Debunking Myths about Plaintiff Attorneys and the Practice of Personal Injury Law

By Kimberly Wong

If you ever watch late night television, you have likely seen a few cheesy advertisements for personal injury attorneys which seem more like a farce rather than advertisements for professional legal services. Some popular television programs have further fueled a common misconception that personal injury attorneys are "ambulance chasers" who are more interested in a big pay day than helping individuals who have undergone life-changing injuries.

While these characters are of course fictitious, they still reflect some negative stereotypes about the practice of personal injury law. These stereotypes are not only false, but they also undermine our legal system which was designed to provide justice for those in need of protection.

Many personal injury attorneys like myself have chosen this career path because we believe in helping the injured obtain justice and fair compensation for their losses which were caused by someone else's negligence or willful acts. This article is intended to debunk some myths and stereotypes associated with personal injury attorneys and the practice of personal injury law.

What is Personal Injury Law

Personal injury law covers physical injuries, mental injuries, and death that result from the negligence or intentional misconduct of another person, group of people, or entity. Contrary to popular belief, personal injury law is broader than just auto accidents, defective products, slip and fall accidents, and medical malpractice.

For example, many people are surprised to learn that an employee injured at work may have a "third party" personal injury claim in addition to a workers' compensation claim. A third party is someone other than the employer who has partial or full legal responsibility for causing the employee's injury, such as the manufacturer of a defective machine that injured the employee. Third party cases may also arise from work-related injuries on construction sites where another contractor created a dangerous condition or failed to warn about one that causes injury. Further, there may be a third party case when someone other than the employer retained or assumed control over safety at the worksite.

These are just a few examples of potential third party cases. Additionally, under some narrow circumstances, employees injured on the job may be able to pursue a civil claim against their employer in addition to their workers' compensation claim.

What many people often do not realize is that workers' compensation benefits do not fully compensate the injured. Workers' compensation benefits only include medical care for the job-related injury and disability payments which are often insufficient to cover all living expenses. Many injured suffer additional harm and losses as a result of their injuries which commonly impair their daily activities, their ability to earn a living, their family relationships, the ability to take care of their house, and their social activities. Where third party liability exists, the injured can recover damages for these losses in addition to their pain and suffering, which is greater than what workers' compensation provides.

What the Practice of Personal Injury Law Involves

Personal injury lawyers often work at small plaintiff firms. Cases are typically handled on a contingency fee basis where the firm pays all of the case costs and receives no fee for its services or reimbursement of costs unless it is able to recover money for the client. Because work is done on a contingency fee basis, personal injury attorneys have no billable hour requirements, which typically mean a better work-life balance.

Practicing personal injury law generally involves a traditional litigation and trial practice. To help establish liability and damages of a client's claim, attorneys work closely with experts in different fields, including mechanical engineering, accident reconstruction, economics, life care planning, vocational rehabilitation, and various specialties of medicine. Learning about these various disciplines and their application to individual cases keeps the practice interesting.

Unlike most fields of law, personal injury law truly is personal because each client has suffered a difficult life-changing injury. Being a personal injury attorney requires compassion, the ability to listen, and the ability to counsel clients during their times of need.

My Path to Becoming a Personal Injury Attorney

I have always had a desire to help people. In college, I pursued an undergraduate degree in psychology, but eventually decided that becoming a psychiatrist or psychologist was not for me. So I ventured off to law school to become a different kind of counselor, a counselor at law. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do plaintiff's work so I could work directly with people in need, which is exactly what I did and I have not looked back since. My clients are people who are going through what is often one of the most difficult times in their lives. I find being their advocate and counselor to be meaningful and rewarding work.

Every client I have represented has told me that if they had the choice, they would rather erase the accident from history than have to endure their pain and injuries, regardless of what amount of compensation they may receive for their personal injury claim. But, unfortunately, there is no miraculous solution that can rewrite history. The only thing that clients can do is to try to adapt to their new circumstances and move on with their lives as best as they can, which is often a very difficult process for them and their family.

Helping clients to obtain a fair settlement or a favorable verdict is not really about the money. Rather, it is about justice and accountability. It is about helping injured individuals get back on their feet. The money clients receive from their personal injury claim is simply the means that empowers them to get their lives back on track to begin the long process of trying to recover both mentally and physically. It provides them with the financial security to afford necessary medical treatment and to take care of their life expenses which add up quickly, especially when clients cannot return to their prior work or are unable to work at all due to their injuries.

There are a lot of thankless jobs. I feel fortunate to not hold one of them. And while a client never needs to say "thank you," when a client does, it makes my job feel extra rewarding and reaffirms that I have chosen the right career for me.

About the Author
AABA member Kimberly Wong is an attorney at The Veen Firm P.C. in San Francisco where she represents clients who have suffered life-changing and career-altering injuries. Her practice focuses on litigating of catastrophic injury cases involving negligence, wrongful death, products liability, industrial accidents, and exceptions to the workers' compensation exclusive remedy doctrine.