Just because a client asks you to help them doesn’t mean that you have to. In fact, it’s really important to use your discretion when deciding which cases and clients you’ll accept. This might seem counterintuitive to law students and new lawyers, who are typically eager and filled with optimism. After all, a common driving motivation for law students is the desire to help others and impact the world around them in a positive way.
But there are some reasons why you, as a personal injury lawyer, might decide not to take a case.
When you work as a personal injury attorney, you represent clients who’ve been injured in an accident through little to no fault of their own. To get prospective clients in the door, you might offer a free consultation. This can give them an opportunity to learn about their legal options. It can also give you an opportunity to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of their case and determine if it’s one that you’d be interested in taking on.
Liability is Unclear, or the Client Shares Too Much Blame
This is probably fairly obvious, but it’s important to state: No one will want to accept responsibility for an accident. Fingers will be pointed. Blame will be cast. That’s because whoever is responsible will be on the hook for resulting damages. At the same time, sharing fault for an accident can limit or bar a victim’s financial recovery.
There are three ways to deal with the allocation of fault after an accident. It ultimately depends on the state where the accident occurred. Very few states have what are called contributory fault rules. Those bar victims from recovering compensation if they’re even remotely responsible for their accident or resulting injuries. So, sharing just 1 percent of the blame means that they won’t be able to recover any damages from other liable parties. If you work in a state with contributory fault rules, it’s essential to keep this in mind. Your fee is likely contingent on how much money you can recover for your client. If it turns out that they get nothing, you’ll also get nothing.
The vast majority of states, including Florida, have pure comparative fault rules. Under these, a victim isn’t barred from recovering compensation just for sharing some of the blame. However, their financial award is reduced to adjust for their contributions. So, a client who is allocated 30 percent of the blame for an accident will only be eligible to recover 70 percent of their damages. If it seems like a client played a big role in causing their own injuries, that means their financial recovery could be nominal. Again, you need to keep that in mind, as your fee is contingent on how much money the client ultimately gets.
Other states have modified comparative fault rules. In those states, a financial recovery is only barred when the victim is primarily responsible for an accident. Most states set the bar at 50 or 51 percent. When a client shares some blame, but not more than 50 or 51 percent, they can still obtain a financial award. However, that award will still be reduced to reflect their role in the accident.
A Conflict Simply Prevents You From Taking a Case
As an attorney, you’re bound to follow certain ethical rules. While rules of professional conduct vary from state to state, they all loosely follow those established by the American Bar Association. Pursuant to Rule 7.1, “a lawyer shall not represent a client if the representation involves a concurrent conflict of interest.”
Absent an exception, a conflict of interest exists if:
- Representing one client would be directly adverse to one of your other clients; or
- Taking on this new client would materially limit your responsibilities to another client, a former client, a third person, or a personal interest of your own.
If either of those appears to be an issue, you might want to consider not taking on the new client. It can be helpful to refer them to someone else who might be able to assist them and offer legal advice.
The Client Has Already Been Turned Down by Other Lawyers in Town
Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take a case just because another attorney down the road declined. That other lawyer might have had a full slate or a conflict that prevented them from offering legal assistance. What this does mean, is that you should ask clients if they’ve asked other attorneys for help and, if so, how many. It’s great for clients to get one, two, or even three different opinions on a case. However, when clients start knocking on every door in town — and getting “no” for an answer — that’s a red flag.
Ask yourself why so many other lawyers have declined to take the case. Is it because the projected settlement value is low? Do those other attorneys know details that the client has failed to disclose to you, for fear that you might say “no” as well? If something seems off, it might be best to follow your gut.
It’s Just Not Your Area of Expertise
Personal injury law is comprised of a lot of different practice areas. They all deal with the same basic premise: Someone suffered an injury through another person’s lack of care. However, they can also be quite different. There are car accident cases, premises liability issues, medical malpractice lawsuits, workers’ compensation claims, and product liability issues. There are even personal injury cases involving sexual assaults or violent attacks.
Just because you’re a personal injury lawyer doesn’t necessarily mean that you handle each and every one of these. Some do. However, others decide to focus on one or a handful of personal injury practice areas. In doing so, you can tell clients that your practice is focused and, as a result, you have a lot of experience handling cases like yours. Narrowing your scope can help you build up a name as a go-to lawyer for those types of cases.
So, if someone walks through your door with a case you don’t ordinarily handle, you might decide that it’s just not for you. It might not be in your interest (or the plaintiff’s) for you to take it on. In those cases, you can refer the client to someone else who might focus exclusively on cases like theirs. They’ll thank you, and you can focus on the areas of law that you prefer.
You Don’t Have Time
It’s important to make sure that you don’t spread yourself too thin. You want to be able to give your clients your full attention and best effort. If you take on too many clients, that can become hard to achieve. That’s especially true if you have a solo practice or work for a small firm. Large firms can benefit from a lot of support staff and attorneys, all of whom can share the workload.
If it’s just you and a few staff members, you’ll have to consider how much time you have to dedicate to the cases on your plate. The last thing you want is to accept a new case, become overwhelmed, and let details fall through the cracks. Quality representation, especially at the beginning, is what’s important. Don’t underestimate the value of word of mouth and client referrals. They can go a long way as you build your legal career.
About the Author
Boris Lavent is an established personal injury lawyer and founder of Lavent Law, P.A., an award-winning personal injury firm serving the Miami area..