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Orlando Personal Injury Attorneys: High Volume Personal Injury “Settlement Mills”

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Personal Injury High Volume Settlement Mill Law Firms
Last week, I stumbled upon a very enlightening law review article about the inner-workings of some of the largest personal injury law firms in the country, past and present, written by Nora Engstrom, a Stanford Law School professor.  Ms. Engstrom performed a rare in-depth investigation of what she labeled personal injury law firm “settlement mills,” which was her descriptive title for law firms that advertise heavily for personal injury cases, and handle an astonishingly high volume of those claims.  (I will borrow her “settlement mill” phrase throughout this article.)  Although I am a practicing Orlando personal injury attorney, her findings even surprised me.

I cannot more strongly suggest that anyone who wants to hire an Orlando personal injury attorney should read this blog post, or her entire article, before hiring any Orlando personal injury attorney.  The upshot of her article was that, if you hire a personal injury settlement mill, your attorney will likely work precious few, if any, hours on your case.  Accordingly, she concluded that the value of your personal injury claim might be much lower than if you had hired a more conventional attorney.

Which Personal Injury Firms Did She Profile?

As part of her research, she presented case studies of three huge personal injury firms from other states, which included a review of documentary and testimonial evidence from associated disciplinary proceedings, where those records existed.  (And she presented evidence suggesting that all high volume, high advertising firms across the country operated in a similar fashion).  She also conducted more than 50 detailed (50 minute) interviews with past and then current settlement mill attorneys and non-attorney employees.  Overall, she reviewed evidence regarding eight gigantic settlement mills from seven states (none of these firms were in Florida, although she interviewed at least one Florida personal injury attorney).  Together, those eight firms alone accounted for more than 7,000 personal injury claims each year, which is more than triple the number of claims resolved annually by juries in all of the nation’s federal courts.

How Personal Injury Claims Used To Be Resolved

In The Good Old Days Before Extensive Advertising Became The Norm

In the old days, Ms. Engstrom theorized, personal injury attorneys would spend a lot more time on their cases because they cared about their reputation among past clients and other lawyers (which were the primary methods for obtaining repeat clients before the advent of extensive attorney advertising).  So, according to Ms. Engstrom, those attorneys had a lower case load, worked closely with their clients, and fully prepared for trial. That meant that at least more serious cases (those with more serious injuries where fault was clear) more often settled for a fair value because the threat of trial by a prepared plaintiff’s lawyer forced the insurance companies to make reasonable offers (or suffer the uncertainty of trial).  In those days, past jury verdicts, combined with strong counsel arguments based on the individual facts of cases, often guided the parties toward fair personal injury settlement numbers.

As she explained:

“Quite critically, advertising relaxes the reputational imperative.  If an attorney obtains the vast majority of his business by paid advertising rather than referrals or word-of-mouth, he need not have a sterling reputation among fellow practitioners or past clients.  He requires only a big advertising budget and a steady supply of unsophisticated consumers from which to draw.”

What Did She Learn About Injury Settlement Mills?

Relatively New Business Model For Personal Injury Law Firms

These days, at least according to Ms. Engstrom’s compelling research, settlement mills, many of which spend an obscene fortune on advertising, handle about 90% of all personal injury cases nationwide (other smaller personal injury firms, she says, lie on a continuum in terms of case load).  In the cases handled by settlement mills, again according to her research, past settlement values, with little or no regard to the nuanced and detailed facts of any given case, dictate future settlement amounts.

According to her highly persuasive data, this trend has led to a much lower overall value in more serious & higher merit personal injury cases (see chart from her article below).  She also concluded that claims with less merit and/or lower value might fare better with a settlement mill.  But that was only because “traditional” lawyers could never afford to take those cases (because they could not spend a lot of time working on cases that would likely result in a very low settlement).  So, regarding low value or low merit personal injury cases, the relevant comparison was between clients representing themselves versus having at least some legal representation by a settlement mill.

alue Of Personal Injury Lawsuit

Settlement Mills and Insurance Companies

Often Have Shared  Goals In Personal Injury Cases

She also observed that settlement mills and insurance companies have essentially established a working norm or relationship, in which certainty of outcomes is important to both sides.  As a result, she reported, settlement mills often settled the largest value personal injury claims, meaning those with the greatest potential for a catastrophic verdict, at a significant discount.  She gave this hypothetical example and explanation:

“It is, after all, profitable for an insurer to overpay on a lot of debatable $2,000 claims if, every once in a while, it will only have to pay $50,000 to discharge what could be–in the hands of a conventional attorney–a $500,000 or $1 million judgment.”

In essence, she stated that the insurance companies were often willing to pay slightly more on numerous low value claims in exchange for their occasional windfall on high value claims.

Case Volume At Mills

Based on her research, in many of these high volume personal injury firms, the lawyers handled HUGE case loads (with numbers that truly boggle my mind).  She gave estimates of these firms handling anywhere between 200 and 700 cases per attorney, depending on the particular firm.  So that meant the attorneys either very rarely or never interacted with clients and simply did not practice traditional law.  Instead, they often valued cases based on formulas (e.g., X times medical bills).  So there really was no need for any attorney to learn the nuanced facts or applicable law regarding any given case (such as whether a particular client was credible, what witnesses reported, what documents revealed, the true extent and impact of a plaintiff’s pain and suffering, facts proving the defendant had greater fault, etc).  These detailed facts often significantly increase the value of a personal injury case (assuming a personal injury attorney makes a dedicated effort to uncover and highlight any facts and/or law that would help their client).  One attorney from one of the firms that she profiled amazingly admitted:

“Most of the cases I handled, I didn’t even know the facts of the case.”

Another former personal injury settlement mill attorney similarly remarked:

“We did nothing legal.”

Did The Clients Of These Settlement Mill Firms Actually Have An Attorney?

Handling A High Volume of Personal Injury LawsuitsOr Were They Getting Assembly Line Justice Provided Primarily By Non-Lawyer Case Managers?

Ms. Engstrom’s research concluded that case managers (rather than personal injury attorneys) handled almost every aspect of these cases (except at least one settlement mill firm she profiled had “litigation track” and “non-litigation track” cases, where the “litigation track” cases received more attention).  The bottom line was that two of the eight firms she profiled had never completed a trial in-house during the period she reviewed, while three of the other firms ranged from taking between .2 and .5% of cases to trial.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, according to her research, personal injury attorneys at these settlement mills performed very little work on their cases and prepared precious few of them for trial (the overall rate of cases that proceed to trial (in any practice area) is very low, hovering around 2%, but there is a huge difference between extensive trial preparation leading to settlement and no trial prep leading to a less favorable settlement; I do not know the extent of trial prep at these firms but the author concluded it was very low).

Minimal case preparation should absolutely NOT be normal, particularly for any case involving real injuries.  Serious, meritorious cases should be given an extensive amount of time and attention by an Orlando personal injury attorney.  But many clients did not know the difference, so these mills were able to achieve exponential growth despite providing sub-par representation for many of their highest value, most meritorious cases.

How Do Settlement Firms Get Away With This Sub Par Representation?

As I mentioned, clients often do not know what a personal injury lawyer should do.  Additionally, Ms. Engstrom reported that many of these firms shield their practices from other lawyers, with things like employment contracts preventing them from disclosing firm case management techniques.  Further, she noted, since they often do not file suit, settlement mill attorneys largely avoid the watchful eye of judges. Plus, she insisted that since settlement mills do not need to concern themselves with building a solid reputation (due to intense advertising campaigns virtually guaranteeing repeat business), even disgruntled former clients had little impact.

My Personal Experiences

I have worked for large defense firms representing primarily corporations.  We handled all cases individually and gave each of them lots of time and attention.  Paralegals organized files but attorneys carefully evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of all cases.  We did not have case managers.  I had never even heard of those until I left the big defense firms.  Around 2008, I interviewed for a large GA personal injury firm and was shocked when I was told the number of cases that I would handle (because I was 10000% certain that I could not do a good job on anywhere near that number of cases).  I was even more shocked when the hiring partner told me that I would rarely meet clients, maybe 15 minutes when they signed up (maybe), then again during the final settlement of the claim.  Without an attorney being intimately involved in handling the cases, I knew that many critically important details regarding each case would be overlooked.

Do Settlement Mills Exist In Orlando?

Or Anywhere In Florida?  If So, Which Firms Employ These Methods?

Factors To Consider When Hiring A Personal Injury AttorneyI do not have any first-hand knowledge of which, if any, Orlando personal injury attorneys or Florida firms might be handling cases in this way.  Further, I would never reveal my personal opinion or suspicions, particularly without reviewing known data, as Ms. Engstrom did.  Since I do not personally know the facts (as I have never worked for any firm meeting this description), I can only read and report the data collected in this article, same as you.

You’ll Have To Decide For Yourself

However, Ms. Engstrom’s article suggested that this method of handling cases was widespread nationally and took place at firms with certain dollar values for advertising budgets.  If you would like to know more about her conclusions, then I suggest you read her entire 63 page article.  She also wrote a companion piece with extra details, which you can find here. After reading this blog entry or her articles, but hopefully before hiring an Orlando personal injury attorney, you will have to decide for yourself.  I just warn, minimally, that you should try to hire a firm where an actual lawyer will be regularly working on your case.  I would consider it a very bad sign if an Orlando personal injury lawyer did not talk to you before you signed a retainer agreement, although other indicators might also sound an alarm bell in my mind.

Related Posts:

Tina’s Personal & Professional Background

How Personal Injury Settlement Mills Escape Scrutiny

Why You Should Never Deal With An Insurance Company Without An Attorney


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About the Author:

Tina Willis is a serious injury, accident & death lawyer, based in Orlando, Florida, although she accepts cases throughout the state of Florida, and in Georgia, where she is also licensed. She vigorously prosecutes serious injury and death cases caused by auto accidents, semi-truck accidents, slip and fall accidents, products & premises liability cases, as well as medical malpractice. Ms. Willis operates a boutique law firm from Orlando, Florida, focused on maintaining a reasonable case load so that she can provide personalized service to all of her clients. She spends a tremendous amount of time helping her clients understand how they can help increase the value of their cases, sometimes significantly. After graduating second in her class from Florida State University College of Law in 1995, Ms. Willis worked as an attorney for two large Atlanta defense firms, where she practiced excess insurer defense, and worked on countless multi-million dollar cases. Ms. Willis also worked as a law professor at Barry University. She has also recovered millions for her own accident clients. Ms. Willis has attained many impressive industry awards, including (1) being nominated as a “Ten Best Female Lawyers” in Florida, by the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys; (2) being selected as one of the “10 Best Florida Lawyers,” by the American Institute of Legal Counsel; (3) being selected as a National Trial Lawyers as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer; (4) being selected as a “10 Best” Client Satisfaction Award, from the American Institute of Personal Injury Attorneys; (5) being a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Club (fewer than 1% of attorneys nationwide are members); (6) being selected by Expertise.com as one of the 20 best Orlando medical malpractice lawyers; (7) being selected as a Number One Personal Injury, Car Accident & Wrongful Death Attorney By Orlando Style Magazine, based on client and other attorney ratings; (8) being selected as one of the “Three Best Rated” Orlando Accident Attorneys based on handpicked selection; (9) achieving a “superb” perfect “10.0” AVVO rating as an auto accident attorney (10) having many 5-star client reviews all over the Internet, and (11) being named one of Orlando’s “Ten Best” personal injury attorneys by Thumbtack rating system. Before you hire another Florida personal injury lawyer, you owe it to yourself to speak with Ms. Willis. Consultations and representation never cost you a penny until she wins your case.
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Comments

  1. Steven M. Sweat, Los Angeles lawyer  November 11, 2013

    Very informative post. I think a lot of consumers when they have an injury simply go to the law firm that has the most saturation of ads on various mediums. This is a terrible way to pick a quality lawyer! It would be much better to use a firm that actually represents clients rather than simply “processing files”!! Keep up the good work representing injured Floridians Tina.

    reply
    • tinalaw  November 15, 2013

      Thanks very much, Steven Sweat, for reading and commenting on my blog. I cannot tell you the honor of having such esteemed personal injury attorneys from around the country commenting on my website, particularly regarding such an important yet often misunderstood topic. If only clients had any idea that any firm relying almost exclusively or exclusively on non-lawyer file processors and/or formula calculators cannot possibly maximize the value of a legitimate, serious injury claim. I imagine that Los Angeles must be just as bad with ad saturation, which can almost erase the sound of smaller firms trying to compete with good old fashioned personalized service, careful & ongoing case analysis, and diligent advocacy.

      reply
  2. Luke Ciciliano  November 12, 2013

    Thanks for sharing this Tina. This is a common issue in the Las Vegas area as 4-5 of the large personal injury firms take an overwhelming part of the business. One of the first cases I handled in my practice was a fender bender in which the client had gone to one of the “mill” firms. The firm made one phone call to the adjuster and the adjuster disputed liability. The firm proceeded to drop the client telling the client that they did not deem it a “feasible” case. I was retained and shortly thereafter obtained a $10,000 settlement for the clients. If they had listed to the large mill firm they may have just gone on their way thinking they did not have a case. I think a good way for smaller PI firms to deal with the larger ones would be to work harder at networking together. Any thoughts?

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    • tinalaw  November 15, 2013

      Thanks so much Luke for sharing your thoughts (especially a great case example from your past work as a personal injury attorney). I think you hit upon a very important point, which is that small personal injury law firms nationwide, in my opinion, should stick together to both communicate this critical message and create a force of our own to counter the millions of dollars in advertising settlement mills can afford to spend. We might feel like we are each others’ competitors at times (especially in the same geographic region). But the reality is that we are the smallest of fish so our only chance of stemming the tide, in my view, is to stick together and try to help each other as much as possible.

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  3. Vincent  November 13, 2013

    I represented a woman in an insurance claim. She came to us because she was unhappy with the offer she got from one of these settlement mills. I won’t name names because if the glove doesn’t fit they might have a fit.
    Anyway, the insurance company had claimed an exclusion to coverage on her accident (which had left her permanently paralyzed) and were only offering the bare minimum of the policy to settle (10k IIRC) and the Mill recommended accepting the offer.

    I’m guessing no attorney ever looked at her case before me, because after putting in about half an hour of work I got her the full limit of the policy ($200k IIRC) from the insurance company.
    Any half-way decent lawyer would have found that the particular exclusion the insurance company was relying on had been outlawed in my state.

    reply
    • tinalaw  November 15, 2013

      That’s unbelievable Vincent! Why am I not surprised? I mean, let’s face it, a paralegal or case manager simply would not have the necessary understanding of insurance policy terms & exclusions, rules of evidence, rules of procedure, trial tactics, legal analysis & related arguments, and on and on. So, if a paralegal or case manager is handling a file, rather than an attorney, a long list of important issues cannot possibly be analyzed and then utilized to the client’s benefit. Your story is actually one of many similar stories that I’ve heard from other solo personal injury attorneys or small firm attorneys. I don’t care who says what, if an attorney is handling 200-700 cases at the same time, they cannot possibly give each client the careful attention they need and deserve. No way, no how, NOT humanly possible. I use a computer, but I cannot and do not function like one.

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  4. tinalaw  November 15, 2013

    Wow! Mr. Anthony Castelli, Ohio personal injury attorney extraordinaire, commenting on my blog makes my day! As I told Steven Sweat, I am extremely grateful and honored to have such well-respected personal injury attorneys sharing their additional insights on my website. I strongly believe that we must stick together to spread the word, or else settlement mills will continue to consume a greater and greater share of the market. Further, assuming the facts in Ms. Engstrom’s article are true, personal injury clients will continue to be treated like the numbers that they should never be. I can only hope that potential clients find our respective websites, carefully read our well-meaning advice, or watch our videos, and give us a call.

    Personally, I believe that my clients can feel the difference during the first consult, which only improves as my representation of them continues. I spend a lot of time consulting my clients on the phone, even pre-suit, to explain exactly how they can best maximize their claim, which includes ongoing and extensive help sorting through the maze of medical payment & treatment options, among many other important issues. Do you think settlement mill firms have those critical conversations? I haven’t personally worked in one but just do not think it would be humanly possible (not even close) with 200-700 cases, again assuming the accuracy of the facts summarized in Ms. Engstrom’s article. After watching several of your videos, I have no doubt that you take the same careful approach.

    reply

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