As a Central New York and Syracuse personal injury lawyer, I make my living, in large part, on contingency fees. This means that if I don’t win, I don’t get paid. If I do win, or settle for a sum of money, I get roughly a third of the money, or less, depending on the type of case.
New York personal injury lawyer contingency fees (as well as such contingency fees everywhere) have sometimes sparked controversy. In many countries they are not even allowed. For example, although our U.S. legal system has its roots in England, attorney contingency fees are not allowed over there. Here’s my (kind of) historic rendering of why they are allowed here but not there.
From the beginning of our new democratic nation, our founders believed courthouses should be accessable by the “people” to seek justice. This was not the case in the “old world”. There, civil courts were by and large places where the rich and their companies advanced their civil money claims, and where poor people appeared only to be evicted or sent to debtor jail.
Why didn’t low and modest-income earners use the courts to press their own civil money claims? The problem was, of course, that they could not afford lawyers. To add insult to injury, England had (and still has) a “winner takes all” rule. The loser pays the winner’s attorneys’ fees (as well as his own attorneys’ fees). This creates an overwhelming disincentive for a poor or modest-income earner to bring a claim, even if it is a perfectly valid one.
Enter the U.S. system of civil justice. Early Americans rejected England’s “winner take all” rule. Each side would be responsible for its own legal fees. More important, the contingency fee was born. Poor and modest income folks who had a valid personal injury or other valuable claim didn’t have to pay their lawyer ANY money as long as they could convince the lawyer to take a percentage of any winnings. This was, of course, risky for the lawyer. If the case was lost, he would have worked very hard for nothing. But if the case looked promising, a daring lawyer would take the plunge.
As a result of the contingency fee system, many New York personal injury victims, who would otherwise be denied access to justice because they cannot afford to pay an attorney, can use our courts to seek compensation for wrongs they had suffered.
But for the contingency fee, only about 3% of this Syracuse New York personal injury lawyer’s clients could ever get to the courthouse door. That’s about how many could afford to pay my hourly fee rate. Most my clients are of modest means. And being severely injured often cripples their earning capacity, so that even the fairly well off sometimes could not afford me.
So let’s hear it for the good’ol American contingency fee (insert “God bless America” music here). The contingency fee has served, and continues to serve, its purpose. It opens the courthouse doors to “the people”, regardless of wealth, here in New York and around the country. It is one of the most democratic of our cherished institutions. Long live the contingency fee!
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org I’d love to hear from you!
Michael G. Bersani, Esq.
michaels-smolak.com Central NY Personal Injury Lawyer Michaels & Smolak, P.C.