DennisBeaverJuly 14, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“For years I’ve seen hundreds of commercials on TV for personal injury law firms, featuring some pretty mean- looking attorneys,” Penny’s email began. “The impression they made on me was that, as a group, these are very tough lawyers who take on insurance companies and obtain the best possible settlement for clients who have been hurt in an auto accident.

“Also, I felt that, since these were ads for lawyers, the commercials would have to meet high standards of ethics and honesty, and the attorneys would be of a very high caliber. Well, that’s what I thought. But was I going to be in for a real surprise. I was in a very serious auto accident about six months ago and hired one of the law firms whose ads I had seen many times.

“From the very beginning things went bad. Every time I called, no one knew a thing about my case. I could never speak with my lawyer. In fact, I never spoke with the same person twice. When my auto medical insurance refused to pay some bills, I got no help. And then, even before I had finished physical therapy, I got a call from some gal who could barely speak English, yelling, “You come in! You come now! Get money.

“I drove over and met with a secretary, not the lawyer, and she handed me documents and the check to sign. They had settled my case without discussing a thing with me. I was so upset. This accident put me in the hospital for three days, there were thousands of dollars in medical bills, $6,000 salary lost, and I only walked away with $1,500. After that I researched the law firm online. They have so many complaints. If there ever is a next time, I will use a real lawyer, not one of these con job outfits.

“Do you have any idea what my case was really worth?” our reader asked.

We sent her medical records, bills and the police report to three experienced personal injury lawyers, asking for a settlement range. Their figures: from $14,500 to $21,000.

Warning signs you are in the wrong “law” office

“We’ve all seen those commercials and your reader is absolutely right. They do create the impression of dedicated, competent lawyers who get top dollar for your case. But what you can’t see from a TV commercial is that so many of these law firms are what we call ‘settlement mills’,” Lawyer X tells “You and the Law.”

He is an experienced Florida personal injury attorney and has a terrific blog titled “I Do Not Want to Be Your Lawyer.”

The reason he requested that we not use his name is “because of the blog’s popularity, I would get too many phone calls, but all blog comments are answered.” He would indeed get more calls than any lawyer could handle, as the information on his blog is so valuable to anyone dealing with a personal injury case.

Lawyer X explained what a settlement mill is, and how to spot one.

“A settlement mill takes on way more cases than a normal law firm, dealing in volume, settling cases without regard for value or helping the client, but in simply getting themselves a fee. Often, cases will be handled exclusively by non-lawyer staff, as your reader discovered, which is illegal in most states. If they can’t settle, they will typically drop the client. To avoid a settlement mill, before signing a retainer, ask the lawyer these key questions:

1. How many active cases do you have right now?

2. When was the last time you went to trial?

“If they tell the truth, the number of cases is much higher than most lawyers could ever handle at one time.

“Ideally, for cases to be competently handled, a lawyer should have no more than 115 active personal injury cases. Social Security and Workers Comp are somewhat different, with generally much less activity, and therefore a lawyer who handles all three types — personal injury, Workers Comp and Social Security — could easily have a case load of around 150.

“If they say that each lawyer handles 200 to 300 or more personal injury cases, then in my opinion, it is impossible to diligently represent that many clients,” Lawyer X observes.

“As settlement mills rarely ever file a suit or take a case to trial, claims adjusters are free to offer thousands of dollars less than what cases are worth, knowing their offers will almost always be accepted.

“For all of these reasons, there is nothing to be gained in hiring a settlement mill, and a lot to lose,” Lawyer X warns.

We agree.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.