The headline from the website or billboard brought you in: “Over $100 Million Recovered” and you thought ‘I could be 1 of that $100 Million’. Statistically that’s far from reality.
Personal injury attorneys in the US are everywhere… it seems every major city has no less than 20 lawyers who practice personal injury law and will “fight for you”. Due to this, the constant barrage of legal advertising, and popular TV shows people have come to believe certain misnomers about personal injury lawyers, and the industry. Here we explore some myths and secrets about the personal injury law industry, and the lawyers who practice.
Personal Injury Lawyers Aren’t Always Rich
There’s a common belief that personal injury lawyers are rich. But as secrets go, this simply isn’t true. The vast majority of personal injury lawyers make less than $100,000 per year. According to salary.com, the median salary of a personal injury lawyer is about $83,000. And it’s a pretty flat curve. About 10% of personal injury lawyers make about $62,000 or less, while another 10% make $107,000 or more. Everyone else is in between.
But, it’s odd to think of personal injury lawyers earning a salary. In fact, for personal injury lawyers, it can be feast or famine. Sure, many heavy hitters can earn deep into the six or seven figures annually, but a bad year or two can quickly eat away at the profit from the good years because they have to personally support the business costs. Personal injury lawyers don’t charge by the hour or insist on retainers like many other types of lawyers do. They have to settle a case or win it in court before they are paid. Personal injury lawyers are paid from the settlement or court judgment – called a “contingency fee”.
Contingency Fees Aren’t Always Straightforward
Something lawyers don’t necessarily advertise is that contingency fees can sometimes be negotiable. Although the standard contingency fee is 33%, it can potentially be as low as 20% if it’s a straightforward matter and settles quickly. But in more difficult cases, a contingent fee can be 45% or higher if the case goes to trial due to increased costs. This is something you can discuss and possibly negotiate during your initial consultation and before you sign the retainer.
Sometimes, the amount of a contingent fee is limited by statute. This is true of most federal Social Security disability cases (25%, maximum of $6,000). And most, if not all states, limit the fees that can be charged for workers’ compensation cases. For example, Georgia limits the fee to 25% of recovery.
“No Win, No Fee” Doesn’t Mean “No Costs”
Personal injury attorneys advertise that if they don’t win your case by settlement or at trial, then they receive no fee at all. This is one of the secrets that is true, so far as the contingent fee goes. But there are other costs and fees incurred in a personal injury case. These costs and fees are real, but they’re advanced or initially covered by the firm and recovered at the case conclusion.
For example, let’s suppose that you have a 33% contingent fee agreement with a personal injury attorney. The attorney has to advance court filing fees and expenses for depositions, which are sworn statements under oath. The attorney also has to obtain and sort your medical records plus retain one or more expert witnesses to explain how your injury came about and what the aftereffects of it will be.
Let’s further suppose that you settle your case for $100,000 and that the expenses the attorney advanced on your behalf equalled $10,000. The attorney receives 33% of the $100,000 settlement ($33,333) plus you have to reimburse the attorney for the $10,000 the attorney advanced you.
So if the attorney received $43,333 of the settlement, you would receive $56,667? Not necessarily. One of the other secrets is that If you were unable to pay for your medical treatment, the hospital may file a hospital lien or the equivalent. What this means is that the attorney must pay the hospital the amount you owe to the hospital before you receive the rest of your money. Let’s say your medical costs were $15,000 and you could not pay them. That money is deducted from the $56,667 awarded to you, so you would actually receive $41,667.
Your Case May Not Be Worth What You Think It’s Worth
The headline from the website or billboard brought you in: “Over $100 Million Recovered” and you thought ‘I could be 1 of that $100 Million’. Statistically that’s far from reality. Nolo reports that 50% of people who took their online survey reported compensation on a personal injury matter between $3,000 – $25,000, and that only 26% received over $25,000. There are a ton of factors that determine the amount of compensation you may receive, the best way to get an accurate value for your personal injury claim is to speak with a personal injury lawyer about the unique & specific circumstances of your matter.
Just Because You Drop or Settle the Case Privately, Doesn’t Mean the Attorney Fees Go Away
Suppose you retain a lawyer, but the insurance company talks you into settling before the lawyer files suit. Maybe you decide you just don’t want to go through with it. Or suppose you switch lawyers during the course of a case. You would then become liable to the original lawyer(s) for the costs and expenses the lawyer advanced on your behalf. And you might become liable to the lawyer for the reasonable value of services rendered thus far. The lawyer could assert a lien on your recovery by claiming these costs and the value of services. In these situations, you could face a bill to the original lawyer in the hundreds to thousands of dollars.
The Lawyer You Hire May Not Always be “Your” Lawyer
Another secret about personal injury law is that your case may require additional legal help. Most personal injury attorneys are sole practitioners or practice in smaller law firms (2-10 attorneys). It’s possible that in complex cases – such as product defects, toxic torts (pharmaceutical or chemical exposure), and class actions – your attorney may have to bring in another law firm or exit the case completely. These are usually cases that can take years to litigate with incredibly high litigation costs (millions), which often can’t be financially floated by the average personal injury law firm. You may remember the movies “A Civil Action” and “Erin Brokovich”, both true stories where this exact scenario played out.
If you have been in a car wreck or other type of accident and you’d like to have the other driver pay for your medical costs, lost wages and pain and suffering, you’re likely going to want to hire a personal injury attorney. Hopefully if you’ve read this article before starting your search or retaining a lawyer, it will give you a bit more insight to their job, the industry and the dirty little secrets.