chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
May 23, 2014 Articles

Five Tips for New Attorneys Ready to Practice in Personal Injury Law

Get pointers on how to handle auto accidents, worker's compensation, and other types of cases

By Adam S. Goldfarb

Most of the clients I represented in my 10 years as an attorney were victims of a personal injury. The cases covered an array of auto accidents, premises liability disputes, and workers’ compensation cases. Handling these types of cases involves dealing with real people who have emotions and demand excellence of their attorneys, which can be rather difficult for a young attorney. Law schools and even your law firms will not teach you how to deal with clients, especially those suffering from a personal injury. For better or for worse, you learn on the job—sometimes the hard way!

Don’t fret. Over the years, I have developed a set of helpful tips that I used while employed in private practice as a civil litigator. These pointers are not legal advice but rather a set of aspirations that will help newly minted attorneys transition into private practice, avoiding the desire to run out the door on their first day of work.

Return Client Phone Calls

This sounds like such a no-brainer, but you would be surprised by how many attorneys do not bother to return calls in a timely manner. I make it an effort to call a client back as soon as humanly possible, and in no event any longer than one day. Clients just want to hear from their attorneys, even if all you have to tell them that the case is still proceeding in discovery and certain depositions still need to be taken. Most clients do not care about every detail of their case, but they just wanted to be informed. 

Document Your File and Follow Up with a Letter

Over the years, I have identified clients who are going to be difficult from the beginning—usually those clients that call more than twice a week and demand to know every little detail of insignificant matters like case management or status conferences.  I made it a habit over the years to document every phone call in the file and try to follow up with a letter to the client: "This letter memorializes our conversation regarding your case from earlier this afternoon," and so on). Trust me: Taking five minutes to send the client a letter documenting and confirming your conversation will save you headaches down the road.

Be Prepared to Defend or Take a Deposition

A deposition is one of the most important parts of discovery because it consists of testimony of a party or witness that ties that party or witness to his or her testimony if the case goes to trial.  Believe it or not, I have had cases that settled because of the excellent job I did at the deposition.  Many young lawyers do not know how to prepare for a deposition adequately and effectively. If you are defending a deposition, you must be able to anticipate in advance what questions will be asked of your client.  You must be able to prepare your client so he or she knows how to approach the questions truthfully at a deposition. If you are taking a deposition, my advice is to have your exhibits prepared in advance. Also, I suggest that you avoid making a list of questions you want to ask but rather have a general understanding of what it is you need out of that witness to best represent your client. Amazingly, I have been able to settle cases through phrasing and structuring of questions in a way that the witness provided an answer favorable to my client. The worst mistake a young lawyer can make: not knowing what questions to ask and how to get a witness or party to provide the needed information. Most witnesses and parties are not trained advocates but will give you the answer you are looking for if you phrase it a certain way. 

Develop a Checklist of Your Case's Strengths and Weaknesses Early

You must evaluate the pros and cons of your case before you even file the lawsuit by anticipating the possible defenses as well as the strengths of your own case. I have handled many different types of cases, and every single one had strengths and weaknesses. By anticipating the weaknesses of your case, you will be a better attorney. Unfortunately, you cannot change the facts of your case, but you need to learn to find a way around weaknesses so they are not a focal part of the case. At the same time, you should develop the strengths of the case and highlight those to the defense attorney and insurance company.

Be the Better Litigator in the Courtroom

When I lived in Chicago, my boss taught me the most valuable lesson: to be the better litigator than your opponent. For example, if you are more prepared than your opponent specifically at a hearing on a motion for summary judgment, you will gain greater command and attention of the court. Lawyers who are ill prepared will demonstrate a strong sign of weakness and not garner the respect from the court or their opponent. I always strived to be the better lawyer than my opponent by being prepared and ready to anticipate any defenses that would hurt my client's case. Know the cases that support your client's position as well as the cases that hurt your client's position.   

Keywords: litigation, trial practice, young lawyers, personal injury law, trial presentation, client management, depositions

Copyright © 2014, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).