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WASHINGTON TODAY: Sometimes You Don’t Really Need a Lawyer

LAURIE ASSEODecember 6, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When Marylyn Genovese was hurt in a car accident, two lawyers turned down the job of filing her injury claim. The case was too complicated because she had other health problems, they said.

``At that point I just decided to do it myself,″ Genovese said. And she proved something many Americans do not know: For some relatively small legal matters, you do not necessarily need a lawyer’s help.

Genovese negotiated a total $25,000 insurance settlement instead of the $6,500 to $7,500 the lawyers said her neck and back injuries were worth.

When she told one of them, ``He was really impressed. He said I should be an attorney,″ said Genovese of Palo Alto, Calif.

Genovese had some help in getting payment. She followed the advice of a self-help legal guide, ``How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim,″ published by Nolo Press of Berkeley, Calif.

The book explains how to file and negotiate a personal-injury claim with the insurance company for the person believed to be at fault. It does not recommend going without a lawyer in claims involving major injuries or in the small number of cases in which you actually have to file a lawsuit.

``For many, many kinds of legal matters people can handle things themselves and save themselves a lot of money,″ the book’s author, San Francisco lawyer Joseph L. Matthews, said in an interview. ``This is not, in fact, all that complicated as soon as you understand how the process works.″

Genovese, at one point, paid $250 to have a different lawyer spend an hour looking over her work in documenting her medical treatment and writing a ``demand″ letter. She said Matthews’ book helped her understand how insurance companies operate.

``If you go in there and you are not organized and don’t know what you’re doing, the ball is in their court,″ she said. ``They do things to really try to intimidate you, so you have to be prepared for that.″

When Lara McCormick and a friend were hurt in a car accident, the friend hired a lawyer to file her injury claim. But McCormick decided to go it alone.

It was McCormick, the amateur lawyer, who got the larger settlement for their similar minor injuries.

She negotiated a $7,000 payment, as opposed to the $400 a lawyer got for her friend, who was seated on the side of the car that was broadsided.

``I’m someone that gets scared off easily by legal terms,″ said McCormick, a computer specialist from Oakland, Calif. But in deciding to handle her own claim, ``I figured, how hard can it be?″

The book explains the basic formula insurance companies use to decide how much to pay for an injury. The amount an insurer is willing to pay falls into a fairly narrow range, whether or not a claim is filed by a lawyer.

There can be pitfalls for the uninformed.

People should not get into telephone conversations with insurance adjusters about the substance of their claim, Matthews said.

Adjusters may ``try to paint them into a corner″ by getting them to say they are partly at fault for an accident or their injury does not seem to be that bad, he said.

People should not rush into making a claim before they know the extent of their injuries, the book says, but they also cannot wait too long and miss the deadline to sue if they must.

Overall, Matthews’ book says, ``Making a successful insurance claim usually requires nothing more complicated than providing a clear explanation to an insurance adjuster, in plain language, of how the insured was careless and how such carelessness caused the accident.″

McCormick said the insurance adjuster initially treated her in a condescending manner.

``He didn’t take me seriously until he got my final demand letter,″ she said. ``Then it was like, `Wow, are you studying to be a lawyer?‴

Now, she says, ``I tell anyone who gets in an accident you should handle it yourself.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Laurie Asseo covers the Supreme Court and legal issues for The Associated Press.

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