If you were injured in an accident, you are likely evaluating your legal options and wondering if you will be compensated for your injuries.  The first step is to determine whether you have a valid personal injury claim.  There are essentially three components to a valid personal injury claim:

  1. You suffered harm,
  2. It was the result of someone else’s wrongdoing, and
  3. The person who caused the harm (or more often their insurance company) has sufficient assets to compensate you for your losses.

Assuming these three components are met, the next step is to decide whether you need a lawyer to handle your claim.  When deciding whether you need a lawyer, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you know how to gather the evidence in support of your claim?
  • Do you know how to powerfully present that evidence to the insurance company?
  • Do you know how to negotiate with the insurance company?
  • Do you know what to do if the insurance company does not treat you fairly?
  • Do you have the experience and resources to win your case at trial?   
  • Do you know the rules of evidence?
  • Do you know the rules of civil procedure?
  • Do you know which laws are applicable to your case?
  • Do you know the burden of proof?
  • Do you know how to gather information for the court?
  • Do you know how to object in court?
  • Do you know how to cross-examine witnesses?
  • Do you know how to address a jury?
  • Do you know all the relevant legal deadlines?
  • Do you know what will happen if you lose?

Unless you are an experienced trial lawyer, the answer to these questions is likely ”no.”  If you cannot answer ”yes” to all these questions, then it is unlikely you will receive full and fair compensation from the insurance company and their lawyers.

The insurance company’s interests are in direct conflict with yours.  Your goal is to get as large of an award as possible to compensate you for your suffering.  The insurance company’s goal is to pay you as little as possible so they can make more profit; therefore, there’s a strong argument for hiring a qualified personal injury lawyer. 

How to Select a Personal Injury Lawyer

Hire a lawyer who can answer ”yes” to all the above questions and choose your lawyer carefully.  Not all attorneys may be right for your case because not all lawyers are personal injury lawyers.  Navigating a personal injury lawsuit can be treacherous, even for experienced attorneys.  You need a lawyer who has the specific knowledge and experience of handling personal injury cases.  Insurance companies recognize experienced personal injury lawyers and pay their clients more than they do to people with inexperienced attorneys or no attorney at all.  You will need a proven personal injury lawyer to receive anything close to the full value of your claim.  You want a lawyer who:

  1. Can provide detailed answers to all the “‘Do you know?” questions above
  2. Primarily handles personal injury cases
  3. Associates with fellow personal injury lawyers through organizations like Consumer Attorneys of San Diego
  4. Tries cases in court (rather than settling or referring cases to other lawyers to try)
  5. Has won honors and awards from legal organizations

If you hire a lawyer who settles all their cases before trial, or refers their cases to other lawyers to try, then you will take a discount on whatever settlement you receive.  The insurance companies know which lawyers take cases to trial and which lawyers usually prevail in court and achieve the best outcomes for their clients because of their skill, experience, and education.

If You Hire a Personal Injury Lawyer, Pick Carefully but Hire Soon

If you are fortunate enough to hire a top personal injury attorney, we recommend that you move quickly and get the process rolling early in the legal process.  Hiring late in the process, in contrast, may jeopardize your legal rights and diminish your chances of winning the case.  Interview at least two lawyers that you by scheduling a consultation.  Procrastination may create the impression that your injuries are less serious and not as consequential as you claim. 

The insurance companies and their lawyers are professionals with years of experience studying the law and developing techniques to pay you as little as possible.  Getting a good lawyer from the beginning levels the playing field and maximizes your recovery.  Insurance companies will take your claim more seriously once they realize you are represented by an attorney, especially if your attorney is a reputable personal injury lawyer.  The Insurance Research Council reported that the average person receives a 3.5 times larger settlement with the help of a lawyer than without.

How to Value Your Case

One of your lawyer’s most important tasks is to properly value your case.  Some of the factors your attorney will consider when valuing your case are:

  • Past and future medical bills
  • Physical pain and suffering
  • Emotional pain and suffering
  • Mental pain and suffering
  • Impact on employment prospects
  • Impact on enjoyment of life

Oftentimes your lawyer will hire expert witnesses, such as medical experts and economists, to help calculate and prove the value of your case.  Attempting to value your case by yourself, without the help of a lawyer and expert witnesses, is likely to lead to major miscalculations and jeopardize your case.  Remember that insurance companies and their lawyers will do everything in their power to take advantage of you – especially if you do not have a lawyer.  

How Much Will It Cost to Hire a Personal Injury Lawyer?

Attorney Fees

Most personal injury lawyers operate on a contingency fee.  This means you don’t pay unless the lawyer wins your case.   Your lawyer will receive a percentage of the verdict or settlement you receive.  Normally, a settlement check will be sent to the lawyer.  The lawyer will contact you and explain how much they are deducting.  The lawyer will calculate their percentage of the settlement and deduct the legal expenses they incurred on your behalf (filing fees, expert witness fees, court reporters, trial preparation, etc.).  Your agreement with your lawyer should be in writing and should specify whether the lawyer’s share is calculated before or after costs and expenses are deducted.

Most contingency fee arrangements award the lawyer 35%  of any settlement or award.  The percentage may be greater or lesser depending on the stage at which your case is resolved.  For example,  the lawyer may receive a higher percentage (i.e., 40%) if the case goes to trial.  Litigation costs can be significant and paying those costs up front is another service a lawyer may provide.    A good lawyer will be well worth their fee, and you will still receive much more than you would have received without a lawyer.  Beware of lawyers who guarantee an outcome or offer you a deal that is too good to be true – it’s usually not.

The contingency fee may seem high until you consider that the lawyer is taking a risk on your case.  Your case might make a lot of money, or it might make nothing.  The lawyer will be paid nothing if you lose, regardless of how much time and money they invested in the case.  Some cases settle, some go to trial, and some are appealed multiple times.  Litigation is risky.  

If your lawyer has specialized knowledge and experience, then you are receiving much more for your money than if you hired an inexperienced lawyer.   Without a lawyer, the odds are against receiving the full value of your claim.

Litigation Costs

Litigation costs include filing fees, deposition costs, investigators, expert witnesses, trial preparation, and other costs.  Most lawyers will cover the costs and expenses of your case, then deduct them from your share of the settlement at the end of the case.  It’s rare for a personal injury lawyer to charge their client for costs and expenses as they come due.

Litigation costs can be tens of thousands of dollars or more depending on the circumstances of the case.  Ask your lawyer for an estimate of what the costs will be, and make sure your agreement with your lawyer is clear about who will pay the costs if you lose your case.

What Will Your Personal Injury Lawyer Do for You?

Litigation requires a grueling and strenuous amount of legwork.  Your attorney’s job is to handle the legwork for you and explain the process as it unfolds.  A personal injury claim can be one of the most stressful experiences you ever have.  Your attorney can make it less stressful by managing the process for you.  In addition to counseling you (the client), your attorney’s responsibilities include:

  • Obtaining police reports, medical records, and other relevant documents
  • Communicating with the insurance company(s) and defendant(s)
  • Drafting pleadings and court documents
  • Scheduling and conducting depositions
  • Preparing witnesses
  • Appearing in court
  • Hiring experts
  • Calculating damages
  • Responding to discovery requests
  • Preparing trial exhibits

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.  All these duties require the knowledge and skill of an experienced lawyer to be done properly.  Attempting to perform these duties yourself will be unduly stressful and counterproductive to your case.  Hire a lawyer to perform these duties for you if you want to receive the highest possible award for your personal injury claim.

What if a Personal Injury Lawyer Turns Down My Case?

When deciding whether to take your case, a lawyer will consider a few factors including:

  1. Who was at fault? How clear is liability in the case?  Were there witnesses with you who saw the accident?  Was there more than one party at fault?  Are there other defendants who should be named in the case (i.e., municipalities for maintaining dangerous road conditions)?
  2. The nature and extent of your injuries. Were there hard tissue or soft tissue injuries (i.e., did you suffer broken bones)?  Will your injuries require surgery?  Were there injuries to the brain, spine, or central nervous system?  Will the injuries require extensive rehab?  Will the injuries disable you from work?  Will the injuries affect your family, social life and extracurricular activities?
  3. Will you be able to collect for your injuries? Were you able to identify the defendant?  Is the defendant insured?  Are there other potential defendants and insurance policies who are implicated?

Keep in mind that the best lawyers are typically the most selective about which cases they take and will often turn down valid cases to better serve other clients.  Just because one lawyer turns down your case doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid.  Sometimes a lawyer will turn down a case simply because they already have a full caseload.  If a reputable lawyer turns down your case, it doesn’t hurt to ask them if they can refer you to another reputable lawyer who may be interested.  Good personal injury lawyers are typically tightly networked with other personal injury lawyers, and they may be able to provide you a referral.  If you cannot get a referral directly from a lawyer, you may consider contacting your county bar association as they typically have referral networks as well.


James S. Iagmin Practice Areas – Personal Injury Overview

Consumer Attorneys of San Diego

Consumer Attorneys of San Diego – Awards & Honors

The State Bar of California – What to Expect Regarding Fees and Billing

San Diego County Bar Association – Lawyer Referral & Information Service