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Spotting Settlement Mills and Fast Food Lawyering

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

Settlement mills are high-volume personal injury law firms that advertise heavily and resolve claims mechanically. Avoid these firms like the plague although their national ads might make them a familiar name.

The phrase "settlement mill" was coined and popularized by Nora Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford Law School professor who researches the intersection of torts law and ethics. She writes extensively about how these firms resolve legal matters mechanically at the expense of client rights. It's not a heartening tale but should be taken to heart.

What a Lawyer Should Do

Settlement is not a dirty word in the law. Resolving cases is everyone's goal -- lawyers and clients alike. It's great when that can be done without a protracted fight, and the legal system encourages compromise generally.

Still, an ethical attorney will examine your case thoroughly and keep your concerns in mind before seeking any compromise. Lawyers may have superior knowledge of statutes. But they work for their clients and, ultimately, serve them. If you want a trial, despite your lawyer's explanation of the risks, the lawyer must respect your wishes.

Whether or not you and counsel are on the same page about strategy, it can only be developed with a thorough understanding of the facts of your case. If an attorney handles your matter mechanically, doing the same thing for every client, you are probably not getting great representation.

Personal injury attorneys work on contingency generally. What that means is that you usually do not pay a penny unless they recover on your behalf. This works well for all parties because you and counsel are both invested in your case.

What a Mill Does

A settlement mill is slightly less invested. These are high-volume law firms, often national chains. The way they make their money is by closing out as many cases as possible, not by seeking the right resolution for individual matters.

To be crude, these guys are the fast food of the law. They do what other attorneys do, just a lot more of it and not quite the same quality.

Unlike a meal at the drive-thru, however, your personal injury case is a big deal. It's personal and about an injury, meaning you probably need money to take care of it. So an impersonal approach to the case is unlikely to suffice or satisfy.

But like an order of McDonald's fries, settlement mills give clients fast, cheap thrills. They operate with the goal of rapid compromise, calculating that the less time spent on a case, the greater the return on investment. That means clients get checks fast and don't ask if this was the best work that counsel could do.

Spotting the Settlement Mills

You can sometimes spot a mill by its website and national advertising. Although a chain may be reassuring in most shopping situations because you know what you are going to get more or less, when it comes to finding a lawyer, go local.

With a mill, you also know what you will get. And it's not going to be the best.

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