What Is a Personal Injury Lawyer?

Personal injury lawyers specialize in tort law

Female lawyer pointing at an exhibit in front of a judge and a victim
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A personal injury lawyer is a type of civil litigator who provides legal representation to plaintiffs who are alleging physical or psychological injury as the result of the negligent or careless acts of another person, entity, or organization.

Personal Injury Is Tort Law

Personal injury attorneys specialize in an area known as tort law. This covers private or civil wrongs or injuries, including defamation and actions for bad faith breach of contract. The main goal of tort law is to make the injured party whole again and to discourage others from committing the same offense.

Personal injury lawyers help plaintiffs receive compensation for their losses, including loss of earnings capacity due to an inability to work, pain and suffering, reasonable medical expenses both present and expected, emotional distress, loss of consortium or companionship, and legal costs and attorney fees.

They also work to safeguard clients from being victimized by insurance companies and the legal system.

Types of Personal Injury Cases

Any case or claim that involves an injury to the body or mind falls under the umbrella of personal injury law. Some of the most common types of cases handled by this type of lawyer include:

  • Animal bite injuries
  • Auto accidents
  • Aviation accidents
  • Bicycle accidents
  • Boating accidents
  • Brain injuries
  • Burn injuries
  • Construction accidents
  • Defective products
  • Insurance/bad faith claims
  • Medical malpractice
  • Motorcycle accidents
  • Nursing home abuse
  • Pedestrian accidents
  • Slip and fall accidents
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Wrongful death

What Does a Personal Injury Attorney Do?

Attorneys who specialize in this area handle cases from inception through appeal. They perform tasks similar to most litigators. They investigate claims and screen potential clients to evaluate the merits of their cases. They gather evidence, formulate legal theories, and research case law. The job involves drafting pleadings, motions, and discovery requests, as well as interviewing and deposing witnesses.

All these tasks contribute to trial preparation, but the job doesn't end there. Personal injury lawyers are their clients' advocates before and during the trial. This can include counseling them as well as dealing with obstacles in the legal system and presented by their adversaries.

Personal injury attorneys often juggle large caseloads—at least, this is the ideal. They work on tight deadlines and with sometimes demanding clients. But many lawyers find that the most rewarding aspect of personal injury practice is helping injured victims and their families receive justice.

Personal injury lawsuits can be extremely complex, so these attorneys often specialize in certain niche types of cases. For example, someone who handles medical malpractice might specialize in breach births. Those who routinely litigate motor vehicle accidents might specialize in ATV rollover incidents.

Required Education

All attorneys must pursue the same path of training and education. They must earn their law degrees and pass written bar examinations, but this can't be accomplished until you've earned an undergraduate degree and passed the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) with a reasonably high score.

Lawyers can additionally become certified as specialists in civil trial advocacy by completing a specialty certification program accredited by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification. This is a non-profit organization accredited by the American Bar Association to provide board certification for attorneys.

Many state bar associations also require that personal injury lawyers pass the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE). The MPRE focuses on professional behavior. Your state might also require that you take continuing education courses.

Personal and Professional Skills

The most successful personal injury attorneys excel at oral advocacy, negotiation, and client development. They should also have a capacity for handling stress and pressure, particularly those who decide to hang a shingle out on their own rather than sign on as an associate with an existing firm.

Attorneys in this specialty usually represent clients on a contingency basis. Their fees represent a percentage of the plaintiff's eventual compensation when the case is resolved, typically from 30 to 40 percent. This arrangement means that the plaintiff doesn't pay a fee unless and until the lawyer recovers money on her behalf. These lawyers are typically only compensated if they win.

That's pressure, particularly when you consider that some personal injury cases can drag out for years before they're resolved. This makes efficient time management skills very important as well. You'll have to balance these long, involved cases with shorter, less demanding ones if you're going to pay the bills, at least if you elect to go into practice for yourself.

It's often recommended that new personal injury lawyers get their feet wet with an established law firm before heading out on their own—even an insurance defense firm. This will help you understand the ins-and-outs of how your adversaries approach cases.

Personal Injury Lawyer Salaries

Personal injury lawyers are among the highest paid professionals. The most successful lawyers earn seven-digit salaries, although most plaintiff lawyers earn between $30,000 and $300,000, depending on practice size and location. The 2017 median income for all attorneys was $119,250 in 2017—half earn more than this and half earn less.

Plaintiff lawyers who pull in fees at the higher end of the spectrum usually handle class action suits or high-dollar personal injury cases. In addition, punitive damages—those that are designed to punish the defendant and deter the same bad conduct again—can raise verdict amounts by millions of dollars, adding cash to the lawyer’s pockets.

You'll most likely start out at a relatively modest salary if you sign up with an established firm, but you should also receive a percentage of the fees paid to the firm for successful cases you've handled.

Employment Outlook

Litigation represents the bread and butter of many law firms, so the employment outlook for personal injury attorneys is good. However, tort reform—proposed changes in common law civil justice systems that would reduce tort litigation and cap damage awards—could potentially reduce the number of claims filed and the damages recovered by plaintiff attorneys in the future.