What Questions Should I Ask My Potential Lawyer (to Resolve My Case as Easily as Possible)?
You probably know you need a lawyer, but you think, What am I going to ask the lawyer? How will I see if this is a good lawyer for my case? You might even hear yourself saying, “It is not about money. I want to be compensated, but I am not a sue-happy person.”
If you are asking yourself similar questions, you are in the right place. I will share both questions and answers, as an injury lawyer who has practiced for 35 years in Newport Beach, California. The questions you want to ask will be practical, and I will tell you why they are important to you and the answer you should look for so your interview helps you select the lawyer who feels right to you.
The first question you should ask is of yourself.
The real question is: How do I want to be treated?
From the moment you decide to talk to a lawyer, you should keep watch. How was the first phone call and meeting? Was it short or rushed? Did they answer the questions that followed? If the injury lawyer or representative of the law office was in a hurry, it is likely they will not have time for you later. Business experts report that hurried behavior starts from the top. When a lawyer runs his office in a rush, especially with new possible clients, imagine how you will feel when the firm has no time for you later. Employees see and learn from the law firm leadership. If the firm is rushed, if they do not answer your questions or have time for you, consider looking further.
I often hear clients comment about Brian, who’s been on my staff for more than 20 years. Brian is a great member of our team for one simple reason, as clients often tell me: “He made me feel like he had all the time I needed, answered my questions, and if he did not know the answer, he got it for me.” My job is to live up to that experience when clients arrive for an appointment in the office. Isn’t it interesting, that I have to make sure I live up to the standards my employees set? I love it.
Answer to look for: a person on the phone with you, or in the meeting with you, who is patient, knows what to ask you to put you at ease, and at the same time, listens to you.
Should I ask about injury case results?
The real question is: I want to know whether you will resolve my case successfully. (But there is a better way to learn this – read on.)
I can always tell when someone has done their research. They are asking me about past case results they read on our website. I marvel, however, that very few clients ask me about my failures. You can see through a lawyer’s soul when you ask about a failure, and the lawyer must emotionally recount that moment to you, if they truly cared. Do they blame others, or take responsibility? Are they gracious about the question? If they are not, then consider them defensive. Defensive lawyers will be defensive later when you question if they are handling things the way you want them handled.
I would love to tell you that I came up with this interview strategy, but actually, it was a client named Bob. He was a great guy, but badly hurt in an accident. As a contractor, he was good with people, but he could not work after the accident and wanted to know if I was the right lawyer for him. When he asked me the question, the first I ever heard it, I flinched – but told the truth. After I told the story, he said, “You are my lawyer, because you cared.” I have never forgotten Bob and the lesson he taught me.
Want to know that case? I lost my first trial, for a woman who was raped and beaten outside a restaurant bar. The assailant was in jail and had no money to pay the bills for my client, who did not even speak to this guy at the bar. He was drunk and over-served by the bar as a “regular.”
I lost that case, because the jurors wanted to know about the past behavior of this assailant while at the bar. I tried to get evidence in about his prior incidents, but they were never to the level of rape, just disorderly and overly drunk activities. The judge precluded them. I lost the case and had to face the client. I hated that feeling, and remember to this day, almost 30 years later, her looking at me and telling me, “I saw the whole trial, and you did the best I could ask for.” One good note: when we moved for a new trial, the judge overruled himself and granted it. The defense realized that added evidence would give us even more to discuss at trial, and settled the case.
Answer to look for: It is not only the words they use, but the way they hold their body and how they recount the failure. Is the trial lawyer able to give you an example he or she really learned from? No lawyer wins them all. If a lawyer says: “I win them all,” run for the hills. I hope the lawyer will tell you he or she learned, and had compassion for the client who also lost. Does it impact them, or is it “oh well”? If they do not have compassion for the loss, chances are they will not be very considerate when you need them to fight for you, or if they disagree with your decision to settle the case. You cannot work in my office as a lawyer or even as a staff member if you do not hold my values of compassion. Simple but effective.
Should I ask the lawyer how much my case is worth?
The real question: Is my case worth pursuing, or are you the right lawyer to pursue it?
We always want to know the outcome of a case before it begins. As lawyers, we need to win to pay the bills, especially with contingency agreements where I get paid only if I win. However, the lawyer that predicts a dollar outcome is either insecure about “losing the case to another lawyer” or simply inexperienced. A good injury lawyer will advise you something like this:
“I will do everything in my power to advocate your case to a fair resolution, and in cases like yours, I have had great success. However, a dollar figure at this point is too hard to predict. Instead, let us do our evaluation of all the factors, and then we will meet with you to discuss our opinions on value after an offer has been made.” Often, I tell clients: “If you know what I know, you will probably follow my advice. My job is to therefore educate you on what I know.”
One client, Mr. K, asked me if he should go to trial. He was a prominent athlete in the country, and I told him: “If you knew what I know you would know the answer.” He said, “Okay – tell me what you know.” I did, and he decided to take my advice, telling me he wished his advisers were all like that. He could then easily decide things of importance.
Should I ask the lawyer how long the case should take?
The real question: I really do not want my case to drag out unnecessarily.
In California, the statute of limitations is two years. You must file a lawsuit in two years or you are prohibited from bringing a claim. At our office, we never pay attention to that date, and want cases resolved earlier. We press a case forward, because a timely resolution is best for everyone involved. That does not always mean we can close a case promptly. Some take longer than others, but on average, your case should be closed within one year, or two/three years if it had to go to trial. You should get a similar answer from your prospective lawyer.
Should I ask the lawyer how they will communicate with me?
The real question: Will you answer my calls?
Absolutely ask this question. Communication is the most important part of your case. You want to be informed as the case progresses. Get the lawyer to identify how you will communicated with and how often. We tell our clients that we will communicate as often as they want, and we anticipate and call them. Some clients do not want to hear from us until something significant happens; others want to hear from us regularly. Either way should be okay with your lawyer.
One client informed me, “I want to hear from you every week.” Okay, I said; I will personally call you every week whether I need to speak to you or not. Soon he was asking me to call him every other week, and then only once a month. We earned his trust that everything was going well. He then felt he could release “control.” We all want some level of control. You should feel comfortable your level of control is met.
Should I ask the lawyer how I will know what is going on during my case?
The real question: I want to be kept informed to be comfortable, secure, and know my interests are taken into consideration.
Absolutely ask this question. You have a right to know what is going on at any moment in your case. It is your case, after all, and you are the general, using the lawyer as your army. Many lawyers like to keep the client in the dark until they’re near trial, but this will increase your anxiety and give you unnecessary reason for concern. We have a custom proprietary program that we are releasing in 2019 that gives clients real-time access to their case on their phone or computer. No one else in personal injury law has done this yet, but they should. Some law offices cannot afford to create such a program, so they should at least be able to tell you what is going on when you inquire into your case.
Can I ask the lawyer about his personal life?
The real question: I like to feel people and their energy, before I hire them.
Absolutely ask this question. If you are the type of person who wants a personal relationship with your lawyer, by all means ask. If the lawyer refuses to discuss it, he or she could be closed off emotionally to you – or worse, he or she may be closed off to others around them. Trust your instincts and go with who feels great to you.
Should I ask the lawyer about his team?
The real question: Do you have enough help and can you get experts and doctors to cooperate to help my case?
This is a great question, and it throws most lawyers off. I have told my new injury lawyers that they should be building on the team we formed in our office. There is no room for a maverick in today’s injury law practice. Let me explain why. You, as the client, need a team of professionals that know how to work well together. Any fault in the team will cause delay. Who is your team?
Our clients learn their team starts with them – you should be a part of decisions and actions. The team includes your lawyer and staff. A lawyer doing it alone is busy, and things get missed. Your team should include your doctor, working with you to get better, but also willing to work with your lawyer to prepare the proper documentation of injuries and damages. Your team should include your insurance carriers in health and auto, if you had a car accident. Why? They cover your expenses, and you want them helping, not getting in the way of your case. Your team should include your employer, if you have a wage-loss claim, and witnesses, if the liability is disputed. I even advocate enlisting the adjuster and defending attorney. Nothing settles a case faster than having the defense attorney tell the insurance company they should settle because they will lose at trial.
Answer to look for: Yes; I believe in a team approach to your case, and here is why….
Should I ask the lawyer what they think about liability?
The real question: Do you believe in my case?
Absolutely ask this question. A lawyer who does not believe in you or your case is a recipe for disaster. The injury lawyer should be able to look you in the eye and say, “I believe in you, now let’s get to work proving it.” I had a client who came to me after three other lawyers turned his case down. He had been run down by a driver who was rounding a curve. The police report put him at fault for being in the roadway, but the client told me that was impossible. The difficulty? He had no memory of the accident. We took that case because he told me he would never be there for no reason. I believed him. Ultimately, we found evidence at the scene that proved exactly what he was saying, overlooked by other lawyers who did not believe him.
I have a lion on my desk given to me by a wonderful client 15 years ago, because she thought I “fought for her like a lion.” Truthfully, I just believed in her. The police claimed she ran a red light and hit an ambulance with lights and siren on. I believed her when she said before and after the accident there were no lights or siren, and she had the green light. Several lawyers turned down her case because the police report had several adverse witnesses against her. As it turned out, when we took the case and did an investigation, we learned that not only were the witnesses misquoted, it was intentional because the police officer was a buddy of the ambulance driver. Despicable! We settled that case once the ambulance company realized what we had uncovered: a conspiracy.
A lawyer’s belief in your claim shows up most in your medical care. If you have injuries before an accident, but the accident caused an increase or change in symptoms, you have a right to treatment to restore you to where you were, and also for the pain and suffering of the increased symptoms. Many lawyers are unwilling to do the work necessary to prove you were hurt more; by reviewing records, finding out the positive and negative evidence that supports your case, and clarifying it to settle the case to your satisfaction. It starts with believing in the client.
Pick an injury lawyer who believes in you and your case. You should ask this question above all others. You have a right to ask, and you will gain great insight into who you are hiring, what they stand for, how they hear you, and what they see as the future of your relationship when they represent you.
James Ballidis is an author, personal injury attorney, and trial specialist in Orange County, California. He has an AV Preeminent® Rating on Martindale-Hubbell, the top score given by the country’s oldest independent lawyer-rating firm. He has been nominated and voted trial lawyer of the year, ethics lawyer of the year, and Super Lawyer for many years of his 35-year career. He also devotes time to advocating for change in Sacramento on committees, for the adoption of new laws to make the practice of law more effective for injury victims. Jim is married with three children, living in Lake Forest, CA.
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