By Jesse Froehling
Originally published in the April 2019 issue of Trial News, the monthly newspaper of the Washington State Association for Justice.
Shortly after I sign a fee agreement with a new client, I generally send that person a form letter. The purpose of that letter is to familiarize the new client – most of whom have had zero experience with the legal system – with the ins and outs of attorney-client privilege, sending and receiving discovery, conducting depositions, dos and don’ts during litigation, settlement, and, if it gets that far, trial. My old letter was ten pages long. My current letter is four pages long. I am 99 percent sure that the last person who actually read the letter was me when I wrote it.
It was that observation that led me to call Greg Munro, the co-author (along with Ned Good) of The Lawsuit Guide, and the guy who taught my Pretrial Procedure class during my 1L year at the University of Montana. "Nothing against the book," I prefaced, "but do you seriously think anyone will ever actually read the thing?"
Before I get to his answer, first some context. The purpose of the book is to orient the client to the anatomy of a personal injury case. Ostensibly, it does just that. The book is 200 pages of lay language explaining in intricate detail everything between the moments following a client’s injury to the appeal when the trial is over. It tracks treatment, insurance coverage, demands, complaints, discovery, depositions, witnesses, motions, trials, post-trial briefings, appeals, and all the stuff in between. (My personal favorite section, "Insurance Defense Lawyers," reminds us that "You must always remember that, regardless of how friendly and courteous the defense lawyers are, their mission is to defeat your claim[.]") It even provides a glossary to translate our inevitable legalese.
To that end, the authors have included a helpful preliminary section, entitled "The Purpose of This Book." The book, they write, "is designed to serve as a handbook for you and your family as you pursue your personal injury claim or a wrongful death claim for a family member." Among the questions it seeks to answer: How will we pay the surgery and hospital bills? Will we have to testify? Does our insurance pay?
"I don’t think many clients ever actually read the whole book," Munro says, "but you have to remember that one thing they feel a lot of is fear." I try to remember how I felt, sitting in Professor Munro’s class, barely a week into law school, while scratching my head and wondering what kind of daughter would ever sue her own mother for falling off her porch while home for Thanksgiving. How much worse to actually be that daughter, trusting a lawyer you barely know when they tell you, "Don’t worry. This is all about insurance." And then that lawyer explains to you for the umpteenth time the confines of ER 411. Munro’s hope is that when that daughter awakens in the middle of the night, weighing her relationship with her mother against her own towering medical bills, the book provides some comfort, or at least some familiarity.
Although it’s doubtful that any personal injury attorney worth their salt will learn anything new in this book, Munro hopes that it can also act as a primer for an attorney new to the PI practice. And to that end, it works. If you’re like me, you spent hours as a baby lawyer mucking through the EAGLE archive looking for the answers to questions you knew were too stupid to ask. Many of the answers to those questions are in this book: pp. 76-79, "Sources of Insurance"; pp. 124-125, "Preparing for Your Deposition"; p. 187, "Collateral Source Rule." I wish I had it at the beginning of my career.
The real target market, however, is you and I. Munro has three goals for the PI lawyers in the midst of their practice: first, it allows us to say, "You have your deposition coming up, go read pages 124-125." And how many of us have spent countless hours trying to explain the interplay between third-party insurance, UIM coverage, a PIP policy, and health insurance to a client who, in the end, just wants their bills paid? To that end, Munro hopes this book is a small time-saver for lawyers with clients who, understandably, have a mountain of questions and matching anxiety. As I read the book, I found myself, on numerous occasions, nodding along and thinking, that’s exactly how I should explain it. Or, I could just give the client the book and skip the middleman.
Which brings me to goal number two: at $24.95, it’s cheap enough to be purchased in bulk, so that attorneys may pass it out to all new clients. The latter goal, it turns out, was rather daunting. Munro and Good shopped the book around for a long time looking for a publisher that would distribute it for less than the exorbitant gouging most PI books require. They knew that if we had to shell out 200 bucks for the book, it would be far less likely to land in the hands of the desperate new client who needs it most.
Finally, Munro hopes the book generates a small amount of goodwill. I’ll submit that all but the most established of us perform an awkward dance upon meeting a new client. They know they’re supposed to trust us, but every ambulance-chasing horror story they’ve ever heard keeps bubbling up. We want to let them tell their story, but also keep them from spiraling into pits of anxiety. They’re not here in our office because they want to be. They’re sitting here because they have no other choice. And usually, they’re not happy about it. Munro recognizes that trust is at its most delicate at that moment. He hopes that, in a small way, this book helps that relationship grow. We can give the book to a new client and say, "Here’s a small gift from our law firm to you. I hope it helps as we walk this path together."
I have no idea whether that’s what will happen. But I plan to give it to the next person I agree to help. I recommend you do too.
Jesse Froehling is an EAGLE member, practicing personal injury and civil rights law at Ridgeline Law Group in Tacoma. He is a member of the Trial News editorial board.