Getting started is tough — but it’s exciting.
ACCORDING TO the National Association for Legal Career Professionals (“NALP”), the employment rate for new law school graduates is at a 15-year low. The depressed economy is a big part of the problem. Recent grads now have to compete for jobs with the many experienced lawyers who have been laid off by law firms suffering from financial strain. Since the job market is so competitive, an experienced lawyer may be willing to accept an entry level salary. This creates a tough market for a young graduate to compete in.
One approach to finding employment is to offer your services, free of charge, to a law firm. If you are able to shadow an experienced attorney as she goes through her day, you will learn many things. You will see how she handles the stream of problems, hassles, annoyances, pressures, bureaucratic pettiness, delays and demands from clients, opposing counsel, insurance companies, judges and doctors. You will see how this attorney makes decisions on the fly. And you will learn when and how she takes time to ponder and strategize key litigation moves.
If you were to shadow me through my day, you would see me putting together letters, emails, faxes, motions, pleadings, and on and on. If the phone rings, everything stops. Unless what I am working on is time-sensitive, I immediately turn my attention to the caller. A phone call is an opportunity to get things done on a case. And clients really, really appreciate that you take their calls. So does everyone else.
If you know your files well, most of the time you can handle the inquiry from memory. But if the call requires that you access data from the file, you must be able to access that data rapidly. Sometimes the data is in the hard file, and sometimes it is on your computer. For example, unless you have scanned in the medical reports pertaining to a case, you will have to go to the hard file to retrieve them. Either way, you need to keep things relatively organized so that you can handle the phone call then and there.
Sometimes, the call will require more involved consideration. You may need to tell the caller that you will call back after you have researched the is- sue. Clients do not mind that. Neither do insurance adjusters or anyone else. They understand that no one can answer every question — immediately — all the time.
The most common request from clients is for an update on how their case is going. Most of the time, I can recall what I last did on the case. But if I have not looked at the file for a week or more, I will check the correspondence section of the file or computer. The last letters I sent out memorialize the last tasks I have taken care of for that client. I may also check my to-do list for that case. That will generally tell me what issues are hot at that moment. As long as the client can tell that the case is active and things are being done to move it forward, he will be satisfied.
I often get calls from insurers seeking updates on the client’s treatment. I check the most recent medical reports, notes from recent conversations or emails with the client and/or doctor to get this information. I never ignore calls from insurance companies. They have the money my client wants. When they ask questions, I get the answers, and I provide them quickly, accurately, and courteously.
During the litigation, I get calls from insurers and/or their attorneys about key aspects of the case. They may want to discuss liability for the accident, the client’s wage loss, the long term prognosis, the timing of key litigation events such as depositions, etc., etc. Again, I want my responses to be timely, accurate, and received in a positive way. So both good organization and a cheerful attitude are crucial to my communication with insurers.
One of the best ways to build a personal injury (“PI”) practice is to get a job in a PI firm. That is what I did. While I was earning a salary handling my boss’s cases, I was also build- ing my own client base. I learned how to handle PI cases during my employment. Then, when I had enough business to support myself, I decided to hang out my own shingle.
Some of the people I represented for the firm followed me to my new office. My boss had not asked me to sign a non-compete agreement, so I was free to take those cases. The client has the right to choose who her lawyer will be. My old boss was not pleased, but there was nothing unethical in what I did. Moreover, the cases I took helped establish my practice.
You can expect a savvy employer, as a term of your employment, to ask you to sign a non-compete agreement stating that you will not solicit his clients, if and, when you leave. If you need the job badly enough, you will sign the agreement containing the non-compete clause. These agreements are generally enforceable, if they are limited in scope.
Hang Out Your Shingle
If you cannot find work, or are fed up with the one you have, one option is to open up your own law office. You will need two things: clients and the ability to service their legal needs. Sounds simple — but it is not.
I highly recommend caller ID. When you see who is calling, you gain a few moments to direct your thoughts to the caller’s case.
Sometimes, you will see that the call is from someone you do not want to speak to at that moment (or ever), in which case, go right back to your work and let voice mail take the call. You will also need conference call capabilities for many reasons.
For example, if I am speaking to a new client on the phone and that client needs a referral to a doctor, I make a conference call. Instead of going back and forth between the two, during the conference call the appointment can be scheduled and billing issues can also be addressed. I also use conference calls with recorded statements. If my client’s insurer requests a recorded statement, but the client is not able to come into the office, the statement can easily be given via a conference call.
I use a headset I purchased from Plantronics. I used a corded headset for many years but I recommend you go with a wireless model. It gives you the freedom to walk around the office while on the phone. I can grab a file without missing a beat. Also, there are times you are going to get calls that waste some of your time. Clients may call just to jabber. Especially if you are very busy, this can really test an attorney’s patience. Rather than cutting the client off, however, I walk around the office multitasking. For example, files can always use more organizing. Eventually the client will tire, or after a while, I will find a way to politely abbreviate the conversation.
Using a headset will save your neck. You do not have to cradle a phone between your neck and shoulder while you try to type, which will allow your hands to be useful. You will be “hands-free,” so that you can type the important information from the call directly into the client’s computer file. In the old days, lawyers wrote on fill-in-the-blank forms to capture important information. Now, everything goes straight into the computer. Why do the same task twice? Once it is in your computer, you can easily manipulate the data into whatever form needed. It’s a big advantage if you can touch-type. Clients like eye contact, so if you can enter data while look- ing at the client, it will help you form a nice bond, and also impress the client.
Similarly, while you are engaged in a casual conversation with a friend or client, you can peruse emails. Since you are hands-free, you can easily cut and paste important emails while talking.
Whenever you enter data, you should think about how you might need it for the future so that you can enter it in the most useful way. For example, when I prepare a settlement demand letter, I think about the fact that its contents will be useful in a settlement conference memorandum. So I just cut and paste. This motivates me to do an especially thorough job with the letter, since I know my work will be used again.
Some lawyers use Dragon Naturally Speaking, a dictation tool that uses voice recognition technology. What you say magically appears on your monitor. Dragon apparently improves over time, as the program trains to your voice. I have heard mixed reviews about the product, however. As someone who learned to touch type in high school, I have not personally tested Dragon. For more information about Dragon, go to: http://www.nuance.com/dragon/index.htm. More and more devices use voice recognition technology, such as Android. If you are concerned about carpal tunnel syndrome, it is worth looking into these devices. Some day, we may all input data this way.
Many lawyers purchase one machine that can copy, print, fax and scan. Be sure to buy a service contract with a reliable company as well. This company may have refurbished machines to sell at a discounted price. Find out from members of your listserv which machine to buy and which company to use.
A listserv is an email group of like-minded individuals. By posting a question to a trial lawyers’ listserv, many of the top trial lawyers in your area will receive your email. They will be able to provide you with valuable input simply by responding to your email. Similarly, when you see posts by other lawyers, you will have the opportunity to lend a helping hand. Effective listservs become extremely valuable communities. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a listserv to run a successful PI practice. I belong to the listserv run by the Pennsylvania Associate for Justice. The American Association for Justice is another major organization that hosts a trial lawyers’ listserv. There are many others.
Whenever the machine needs service, and all do from time to time, call the company. They should have you up and running within a day. You need backup for that period when your office machines are down. If you share office space with other businesses, work out an arrangement to use their fax machine, copier, etc. This will assure that important emails, filings, etc. go out on time. Much of what you do as a litigation attorney is time-sensitive. So it is imperative that you have a back up plan for all contingencies.
If you purchase a scanner separately, be sure it has a multi-page feeder. Law is a paper intensive business. You will find multiple uses for documents scanned in pdf format. You may be unable to e- file documents unless they are in pdf format. Be aware that documents you email in other formats may contain metadata that the recipient can access. This metadata will show the changes you made in the document during its preparation. Do you really want opposing counsel to be able to read your thoughts during preparation of a motion? So scan any sensitive documents into pdf format before you email them.
Some law offices scan every document that comes in. This takes a lot of front labor, but there can be savings of time and money on the back end. I use both scanned documents and hard copy in my office. So while my office is paper less, it is surely not paperless. Especially in cases with multiple attorneys, emailing scanned documents is of great benefit. You save time, paper and postage. Just make sure you have ready access to such emails so that you can prove they were sent.
For a low volume law practice, stamps and a low- tech postage meter are fine. You really do not need a fancy meter that prints postage from a dispenser. Take a walk to the post office every few months to purchase postage. The exercise will help clear your mind before you go back to your computer. For a higher volume practice, many firms use fancy Pitney Bowes meters. Less expensive options include Hasler products and Stamps.com. These machines all do essentially the same thing. So go with a less expensive one.
Learn how to use certified mail and priority mail. You will need certified mail for the times when you want proof of delivery, or to get the recipient’s attention. You will need priority mail for large mailings. Priority mail envelopes and certified mail cards are available for free at any post office.
Desks And Chairs
Buy a desk and chair that are ergonomically healthy. Trial lawyers spend a lot more time in the office than they do in court. You are going to spend many years sitting in front of a computer screen pounding away on your keyboard. The last thing you need is to develop back pain, neck pain, or carpal tunnel syndrome. Consider an ergonomic keyboard.
Office Supply Accounts
Open an account at Staples. You will need all the usual office equipment (file cabinets, legal pads, pens, tape, staplers, a staple remover, paper clips, highlighters, thumb drives, rubber bands, copy paper, folders, envelopes, post-it notes, etc.) You don’t need fancy legal paper, though there is nothing wrong with using it. You don’t need fancy letterhead. Just cut and paste your contact information from letter to letter. Don’t forget business cards. You can get them for free at www.vistaprint.com.
I have three staplers; small, medium, and large. You will mail packages of documents of all different sizes. The wrong staple will make your package look sloppy. I also make frequent use of heavy duty rubber bands. My files are filled with them. If you staple documents together, you are going to need to remove the staples from time to time for copy- ing and/or reorganizing. Better to use thick rubber bands, or binder clips, that can hold a lot of documents without breaking.
You must back up your computer regularly. There are many ways to do this. A low cost method involves thumb drives. Buy two or three and rotate them. Thumb drives, like everything else, break. So if your hard drive and most current back up fails, at least all will not be lost. Keep a thumb drive stored off site. So that if the unthinkable happens and your office is destroyed, you will still be able to retrieve the information you need to recreate your files.
You must open up two bank accounts. You will need both a business ac- count and a trust account. The business account is used for all of your office and case expenses. The trust account is for money that is held in trust for the client. All settlement checks must pass through your trust account. Once the check clears the bank, you write checks from that account to your client, any doctors, lien holders and, of course, to yourself. If you are working on retainer, you should use your trust account. The retainer is deposited into the trust account and is drawn from as work is done. For example, if I take a $1,500 retainer, am billing at a rate of $300 per hour and have done two hours of work, I will write a check in the amount of $600 for deposit into my regular account. This leaves $900 in the trust account on retainer.
Keep Funds Separate
Never, EVER commingle your money with your client’s money. Bar association ethics commit- tees frown severely on such conduct. That is why your trust and business accounts must be strictly segregated from each other. The concern is that if you commingle funds, you will become improperly financially involved with the client and the case. Attorneys are supposed to be zealous advocates of our clients’ interests. This can be compromised if our own personal finances are intertwined with a client’s.
You must keep careful watch over these accounts to make sure they are properly funded. If you bounce a check from your business account, you will pay your bank a small fee. If you bounce a check from your trust account, expect a call from the bar association. This happened to me once, because of an accounting error. I was able to show this simple error and so escaped discipline. But, I had to produce bank accounts for several months and my ledgers to prove how the error occurred. I had some nervous moments that day.
Cash flow can be a real nightmare for PI lawyers. Proper planning is essential. Since you do not get paid until the case settles, cash flow can be feast or famine. That is the nature of using contingent fee agreements. You have to project, as best you can, what the upcoming months look like in terms of settlements. Your predictions will never be entirely accurate, since you do not have control over settlement offers. But over time, you should get a good sense of your cash flow needs.
If your back-up funds are not sufficient, alternate sources of funding your practice are necessary. One good source is a line of credit with your bank. Many people use home equity lines since there are tax advantages and relatively low interest rates. Avoid credit card debt, obviously because of the high interest rate. Debt is never fun, but almost all PI lawyers experience periods when they run into cash flow crises. Your cases require continuous progress. Your clients expect you to pay all litigation costs. You cannot afford to let cash flow issues slow your progress on your cases. Planning ahead can eliminate this problem.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Where you locate your office is important. Most PI lawyers like proximity to the courthouse, for obvious reasons. A central location is also convenient for clients, many of whom rely on public transportation. You will lose business if clients feel inconvenienced when they want to meet with you. Most initial meetings with new clients are held in your office, though there are times when you may need to meet the client at the scene of the accident or at the client’s home. For the right case you must be willing to travel. If you will not, some other hungry lawyer will scoop down and take the case.
Home Office? Suburbs?
Many professionals use home offices. This is strictly a matter of personal preference. If you do not find yourself distracted from your work by a spouse, your children, etc., a home office can be a very efficient and cost-effective way to go. Most lawyers though prefer to separate work from home. I had a home office for a few years, but had to shut it down once I started a family. Both my enjoyment of practice and the peace in my home improved dramatically as soon as I began practicing in an office building.
I had a suburban office for many years and en- joyed the relatively low stress atmosphere. But there is no substitute for a central city location, especially in a place like Philadelphia. “Center City” is where the action is. Moreover, it is much easier to build a practice in town.
One of the most frustrating things for lawyers who have home or suburban offices is trying to arrange client meetings. Many times I would travel into town to meet with new clients, only to have them not show up. This would waste hours of my day and leave me upset. Now, if a client does not show up for a meeting, I just keep working. Many injury clients are unreliable. You can expect a certain percentage of missed appointments, even if you call to confirm on the morning of the meeting. A central city office eliminates this problem.
Pick an email address that is good for your practice. For many years I used LegalAidman@verizon.net. “LegalAidman” has become a brand name for my practice. The idea is to create name recognition that makes potential clients think of you first when the need for legal help arises. Personal injury help is not an impulse purchase item. You must be accessible when a potential client least expects to need you, that is, right after an accident.
I was convinced by a marketer that Evan@LegalAidman.com would be a better choice than LegalAidman@verizon.net. Why should I provide a free advertisement for Verizon with my email ad- dress? See what the successful lawyers in your community use and follow their lead. The main thing is that your email address should be easy to remember. You will often give people your email address over the phone; if you have to spell out a difficult email address, you will waste time, and more important, some will take the address down wrong. Keep it simple and use your email address to advertise your brand.
If you can get an easy to remember phone number, do so. I was able to get (610) 642-7676 for my suburban office. In the City of Philadelphia, a number with “76” is worth having. Even after I moved my office to the City and had to get a new number, I kept the old one. Clients who call that number have their calls forwarded to my City office. You cannot afford to lose a case because a client calls an old number and receives a recording that the number has been disconnected and no further information is available. I pay a monthly fee for call forwarding, but I am sure it is worth it. One good case can pay for call forwarding for many years.
Unless you have a large client base, you probably do not need to hire a secretary or paralegal. Law firms these days have three lawyers for every secretary. A young lawyer with a limited budget will find many better ways to spend that money. The Internet and computers allow lawyers to do most of the tasks secretaries and paralegals used to handle.
I data-enter information from phone calls myself. I cut and paste emails directly into the computer file. I draft pleadings and motions without dictating to a secretary. A well trained secretary is great for much of this, as well as other mundane tasks. But when you first hang out your shingle, you probably will not have this luxury. Even big firm lawyers with years of experience do many of these tasks themselves. It is more efficient than asking someone else to do it. Do not be too proud to place letters, memos, etc. in their proper place in the file. Just organize them in chronological order. Your hands-on connection to the file will familiarize you with its contents.
While you would rather have a secretary contact your client’s doctor to request medical requests or a treatment update, it is also easy to do this yourself, especially if you use your fax machine rather than your telephone. Phone calls to doctors’ offices may force you into a voice mail maze. A fax requesting information can be handled by the doctor’s staff while you are off to your next task. You will still generally get your response by the end of the day.
If you are not a good typist, become one. In the meantime, you can hire temporary or part- time help. Temp services are great for those times when you are overwhelmed and need short term help. There are also “dicta-steno” companies that are useful. You can dictate or email instructions to these companies. You should expect results by no later than the next day.
You must purchase malpractice insurance. Doctors are not the only professionals that get sued. Post a question on your listserv to find out which carrier is charging the most reasonable premiums. Consider carefully how much coverage you need and the amount of the deductible. See Chapter 4 in my book, Winning Personal Injury Claims, for more about legal malpractice.
You need to have a good CPA to consult for all your tax concerns. Tax filing is not simple for PI lawyers, especially if you have employees and payroll concerns. Even if you are a solo practitioner, you must have someone you can go to for reliable tax advice. There are also times when tax issues come up in PI cases. Your tax consultant can help in this situation.
LEARNING HOW TO PRACTICE
You absolutely must join a listserv or two.
Attend continuing legal education seminars. There are nuts and bolts courses that will take you step by step through any area of the law that interests you. Many state and local bar associations have courses for lawyers who are starting a practice.
Consider short-term legal projects. Get the word out that you are available to cover hearings, depositions, arbitrations, draft pleadings and motions, do legal research, etc. for lawyers who need short-term help. You will make good connections, gain experience and make money (probably not much at first), all at the same time.
Consider a space-for-services arrangement. Perhaps you know of a lawyer with extra office space who will rent it to you at a discount if you are available for legal projects. Check your local legal periodicals for ads, but be careful. You will want to check out any lawyer from whom you rent space.
Join your local bar associations. Membership is relatively cheap for young lawyers. It’s a great way to meet people and get involved with worthy projects. For example, there are “legal line” programs in which lawyers take calls from the public. Under the supervision of experienced attorneys, you will have the opportunity to provide free legal advice. You never know when you will make a connection that will lead to a life-changing opportunity.
OPENING A NEW FILE
When you open a new file, you must take care of certain key tasks. You must capture and organize your client’s contact information. I keep the phone and fax numbers for all current clients in one file on my computer. I use that file on a daily basis. In another file, I keep the phone numbers for all old clients. I rarely need that file, but when I do need the number of an old client, it is vital that I can access it.
Ask all new clients for their email address. Then organize all email addresses alphabetically. I use this list for the e-newsletter I send out every three weeks. I also keep a file with all street addresses for clients. I occasionally do direct marketing to my clients, just to stay in touch. Many PI plaintiffs do not use email; so physical addresses are still important.
Most importantly, I add the client’s statute of limitations deadline to a folder on my computer, organized chronologically. The next upcoming dead- line should be on top. That way, I will be sure to pay special attention to the cases that must be settled or go into suit soon. And I will be certain not to let a case slip through the cracks.
I send out opening letters when I first open up a new file. The opening letters contain correspondence to my client, the insurance companies, and the medical providers, etc.
ORGANIZING YOUR FILES
I organize my files into sections, kept separate from each other with manila folders. Each file, from the day I first open it, has a folder for letters, “medicals” and memoranda. Once a lawsuit is filed, I add sections for pleadings and discovery. If necessary, I add folders for motions, legal research, appeal issues, insurance papers, etc. File organization is a matter of personal preference. You will develop a system that makes sense for you. You have complete freedom when organizing your files into sections. But good organization is a key to a successful practice.
The “letters” file contains all of the correspondence that I send and receive. I arrange it chronologically, with the most recent letters on top, for ease of access. Those are the letters I have the most frequent need of. Letters written months or years before are much less frequently needed.
Another section holds the medical bills and re- ports. I call this the “medicals” section. See Chapter 8 of my book where I explain how bills and reports should be organized when preparing your settlement demand package. I often keep wage loss proof and other items of loss and damage in this section, such as photos and property damage appraisals.
I put all memoranda in one folder, also arranged chronologically, with the earliest memos on top. Memos, documents, and matters of importance to the case, such as medical treatment up- dates, status of settlement negotiations, notes from your investigation of the accident scene, etc. You will consult your memos throughout the litigation, most particularly just before depositions and trial. I place the earliest memos on top since when preparing for depositions or trial you need to review the entire file. When doing a full file review, it is best to start at the beginning and work through the case moving forward in time.
You will learn over time what information needs to go into a memo. Information that you can easily recall throughout the litigation does not need to go into a memo since it is already in your head. But, unless you have a photographic memory, you simply cannot retain much of the data that you will need to access at some point. So memorialize it and then clear your brain for the next task.
It is important to organize your memos for ease of understanding. Group them by content as much as possible so that you do not have to bounce from memo to memo on a single subject matter. Additionally, date each memo so that they can be chronologically ordered before you place them into the memo section of the file.
If you are an associate in a firm, you will draft memos to other attorneys. If you are a solo practitioner, these memos will be to the file, for your use only. As a solo practitioner, your memos can be in- formal. They need not make grammatical sense, as long as you will later understand the content. If typos do not bother you, leave them in the memo. But if you ultimately decide to refer the case to another lawyer, you will need to “translate” your memos so that the new lawyer can access and understand the important information in the file.
Once suit is filed, you should open a pleadings section. The lawsuit papers go here. When defense counsel files a reply to the lawsuit, put it in the pleadings folder. The discovery folder holds interrogatories, answers to interrogatories, requests for production of documents and the documents that each side produces in response thereto. See Chapter 10 of my book for more on discovery.
Do not be afraid to throw documents away. Litigation is a paper in- tensive business and you must cull the wheat from the chaff. You will repeatedly receive duplicate copies of documents during the litigation. This occurs when: (i) defense counsel responds to your discovery requests; (ii) defense counsel subpoenas documents from doctors and other sources; and (iii) medical providers send you their entire files, which include the records of other medical providers. Now imagine a case in which they are four defendants and each defense attorney is sending and responding to discovery requests and issuing subpoenas. You can become overwhelmed by the paper if you are not on top of it.
Organize At The Outset
First, you must organize the file logically so that key documents can be located quickly. When, for example, defense counsel sends responses to your discovery requests, you must be able to pick out and organize the documents that you will need in the future. Those may be in the distinct minority. Many, perhaps most of the documents, will be copies of what you already have. If your file is well organized, it will be a simple, albeit time-consuming, task to pick out what you need and discard the rest.
I never want to look at an extra or irrelevant document more than once. PI lawyers do not get paid by the hour. So your work should always be geared toward efficiency. Once I have determined that the document is irrelevant to the litigation, I put it in a place in the file where it will stay until the end of the case. If it is a copy of a document that is already in an organized spot in the file, I throw away the copy. The exception is, if I can make immediate use of that copy. For example, if the client will benefit from it, I send the extra copy to the client.
Another way to increase efficiency is through the use of a yellow accent highlighter. When you re- view documents you have highlighted months ago, your attention will be directed quickly to the key details in the case. There is no way to remember everything about all your cases. Highlighting shortens the process of recalling what is most important.
Highlights provide a window into the mind of the person who did the highlighting. So you have to decide if you want the recipient of a document to see what you are focused on. When you copy a document that you have highlighted in yellow, the highlights do not show up. So you can highlight language that concerns you without having to worry that defense counsel will see into your mind. Other colors may show through when copied, so be careful.
Sometimes I want the recipient of a document to see the highlights so that they will focus on helpful language. I use yellow accent highlighter on copies I send out when that is my goal. Other times, I bold the key language in the Word document. In a motion filed with the court, it is more likely that I would bold the language I want the court to focus on. In mediation, I might opt for highlighter rather than bold, though either way is fine.
Many times I receive copies of medical records or other documents that are marked either with a dark highlighter or ink. Dark highlights show up on copies. This allows me to see into the mind of the person who marked up the document. Often, the mark is made by a doctor who is highlighting something relevant in the treatment. Other times, an insurance adjuster will highlight a document. This gives me a window into the adjuster’s world. If I know what the adjuster is focused on, I can hope- fully respond in a way that increases the value of the case.
The reverse situation occurs when a document has language that you don’t want the other side to see. If the language is truly irrelevant to the litigation, you can redact it. See Chapter 8 of my book for more about this process. Insurance lawyers do this all the time, claiming some kind of privilege, such as the work product privilege.
When redacting, you must be sure the recipient will not be able to see the redacted language. If you use a black marker, that is probably fine. If you use white tape, be extra careful. Once defense counsel sent me redacted documents that had white tape over the language. Instead of sending me photo- copies, counsel sent me the originals. By simply re- moving the tape, all could be revealed. This raised a serious ethical question. Since counsel did not believe I had the right to see the redacted mate- rial, perhaps my duty was to return the documents intact. Or perhaps my duty to my client of zealous representation required me to remove the tape. You can imagine the temptation to open this window into defense counsel’s world. Bottom line: redact your documents with great care.
Another way to increase efficiency is with Drop- box. Dropbox bills itself as is “a free service that lets you bring your photos, docs, and videos any- where and share them easily.” And it’s true. With Dropbox, my work files are available on my home computer. When I alter a file at home, my work computer files change instantaneously. Gone are the days of sending emails to myself from home, and then updating my files from them at work. One caveat: The free space on Dropbox is limited. I ran out of space quickly and had to purchase 100 GB to hold all my photos, videos and documents. For- tunately, the cost is still very low and very much worth it.
FIND A MENTOR
Or find two or three. You need someone who can reliably give you accurate answers to your questions. You need an older, more experienced trial lawyer on your side. You can get many of your questions answered by posting them on a listserv. But there are some questions that are not appropriate for public posting. Perhaps you are struggling with an ethical issue that you would prefer everyone not know about. Ethical questions are probably best addressed privately.
Also, some listservs have “lurkers” that you must be wary of. Lurkers are people who read posts, but never comment. They are virtually invisible. For example, my trial lawyers listserv does not restrict membership to plaintiffs’ lawyers. Any lawyer who is a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice can belong to its listservs. However, you never know when the defense lawyer opposing you is reading your posts. You would not want that lawyer to know your strategies, your concerns, and your solutions. So questions that clearly pertain to a specific case you are handling should be directed to your mentor(s) only.
Since listserv posts are stored on a server, defense counsel can easily search all of your posts. That means careful daily monitoring is not required. So you must be very careful with your listserv posts. Also, your reputation is at stake with every post. If you post inappropriate material, your colleagues will see it and label you negatively.
Why would any lawyer take on the role of mentor? What is in it for the mentor? Some mentors just like the feeling it gives them to help others. More commonly, this lawyer may seek referrals by mentoring. If you take on a complex case, at some point you may decide you are in above your head. The first lawyer you would probably think of for referring the case would be your mentor.
After all these years of practice, I still have mentors. They help me continue to grow as a lawyer and provide my clients with the representation they deserve. Their generous help is part of my inspiration to write my book.
Make sure you use descriptive messages in email subject headings and document headers. These key words enable you to sort email, manage multiple projects, find documents, and therefore handle cases more effectively. After you join a listserv, you may receive 100 or more emails each day. Before you know it, you will have a huge number of emails to sort through. You will need to search those emails from time to time. With proper subject headings, search- ing is easy.
When leaving voicemail messages, rather than saying “Evan, returning your message,” you should provide information that will help the other person locate the file. A typical voicemail might be: “This is Evan Aidman, calling on the Jones case. Your file number is 67M-32884. I received the defense medical report by Dr. Jones. Please call so that we can discuss his report. My number is (215) 563-7088. Thanks.”
CONFIRMING IMPORTANT MATTERS
There are many situations that require you to send a confirming letter or email. Whenever you need hard proof of something that was said during a phone call, send a confirming letter. For example, if an insurance adjuster accepts 100 percent liability on a case, send a letter confirming this. That will prevent the insurer from later taking the position that it did not accept liability. Although the insurer can change its position, if for example, new evidence is uncovered, your confirming letter will document its position at the time of the phone call. If your client gives you authority to settle a case for $25,000 and you get the feeling that the client may later deny this, send a confirming letter. If defense counsel gives you a 30-day extension to provide answers to interrogatories, confirm this in a letter, fax or email. It not only prevents the lawyer from later denying that an extension was given, it also provides you with a reminder in the event that you forget whether you got an extension.
An important variation on the confirming letter is the letter that assumes something from silence.
Let’s say you need a 30-day extension to provide a response to a request for production of documents and you are unable to reach defense counsel on the phone. You can send a letter requesting the extension and stating that you will assume it will be granted unless counsel states otherwise in the next week. If counsel does not respond, you have your extension.\
IT IS WHAT IT IS
There will be times when you will have to accept that you are not going to achieve all that you would like to on a case. If the client has six prior injuries to the same body part injured in the present litigation, you have got a big challenge. If that litigation involves a minor fender- bender and disputed liability, even the best lawyer will not be able to do much with the case.
We all want to do the best we can for our clients. But we are stuck with the facts of the case. You can only hide so much in PI litigation. As they say, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Once you accept that there will be times that you are limited in what you can do, you can move forward in a realistic way. The case is what it is. When I discuss the weaknesses cases have in a realistic, straight forward way with clients, they appreciate my honesty and almost always follow my counsel. That makes life a lot easier than if the client does not trust me. Most of my clients ultimately tell me that they will rely on my advice because I am the expert. Most clients can accept that it is what it is and that I am doing the best that realistically can be done for them.
All PI lawyers dream about getting “The Big Case.” You never know when that multi-million dollar case is going to walk in your door. Moreover, it is especially sweet if a huge verdict is fully collectible and there is no referral fee to pay. Yet, even after many years, most of us are still waiting. As a lawyer new to PI work, it is unlikely that you will see one of these cases for many, many years, if ever.
Personal injury work is a little like going to Las Vegas every day. We gamble our resources on cases, hoping for the payout, and never knowing what is going to happen. It is truly exciting when the triple 7’s show up and we win the jackpot, but devastating when the jury comes back with lemons. It is not a practice area for the faint of heart. Expect small payouts at first, that should steadily increase as you gain experience and know how.