So should you hire an out of state attorney? This is a question many people must answer, including those injured by a failed medical device or a prescription drug. I have had several clients who were initially skeptical about hiring an attorney who practiced 500 or 2,000 miles away. And I get it.
For many types of cases, choosing an attorney in your hometown or in your state is best. Do you need to set up a will with powers of attorney? Ask around and call the good lawyer who lives down the street or across town. Going through a divorce? Have a traffic ticket? Did someone breach a contract? Find someone in your city who comes highly recommended.
But what about product liability? Specifically, what about medical device or prescription drug cases? You need to find the right person to represent you, even if that person practices law in another state or across the country. Let’s look at some pros and cons of hiring an out of state product liability lawyer:
How Do You Know If the Lawyer is Competent?
It’s a good question. In some cases you simply can’t know, or at least you can’t know until it’s too late. Often, if you become aware of a law firm from another state, you stumbled on the firm as a result of aggressive advertising. This does not necessarily mean the firm is not competent, but marketing does not make a firm competent. Many of these firms spend thousands (even millions) on mass marketing and TV commercials and Internet advertising. This is why you found them first. Their primary focus is to “sign you up.” So tread carefully.
You Do Not Get to Meet Face-to-Face
It is usually better to sit down with your attorney. If you hire an attorney who practices 1,500 miles away, this meeting may not be possible. And even if you meet once, you will be prevented by distance from meeting face to face on a regular basis. Something has been lost in our modern age when we rely almost exclusively on our smart phones and our computers to interact. That said, we live in 2017, not 1967. This communication trend will only intensify. And as I suggest below, it may not be the obstacle it seems to be.
The Out of State Lawyer May Not Understand Your Specific State Laws
The out of state lawyer may not understand specific laws that govern cases in your state. For example, for product liability cases, many states have consumer protection statutes that may create a unique cause of action for your injury in your state. How can you be sure a lawyer across the country will know about these state consumer protection laws? The answer: you have to ask your attorney how he or she plans to handle your specific case, including all relevant state law claims.
You Need a Specialist
For medical device and drug cases, you need to find someone who specializes. It could be a disaster for you to choose the kindly man who years ago set up your limited liability company to represent you in a nationwide multidistrict litigation (MDL) involving a failed medical device or drug. The likelihood is that lawyer (whose office may be around the corner from your house) has no idea how to handle a product liability case or even knows what an MDL is. Most of these local lawyers will admit they do not handle these kinds of cases and may refer you to someone else. But some may try to take it forward. And that would be a mistake. You do not want your divorce lawyer to handle your hernia mesh or Xarelto lawsuit, just like you don’t want your podiatrist to operate on your shoulder.
So it is far better to choose a lawyer from another state who has handled fifteen or fifty artificial hip cases than to go with the local person you know, even if that person is very nice and did a great job handling your last real estate closing.
Pro Hace Vice Admission and Online Legal Research
Lawyers are allowed to represent clients in other states through pro hac vice admission. Pro hac vice means “for this turn” or “for this occasion.” It allows me to represent a client in another state for a specific purpose and for a specific case if I complete all the written requirements for this limited admission. It is straightforward and simple.
Beyond that, online legal research services like Westlaw and Lexis allow lawyers to access the complete laws of any state. I can read Oregon appellate court opinions on an Oregon consumer protection statute in seconds. I have virtually the same access to Oregon’s state laws as any Oregon lawyer has (as that Oregon lawyer is most likely using online research services just like I am). In the modern age, information everywhere is at our fingertips.
Proximity is Overrated
It is comforting to imagine that the lawyer who has helped your family in legal matters over the years can also effectively represent you in your medical device case against a multinational corporation. But these cases can be complex, and they can take years to resolve; you do not want to risk your valuable case on the local lawyer who must learn the case as he goes along. Beyond that, we do live in an age with extraordinary ways to communicate: phone, fax, email, text, PDF, FedEx, Skype, Drop Box. I have had phone calls with prospective clients 2,000 miles away, and five minutes after the call ends the client sends me hundreds of pages of medical records in scanned attachments to an email. The truth is, it is easier to handle most cases electronically. In fact virtually every court in the country now has electronic case filing. I regularly file lawsuits in federal courts in California or Ohio or Texas while sitting in my office in Raleigh, North Carolina.
So What Should You Do?
It depends. You may be quite lucky and live down the street from a very good lawyer who focuses his or her law practice on medical device and drug cases. If not, you should not limit your search to your home state. Do your homework on any lawyer, whether in state or out of state. You should read online law firm reviews and online testimonials. You can even ask the prospective lawyer for references from former clients and give those people a call. If the firm has a website or a blog, review the site carefully. Get a sense if the lawyer knows the subject area. Try to discern if the firm website is geared simply to marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) or if the site provides useful information. When you get the retainer agreement from the out of state lawyer, review it carefully and ask any questions about any provision that concerns you. But do not exclude very good lawyers simply because they may not live in your state. Your best option may well be to hire an out of state attorney for your product liability case.