You’ve been injured in an accident, and it is a confusing and stressful time. There are insurance forms to fill out, doctors to visit, police reports to fill out, and statements to make. Your insurance company is calling, the insurance company for the person that injured you is calling, and you’re just trying to focus on getting better and getting back to normal. When you’re injured in an accident, life doesn’t stop. Family, money, work – these demands on your time don’t just disappear. Who can help quiet the chaos? Who will protect and preserve your rights?
Too Low, Too LateIf you’re like the thousands of Albertans who are injured every year as a result of someone else’s negligence, you may be thinking of hiring a personal injury lawyer to help you make a claim for compensation. You may have heard tales of someone missing an important deadline and getting no compensation, or of someone failing to fill out the correct forms required to collect accident benefits, or of someone accepting a settlement from an insurance company only to find out too late that the compensation amount was far too low. Studies have indeed shown that, on average, auto accident claimants who were represented by a personal injury lawyer received nearly 4 times the compensation as unrepresented claimants.* You’re determined not to be one of the horror stories. Now that you’ve decided to hire a lawyer, how do you choose the right one? Start with these questions before you contact a personal injury lawyer:
- Does the lawyer only practice personal injury law? In Alberta, there are no certified specializations, so no lawyer may rightly call him- or herself a specialist in any area of law. The closest thing to a specialization is an exclusionary practice, that is, where the lawyer chooses to only practice a certain area of law.
- Does the lawyer work at a dedicated personal injury law firm? If a lawyer is the only person practicing personal injury law at a firm, his or her opportunities to share knowledge with and learn from peers may be more limited than those of lawyer working at a personal injury law firm.
- How long has the lawyer been practicing personal injury law? Over a course of years, a lawyer will be exposed to many types of cases, and will develop expertise and hone skills in a practice area.
- How long has the lawyer’s firm been in existence? Longevity of a law firm can be an indication of the quality of service provided by that firm.
- Does the lawyer’s firm have litigation and court experience? Trials of personal injury claims are becoming rare in Alberta, but it is important to choose a firm that is not afraid of litigation or trial. Insurance companies like to avoid risk, and going to court can be very risky. If an insurance company believes that a firm will not litigate a claim or take it to trial, it may lower the amount of compensation it is willing to pay.
- Does the firm rely heavily on advertising? Nearly everyone is familiar with advertisements for personal injury lawyers, and advertising is a useful way for potential clients to find out about legal services. Advertising, however, is not the best way to learn about a lawyer or a firm as the information source is not impartial. If a firm gets new clients from advertising only, and not by word-of-mouth or referrals, that’s a potential red flag. Look for testimonials from previous clients. Ask friends and family for recommendations. If you know a lawyer who practices a different type of law, consider asking him or her for a referral.
- Does location matter? Alberta personal injury lawyers can work on claims anywhere in Alberta, but you may wish to hire a lawyer closer to home. If you are from a rural area, you may find that legal services are limited in your community. If you are concerned about travelling to meet a lawyer, ask if the lawyer will meet you at a location convenient to you, or if you have to meet at his or her office. Most aspects of a claim can be handled over the phone or digitally, and so proximity is much less important than ability when choosing a lawyer.
- Does the lawyer charge a contingency fee, and is it “tiered”? Virtually all personal injury lawyers work under the contingency fee model, which generally means that you won’t pay the lawyer fees until your claim is settled, and the fee will be a percentage of your settlement. Some lawyers use a “tiered” contingency fee agreement, under which the percentage fee that they charge increases as you reach certain steps in your claim. These steps usually have to do with the filing of court documents and the litigation process. In practice, a tiered contingency fee agreement may give you an incentive to settle your claim earlier than you should, to avoid paying the higher fee.
- Who pays the costs of running the claim? Lawyers refer to the costs of running a claim as “disbursements.” These costs can range from hundreds to tens-of-thousands of dollars in a personal injury claim. You should know up front if you will have to pay these costs, or if the lawyer will pay them on your behalf. If the lawyer is paying, how will these costs be paid back to the lawyer and when? Will the lawyer be charging you interest?
- Can I talk to a lawyer? Deserved or not, lawyers have a reputation for not returning phone calls, or for having assistants take and make phone calls. If you’re meeting with a personal injury lawyer, ask what his or her policy is for client contact. How soon will your phone calls be returned? How often will you receive updates on your claim? Will you be able to speak with him or her when you need to?
- Who will help me with accident benefits, property damage, or other problems related to the accident? There are many forms to fill out and deadlines to meet in a personal injury claim. Can the lawyer or the firm help you understand these forms and deadlines, or better yet look after them for you?
- Do I feel comfortable? Trust your instincts. You have had initial meeting with a lawyer, and you’ve asked all the right questions; by now you should have a good idea of the level of service and ability you can expect. Are you confident in the firm or the lawyer, and his or her ability to help you? Did the lawyer try to “sell” you, or to really help you understand your claim, the lawyer, and the firm? Only you can decide if a lawyer or firm is the right fit for you.