.
So how does this apply to attorneys? What are the lessons?
Lesson 1: Personal Injury cases need specialization for a reason.
Personal injury practice is one of the most contested areas of law. This is because an insurance company’s money is at stake. Insurance companies are notorious for doing whatever they can to maximize their profits. They will use any loophole, technicality, or find any other way to get out of paying out valid claims. Because of this, it is absolutely critical that the attorney representing you knows the ins and outs of the law, and the strategies the insurance companies are using to pay less on claims.
This specialized knowledge starts at the moment you are injured. Many attorneys do not understand or know the parts of your case that need to be addressed from day one and will instead wait for your medical treatment to conclude to start addressing these details. By then, it is far too late and opportunities have been missed.
The insurance defense industry has a think tank called the Defense Research Institute (“DRI”) whose sole purpose is to find ways to devalue an injured person’s claim or case. These strategies the DRI uses are effective against lawyers who do not know how to combat them. Unfortunately, there are a lot of attorneys who have not even heard of the DRI, let alone know the information and strategies coming out of it. Finding an attorney who is well-versed in defense tactics is critical to ensure you get full compensation for your injury.
Lesson 2: Insurance companies keep notes on attorneys.
Insurance companies keep a database on attorneys. I know this from my time working for an insurance company. Each company does it slightly differently, but the following is the basic breakdown of attorney categories for the insurance companies.
Starting with the most disliked by insurance companies:
Dedicated personal injury attorneys who successfully tried cases to a jury verdict and received notable verdicts.
Each company evaluates the success of a jury verdict differently, but usually, it is based on the dollar amount of medical expenses. Attorneys that have exceeded expectations at trial are the ones the insurance company fears the most. These attorneys (because of their reputation) get better offers much earlier than others because the insurance company knows they are not afraid to go to trial and run the risk of getting a significant jury verdict.
Dedicated personal injury attorneys who have gone to trial, with not much success.
These attorneys come in at number two because even if the attorney hasn’t gotten significant verdicts in the past, the insurance company knows and respects the fact that the attorney will take it to the end of the line and there is always a risk that the attorney will get a great verdict.
Dedicated personal injury attorneys who do not go to trial or litigate.
These are the “settlers.” They are no threat to the insurance company because they know that by employing the “Triple D” defense (see the blog on the Triple D defense of Deny, Defend, Delay) the attorney will eventually cave and take less than the full value of the claim because they either don’t know how to litigate or don’t want to. Either way, the result is the same— and not in your best interests.
Non-dedicated attorneys from large firms.
Large firms are large and have big buildings for a reason: they are thorough, smart, and usually very hard working. Insurance companies do not hold these attorneys as high as the others for the simple reason that they haven’t specialized. Not specializing means that parts of an injury case that start from the day the injury occurs are being overlooked.
I previously worked at a personal injury firm where about 30% of the practice was dedicated to cases that had been harmed or ruined by attorneys at big firms and realized too late that they didn’t know the ins and outs of the practice, forcing them to refer the case to a dedicated personal injury firm.
- Non-dedicated attorneys from mid-size or small firms.
These represent the lowest threat to the insurance company. The insurance company will offer the least and fight this attorney every step of the way because the attorney is not specialized, and likely doesn’t have the support or backing from other attorneys. They also do not have the reputation of the big firm.
This hierarchy exists. It does not mean there aren’t exceptions to the general hierarchy, but the fact is that insurance companies keep detailed notes on attorneys and know the “book” on who they are dealing with. While I was working for the insurance company, I knew of the notes and the conversations about the cases they were dealing with. The insurance company had actually budgeted out how much they would have to spend against each attorney based on where the attorney would typically settle the case.
Lesson 3: An attorney who is great in another area of law, is not necessarily going to be great in personal injury.
Different areas of law require different skill sets and quite frankly, different personalities. Attorneys who might excel at family law, criminal defense, or estate planning, are simply not going to have the same skill set that a dedicated personal injury attorney has. It also takes a certain type of personality to combat the insurance companies effectively.
At the end of the day, if an attorney practices in family law, business, law, criminal defense, or other areas in addition to personal injury, the unfortunate truth is that an attorney or lawyer is very unlikely to be specialized enough to get you the best result.
Another example to illustrate the point: A child in high school may be able to start on the basketball, football, and baseball team, but if that child wants to play college sports, they will likely have to choose one to focus on to make it to the college level. This is because we all have limited time to practice. If that child spends 5 hours a day practicing football and only 1-hour practicing basketball, they simply won’t be as good at basketball. Same thing with attorneys.
Bottom line: Attorneys who practice in several areas can rarely specialize in any one area.
Choosing the right attorney is critical to ensure that your rights are protected and you received full compensation for your injury.
Family and friends often have the best intentions and want to help, but the lack of specialization can be problematic because they haven’t spent the time to learn all aspects of handling an injury case.