If you are a personal-injury lawer in the conservative state of Virginia or elsewhere in the land of tort reform, this is my admittedly provocative view — employed by my firm over the past six (6) years or so — of how to obtain just personal-injury settlements for your clients:
1. Don’t just dabble in personal-injury cases; the insurance defense lawyer is too good for that, and he will only smile as he runs over you while you are dabbling.
2. Study and read about how to be a better trial lawyer. If you don’t enjoy much of what you are reading, try something else (not just another book; try another line of work).
3. Select good cases — this does not mean: select only those cases that are “sure winners;” he who does not take risk is not a real trial lawyer.
4. Investigate the facts, and keep investigating: a) it’s fun; b) the insurance companies are great at doing a lousy job at this; c) facts (if wound into a good story) win cases.
5. File suit in every case (with extremely rare exceptions; I told you this would be provocative). You have little leverage over insurance companies without litigation. They don’t really ever pay you “voluntarily.” They only pay justly you when trial is closing in on them and you are an imminent threat to their money. When they pay you “voluntarily,” you have been had.
6. Cerebrate about your case and your client. In the beginning. In the middle. In the end. About the good believeable facts, and the bad. If you don’t cerebrate about your case, one among many serious casualties will be your ability to sincerely, powerfully and spontaneously talk with the jury in closing argument. Juries know when you have not lived the case, and when you don’t know your client and what her injuries mean to her and her life.
7. Don’t attempt settlement until the insurance company smells trial in the next room, in its back pocket, at its bottom-line.
8. Give the insurance company a firm deadline for settlement, and stick to it (unless the client changes his mind). Pre-trial settlement deadlines — if enforced by your firm over much time and many cases — pressure all sides to hear an early version of “the-jury’s-knocking-on-the-door,” and thus pressure the parties into staring headlong into the possibility of a much worse result at trial.
9. Never, ever “beg,” “keep after”or try to cajole an insurance company to settle. The appearance of weakness is weakness. Relax. It’s their money they’re about to lose.
10. Try cases to verdict and get good results — insurance companies do not respect an attorney with a track record of not going to verdict.
11. Try cases to verdict and get good results — your track record precedes you, and each good “We the jury find our verdict in favor of plaintiff and award damages in the amount of …” is wind at your back in your next effort to settle.
12. Try cases to verdict and get good results — the insurance companies’ reasonable fear of a “runaway” verdict or a too-sympathetic jury is a very, very good friend of yours.
13. You cannot worry — at all — about your own financial state or about turning down substantial sums of money. You and your client never had it to lose. It’s not your money. Money-hungry lawyers are scared lawyers, not great trial lawyers willing to risk.
14. Be honest with your client, not proud or self-indulgent. Your client needs to know your unvarnished professional opinion on settlement and the chances of reasonable-high and reasonable-low verdicts at trial, not your self-indulgent invective about how unfair are the insurance company, insurance defense counsel and Virginia juries.
15. Be completely ready for trial. Completely ready. And ready early. Many a bad verdict results from the assumption of settlement; many a bad settlement results from not being ready to try your case.
16. If the case does not settle within your deadline, try the case, and try it with focus and determination until you hear the knock on the door and the foreman speaking. Then put your arm around your client and feel good about what you have done.