Personal injury law: area of practice
Personal injury (PI) solicitors working for claimants attempt to obtain compensation for clients after they sustain an injury; solicitors working for defendants either attempt to refute the claim or to negotiate the amount of compensation required. Solicitors working for a claimant may also ensure that in cases where a client lacks capacity – some brain-damaged patients, for example – that the money is protected for his or her use.
This area of practice requires good mathematical skills, as not only do solicitors on both sides need to calculate appropriate level of compensations but also to forecast future needs. For example, if the injured party needs adapted accommodation, rehabilitation or is unlikely to work for a period of time, the costs/losses will need to be considered.
Specialists and generalists
Larger firms typically divide personal injury work across specialist teams: for example, motor (car, push-bike and motorbike accidents); catastrophic injuries; and mixed liability (a huge range of cases from slips and trips to employer liability claims – such as work-related back injuries – and disease claims – such as asbestos, repetitive strain injury and vibration white finger). Smaller firms may have a general personal injury department, rather than teams of specialists. The value of cases can range from hundreds to millions of pounds.
Claimant clients are individuals from all walks of life. Our firm does a great deal of trade union-backed work, so we see a lot of employees. Defendant clients are often employers or organisations, such as local authorities, although in the case of car accidents they may be individuals.
Claimant solicitors initially speak or meet with clients to ascertain if they have a claim and how they would fund it (for example, via a trade union, insurance or no-win-no-fee arrangement). The claimant’s solicitor will ascertain the date of the accident and approximate the value at the initial stage. Modest value claims (up to £25,000) where the accident was on or after 31 July 2013 are dealt with on a portal. The portal was introduced in 2013 to speed up the settlement of claims by introducing strict timescales and legal fees. Larger value and some disease claims are dealt with outside this scheme. This would involve the claimant’s solicitor writing to the defendant and providing a brief outline of the facts/nature of the injuries and losses and setting out the allegations of negligence/breaches of statutory duty. The defendant then has three months and 21 days to investigate and reply, stating whether they admit fault. If fault isn’t admitted, solicitors on both sides will then go about gathering evidence and witness statements. 95% of the work is office based.
The length of cases varies. A routine car accident case could take four to six months, but more complex cases can continue for years – especially when the full extent of damage cannot be ascertained quickly. Sometimes things move quite slowly on a case and this can be frustrating. However, it is satisfying being able to help someone who has had their life turned upside down.
Workloads in personal injury are stable; it is possible to work a standard nine-to-five-thirty day, although solicitors may work longer hours depending on the progress on a case. Individual case handlers have responsibility for their own cases.
Personal injury work seems to be constantly in demand and is quite well protected from economic fluctuations. There wasn’t a noticeable increase or decrease in work during the recession in my department.
As a trainee
Trainees often talk to or meet with clients, attend conferences with barristers and observe barristers in court. They are likely to draft witness statements and prepare court papers under supervision. They also write letters and transcripts of evidence, and complete research tasks.
Types of law practised
Good PI solicitors have…
- Initiative and dexterity of thought: cases are rarely straightforward.
- Compassion and empathy.
- A good mathematical, analytical brain.
- An ability to thrive under pressure.
SARAH CUNLIFFE is an associate in the personal injury mixed liability team at ACCESS LEGAL from SHOOSMITHS. She graduated with a degree in law from Nene College, now the University College of Northampton, in 1998.