How to Become a Personal Injury Lawyer After Working in Defense Law
By lawyer and ZLG partner Neil Solomon
When someone decides to become a lawyer, they are immediately faced with two key decisions: where to attend law school and which type of law to practice. Some people in my year knew what they wanted to do post-graduation as early as their first law school class. For others, it’s a matter of where you can land a job first.
Because I am currently a partner in a nationwide personal injury firm, many people assume that I was one of those students in my class who lasered in on a particular practice area right out of the gate. I wasn’t one of those people. I graduated from law school and faced a tough legal job market. I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer, so that cut my choices in half. But I was also facing a mountain of student loans, so I was fortunate to land a job, period, at a mainly defense firm.
Also, my law school didn’t exactly point me toward plaintiff’s personal injury law. In fact, most law schools usually don’t. Each semester, I would look at the job board listing all the Big Law and corporate firms coming to campus to conduct interviews, and I would reach out to mainly commercial litigation firms. Personal injury law firms didn’t really enter the equation, and I didn’t have many opportunities to see the incredible work injury lawyers do for their clients.
While I was grateful for the opportunity to work on the defense side, after a few years, I made the switch to plaintiff law because I wanted to be on the other side of the “v.” I wanted to help injured clients who couldn’t fight for themselves. While this transition to a different area of the law was ultimately successful, it came with several important lessons. If you are considering changing practice areas from defense to plaintiff work, or another type of law, take some time to weigh your options. There are several things to consider when making the switch.
The Truth About Personal Injury Law
When it comes time to apply for jobs, a lot of law students avoid applying for personal injury positions because they either received other offers or believe certain stereotypes about the profession. Many in academia and people in the community carry a bias towards personal injury work. What many law schools neglect to do, however, is talk about how personal injury lawyers contribute to their communities.
As a personal injury lawyer, it’s my job to help people who are probably facing one of the worst times of their lives. Every day is an opportunity to meet someone new who needs my help. I get to know the people in my community, and I become a trusted resource for their legal needs.
Beyond that, I get to know clients on a personal level as I hear about their jobs, their families, and their day-to-day lives. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding, and law school tends to leave a lot of these experiences out. Lawyers and law students who are interested in helping people throughout their career should consider talking with a personal injury lawyer about what they do.
Making the Switch
When I was working as an insurance defense lawyer, I had lunch with several plaintiff personal injury lawyers who suggested that I switch to the plaintiff side. For me, the decision to transition to plaintiff law hinged on helping people rather than the money. As an insurance defense lawyer, my job was to walk into a room and prove that a person making a claim did not deserve compensation for their injuries. They were either at fault for their injuries or they weren’t as hurt as they were claiming. In short, my job is to call that person a liar. I realized I would feel much better about myself if I were advocating for the party harmed and not some soulless insurance company.
Thanks to my background, I found that on the plaintiff’s side I was uniquely equipped to approach my client’s cases with the perspective of an insurance adjuster or defense attorney in mind. Still, I had to abandon some of the biases that I previously carried about personal injury lawyers and their clients. Also, instead of looking at why a fact or an angle could be wrong, I had to shift my focus on why it could be right. I had to really listen to my clients and build their story rather than deconstruct it.
My insurance background also helped me think more critically about each case I handled. As a personal injury lawyer, you may not be able to represent every client who walks into your office. You must examine each case with a critical eye and a degree of skepticism. If the case overcomes your scrutiny, then it may be worth pursuing.
Questions to Ask Before Changing Practice Areas
Deciding to practice a different type of law or switch to personal injury law is a major decision in one’s career and should not be taken lightly. A lot of lawyers are tempted to jump ship when they feel burned out or frustrated with a particular case but doing so requires a lot of thought and some honest conversations. Before deciding to change your practice — or even add a practice area to your firm — ask these important questions:
- Are you unhappy practicing ______________ law?
Don’t base your answer on a single day or even a single instance. Instead, gauge your mood over time. Did you used to look forward to coming to work at some point? Are you now consistently disgruntled with your day-to-day priorities? If you always feel unhappy in your practice, it may be time to consider other opportunities.
- Do you have evidence to suggest that another practice area would be more fulfilling?
If you are interested in another practice area, talk with people who do the work you are interested in doing. If you are looking for a higher salary, do these lawyers earn more each year? If you are looking to get more emotionally involved in a client’s cause, do these attorneys feel that way when they work on specific types of cases? What “proof” do you have that another avenue is better for you?
- Are you referring a lot of potential clients to other firms?
If you currently practice on the defense side but it seems like you are always referring cases to people in your personal injury network, take note. This could be an indicator of the health of a potential client base. Having several clients with one type of case who need help from other lawyers could be a sign that you’re ready to spread your wings.
- Are you ready to feel like a “new” lawyer again?
Be very honest with yourself – are you comfortable with feeling like a novice again? Entering a new practice area will be a huge adjustment, especially if you’ve practiced in a certain area of law for a long time. If you think you can put your pride and ego aside for several months while you learn about another specialty, then you may be ready to shift.
Tips for Making the Switch
Once you’ve asked yourself the hard questions and you’ve officially decided to change practice areas, the next question on your mind is likely, “What’s next?” Be confident in your decision and keep an open mind as you decide to move forward. Here are a few specific pieces of advice as you enter a new practice area:
- Study, study, study.
As you transition to a new practice area, you’re going to find that there’s a lot you don’t know. Ask experienced lawyers in your new field for CLEs, webinars, books, and other resources that you can reference as you learn the ropes. For me, Rules of the Road, a popular guide for personal injury lawyers, and Reptile Theory were immensely helpful. Think outside of the box to find some of the best tools.
- Join professional, practice area-specific organizations.
Speaking of resources, now is the time to join professional groups of lawyers in your new specialty. Fortunately, the personal injury community is very generous with their time and expertise, and I am always able to lean on my network for advice. One thing I found particularly helpful was joining the trial lawyer association in my state. Once I joined, I gained access to members-only listservers filled with experienced lawyers who were willing and able to answer virtually every question I asked. Additionally, if you are joining a larger firm, check to see if they have an advice forum or channel where you can seek help from your new colleagues.
- Plan for a new payment schedule.
If you are transitioning from defense work to plaintiff law, or are adjusting to another type of fee schedule, be prepared to change your expectations. It can be scary to go from a steady paycheck at a defense firm to earning on a contingency fee basis. If you are starting your own personal injury practice, consider finding some hourly work to supplement your income or prepare to have the cash flow to withstand a case’s life cycle before receiving payment.
- Bring your life experiences to the table.
As an insurance defense attorney, I consulted primarily with insurance company personnel. As a personal injury lawyer, I meet with clients from all walks of life. Some of the most memorable initial client meetings I’ve had took place in a client’s living room. When I meet with clients, I meet them where they are with empathy and understanding. I approach their cases as a lawyer, as a husband, and as a father.
If leaving one area of the law for another were easy, more people would do it. However, with the right research and preparation, finding a more rewarding practice area is possible. If you are thinking about changing your practice, be honest with yourself and what you want out of your career. If you commit to a change fully and rely on the right resources, you can make a successful, life-changing switch.
Neil Solomon is a partner and trial lawyer at Zinda Law Group, a nationally recognized personal injury firm. He has been recognized as a Super Lawyers Rising Star and was recently admitted into the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum, one of the most prestigious groups of trial lawyers in the country, and membership is limited to lawyers who have won multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements. You can listen to more of Neil’s story on The Effective Lawyer podcast.