I was recently asked by a bright-eyed young scholar, “How can I become a personal injury attorney?” And my very first thought was, “It’s not about HOW, but about WHY.” And, by that, I do not mean the cynical twist, which goes something like, “Why in the world would you want to be a personal injury attorney?” I mean that the WHY is more important than the HOW.

Personal injury attorneys have a bad rap… for good reason. If you ask me, there is a much higher percentage of bad personal injury attorneys than in any other specialty of law. Sadly, this profession seems to attract people who like marketing and money more than they like people. Which is why I say that the WHY is more important than the HOW.

My Path to Personal Injury

Sturm College Of Law, Denver

Scott’s law school. Photo by Cooopersmith – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia

I went to law school to be an advocate. Originally, I thought I would be advocating for civil rights or for the environment. But I quickly realized that progress in those areas is incredibly slow and that was deeply frustrating to me. I wanted to see change, make an impact, help people.

But I was also still pretty wet behind the ears and I knew I needed experience in the inner workings of law fundamentals. So, I took a job at an insurance defense firm. (Yes, I started out working for the bad guys who make my life so hard today as a personal injury attorney; but that has actually served me well in the long run.) At this firm, I learned how to take depositions, run trials, stand before a judge, put a solid case together. As it turns out, those are all very important skills for a personal injury attorney to possess.

However, while I was defending these giant insurance companies, I started to feel really badly for the people I was defending against – many of whom were victims of car accidents just trying to get the money they were owed by their own insurance company or from the negligent driver’s insurance company. It was my job to fight against their rights! I hated that.

This leads me to another WHY: To be a good personal injury attorney, you need to have a soft spot for the underdog. I have come to see this specialty of the law as my calling, my vocation.

You Also Have to Be Curious

Denver personal injury attorney Scott O'Sullivan

A young Scott.

In order to be a good personal injury attorney, I would argue that you also have to be a continuous learner in areas that you might think have nothing to do with the law. For example, you have to be very curious and interested in medicine and biology. I treat each of my cases as an opportunity to learn about the human body, injuries to specific areas of the body, how the body heals, the mechanical nature of injuries, the right doctors to treat certain injuries, the difference between acute and chronic injuries, and the long-term care requirements for specific injuries.

Personal injury attorneys who do not care about such things will inevitably neglect their clients’ needs. If I get a call from a client and they say, “I’m done with treatment,” I will ask questions, pry into their condition, inquire about their pain levels. I want to be absolutely sure that my clients are on the best path to recovery available to them. Other personal injury attorneys simply say, “OK then! Let’s find a settlement for you!” And, because they do not fully understand their clients’ needs, they settle for less than they should.

I guess the best way to put it is this: You can’t be a good personal injury attorney without sincere and deep empathy for the people you are helping. You must care about them in order to advocate properly for them.

A Few HOWs

But, of course, there are some important HOWs to consider when becoming a personal injury attorney. I believe you should have a background in defense and learn how to do this on someone else’s dime (like I learned while working for the insurance companies). You should not graduate from law school and put your own shingle out. You will simply be unable to provide adequate representation to your clients.

Also, commit yourself to being a continuous learner as well as a good networker. Attend legal seminars and join the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association. I work with the Association to help pass laws that support victims’ rights. You cannot be a passive attorney.

Quite honestly – and I see this more clearly now with 22 years of practice under my belt – you need experience to be at the top of your game. I highly recommend that new personal injury attorneys practice with ethical, passionate mentors first.

With the right motivation and passion for helping others, this can be a very rewarding and satisfying career!