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How Personal Injury Settlement Mills Escape Scrutiny

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scrutiny of personal injury settlement millsThis is the second post in a series regarding personal injury settlement mill law firms.  In the first post, I provided a general overview of how settlement mill law firms operate.  Very generally speaking, settlement mills are personal injury law firms that advertise extensively and handle an enormous volume of claims per attorney (with an attorney to client ratio that makes it impossible for an attorney to perform any real legal work on the case).  

Since there was so much interest in the topic of settlement mill firms (even leading one personal injury attorney from another state to call and thank me for educating the public), I wanted to dig a little deeper.  As was true with first article, I am relying upon data collected by Stanford law professor Nora Engstrom.

Personal Injury Settlement Firms: Operating In The Shadows

For her research, Ms. Engstrom relied partly on disciplinary records, but also conducted phone interviews of attorneys and other staff working in large personal injury settlement mills.  One former settlement mill attorney with whom she spoke observed:

“Let me tell you, so much goes on in a law firm that settles cases, and it’s all out of the light of day.  If you don’t have a moral center, and you’re willing to slide and slip around, you can do all sorts of things because you’re never going to be caught.”

In this article, I want to explain why and how Ms. Enstrom concluded that personal injury settlement mills escape various forms of traditional attorney scrutiny, which means that many of their activities are never reviewed or examined by those who might cause them to change.

The Press Turns A Blind Eye

media not interested in personal injury settlement millsFirst, the overwhelming majority of personal injury settlements handled by large mill firms involve non-catastrophic injuries, and so involve lower value cases.  Typically, according to Ms. Engstrom’s research, large settlement mill firms rely almost exclusively on advertising to obtain thousands of “soft tissue” injury cases from car accidents (which means injuries that are relatively low in value).  Since those often involve damages that are lower than $8,000, they are unlikely to attract the attention of the press.   (Also, one of my attorney friends keenly observed that these firms spend so much on advertising that it would be hard to imagine press scrutiny even if otherwise justified.)

No Public Documents Or Court Scrutiny

Next, the huge national personal injury firms scrutinized by Ms. Engstrom rarely filed lawsuits.  The method of handling cases in these firms is unlike anything I have ever encountered in working with large defense firms and/or working with smaller firms as both a law clerk and attorney.  In conventional law firms, at least in my experience, attorneys primarily handle disputes by preparing and filing lawsuits.  They then seek information that would help their clients case through a process called “discovery,” during which attorneys do all sorts of research into both the law and facts, such as talking to witnesses, and reviewing documents and other evidence.  This helps them formulate an argument that can be useful in persuading the other side to settle and/or persuading a jury to award a higher verdict amount.

With settlement mill firms, however, their attorneys reported to Ms. Engstrom that they did very little if any of this work on the overwhelming majority of cases.  Instead, attorneys from settlement mill firms made these statements:

“They do not want you to practice conventional law.” [br] [br] It was “regular” practice” for their cases to “settle without any attorney involvement whatsoever.” [br] [br] “The volume is so big you lose count.”

Given this high volume of cases, the attorneys simply did not have nearly enough time to handle cases in the traditional way, so “processing” claims (as opposed to litigating them) were delegated to case managers, who generally collected medical records, negotiated claims, and convinced clients to accept highest and best offers before filing suit.   Since they often do not file suit, few, if any, public documents reflect the work of high volume personal injury settlement mill law firms.  For the same reason, the work product of settlement mill firms also seldom comes into contact with judges, who otherwise oversee many important aspects of the work of traditional attorneys.

Most Research Focuses On Data Obtained From Filed Lawsuits

Ms. Engstrom noted that most important studies of personal injury law firms, such as other law review articles, focus on data obtained from filed lawsuits.  Her research was unique in this respect, since she reviewed disciplinary records (which only exist for those firms who have been caught breaking rules) and telephone interviews with guarantees of anonymity.

Code Of Silence

code of silence among personal injury settlement mill attorneysAttorneys working in these firms may not want to share how they handle cases because of concerns about ethical violations (which are rules that govern attorneys governed and enforced by various state bar associations, and which can lead to sanctions including disbarment).  Additionally, Ms. Engstrom noted that these firms have a financial interest in protecting their methods of doing business, so that rival law firms cannot replicate their money-making methods.  Further, at least one huge mill firm reportedly required their associates to sign “confidentiality” agreements as a condition of employment (which is highly unusual–I have never been asked to sign such a thing).

Fellow Attorneys Cannot See What Is Happening

There is an ethical canon that requires fellow attorneys to report ethical violations of other attorneys.  In this sense, the practice of law is supposed to be “self-policing.”  However, Ms. Engstrom’s research showed that most plaintiffs’ lawyers do not refer their cases to settlement mills.  So those attorneys are not likely to be in a position to observe any problematic behavior (when working as a referring attorney, for example).  Additionally, since most insurance companies only hire lawyers when lawsuits are filed, settlement mill negotiators typically deal with adjusters, rather than defense attorneys.  Adjusters do not have the same ethical obligations–meaning they have no duty to expose any ethical violations they might encounter. So, yet again, no one who might know there is a problem, and care, is watching most of what happens in a settlement mill personal injury law firm.

Clients Have No Idea

Ms. Engstrom’s research revealed that most clients of these firms did not file bar grievances or malpractice complaints, possibly because, she surmised, they had no way of judging whether they might have obtained a higher recovery had they hired more conventional counsel.  Additionally, many clients of settlement mills firms belong to historically disadvantaged cultural groups, who may never have had an attorney, so do not know what an attorney-client relationship should feel like.

Grievances Are Rarely Publicized

Bar grievances are rarely made public because only about 3% of grievances lead to formal charges.  Additionally, many states predominately apply private discipline, which sometimes leads to confidential testimony, inaccessible to the masses.

This Isn’t Right!

high volume settlement of personal injury claims is wrongBefore I started handling personal injury cases, I had no idea that there were firms which handled volume claims without attorney involvement.  Indeed, I cannot even imagine this sort of approach.  In more conventional firms, attorneys handle cases, speak with clients, and keep their case volume to a level where they have time to devote to each and every case.  Without attorney involvement, the value of a personal injury claim cannot possibly be maximized.

If you have any question about a personal injury or car accident case, then please call me.  I accept cases throughout Florida and Georgia, including Orlando (where my office is located), Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Valdosta, Macon, and all points above and below.  I do not accept every case.  However, if I accept yours, you can trust that I will do my best to maximize the value of your ultimate settlement or verdict.

Related Posts:

General Overview Of High Volume Personal Injury Settlement Mills

Never Handle Your Case Against 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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  1. Luke Ciciliano  December 17, 2013

    Thanks for sharing Tina. This is certainly information that the average consumer needs to be aware of when they hear the catchy jingles that these firms tend to have in their ads. Due to a lack of public discussion on this issue, people tend to have no idea as you mention.

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