Why Are Some Cases Not Accepted by an Attorney?

When a person or an organization seeks an attorney, they often pay by the hour for legal services. Traditionally, that is how contract, real estate, business, estate planning, and a wide range of other legal matters are handled. The client typically tries to find the best attorney for the work, and pays monthly for the time of the attorney and their staff, no matter what the outcome (“win, lose, or draw”). Generally, if the attorney feels they can work with the client, they do not have a conflict of interest, the legal matter is within the scope of their practice, and the attorney has the time to devote to the client, the attorney will accept the client or case.

An injured person rarely has the resources to hire an attorney by the hour.  After an injury, a person may be facing staggering medical bills and be unable to work to pay even basic expenses.  Contingent attorney fees are intended to let ordinary citizens retain even highly qualified attorneys for some cases even though the injured person does not have the means to pay for legal services.  This is because a contingent fee attorney is paid only at the end of the case, and only as a percentage of any recovery. 

When an injured person seeks out an attorney to work on a contingent fee basis, the attorney still needs to feel they can work with the client, they still must not have a conflict of interest, the legal matter still needs to be within the scope of their practice, and the attorney still must believe they have the time to devote to the client and their case. But with contingent fee work, any attorney’s decision to accept any given case is a judgment call.

Contingent fee attorneys are generally trying to figure out if they have a reasonable chance of helping someone. Sometimes a single personal injury case may require hundreds or even thousands of hours of legal work over a period of years. While no one can accurately predict the future of any case, before starting, a contingent fee attorney should be considering the costs and risks of the potential case and the likelihood of success. These attorneys should also be thinking whether they have the personal interest in the case that would make sense devoting that kind of time, and whether they have the personal legal knowledge, skills, and experience truly needed to be successful.

Contingent fee cases are the only legal work where the attorney is also expected to risk their own money on behalf of a client who not long ago was typically a complete stranger. The attorney may borrow money from a bank to advance the costs of personal injury litigation. Those costs can be high, especially if a case gets close to trial or is tried. A substantial investment may be needed to win a case against a multi-billion dollar insurance company on the other side that has the resources to fight hard and drag a case out. At the end of the case, the attorney has to pay the bank back for those costs advanced, no matter if the case is a win, lose, or a draw.

The combined risks that the attorney may never be paid for their time and work, and that they may need to pay for case costs that are never reimbursed, tends to make attorneys who work on a contingent fee realistic about cases. While with the benefit of hindsight they may not always be right about a case, these attorneys need to be reasonably good at figuring out in advance which people they can likely help. They need to consider whether the law and the facts allow the claim; whether there were safety rules that were violated that should be enforced; where a case might be brought and how that might affect the outcome; how a judge and jury might view the case, the person bringing the claim, and the defendant(s); the likely costs of prosecuting the case in relationship to the likely results; and many other factors that may affect the outcome of the case. We have seen many cases declined by one attorney and later accepted by another, sometimes with a successful outcome and sometimes otherwise. Declining someone’s potential case is one of the unpleasant parts of an attorney’s job, but no one attorney can help everyone, nor should they try to.