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Should law students consider becoming personal injury lawyers?

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Personal Injury

Back in 1995, when I graduated from law school, the common approach to finding a job after law school went something like this:

Examine job board.  Submit resume. Wait for requests for interviews from participating law firms.  Attend numerous interviews.  Receive several job offers.  Select future career path from among those extremely limited options.

(At least at the Florida State University College of Law, those were usually defense firms.)

After receiving several offers, and without considering other options, I immediately narrowed my world of choices down to those few firms.  But that was only because the law school interview process pointed me in that direction – not because I had pondered and rejected any possibly better alternatives.

In fact, the law school interview process seemed almost like an extension of law school itself.  You sign up for classes.  You sign up for interviews.  That’s just what happens.

Then maybe you find yourself in a job that might not be an ideal fit.

To counter that easy progression, I’d like to challenge you to consider whether personal injury might (or might not) be a good fit for your personality.

The real question is: Who do you want to represent?  Do you feel more sympathetic toward business owners, or individuals? How would you feel representing someone who was paralyzed after a serious truck accident?  Or representing parents who lost a 17 year old daughter in a tragic car accident?  Does that appeal to your soul?

Also, do you want to work by the hour, or by the case?  And do you want your fee guaranteed, or contingent? How do you feel about risk?  Depending on whether you work completely on your own, or for another law firm, there can be a lot of stressful risk in personal injury cases.  After all, we only get paid when we recover money for someone, at the end of the case.  A small percentage of cases settle quickly for a relatively high fee, but others drag on for years.

If you start your own personal injury practice, you will risk all of your time, and might also risk a lot of money.

If you join an established personal injury law firm, you will probably earn a low salary combined with a small percentage of the fee on successful cases.  In other words, you will still be risking your time, although not to the same extent as a solo practitioner starting his or her own personal injury practice.  And you generally will not have to risk your own money, which is a very good reason to start as an associate – you need to learn how to evaluate the cases because of the financial risk.

Obviously the risk declines once you know how to successfully handle the cases.  However, even as you gain more experience, the risk never completely disappears.  After all, since personal injury cases that do not settle are tried by juries, they are completely unpredictable.  You might lose, after years of working on a case, and spending lots of dollars.  Or you might “win” but not even recover your costs.  Or you might win big.

You can often reduce that jury risk by recommending that your client not proceed as far in the case (e.g., strongly encouraging your client to settle either pre-suit, or least before trial), but your client will also sometimes recover less money that way (on the other hand, settling might be the best option if your client’s case has real problems).

The potential financial upside is that you can make a lot more money on some percentage of your cases.  (All cases aren’t million dollar cases, but some are – and usually those beat hourly rate litigation.)  If you are very careful when accepting cases, you can earn this higher fee on a higher percentage of your cases.

For example, I recently settled cases worth $1 million and $2 million and received referral fees on another case that settled for $3 million (these were all before costs to the client).  And all of those cases are still ongoing, which means we have remaining defendants and are pursuing cases against them.

However, make no mistake, many personal injury cases have no where near that high of a payout.  Unless someone is catastrophically injured, their settlement or verdict will not be in that range. To make matters worse, even if their injuries are very serious, many accidents are caused by drivers with limited insurance policies, which is usually the cap on what you can hope to recover because most defendants have no easily collectible assets.

In other words, the potential financial downside is that many personal injury cases involve minor injuries (you should reject those anyway), or low to moderate insurance policy amounts.  So you can easily spend a lot of time without making much money, unless you are exceptionally careful when analyzing which cases to reject.

You also have to accept that you cannot help everyone.  That’s one cruel reality of this practice area.  You cannot make money fall from the sky.  Therefore, if the defendant is flat broke and has terrible auto insurance coverage, then even the most exceptional legal arguments will be completely useless.  So you have to quickly get real with sometimes very distraught clients, if you discover that there is a low policy amount, regardless of the seriousness of their injuries.   (Now I’m thinking about two families who lost children as a result of tragic car accidents, and had outstanding wrongful death claims, but those cases settled for $20,000 and $75,000, before fees and costs, for one completely arbitrary reason: those were the insurance policy limits.)

All of this can be done and even mastered – but there is a learning curve.  You can easily waste more than enough time to bankrupt yourself, if you don’t quickly learn which cases to reject, refer to other lawyers, and/or settle without doing as much work.

Despite those concerns, there were three main reasons that I decided to open my Orlando, Fla.-based personal injury law practice:

  1. I wanted my own practice, but didn’t want to (ever) ask clients for money;
  2. I felt more connected to the underdog than the big businesses that I represented earlier in my career; and
  3. I was passionately opposed to laws restricting the rights of injured victims.

To deal with the risk (which I didn’t like), I started by co-counseling cases with more established law firms, and handling part of the work myself.  If you have any way of getting your own cases, then other personal injury law firms will serve as co-counsel for more serious injury cases. So a smart combination of co-counsel and referral relationships can get you “in the game” without as much risk.

If you think personal injury law might be a good fit for you, the two best paths to getting there are:

  1. Start your career with an insurance defense firm, where you can learn how the other side operates, but plan to make a move within a few years; or
  2. At least poke around the job databases outside your law school (for example, the Florida Bar Journal publishes a job list twice per month), and possibly send some resumes to any hiring local personal injury law firms.

If you ever decide to open your own practice, one popular approach to combating the risk is to handle two practice areas, with both hourly and contingent fee agreements.  For example, many lawyers handle criminal and personal injury, or family law and personal injury.

Incidentally, I don’t recommend that approach, for any area of the law.  My opinion is that you should stick to one practice area.  The law is far too complicated for anyone to truly excel without disciplined focus.

But the practical reason many lawyers handle cases from a variety of practice areas is money.  They need the hourly fees to fund the unpaid (until the end) personal injury cases.

You’ll have to make your own decision regarding that trade-off.

I would be remiss if I discussed personal injury without mentioning the fierce competition.  In this practice area, you absolutely must have thick skin, and be aggressive.  Personal injury lawyers are unquestionably cut-throat.  So you will need to fight hard to get clients, and sometimes to keep them.  (I’m thinking back to one of my potential clients, shortly after I had opened my practice, who was seriously injured during a motorcycle accident.  Another Orlando auto accident lawyer called this man before, during, and immediately after my consultation with him, and even scheduled a doctor’s appointment for him!  At the same time, I have had countless people who already had lawyers call me due to their disappointment with their current counsel.)

Back to my original point, I don’t think you should allow the few law firms who choose to interview at your law school to define the type of lawyer you ultimately become.  Instead, start thinking about yourself sitting in front of a potential client.  Whose story do you want to hear?  Who do you want to help?  Let those answers guide all of your career decisions as a lawyer. Whatever you decide, be determined, have faith, and good things will happen.