In 2018, after spending years representing large businesses and insurance companies, I changed my practice. Now, 100% of my time is completely dedicated to representing people who have been harmed by others. Since then, I’ve noticed some all-encompassing philosophical differences between representing injured people and representing the people who injure them.
1. Our clients care about results.
This may seem obvious to people who haven’t worked in personal injury litigation. Insurance adjusters and the companies they work for are not married to the money they may ultimately give to injured plaintiffs. Usually, an insurance adjuster (the person who is responsible for the day-to-day handling of the case) has a boss to report to when they ask for or provide authority to settle a claim. Insurance defense attorneys serve the role of providing their adjusters with the justification they need to pay or not pay injured people. Because they are paid hourly, defense attorneys have incentive to spend time digging up evidence that ultimately does not matter and to pick fights which do not affect either party’s bottom line.
Plaintiffs, on the other hand, are frustrated, hurting, and looking for someone to help them improve their situation as quickly as possible. Injured folks aren’t interested in putting their opponents in their places for purposes of spite (not usually, at least). They aren’t impressed when their attorneys go to court and win a motion that doesn’t change the bottom line. They care about results—in other words, how much compensation they can get and how quickly they can get it. That’s why I focus my energy every day on getting my clients the maximum amount of compensation available in the shortest amount of time possible. What’s that most efficient way to do this? My experience as a defense attorney tells me that, if I consider myself a collaborative participant in litigation whenever possible (rather than always acting purely as an adversary), I can help the insurance company’s lawyer provide their client with the justification they need to pay my clients what they deserve.
2. Insurance companies nickel-and-dime plaintiffs whenever possible.
What’s the real value of a few hundred dollars to an insurance company?—not much, in the grand scheme of things. But what’s the value of a few hundred dollars to my clients, who are racking up medical bills and often have lost their jobs and their health insurance?—much, much more. However, insurance companies don’t always act reasonably—they will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars paying a lawyer to defend them so they don’t have to pay an injured person tens of thousands of dollars. Understandably, their attorneys are looking for any way they can to save insurance companies money, because it pleases insurance adjusters and ensures they’ll be assigned more cases in the future. Sometimes they do this by trying to take little chunks of money from my clients over the course of litigation.
For instance, lately I’ve had a few defense attorneys ask that my clients pay for half the cost the defense paid in obtaining my clients’ medical records. However, the language of O.C.G.A. § 9-11-34(c)(1) is clear that my clients need only pay a “reasonable document copying charge,” which is usually much less, particularly in the age of digital record-keeping. When a cost that affects my client’s bottom line comes up, I always ask myself, “If I were my client, would I want to pay this cost?” The answers vary based on the situation, but it’s always important for plaintiffs’ attorneys to remember who they work for, and that their goal is to obtain maximum compensation for their clients.
3. Fight the big stuff; don’t sweat the small stuff.
By now, you can probably tell I have a singular focus when it comes to representing my clients: obtain as much compensation for them as fast as I can. When I worked for defense firms, I knew attorneys who were ecstatic when opposing counsel provided discovery responses they deemed legally insufficient. They could bill hours by researching the appropriateness of certain objections and answers, and they could bill even more by drafting lengthy letters chocked full of threatening language and citations from their legal research. Because my focus is on my clients’ bottom line, my approach is completely different. Should I spend time writing a letter to obtain a witness’ phone number to which I already have access? Of course not, because it wouldn’t do anything to improve my client’s situation. If the defendant admits liability in its answer, should I spend time writing a motion to compel appropriate discovery responses that only affect the issue of liability? No, because I could spend my time working on the damages component of the case so my client recovers more money at the end. Worst of all, it could cause my client’s case to be continued and delay her day in court: needless disputes create more issues for the judge and delay the case from reaching the finish line. In short, as a plaintiffs’ attorney, I’m mindful to pick my battles, and the only ones I pick are the ones that matter to my clients.
4. Spending time with your client is extremely important.
Of course, it’s important for all attorneys to get to know their clients on some level, regardless of who they represent. Defense attorneys need to thoughtfully consider the ways to best serve theirs. A lot of defense strategy is formulated by poring over documents though. Plaintiffs’ attorneys must be in tune to the human element of every case. When we go to court and try a case in front of a jury and ultimately ask that our client receive the compensation she deserves, we’re telling a story about a human being—a living, breathing person who has lost a loved one, is unable to perform their job, has endured emotional suffering as a result of someone’s negligence, or perhaps – in some cases – has had their very dignity injured. And, we are often showing the jury that, had the large company defendant had proper policies and procedures in place, then not only would our client have not been hurt, but the public as a whole would be safer. These are heavy things for a jury to hear, and they can have a powerful impact on the result of a case.
But in order for me to argue these facts, I’ve got to hear them first. I never want my clients to feel rushed to leave my office or hang up the phone; our conversations are not transactions like client communication on the defense side. I’m one of my clients’ closest confidants, and I’m guiding them through some of the most difficult times of their lives. Everyone deserves the respect of telling me how they feel, unabridged and unrushed. Of course, this creates a connection between my clients and me, but it serves a practical purpose as well. Once my clients feel comfortable talking about themselves and how they feel, they can provide some really useful information. Perhaps they’ll tell me their injuries have rendered them unable to care for a disabled family member or that they’ve had to give up a hobby due to the level of pain it causes them. There’s a real, tangible value to facts like those in our justice system. Jurors understand how things like this are harmful to my clients, because they are human beings too. To learn as much useful information about their clients as possible, plaintiffs’ attorneys must make time with clients a priority.
5. Our clients have a right to know what is happening with their case.
As I noted earlier, insurance defense can be pretty transactional in nature—they run the same playbook in every case. Making someone feel knowledgeable about why something is happening does nothing to change what is happening. Insurance adjusters, for instance, want to know what it’s going to take to close a case. They are often situated out of state and have little interest in learning about Georgia law; instead, they just want one less matter to deal with. They are at work when they are talking to defense attorneys.
For a plaintiff, on the other hand, their case may be their only encounter with the court system they have in their entire life. Their case is extremely personal to them; it’s not just another transaction. Whenever a legal issue affects the bottom line of one of my clients’ cases, I’m careful to take the time to explain why. My clients want to know why they’re going to get a great result or, in some cases, why their case is worth less than another one they read about in the news. They deserve to know. As a plaintiffs’ attorney, in addition to maximum compensation, another thing I provide to my clients is peace of mind. People want to know exactly how the law affects them, and I pride myself on giving them that knowledge.
6. I am lucky and thankful to be able to help injured people.
It is an incredible privilege to help injured people; in fact, it’s one of the greatest privileges our society can bestow upon any individual. I went to law school with a very broad goal: to help people with problems they can’t help themselves with. I’m overwhelmingly grateful to be able to say that I’m doing exactly what I want to do with my life. For me, representing the people who need me most is a bona fide performance of self-actualization. One of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever experienced came when I won my first trial in Henry County State Court and my client looked me in the eye and thanked me. I’m so proud to say I’ve gotten to feel that way on many occasions. Serving others is not an opportunity I take lightly. Unlike the past, when I help a client win a case, I’m not just allowing them to check off a transaction that was hanging over their head – I’m changing their life for the better. When my head hits the pillow at night, I’m tired, but I’m filled with gratitude. There’s no greater honor in my life than helping people who really need it.