If you need a lawyer to help you with your workers' comp case, you may be able to find a lawyer at a legal aid office, but you will still likely have to pay the standard workers' comp fees in your state. Some legal aid offices don't handle workers' comp cases, since the fee limits in workers' comp cases usually makes hiring a lawyer affordable for most people. Other legal aid offices, as well as some law schools, may offer injured worker clinics where you can get your questions answered for free, but the lawyer or law students there won't be able to help you with your case.
In all states, lawyers are limited to getting 10% to 20% of the cash benefits a worker wins in a workers' comp settlement or court award. And, if the worker doesn't win benefits, the lawyer doesn't get paid. To further protect injured workers, the workers' comp division, appeals board, or a judge must approve the attorneys' fee as reasonable before the lawyer gets paid.
In fact, because of these stringent rules, it can sometimes be hard to find a workers' comp attorney to take your case if the amount of permanent disability benefits you stand to receive is low or if you're just seeking reimbursement of medical costs from the insurance company. A workers' comp attorney has to take on a lot of cases with potential for winning a high amount of benefits to be able to make a good living. For more information, see our article on how much workers' compensation lawyers charge.
It's better to pay more for an attorney with a lot of experience in workers' comp cases than less for an attorney at a legal aid office without much experience. The field of workers' comp, and especially calculating what an injured worker's compensation should be, is very complicated and takes years of experience to learn. The workers' comp settlement or award that an experienced workers' comp lawyer is usually able to win for you is almost always higher than what an injured worker can negotiate or win on their own, and usually more than makes up for the attorney's fee. When you contact potential lawyers, ask them if they are a certified specialist in workers' comp or a member of their state bar's workers' comp division.
Your workers' comp attorney may have to pay for the copying and mailing of your medical and work records, or even arrange for a physical or psychological examination. However ever much you've agreed to pay for attorneys' fees, you must pay these costs of these items separately from attorneys' fees. Often a workers' attorney will cover these costs up front and ask you to reimburse him or her when you win your case, or sometimes even if you don't. But some attorneys ask you to cover these costs in advance. If you pay in advance, the lawyer has to hold the money in trust until it is used. However, most good workers' comp attorneys usually front these costs for their clients.
Before you hire a workers' comp lawyer, ask what types of out-of-pocket expenses you'll be charged in addition to the lawyer's fee (especially whether you'll be charged for the attorney's travel costs), how much these expenses might be, and whether you have to pay them if you lose the case. Try to negotiate an agreement where you don't have to pay the charges if you lose your case.
In most states, including California, if you meet or talk with a workers' compensation lawyer to discuss your case, your initial consultation must be free.