Can I Change Lawyers in the Middle of a Personal Injury Case?
Trust is critical in an attorney-client relationship, and never more so than in a personal injury case. If you’ve suffered a serious injury, chances are that you are managing the aftermath of your accident: pain, medical care, limitations on your activity, lost income, and mounting bills. Hiring the right personal injury lawyer can ease that burden in many ways, such as:
- Creating a buffer between you and aggressive or manipulative insurance company representatives
- Managing the technical and procedural aspects of your case so you can concentrate on taking care of yourself and your family
- Reducing stress by answering questions and explaining exactly what you can expect as your personal injury case moves forward
- Giving you confidence that your case is in good hands and your attorneys are doing everything in their power to secure the best recovery possible for you
Unfortunately, when you’ve chosen wrong or the attorney-client relationship has broken down, the opposite can happen. Your interactions with the law firm managing your personal injury claim can easily become one of your major stressors, and lack of confidence in the law firm can leave you increasingly anxious and uncertain.
When that happens, it’s important to know that you have the right to change lawyers, even if your personal injury case is already underway.
When Should I Change Personal Injury Lawyers?
The decision as to whether to replace your personal injury lawyer is a personal one, and may be based in part on your comfort level. However, there are concrete considerations to weigh when thinking about firing your personal injury lawyer and seeking new counsel. Some key factors include:
- Is your attorney keeping you up to date on the status of your case? There are lulls in activity in most personal injury cases, and you probably won’t have constant contact with your attorney. But, you should have basic information about what’s happening in your case and the timeline for the next steps. If you have trouble obtaining this information from your personal injury lawyer, it could be a red flag.
- Are your questions answered? One of the benefits of working with an experienced personal injury lawyer is the ability to leave the technical legal matters in someone else’s hands. Still, your attorney should be willing to answer your questions about the case and the proceedings, and to do so in a way you can easily understand. If your attorney routinely brushes aside your questions or fails to return your calls, you may want to reconsider the fit.
- Do you have a consistent point of contact who is familiar with your case? If you find yourself talking to a different person every time you have contact with the law firm, and that person is never up to speed on your case, it may be a sign that your case isn’t getting consistent, personal attention, either.
- Are things slipping through the cracks? Mistakes happen. If the law firm fails to send you a copy of one pleading or makes a request for documents you’ve already provided, you’ll probably want to give them the benefit of the doubt at first. However, if this type of problem recurs, it may be a sign that the firm is not managing your case effectively. A law firm that repeatedly misplaces documents, fails to follow up on sending information, and otherwise shows signs of disorganization and procrastination may make the same type of mistakes with opposing counsel and the court—and that could be very costly for you.
- Does your attorney and/or regular contact person treat you with respect? You must feel comfortable talking to the attorney or your key contact person at the law firm. Otherwise, you will likely not get the information you need to be confident about your case, and your attorney may not hear important information that you have to share. If picking up the phone to contact your personal injury lawyer makes you cringe, or you delay making contact because those conversations leave you frustrated or feeling stupid, you may need a more appropriate partner in pursuing your claim.
- Is your case moving forward? It’s important to be realistic when considering this issue, as a complex personal injury case does take time. However, if you have reason to believe your case isn’t a high priority for your personal injury lawyer or the attorney doesn’t have the right skills or disposition to push it to the next step, you may want to consider talking with another attorney.
Keep in mind that this list isn’t comprehensive. If you’re having serious doubts about your case, the law firm that’s representing you, or the attorney in charge of your case, you should act on those concerns. Acting doesn’t necessarily mean replacing your attorney—you may want to have a serious conversation with the lawyer first, or review documents, or get some outside advice. The one thing you should not do, though, is to ignore red flags. The outcome of your personal injury claim can have a lasting impact on quality of life for your family, and even on your access to appropriate medical care.
What if I Signed a Contract with My Personal Injury Lawyer?
In California, a written contract is required for a contingency fee case. The contract is primarily for the client’s protection, but may cause confusion when the client wants to consider changing personal injury lawyers.
While the contract does give your original attorney some rights, it does not prevent you from changing lawyers.
- You do not pay additional fees when you change lawyers
- You are not required to pay the original lawyer until your case is settles or you win at trial
In most cases, the original attorney will be entitled to compensation on an hourly basis for the work he or she has already performed in the case. This worries some clients who are thinking about changing lawyers, but it actually has no effect on you as the client. Here’s how it works:
Imagine that your personal injury case settles for $325,000, and there are $25,000 in expenses. You have a 30% contingency fee arrangement.
If you complete the case with one attorney, that attorney receives 30% of the $300,000 that’s left after expenses ($90,000) and you receive 70% ($210,000)
Now, imagine that you switched attorneys partway through the case. Your original attorney invested 25 hours, and his billing rate is $300/hour. Thus, the first lawyer is entitled to $7,500. In this situation, the new lawyer receives 30% – $7,500 ($82,500), the original attorney receives his $7,500 share of the attorney fees, and you receive the same 70% ($210,000) that you would have under the original agreement.
When in Doubt, Talk to a Personal Injury Lawyer
In most cases, it is a serious mistake to fire your personal injury lawyer without having chosen a replacement attorney. When you enter into a contract with a personal injury lawyer, that lawyer takes on legal responsibility for your case. He or she is responsible for meeting deadlines, advising you of court dates, and otherwise ensuring that your case stays on track. If the lawyer fails to do those things and it hurts your case, he or she could be legally responsible for damages.
When you fire your attorney, all of that responsibility falls on you. Most people without legal experience do not fully understand the requirements associated with a personal injury case, and may not be equipped to protect the case between lawyers. Thus, it is generally in your best interest to make consultation with another personal injury lawyer your first step.
When personal injury victims switch to working with our law firm, we manage all aspects of the transition, from working with the former attorney to change the attorney of record with the court to allocating attorney fees according to California law.
If you aren’t getting the service you deserve from your personal injury law firm, schedule a free consultation.