I just returned from the annual WSAJ convention in Skamania, Washington. Amongst a vast number of interesting talks, the issue of “making the ask” for money from a jury came up several times. In a discussion with a colleague during a break, we chatted about another instance where you have to make an ask – when you discuss claim value with your client for the first time.
This is a crucial aspect of handling a claim, since client expectations of a claim’s value can be wildly overestimated, sometimes leading to difficulty negotiating a fair settlement, and a dissatisfied client.
To resolve this issue early, it is important for the client to understand the real claim value, but approaching this topic in an effective way is challenging, because you are essentially asking them to value their own claim in a way very similar to what a jury does.
So, when do you make “The Ask”?
You should discuss this topic the first time you meet with a client, before they have even retained you.
This serves several important purposes. The first and probably most important is that this is information you client wants to know, perhaps more than any other aspect of a potential claim. They have no idea what their claim is worth, and do not know whether following through with their claim will be worth the effort.
So tell them immediately - it’s a valuable service to provide, even to people you later determine are not folks you can help.
Secondly, having this money conversation immediately gives you critical information about what your client’s expectations are. There is an old saying - the case you didn’t take is the best money you ever saved. Oftentimes, unrealistic expectations form the foundation of a difficult attorney-client relationship.
When you discuss money with your client from the beginning, you have an early preview of how they will evaluate their claim. If your client’s expectations do not match up with your evaluation of the claim, it is better to know that immediately and think twice about taking on a particular case.
Finally, it allows you to frame your client’s expectations from the very beginning. It can be a real hurdle to deal with a client who, several weeks after retaining you, says, “I looked at how much cases like mine are worth on the internet and…” There are so many ways for clients to search for claim value information on the internet that if you don’t guide them, some website of unknown accuracy will, and this inaccurate valuation of a claim will cause problems down the road.
So, we know we need to discuss money with the client right away – but how?
I discovered some time ago that the most effective way to bring up the discussion of claim value with a client is to use the common insurance policy amounts to help gently frame the claim value. In Washington State, the minimum for liability coverage is $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident, 25/50. The other insurance amounts you will see on Washington policies are 50/100, 100/300, and 250/500. So depending on the nature of the case, I can talk about the different outcomes depending on what coverage the defendant may have.
For instance, I might say “Well, we know that unless something changes dramatically in your medical condition, if the other driver has a $50K we should be ok, but if its only $25K we should talk about possibly making a UIM claim.” Here I just told my client that their claim is worth between $25K-$50K without having to hammer them over the head with it, or suggest that their injuries are not highly valued.
And I make sure to include in my answer that a change in their medical condition could change the value of the claim. I feel that this does a good job of calming the normal fears that the client will left financially exposed if their injuries require additional treatment or result in permanent disability.
I also use this opportunity to warn clients about the risks of overtreatment. Many things affect claim value, but for many types of soft tissue injuries the value of the claim does not change, even if the client underwent $4,000 in massage or $15,000 in chiropractic treatments. When they know how much a claim is worth, it helps put perspective on how much money they want to spend on so-called “soft treatment” knowing that much of that may ultimately be unreimbursed and come out of their own recovery.
People come to me after a collision seeking answers to the many questions that come up after they are hurt. One of the determinative questions is the value of their claim. I hope this quick piece has given you some tips on how to talk to your client about the true value of their case, and to empower them to make good decisions about how to handle their claim.