Accident cases involving personal injury or wrongful death are
usually taken on a “contingency fee” basis in the United States.
This means that your lawyer gets paid only if she is successful
in getting a settlement or jury award for you. Some lawyers
use a hybrid form of fees in which they ask for a certain nonrefundable
fee up front, such as $2,500, and then take their
full percentage of the fee after the case has settled or a jury has
awarded you a specific sum. Sometimes an attorney will ask the
client to pay for costs and expenses as they are incurred, rather
than waiting until the end of the case. This is especially true of
newer lawyers or lawyers who do not have much confidence in
your case and don’t want to put up a couple of thousand dollars
getting expert witnesses to testify on your behalf.

In personal injury cases, the amount of the lawyer’s fees
generally ranges from 25 to 50 percent of the gross settlement
or jury award. Some lawyers have a standard 33 or 40 percent
of the gross settlement or award regardless of when the case
settles. Other lawyers have fees that increase as certain landmarks
are passed. For instance, an attorney may charge 25 percent
if the case settles before a complaint (the formal document
filed in court to start a lawsuit) is filed, 33 to 40 percent after
the complaint is filed but before a trial date is assigned, and
40 to 50 percent after the trial date is assigned. Some lawyers
are now charging 50 percent of the gross settlement or award,
regardless of when the case settles (e.g., before a complaint is

Note that the lawyer’s fee normally comes out of the gross
settlement or jury award, before any other costs are deducted.
Costs and expenses that come out of your share after the lawyer
has been paid can include:

  • An expert in traffic accident reconstruction
  • Medical doctors testifying to the extent and permanency
    of your injuries
  • Rehabilitation experts
  • Physical therapists
  • Court reporter’s costs
  • Court costs and expenses

You should try to negotiate with the lawyer for her contingent
fee to be based on the net recovery, after costs and
expenses have been deducted.

Finding the right lawyer to handle your case can be a challenge.
Being in a serious accident or having to deal with the death of a
loved one is a traumatic and life-changing event. Choosing the
right lawyer is one of the most important decisions that you can
make on your path to recovery.

In serious injury and wrongful death cases, it is vital that
you speak to a qualified personal injury lawyer as soon as possible.
Witness statements should be taken by the lawyer or his
or her associates and potential evidence needs to be preserved.
Photographs of the scene of the incident and inspections of any
products or machinery that was defective or malfunctioned
need to be taken before changes occur or repairs are made.
Your lawyer may want to have an expert in the field, such as a
traffic accident reconstructionist or metallurgist, visit the scene
of the accident or inspect the product and gather evidence in
your favor.

An experienced personal injury lawyer or law firm will know
the type of investigation and fact finding that needs to be done
in your particular case. The longer you wait to retain a personal
injury lawyer, the worse it will be for you. Witnesses may move
out of the area, the product that injured you may be destroyed
or repaired, and the company of the employee that hurt you
may go out of business.

In California there are more than 160,000 active lawyers.
While the State Bar of California provides certification in some
specialized areas of law—such as family law, taxation, and
criminal law—it does not provide specialization certificates in
the area of personal injury and wrongful death law. However, if
you have been seriously injured or had a loved one killed in an
accident, you will want to focus your search for an attorney in
the area of personal injury lawyers.

There are many places you can begin your search for an
experienced personal injury lawyer. With just a few keystrokes,
the Internet will pull hundreds of lawyers for you in seconds.
Whether you are blindly searching the Internet or researching
a lawyer or law firm that was recommended to you by a friend,
it is important to choose a lawyer that you are comfortable with.

It is always a good idea to meet and speak with more than
one lawyer before making your final decision on which lawyer
to hire. You should make a list of questions to ask the lawyer
prior to meeting with him or her in order to help in your determination
if this is the right lawyer for you. Decide what matters
the most to you and what you hope to achieve, and make a list
of what to discuss with the lawyer.

Here are some suggested questions to get you started:

  • Have you handled this type of case before and what was
    the result?
  • What should I expect throughout the legal process?
  • How involved will I be in the case?
  • Will you keep me regularly informed of the progress of
    the case?
  • Will you be handling my case personally or will others in
    the law firm be handling much of the case?
  • Do you feel comfortable representing me?

Make sure that the law firm understands your objectives
and goals, and knows what it means to be in your shoes. It is
of the utmost importance that the lawyer representing you can
effectively convey your message and your struggles to others.
Whether it is to an insurance adjuster who will attempt to make
a settlement or a jury that will make a monetary award, it is
critical that your lawyer knows exactly how your life has been
changed by the accident and can effectively communicate that
to the insurance adjuster or a jury.