Six months after my spinal cord injury, I sat in my new manual wheelchair in the living room of my grandparents’ house, surrounded by a room full of lawyers and engineers who had flown in from around the country to discuss my injury and whether the car manufacturer was liable. The car I was a passenger in when I became paralyzed had been purchased by the lawyers and was being stored in the barn outside.
After a great deal of discussion and measuring, the lawyers explained I had a “textbook lap-belt injury” — I was a low-level paraplegic because I only had access in the center rear seat to a two-point restraint instead of a three-point restraint seatbelt. The lawyers told us that car manufacturers had known the two-point restraint lap belts allowed in the center rear seat at the time could cut into a person’s lower abdomen and damage the spinal cord, but still decided it was easier to pay paralyzed victims than to fix the flawed restraint system.
Even as a 16-year-old, this information angered me. Car manufacturers were not addressing the safety of the passengers. I could see it would take more cases being filed in court along with a push for policy changes to right this wrong. It would take lawyers who wanted to go against these giant companies to help bring about this change. I decided then I would be one of those lawyers.
I went on to graduate high school, college, and law school. I decided to devote my career to helping those with spinal cord injuries and disabilities navigate the legal world. Between my experience as a client and over a decade as a lawyer, I have seen how difficult this can be for people with disabilities and how valuable the right help is.
After the living room meeting, the lawyers put together their argument that the lap belt was the reason I was now paralyzed and what that paralysis would cost in my future. The goal was to get some type of settlement before my case could be completely thrown out. Had they not been proactive, educated and competent in this complicated area of law, I could have recovered nothing.
The need for good legal representation is not limited to how someone sustains a spinal cord injury. It also includes navigating Social Security, housing, wills, estate planning, special needs trusts, civil rights law, employment, work injury, divorce, child custody and more. These are complex issues and adding a spinal cord injury or other disability can make the need of retaining a qualified lawyer even more important.
Knowing where to begin when you believe you have a situation that requires legal assistance can be overwhelming. However, if you believe that you need to engage a lawyer, here are five steps to ensure you get the best outcome.
Each area of law brings its own set of laws, challenges, and specific guidelines. Not every lawyer is qualified to help in every legal situation. While there are plenty of attorneys that may be willing to look at your potential case, unless they have specific background, knowledge, and experience in that area of law, they will not be able to best serve your interests. Just as you would not go to a neurologist for bad allergies, it is important to seek out a lawyer with expertise in the area of law that your concern involves.
Several years ago, I met Sarah. She became a quadriplegic when the car she was a passenger in flipped over and the roof crushed her head. She called me frustrated with all she had going on in life. She was trying to establish herself amid a post-injury divorce while working on qualifying for government benefits. She was scared a settlement could affect her ability to maintain services she needed to survive. Who was the right lawyer for Sarah? The answer was three different lawyers.
She needed a lawyer to help advance a complicated product liability case. She also needed a family law attorney to assist with her divorce and make sure she her custody rights were protected. Finally, she needed an attorney that could assist in setting up a special needs trust to protect her government benefits if she received a personal injury settlement.
I helped connect Sarah to the different lawyers she needed. Importantly, these three lawyers also needed to coordinate with each other so that her various issues could be addressed with the other issues in mind. Months later, I checked in with her. “Things are still hard, but now I have a plan,” she says. “Most importantly, I have advocates helping me so that I can focus on my physical health and emotional recovery. I am getting stronger and more independent day by day.”
Time is not on your side when faced with a legal matter — do not delay in engaging an attorney. The more time goes by, the more difficult it becomes to preserve evidence, protect the statute of limitation (the time you have to bring a claim in court) and prevent the unnecessary delay of a resolution. I often talk to people with valid legal claims but too much time has passed, and there is nothing that can be done.
In my case, it was imperative for the lawyers to buy the wrecked car and store it at my grandparents’ farm to be reviewed by experts. Had we waited to retain an attorney, the vehicle would have likely been sent to a junk yard and I would have lost my opportunity to bring a claim. In other types of cases, such as child custody, a delay in time could mean serious consequences to your ability to keep or fight for custody of children. Or in a Social Security claim, benefits you are entitled to could be unnecessarily withheld.
Find a Lawyer That Understands Your Disability
If your lawyer does not have a deep understanding of your disability, they will ultimately be unable to fully advocate on your behalf and get the resolution you deserve. For example, if your case involves a personal injury claim, part of the damages is the future care you will need. A spinal cord injury is a lifelong, expensive injury, and every aspect of your future care — housing, personal care assistance, urological supplies and more should be considered when calculating damages. A lawyer who does not understand the medical complexities of a spinal cord injury may undervalue your needs.
In other situations, having a lawyer who understands your disability is important because they will be better prepared to fight for your rights. If you have been discriminated at work because you require certain reasonable accommodations like an adjusted work schedule or an accessible workstation, having a good lawyer can ensure that all your needs are being addressed in a claim.
Unfortunately, there are predatory lawyers who see a client in a wheelchair as a quick payday. Rather than fighting for the best outcome, they work towards a quick resolution that may discount your actual damages.
Your lawyer should be accessible physically, remotely and in terms of communication. At a minimum, the lawyer should have an office or virtual set up that is accessible to you based on your disability. If you are meeting online, any accommodations you need should be provided. In today’s world, where many people work in remote settings, having direct access to your lawyer via cellphone may be necessary, as is knowing they will respond to phone calls and emails.
While lawyers are ethically obligated to maintain contact with clients, every lawyer does not take this obligation equally. What many lawyers fail to appreciate is that this is your life and your only case. They may forget how scary the legal world can be if you are navigating it alone. Find a lawyer that is open, communicative, responsive and willing to take time to explain what is going on in your case. It will ultimately save you anxiety and frustration.
You should never feel unclear on what legal services will cost in your case. There are different types of fee structures for legal services, and some are more commonly used for certain types of cases. For example, in a personal injury claim, it is most common to have a case on a contingency fee structure. This means that you pay nothing at the outset of the case and the attorney will receive a percentage of the recovery at the end as compensation for their work. This typically ranges from 25% to 40% of the total recovery, depending on the type and complexity of the case. Things to consider in this type of fee structure is whether you must pay for any of the experts or costs of the litigation upfront and if the attorney will require you to pay any fees if there is no recovery or a small recovery.
In estate planning or setting up a trust, a lawyer may work for a flat fee. This means that you pay a certain price for the services regardless of the amount of time it takes or the recovery. The other common fee structure is hourly rate services. This means that you pay the attorney an agreed-upon hourly rate for the work performed. The hourly rate of an attorney can vary based on the attorney’s experience, geographic location, and years of practice. Be sure you understand not only what the hourly rate of the attorney is, but also the rates of any associate attorneys, paralegals or staff. You want to ensure that the attorney has a system in place to be transparent about what work they are performing and what they are billing.