If you get injured in an accident, you may decide to hire a personal injury lawyer. However, not all lawyers are the same — especially those who work for a settlement mill. The lawyer you choose may be a major factor in how much money you receive for your injuries.

Insurers pay more to attorneys with a proven track record of winning personal injury trials.  Insurers know which lawyers try cases and pay them higher settlements to avoid the risk of going to a trial. 

Not all lawyers try cases.  Some law firms aggressively market themselves as ‘’personal injury’’ law firms, but they rarely, if ever, take cases to trial.  Instead, they take as many cases as possible and settle swiftly for bottom dollar after doing little or no work on the case. 

Such firms are called ‘’settlement mills.’’  They make money by dealing in volume rather than maximizing your claim’s value.  Do not hire a settlement mill if you want fair compensation for your injuries.

What Is a Settlement Mill?

A ”settlement mill” is a high-volume law firm with a big advertising budget.  They aim to get as many cases as possible and settle them quickly.  They have a large stack of open cases and may process hundreds or thousands each year.  They use aggressive advertising tactics to keep getting new clients and spend tons of money on billboards, TV, and radio commercials.  Settlement mills rely heavily on ads to get clients rather than recommendations from previous clients or referrals from other attorneys.

Why You Should Avoid Settlement Mills

Settlement mills pay little attention to any individual case.  They do not rigorously screen their cases or clients.  They spend little or no time investigating their cases and encourage their clients to settle as quickly as possible. 

Settlement mills do not meaningfully interact with their clients.  Attorney-client contact is minimal or nonexistent.  The lawyers do not call their clients back and ignore their attempts to contact them.  Paralegals do most of the work.  The client might only see the lawyer when they sign the client agreement and pick up the settlement check.

Settlement mills treat their practice more like a business than a law firm and use a ‘’high volume’’ approach to make a lot of money despite subpar legal skills.  It is not uncommon for the state bar to discipline settlement mills for their poor ethics.

Settlement mills settle cases outside of court instead of filing lawsuits.  They rarely, if ever, take cases to trial.  Insurance companies exploit this by offering ultra-low settlements that the attorneys, in turn, encourage their clients to accept.  When a proven trial lawyer is involved, insurance companies are willing to pay much higher settlements to avoid a trial they may lose. 

Why Insurance Companies Love Settlement Mills

Insurance companies love settlement mills because they can settle cases with them at an attractive discount.  When an insurance company deals with a settlement mill, they offer bottom dollar because they know the firm will not take the case to trial.  With no threat of trial looming, the insurance company has little incentive to offer more than the absolute minimum.

Instead of pushing back against insurers, settlement mills encourage their clients to accept lowball offers so they can get paid and move on to the next case.  This benefits the settlement mill because they get paid quickly and don’t have to spend time or money preparing the case for trial. 

The result is a win-win relationship for insurers and settlement mills.  The insurer gets to settle their claims for the absolute minimum, and the settlement mill gets paid without having to do any work on the case or receiving pushback from the insurance company. 

The losers are the settlement mill’s clients who have suffered injuries and only receive a fraction of what their claim is potentially worth.  People who are badly injured and have rightful claims lose greatly when they hire a settlement mill. 

Insurance companies know the difference between settlement mills and trial lawyers, and they pay much more to the clients of trial lawyers.  Insurance companies know that when a settlement mill is involved, they will not have to pay the victim nearly as much.

How to Avoid Hiring a Settlement Mill

Hire a lawyer with a proven history of winning personal injury trials.  The best way to maximize your claim is to hire a lawyer who focuses their practice on personal injury law, takes cases to trial, and has a record of winning jury verdicts. 

Look for a lawyer who has excellent case results and client reviews.  The best personal injury lawyers network with other personal injury lawyers through organizations like Consumer Attorneys of San Diego (CASD).  Insurance companies know the best personal injury lawyers in San Diego and pay them more than less experienced lawyers.

Suppose you hire an inexperienced lawyer or a lawyer who only does personal injury law as a small part of their practice.  In that case, the insurance company will pay you less.  Suppose you hire a lawyer who always settles their cases or refers them to other lawyers to try.  In that case, the insurance company will pay you less. 

Not all lawyers are trial lawyers, and not all lawyers are personal injury lawyers.  The lawyers who get the best results for their clients focus their practice on personal injury law and have won honors and awards for winning trials. 

From our experience, hiring a proven trial lawyer is the only way to receive anything close to the full value of your claim.

What You Should Know Before Hiring a Personal Injury Lawyer

Before signing a client agreement with a personal injury lawyer, there are certain things you should know:

What is a contingency fee?

Most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee, which means they only get paid if you win your case.  Suppose the lawyer succeeds in obtaining a settlement or judgment.  In that case, you will pay the lawyer a percentage of the money you receive.  A standard contingency fee is 33.33%.  However, the lawyer may receive a greater percentage if the case goes to trial (such as 45%) or a lower percentage if they can settle the case quickly without filing a lawsuit (such as 30%).

Beware of attorneys who charge much higher or lower contingency fees than those above.  Attorneys charging low contingency fees may be doing poor work, and attorneys charging high contingency fees may be taking advantage of you.  Contingency fees are negotiable.  However, not every attorney will negotiate their fee.  Some attorneys have set contingency fees that they always keep the same. 

Make sure your attorney-client agreement is clear about the contingency fee percentages.  Also, make sure your attorney-client agreement is clear about whether the contingency fee is calculated before or after deducting other costs – this will make a big difference in how much money you receive.  You will receive more money if the costs are deducted before the contingency fee is calculated.

Who will pay the costs of the case?

Preparing a personal injury case for trial may cost tens of thousands of dollars or more.  Litigation costs typically include expert witnesses, depositions, process servers, investigators, filing fees, photocopying and mailing, translators and interpreters, and other costs.  In most cases, your personal injury lawyer will pay for these costs and get reimbursed at the end of the case.  However, not all attorney-client agreements are the same.  Your attorney-client agreement may require that you pay some or all of the costs upfront.  Make sure your attorney-client agreement is clear about who is responsible for paying the case costs.

What happens if you lose?

The attorney typically fronts the costs of the case and is reimbursed for them if you win.  But what happens if you lose?  The client usually does not have to pay the attorney back for the litigation costs if they lose the case.  However, not all client agreements are the same. 

Some attorney-client agreements require that you pay some or all of the case costs, even if you lose – this means you may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of your pocket even though you didn’t win any money from your case.  Most people cannot afford to absorb a financial blow like that.  Make sure your client agreement is clear about who pays the costs of your case if you lose.  If the attorney-client agreement requires you to pay some or all of the costs if you lose your case, you should probably not sign the agreement and find another attorney.

What will your attorney do to earn their fee?

Ensure your client agreement clearly states what your lawyer will do to earn their fee.  Preparing a case for trial requires an extensive investigation that typically involves:

  • Taking and defending depositions
  • Hiring and preparing expert witnesses
  • Drafting and responding to written evidence requests
  • Hiring process servers, investigators, court reporters, and other auxiliary professionals
  • Negotiating with insurance companies and defense counsel
  • Drafting pleadings and court documents
  • Appearing at court hearings and conferences
  • Determining all liable parties and their insurance policies
  • Preparing trial exhibits
  • Advising clients about strategy and the status of their case
  • Collecting settlements and jury awards

All of these tasks require the skill of an experienced lawyer.  Attempting to do them yourself will likely lead to disaster.  The best thing you can do to maximize your claim is to hire a proven personal injury lawyer who will manage all of the legal aspects of your case while you focus on your recovery.

What happens if you change lawyers?

Your attorney-client agreement should clearly state what happens if you fire your lawyer.  Be familiar with these terms before you sign the agreement.  If you fire your lawyer for a good cause, such as malpractice, you may not owe them anything.  However, if you fire your lawyer for another reason – or no reason – they will likely be entitled to the fair value of their work on your case and the costs and expenditures they’ve made on your behalf.  The method for calculating these fees and expenses should be reasonable.

Beware of E-Signatures

Settlement mills use e-signatures to rush clients into signing binding attorney-client agreements without allowing them to review the contract or thoroughly vet the attorney.  The result is that the client receives subpar legal services and permanently damages their case. 

The ruse works like this: an attorney from a settlement mill meets with a victim who saw their ad on a billboard or TV commercial.  The attorney gives the victim a high-pressure sales pitch and encourages them to e-sign an attorney-client agreement during the initial meeting.  The victim never has the chance to read a printed copy of the contract.  The lawyer does not explain the contract to the victim.  Instead, the lawyer uses an app like DocuSign to pressure the victim into checking a box, clicking a button, or mimicking a signature to create a ”signed” attorney-client agreement.  Unbeknownst to the victim, they have hired a settlement mill that will do little or no work on their case and try settling it for a fraction of its real value. 

Avoid High-Pressure Sales

Avoid lawyers who pressure you to sign an attorney-client agreement right away.  Don’t allow yourself to be hurried into signing a contract if you feel rushed.  You should trust your lawyer.  Pressuring someone into signing quickly is not how a lawyer earns your trust.  If you have any questions about the attorney-client agreement, ask the lawyer.  They should be willing to answer any questions you have about the contract.

Always Get a Copy of the Attorney-Client Agreement

Always make sure you get a copy of the attorney-client agreement and maintain it in your files.

Can You Change Personal Injury Lawyers?

Yes.  However, hiring and firing lawyers is not something to take lightly.  You should thoroughly vet your lawyer before hiring them and make a good-faith effort to resolve any issues before firing them. 

You have the right to change lawyers at any time. 

If you have hired a settlement mill, you can fire them and hire a better lawyer.  You and your lawyer are partners in your case.  You should have a lawyer you trust.  You should have confidence in your lawyer and have a good relationship with them.  If you have a problem with the job your lawyer is doing, first attempt to talk to them about it.  You may be able to resolve the issues easily.  If you are still unhappy, you can always seek a second opinion from another lawyer. 

When should you hire a new lawyer? 

You should consider hiring a new lawyer if your lawyer doesn’t call you back, doesn’t respond to your attempts to contact them, is not familiar with your case, has been disciplined or disbarred, acts unprofessionally, does little or no work on your case, or gives you no idea what’s happening with your case.

Your personal injury case is your only chance to receive fair compensation.  Once the case concludes, you cannot file another claim.  As such, it is essential that you have confidence in your lawyer.  You should have a lawyer you know is willing to fight tooth and nail to get the full value of your case.

You should hire a new lawyer before firing your old one to avoid jeopardizing your case.  Hiring a new lawyer first ensures you won’t have to handle any legal issues yourself while looking for a new lawyer. 

To avoid complications, be sure that you want to fire your old lawyer before hiring a new one.  However, if you wish to fire your old lawyer and hire a new one, it is best to do that as soon as possible.  The longer you stay with an incompetent lawyer, the more opportunities there will be for them to make mistakes that permanently damage your case.

How much will it cost to get a new lawyer? 

When your case concludes, you will only pay one attorney fee.  The attorney fee will be divided between the law firms that represented you based on how much work they put into the case.  If the second attorney did most of the work, they will receive most of the fee.  The attorneys will work out the fee apportionment at the end of the case.   

Will it be hard to find a new lawyer? 

When looking for a new lawyer, be upfront about the fact that you already have a lawyer and are looking for a new one.  Bring a copy of your previous contract so the second lawyer can review it and discuss your options.  The second lawyer will assess the value of your case and the amount of work done and decide whether it makes economic sense for them to step in.  Some lawyers may not want to work on your case if there’s already another lawyer involved.  However, that is not always so.  If your claim has significant value, a new attorney may be interested in taking the job.

How do I fire my lawyer? 

Once you have hired a new lawyer, send a formal letter to your old lawyer explaining that you are terminating your relationship with them.  The letter should be concise and should specifically state that the letter constitutes the termination of the attorney-client relationship.  In the letter, request that they forward all of your case files to the new lawyer.  Include the new lawyer’s address, phone number, email, and fax number.  Your new lawyer can prepare and send this letter for you.

If you have filed a lawsuit, you must notify the court that you have hired a new lawyer.  Do this immediately upon hiring a new lawyer.  Typically, the new lawyer will file a motion for substitution of counsel.  If an insurance company is involved, you should notify the insurance company in writing that the old lawyer no longer represents you, and they should direct all correspondence to your new lawyer.  Your new lawyer can do this for you.

How We Can Help

We are a small law firm that takes a small number of clients.  We have a personal approach and thoroughly investigate all of our cases.  We have a proven track record of winning personal injury trials.  Insurance companies know us and know that we will not settle for anything less than the full value of our claims.  Our skill and reputation allow us to get the maximum compensation for our clients. 

Contact us today for a free evaluation of your case.  You will have the opportunity to meet with one of the best personal injury lawyers in San Diego to discuss strategies that may help you win your case.


California Legislative Information – Uniform Electronic Transactions Act

California Legislative Information – Civil Code § 1633.3

The State Bar of California – Attorney Discipline

American Bar Association – Formal Opinion 487

American Bar Association Journal – ABA issues new guidance for splitting fees in contingency cases when a lawyer is replaced

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