Putting the “Personal” Back in “Personal Injury Lawyer”
Protecting the community. Enforcing safety rules. Holding wrongdoers accountable. Fighting for justice: the life of a personal injury lawyer.
Accepting the responsibility of helping injured people is gratifying: we uphold the values of the community and make a difference in people’s lives.
What We Are up Against
In today’s economic and legal climate, obtaining fair compensation for people injured by the wrongful conduct of others requires many skills not taught in law school. Personal injury lawyers need to understand how and why ordinary people make decisions. For decades, citizens (our jury pool) have been “tainted” by a media blitz that has created a bias against injured people who are forced to sue because the insurance company won’t pay fair compensation.
Insurance companies are tight-fisted with settlement money. The latest tactic by big insurance companies is to force injured people to either accept far less than fair compensation or file a lawsuit. Thus, personal injury lawyers must prepare every part of the case with the mindset of going to trial. Because personal injury attorneys go to trial often, they must be passionate about trial practice.
Personal injury lawyers face a formidable opponent. Insurance company lawyers are highly skilled. They are more experienced and better financed by rich and powerful corporations. They have one job: to defeat us. Thus, personal injury lawyers must never underestimate the forces we are up against. This fight is a battle of David v. Goliath. But the most powerful army does not always win.
Getting to Know Your Clients
Representing injured people at trial requires skillful advocacy. People put their life and well-being in your hands. It is up to you, as their lawyer, to obtain money damages for medical expenses, lost earnings, and the critically important “human” damages also known as general damages. As a trial lawyer, your job is to show 12 members of the jury that the defendant must be held accountable and that your client is entitled to a certain amount of compensation.
Successful personal injury lawyers understand the emotional content of their clients’ injuries. They know how to humanize their clients to the jury. The story of the case is not just about a person who was injured in a car crash and suffered damages. When our clients suffer a physical injury at the hands of another person, there is more to the injury than just physical pain. This understanding begins with learning about the client and developing a relationship based on security and trust. This allows the client to share his feelings and experiences with the jury in a way that the jury can relate to.
Yes, we are lawyers, but we are people first. We are real people, with real feelings and real emotions, and we represent ordinary folks who have suffered a traumatic event in their lives. Law school taught us that reasoning and logic win cases. But people make decisions first based on how they feel, and then rationalize their decision with logic, like building a house and then propping it up on stilts.
Before we meet with our clients, we should reflect on the larger sociological issues involved. We need to understand that societal norms create barriers to communication. For example, American males are conditioned from a young age to suppress their feelings and shut down their emotions. Asking a male client how the injury makes him “feel” will likely elicit a non-responsive answer because many men feel uncomfortable expressing their feelings.
We also need to be sensitive to cultural issues. I have more success connecting on a gut level with ethnically diverse clients when I’m aware of the cultural issues at work. Only then am I able to break down walls and get my clients to express their true feelings about how their injuries have affected their lives. Everyone is uncomfortable on some level expressing their feelings. Do not expect clients to open up on the first meeting. Rather, this process takes time. Expect to spend several meetings, over several hours, with your clients, especially clients of diverse backgrounds, before they open up and fully express how their injuries have impacted their lives.
Techniques to Connect on a Deeper Level
Lawyers should learn interviewing techniques based on concepts employed by psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychodramatists. Meet your clients at their home. It is not enough to merely obtain the facts from your client as you sit in your office asking questions from across your desk. People are more comfortable expressing their feelings in a safe, comfortable place. Your client’s living room is a perfect place to have a conversation. Shed the attorney façade. Leave your suit and tie at home. Look your client in the eye. Be real. Be sincere. When your client is done talking, let silence fill the room and feel the connection.
Learn to use open-ended questions. Open-ended questions require more than a yes or no answer and generally begin with, “who, what, when, where, why, or how.” If your question doesn’t start with one of these words, it’s probably not an open-ended question. Use follow-up statements like, “Tell me more about that,” to keep the person talking.
An effective technique to get your client to open up is “psychodrama.” This technique involves reenacting scenes from your client’s life. It is like a short, spontaneous play. Rather than having your client tell you what happened, have your client show you. This gets your client into the present tense by reliving the experience, making his emotions more accessible. When this occurs, we can get to the heart of the emotions experienced by our client.
We should invest our time meeting our clients’ family and friends, accompanying clients on activities, and experiencing how the injuries impact their lives. We don’t learn our case by spending time in the office pouring over transcripts and medical records. We learn our case by understanding how the client experiences life with his injury, and this can only be accomplished by spending time with our clients outside the office. We don’t know our client’s story until we’ve lived it and felt it within the deepest place of our gut. This is the place where we learn the details that make our client human and the stories that resonate with a jury.
Credibility is necessary to be a successful trial lawyer. Credibility originates with feelings. To credibly tell a jury about our client’s injuries and the impact that these injuries have on his life, we must feel what our clients feel. We must experience the emotions that our clients experience. Only then are we able to tell our client’s story to a jury in a way that will move them to award a verdict that fairly compensates the client.