Many injured workers wonder whether it’s worth it to hire a lawyer for their workers’ compensation cases. On the one hand, it can be difficult and time-consuming for workers to fight an insurance company—and its lawyer—on their own. But, on the other hand, hiring a lawyer means giving up a portion of one's workers’ compensation benefits. We recently surveyed our readers who had work-related injuries or illnesses to find out whether they fared better with a lawyer, by how much, and whether they felt that hiring a lawyer was worth the cost.
How Does Having a Lawyer Affect the Amount of Compensation an Injured Worker Receives?
Injured workers who hired lawyers received significantly larger settlements or awards than those who didn’t. Workers who used lawyers received an average of $23,500 in compensation, while workers without lawyers received an average of only $18,000 in compensation. That's a 30% increase in benefits for those who hired a lawyer.
It makes sense that injured workers would benefit from the expertise of a workers’ compensation lawyer. Workers’ comp lawyers know how to value workers’ compensation cases, have experience negotiating with insurance companies, and are well equipped to present a persuasive case at a hearing. However, workers who have more serious injuries (and are thus entitled to higher compensation) may be more likely to hire lawyers; this may be a contributing factor to the higher settlement amounts as well. (For more on this topic, see Will a Workers’ Comp Lawyer Get Me More in Benefits?)
How Much Does a Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Cost?
Hiring a lawyer comes at a cost, although your lawyer can't collect if you don't win a settlement or award, and the lawyer's fee will come out of your workers' comp benefits. This is called a "contingency fee," and is a fixed percentage of the overall settlement or award that you receive. To protect injured workers, nearly all states place a cap on contingency fees in workers’ comp cases. (To learn more, see our article on negotiating attorneys’ fees in your workers’ comp case.)
According to our readers, an average of 15% was taken out of their settlements or awards for attorneys’ fees. Note that contingency fees vary by state, though: Some states may allow fees as high as 30%, while others may limit lawyers to taking just 10%.
Even when factoring in attorneys’ fees, however, it appears that workers with lawyers still ended up pocketing a larger sum than workers without lawyers. Going back to the numbers above, the average unrepresented worker received $18,000, while the average worker who was represented by a lawyer received $23,500. After taking out the average 15% in attorneys’ fees, the average unrepresented worker would be left with $15,300, while the average represented worker would be left with $20,000. That’s still a 31% increase in benefits for workers who hired lawyers.
How Does Having a Lawyer Affect the Duration of a Workers’ Compensation Case?
While you might expect that hiring a workers’ comp lawyer would speed up your case, the opposite is actually true. According to our survey, workers’ comp cases took nearly six months longer to conclude when a lawyer was involved. (On average, cases resolved in 17.9 months with a lawyer and 12.2 months without a lawyer.)
Because lawyers have more knowledge about the workers’ comp system and more tools at their disposal, it makes sense that they would add time to a workers’ comp case. When faced with an insurance company that refuses to budge on its position, the lawyer may take several actions, all of which take time. For example, the lawyer may send you to another doctor for a second opinion as to your degree of permanent disability; the lawyer may hire a vocational expert to prove that you can no longer hold any gainful employment due to your injury; or the lawyer may file an appeal or request a hearing in front of a workers’ comp judge. Even without these extra steps, it takes time for a lawyer to negotiate a settlement that's higher than what the insurance company is offering. While cases generally took longer with a lawyer, workers also received higher settlements or awards at the end of the day due to a lawyer's help (see above).
What Workers' Comp Cases Benefit From Having a Lawyer?
It appears that having a lawyer tends to improve settlement and award amounts across the board. But lawyers also seem to be particularly helpful in certain cases, including those that involved a denied claim, a disputed permanent disability rating, or a workers’ compensation hearing.
Workers With Denied Claims
Injured workers whose claims are initially denied by the insurance company face an uphill battle in their workers’ compensation cases. They first have to show that they are eligible for benefits, and then they have to argue for the proper amount of benefits. Denied claims are unfortunately very common. In fact, of all workers who received a settlement or award, 47% had received an initial denial of their workers' comp claim.
Hiring a lawyer to help with a denied claim can be especially helpful. Of workers whose claims were initially denied, those who hired a lawyer received 47% more in benefits than those who didn’t hire a lawyer. Injured workers who hired lawyers under these circumstances received an average of $18,200, whereas workers without lawyers received an average of $12,400.
Workers With Disputed Permanent Disability Ratings
One of the most hotly debated issues in workers’ compensation cases can be the worker’s permanent disability (PD) rating. Because a higher disability rating leads to higher benefit amounts, insurance companies often challenge the worker’s PD rating—for example, by sending the worker to an independent medical examination (IME) to be evaluated by a doctor of its own choosing. Having a lawyer can be particularly helpful in these cases, to challenge an IME doctor’s opinion if necessary and make sure that the worker’s PD rating isn’t understated.
According to our survey, having a lawyer made a big difference to readers whose disability ratings were disputed. Of those who eventually received a settlement or award, workers with disputed PD ratings received an average of $18,100 when they hired a lawyer, compared to only $2,600 when they didn’t hire a lawyer. That’s nearly a 600% increase in benefits.
The low compensation received by workers who didn’t hire lawyers in these cases could be due to any number of reasons. For example, IME doctors are known to downplay a worker’s disability, either by giving the worker a 0% PD rating or by significantly underestimating the degree of the worker’s permanent disability. These workers may have simply accepted the insurance company’s position without argument, or they may not have had the tools to properly challenge the PD rating.
Workers Who Attended Workers’ Compensation Hearings
A workers’ compensation hearing, while less formal than a trial in a court, requires detailed knowledge of workers’ compensation law and procedures. At the hearing, each side must present its best case by submitting evidence, questioning witnesses, and making legal arguments before a judge.
Because workers’ comp cases often settle before a formal hearing takes place, not every injured worker has a workers’ compensation hearing. But, when a hearing does take place, workers had much better outcomes when they were represented by a lawyer. Of workers who attended a hearing and received an award, workers with lawyers received an average of $27,400, while workers without lawyers received an average of $15,700.
Were Injured Workers Satisfied With Their Lawyers?
Workers were fairly evenly split when it came to satisfaction levels with their lawyers: 43% were either satisfied or very satisfied, 17% were neutral, and 40% were either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Our survey results showed a similar split when it came to satisfaction with the outcomes of their cases. But of the workers who were satisfied or very satisfied with their case outcomes, 69% had hired lawyers. This isn't too surprising given the higher settlements received by those who hired lawyers.
When asked for the one piece of advice that they would pass along to fellow workers, many of our readers recommended hiring a workers’ compensation lawyer at the start of the case. For those who were dissatisfied with their lawyers, many regretting hiring the first lawyer that they spoke to. Instead, they recommend interviewing multiple lawyers and selecting a lawyer who's the best fit for you and your case. (See What to Ask Before Hiring a Workers’ Comp Lawyer for help selecting the right lawyer.)
Consult With a Lawyer
While surveys are helpful in determining current trends and practices, they can’t predict the outcome of your workers’ compensation case. The amount that you receive for your case will depend on many factors, including whether you hire a lawyer, the lawyer you choose, nature and severity of your injury, and the state you were working in at the time of your injury. Talk to an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer to get a better idea of what you can expect in your case.