It sounds like a fairly obvious question, and it’s often one that a client will ask at the first meeting with a lawyer. But in most situations, a lawyer who claims to know the answer at that point is lying—or at least trying to attract the client with an optimistic answer. And at best, the lawyer is guessing.
For a number of reasons, questions about value cannot be answered with any degree of accuracy very early on in the case. When a client relates his story to the lawyer, that story is only a tiny fraction of the information necessary for the lawyer to make a knowledgeable evaluation. Some clients omit information that they don’t realize is important. Some clients simply aren’t aware of important facts. And, yes, some clients deliberately hide facts to make their cases look more attractive to the lawyer. At best, the client only knows one side of the story.
The other side of the story—the defendant’s side—may dramatically affect the value of the case, in either a positive or a negative way. And that side of the story is usually only available after a lawsuit is filed. Sometimes that information makes the case stronger for the victim, and sometimes it makes the case weaker—but either way, it affects the value of the case. The development of that information–and having the knowledge and the resources to find and use it–are some of the most important things a lawyer does. Company policies, emails and other computer data, security videos, phone messages, and independent witnesses are some examples of the many types of evidence lawyers may look for.
Other factors that may not be immediately apparent also affect a case’s value. How will the client and her family present as witnesses? How about the defendant or its employees? Will the client make a good or a poor recovery from a recent injury? How much insurance coverage is available? Does the defendant want to settle the case—or is he adamant that the case be vigorously defended?
A related question is whether a case will settle or go to trial. For the same reasons, an accurate answer is virtually impossible at the beginning of the case. A lawyer may be able to provide some general statistics—for example, that 80% of similar cases settle before trial—but without a full picture of both sides of the case, it is very difficult even for an experienced lawyer to predict the outcome for a specific case.
The same considerations make it dangerous for clients to compare their cases to other cases that may be reported in the news or described by family and friends. Even cases that sound similar have unique facts that may make one worth much more or much less than another. Many times when you read about a settlement or jury verdict that seems very large, there is a reason behind the amount that may not be obvious from the news story.
The take-home message for clients: questions about the value of your case are perfectly appropriate to ask your lawyer, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get a terribly precise answer right away. And beware of using information from other sources–even well-meaning friends and family–to make your own assessment. You and your case are unique–and you deserve to be treated that way.