Choosing a Lawyer

The Law Office of Alan H. Crede is committed to providing the highest-quality legal representation to the victims of accidents and medical malpractice. You've probably seen a number of TV commercials, billboards, Yellow Page ads and websites for personal injury lawyers. How do you find the best lawyer for yourself or for an injured loved one? Here are some tips.

1. Treat Your Lawyer Search Like a Job

The most important thing you can do in your search for a lawyer is to treat your task seriously. Take it as seriously as you would an assignment handed you by your boss at work. Take a disciplined, regimented approach to finding a lawyer: make a list of names and go through them one-by-one until you've reached the end of your list. This advice applies with equal force to cases of catastrophic injury and to more common cases, such as soft tissue damage or whiplash cases.

In a catastrophic injury case, your or your family's financial security and entire future may depend on your finding the right lawyer. If the injured family member was the breadwinner, you need to recover for his or her lost income. You also need to recover enough to pay for long-term unexpected medical treatment. There are no second chances or "do-overs" in the legal system when, years down the road, you find that the settlement you received was inadequate to pay medical bills.

The same advice - of treating your lawyer search as seriously as your day-to-day work - applies even if you were involved in a relatively minor auto accident. If you have this type of case, you need to be wary of falling prey to a "settlement mill," a high-volume law firm that is just interested in turning your case over and netting a profit. And, as outlined below, in the discussion about fee agreements, with this kind of relatively minor case it is particularly important that you scrutinize your fee agreement with your lawyer. Too often clients wind up with less money than their attorneys on this type of case because of fine print in the fee agreement about litigation "costs."

2. The High Cost Of Hidden Fees

One of the greatest accomplishments of the American legal system is that if you've been injured, no matter your financial means, you can find a good, indeed a great, personal injury lawyer to represent you. This is possible because of a type of fee agreement between attorney and client that is called a "contingency fee agreement."

As you probably know, under a contingency fee agreement you don't pay any upfront money to your lawyer; instead your lawyer gets paid only if and when he or she recovers for you. Typically, with a contingency fee agreement, the lawyer will take one-third of the total recovery plus "costs," although more and more lawyers are insisting on forty percent of the total plus "costs."

It sounds straightforward and simple enough. But lawyers are masters of the fine print and the fine print in your fee agreement can rival the fine print in your credit card cardholder agreement for its devilish complexity.

One of the areas where lawyers use the fine print to their advantage is with an expansive definition of "costs." The typical contingency fee, as we've noted is for one-third plus "costs."

What are these "costs"? In a simpler time, they were merely the out-of-pocket costs that a lawyer had to shell out to litigate your case. Traditionally, "costs" were limited to a few items: court filing fees, service of process fees, the costs for a court reporter for depositions, the cost of purchasing deposition transcripts, the costs of obtaining medical records and fees paid to expert witnesses.

Even without any bill-padding by the attorney, these costs can be substantial. Deposition costs can run into the tens of thousands of dollars on a case where many witnesses are deposed. And expert witness fees are enormous, particularly in medical malpractice cases - because the expert witnesses in med mal cases are almost always doctors and doctors put a hefty price tag on their time.

So, for a long time, the "costs" your lawyer deducted were a certain well-defined and narrow set of costs, not the basic costs of law firm operation. Even then, these costs added up quickly. But a couple of decades ago, some lawyers became dissatisfied with this arrangement and began broadening the definition of "costs" so that it embraced virtually every activity performed by their law firm - including photocopying and scanning documents for your case, long-distance phone calls made in your case, and other routine office expenses that, once upon a time, were just regarded as a part of a law firm's overhead.

Nowadays, many law firms will charge you a per-page fee for any photocopying they do on your case file. And typically these fees are exorbitant - more than you would pay if you went out to a copy shop and did the photocopying yourself. Photocopying, and other routine administrative tasks, have become important "profit centers" for many injury law firms.

This is what I mean by "the high cost of hidden fees." Things are to the point where, if your lawyer recovers the policy limits on a $20,000 auto insurance policy, you might wind up seeing only seven or eight thousand of that recovery after your lawyer's one-third contingency, his "costs," and any taxes come out of the settlement.

There is an old maxim that, "A good lawyer is a bad businessman." While there is some truth to that, it is undoubtedly true that, "A good businessman is a bad lawyer." Lawyers need to focus on what they do best: lawyering. If they do that, the business side of the equation will take care of itself. When lawyers become green eyeshade-wearing bean counters, they get distracted from the most important goal: getting the maximum possibe recovery for their clients.

3. Follow The Money

As I've said, although a one-third contingency fee was once standard in the field, oftentimes you now see that figure being upped to forty percent. On some occasions, a forty percent fee might be justified. For example, in a complex medical malpractice case, a product liability case, or an employment law case, an attorney might be taking an excessive risk on your case unless he is promised a forty percent fee.

But very often a forty-percent contingency fee is simply papering over the fact that another attorney is receiving a "referral fee" on your case. A "referral fee" is money that one lawyer pays another for sending him a case. In many states, such referral fees are contrary to the rules of professional ethics and lawyers can be disciplined or disbarred for paying them.

Under the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, however, such fees are allowed under certain circumstances. One of the requirements is that the referral fee be disclosed to the client.

If you're presented with a contingency fee agreement, ask if any lawyer will be making a referral fee off of your case. You have the right to know.

4. Know Who Your Lawyer Is

This point sounds so simple. How could someone not know who their lawyer is? But, in many firms, you will meet with or speak to a very respected lawyer who heads the firm and, thereafter, your case will be handled by an inexperienced attorney whom you never met. And when you try to get the senior attorney on the phone to discuss your case, you'll find that you have a hard time getting ahold of him or her.

A boilerplate fee agreement says that your attorney can delegate work on your case, as he sees fit, to anyone in the office. Partly, this is a practical matter. If an attorney had to work on every aspect of your case, including every administrative task like stamping envelopes, for you and every other client, there wouldn't be enough time in the day for the lawyer to get legal work done.

But if you've met an attorney and feel comfortable with that attorney, it's your right to ask for language in the fee agreement specifying that the attorney will handle all the legal work in your case. The worst a lawyer can say is "No" and there are always plenty of other lawyers out there.

5. Interview The Job Candidates

Your lawyer works for you. You're the one hiring the lawyer to work for you. You should treat your search for a lawyer like a corporation treats its search for employees.

A company is never going to hire an employee without first conducting an in-person interview. And a company doesn't just hire the first person who comes through the door. This policy is just applied common sense: there's a lot about a job candidate that you can't tell without meeting him or her in person and there are a lot of qualified candidates out there.

Don't hire a lawyer over the phone. Meet with him or her in person. If you're laid up in bed and can't travel to the attorney, have the attorney come to you. Scrutinize and compare lawyers' qualifications.

If you follow these simple steps, you'll be well on the way to finding the right lawyer for you. We hope that choice is The Law Office of Alan H. Crede.