Judging from what I see on TV, there are probably not many outside the legal system who know for sure. Some of you may be surprised to hear that we don’t typically get involved in police chases, secret meetings with government agents, or fist fights with other attorneys, but it’s true!
Even when a PI attorney is not down at the courthouse actually putting on a trial, everything he or she does back at the office is still geared toward getting ready for trial. The vast majority of a PI attorney’s time is spent finding, reviewing, organizing, and memorizing evidence. This means hours of studying binders full of medical records; interviewing witnesses on the phone or in person; visiting accident scenes; taking pictures and videos; and reviewing expert reports. Much of this occurs before a lawsuit is even filed.
But just having a lot of good evidence is not enough. The PI attorney must also have a good case theory. Depending on the case, developing a good theory could involve hours of legal research and briefing. Sometimes the lawyer has to advance alternative legal theories which are at odds with each other. Like gathering evidence, legal research is a task that starts before a lawsuit is filed.
Once a PI attorney feels he or she has enough evidence to support at least one strong case theory, it is usually time to start private negotiations with the insurance company for the person or business that committed the wrong. A demand letter is written, and all supporting evidence is attached. This triggers a series of phone calls between the attorney and insurance adjuster.
Even though there is no judge or jury listening on the phone calls, it is the anticipated reaction of a judge or jury to the evidence that determines the value of a personal injury case. In other words, if the attorney and adjuster both believe that a judge or jury would side with the injured person, the case will settle for a higher value. The PI attorney’s skills at this stage involve persuading the adjuster to agree with his or her interpretation of the evidence.
If negotiations fail, a PI attorney often must file a lawsuit. Once suit is filed, there are court-imposed deadlines for exchanging information with the opposing party. A formal process called “discovery” starts, and the lawyer must prepare to ask and answer questions both in written form (“interrogatories) and orally (“deposition”). The PI attorney must also begin researching, writing, and arguing motions to get rulings from the court on what law will apply in the case and what evidence will be given to the jury.
When it is closer to the trial date, the PI attorney prepares opening and closing arguments, comes up with a strategy for jury selection, schedules witnesses, prepares documents to be admitted as evidence, and plans what questions to ask each witness. At this stage, the attorney’s attention is focused just on this trial, and all other cases are put aside unless there is an extreme emergency.
After the trial, when the verdict comes in, the PI attorney resumes work on other cases, and the cycle begin again. For the most part, a PI attorney’s life is filled with studying, writing, and persuading—and while it is not always as glamorous as what we see on the big screen, it can still have dramatic results. Just ask our clients!