“Two of my employees were involved in an auto accident that was not their fault. They were about to hire an out-of-town law firm that advertises heavily on television because the attorney in the commercials is a big fan of the same football team as they are!
“I told them that’s not a sound basis to retain a lawyer, and to stay local as our town has many good attorneys. Also, I had them read your December 2020 article, “Could Your Lawyer Have Cheated You on Your Bill?” which described illegal charges — theft — by a TV-advertising, personal injury law firm hundreds of miles away from where your reader lived.
“But they would not listen to me, hired them despite horrible Yelp reviews, and now have large unpaid medical bills! Dennis, an article explaining why it is a good idea to hire a lawyer who actually lives in your town would help a lot of people.”
‘Fight for You Rights’ TV Commercials
We’ve all seen television ads for personal injury and workers’ compensation law firms that say things like, “We fight for your rights!” What they do not tell you is that hiring one could be the worst legal mistake of your life.
The California State Bar is investigating the fraudulent billing practices of the law firm in my December 2020 article — and it is one of many law firms I am aware of that illegally charge for expenses that the lawyers never incur.
So, Why Stay Local?
I spoke with Bakersfield attorney David Cohn, in practice over 40 years, and considered one of the most accomplished personal injury trial attorneys in the United States. He outlined the risks in hiring a lawyer based on snazzy television commercials.
“In so many instances, the TV ads make it look like the lawyer is local, but that’s deceiving. Many are personal injury mills with a local phone number, and even a local office address. But drop in and you will never find an attorney. You will almost never meet the lawyer in person, only office staff.
“So, you see their commercial, phone, over comes an investigator who signs you up, and immediately they send you to their out-of-town doctors just to build up huge, unnecessary medical bills in the hopes of a large settlement, which seldom occurs. And, you could be left with unpaid bills. I see this often.” Cohn points out, adding:
“When their dissatisfied clients come to us, we often find medical bills that are 10 times what is normal! Clients have no idea what they have gotten themselves into.”
One of the dirty little secrets of these personal injury mills — which spend millions on television advertising — is something clients are also unaware of: “They do not have your best interest in mind and do not ‘fight’ for top dollar! All they want is a quick settlement.”
The TV ads give the impression that the lawyer you see in the commercial — whom you will likely never meet — is handling your case. But Cohn notes:
“In reality, it’s an administrative assistant, not an attorney. They take any accident case and hope for one with significant injuries, which they broker to a trial lawyer, for a large referral fee, because the lawyers who run these firms don’t try cases.”
Will Your Lawyer Actually Go Court?
In spite of what we see on television and in the movies, few lawyers go to court. Very few personal injury lawyers have ever tried a case. But, does it really matter? And, if it is true that most personal injury cases settle before trial, should it matter at all where my lawyer is located?
You bet it does!
Cohn explains why it is so critical — even for what may seem to be a “simple” case that you would never expect to wind up in court — to be represented by local counsel who are real trial attorneys who will try a case.
“Insurance companies know which lawyers will go to court and which are ‘TV’ lawyers, who just settle a case without going the extra mile for the client. This allows the company to settle your case for far less — often thousands of dollars less — than what is fair.”
And if your case has to go to trial?
“You want a local law firm that tries cases, knows and is known by the judges in your community, not someone the TV law firm found because they aren’t able to provide their clients with competent professional service,” Cohn underscsores.
And Before You Hire the Attorney…
Cohn lists these five important steps before retaining a lawyer.
- Research and find out as much as you can about the attorney.
- Find out if that lawyer is truly local.
- Ask whether that lawyer tries cases in court.
- Learn what their success rate is.
- Go to your state Bar’s website to find out if that lawyer has had any disciplinary issues.
Concluding our interview, I asked, “What has given you the greatest satisfaction from your long career in law?”
“It is doing the best I can to make my clients as whole as possible. That’s my job, but, Dennis, as corny as this sounds, it’s really more than a job. It is a calling.”
This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.
Attorney at Law, Author of “You and the Law”
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California’s Kern County District Attorney’s Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, “You and the Law.” Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. “I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift.”