Most people don't think that being involved in personal injury litigation would require you to make very many decisions. But RJ Curcio knows otherwise.
RJ is a second-generation personal injury attorney. He and the lawyers in his firm represent clients who have been injured in trucking collisions, medical procedures, and other types of major accidents. He guides his clients to make well-informed decisions about their injuries, their recoveries, their cases, and their lives. To find out more, make sure to listen to this episode now.
About RJ Curcio
RJ Curcio is a partner at Curcio Law Offices, a personal injury firm in Chicago, Illinois. RJ is a second-generation attorney and one of five in his family, but the first millennial lawyer. Having taken over the firm started by his dad in 1956, he is setting out to serve the victims of negligence in Chicago and specifically millennials.
Since the pandemic, RJ has recovered over $40 million for his clients and helped them work through the decision-making process of settling their case or going to trial.
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Navigating the Decisions Involved in Personal Injury Litigation
Karen Covy 00:03
Hello and welcome to Off the Fence, a podcast where we deconstruct difficult decision making, so that we can help us understand what keeps us stuck, and more importantly, how we can get unstuck. I'm Karen Covy. I'm your host. I am a divorce and decision coach as well as a recovering lawyer. And with me today is another lawyer, RJ Curcio. RJ Curcio is a partner at Curcio Law Offices, a personal injury firm in Chicago, Illinois.
RJ is a second-generation attorney and one of five in his family, but the first Millennial lawyer. Having taken over the firm started by his dad in 1956, he's setting out to serve the victims of negligence in Chicago and specifically Millennials. Since the pandemic, RJ has recovered over $40 million for his clients and help them work through the decision-making process of settling their case or going to trial. RJ, welcome to the show.
Robert Curcio 01:00
Thank you so much, Karen. Happy to be here.
Karen Covy 01:02
I have to tell you just right out of the box, you've recovered $40 million for your clients since COVID?
We have, yes.
That's impressive. I mean, as a former personal injury lawyer myself, I can say that's impressive.
Robert Curcio 01:18
Thank you. It was a struggle in 2020. But as things began to open up, we got back to a little bit of the normal. So, we've hit our stride again, post COVID.
Karen Covy 01:26
That's awesome. Speaking of lawyering and law firms and the whole thing, the question that seems obvious to me, may not be obvious to everybody, that I really wanted to dive in is you are second-generation lawyer, you've taken over your father's law firm. Why make that choice? How did you come to that decision?
Robert Curcio 01:48
Well, that's an interesting question. The true background story is I never wanted to be a lawyer. But growing up, I always wanted to get into sports. And when I was down in college at the University of Miami, I was working with their strength coach for the men's basketball team. And I had decided I want to be a strength coach, this will be a lot of fun, working in the weight room, loud music, basketball shorts, everything that a 20-year-old thinks that they want to do. And then one day, one of the players flipped a car and was promptly kicked off the team. And I saw that, ‘Oh, wow. The reality here is, this is a lot of babysitting. And it's difficult.’ Luckily, that player was not injured. There were no issues other than just being 20 years old and doing things you probably shouldn't do.
When I was down there, one of my friends said, ‘Hey, take the LSAT with me. Let's go to law school.’ I ended up taking the LSAT, going to law school. And I remember this vividly, one day, I was driving down 90, 94. And I'm heading to my men's league hockey game with my cousins. And I just finished my first year of law school and said, ‘You know what, I want to work with my dad.’ And called him up. He was getting ready to close up shop, but said, ‘Let's work together.’ And here we are today. It's just been an absolute honor and a privilege to be able to work with him, particularly at this point in his life.
Karen Covy 03:21
Well, I have to second that for you. I'm totally dating myself here. But I know your father and as you know, I had cases against your father back in the day, and he is an icon. Totally an icon, really top quality, high-class lawyer. So, I think you choose wisely to take over that firm. But it still had to be a decision.
Robert Curcio 03:50
It was. One of the interesting parts about the decision itself is that there's some decisions in life that you come across and you have to think about what are the pros and cons? Where's this going to lead me to? There's other decisions that I can tell you, honestly, that I make where I say, “Let's flip a coin, and whichever way that I feel I want the coin to land on, that's the right decision for me.” And that's kind of how this decision came to be was I knew I wanted to get into trial work. That's what I was going towards. I knew that being like Harvey Specter from Suits probably wasn't a feasible approach. Not going to one of the top 14 law schools or whatever that was. I just was in that car and thinking to myself, if I were to flip a coin, which way would I want it to come up? And I said, “I wanted to be with my dad.” And the reason being, in all honesty, he wasn't a genius. He didn't graduate from law school early. Graduated at 25, 26 like the rest of us. And if he opened to this place, right when he got out in 1956, the math adds up where he's not as fried chicken anymore. So, being able to take this opportunity and to be able to work with him, it was something you just can't pass up.
Karen Covy 05:05
Yeah, that's awesome. I know that you work in your business with a lot of people who are injured in various ways: car crashes, truck crashes, medical malpractice, all different kinds of areas of the law. To me, if I was just a regular person not being a lawyer, I wouldn't think that if I was the victim of some sort of accident or injury, that I'd have a lot of decisions to make other than, do I sue this person or not? And if I do, who do I get for a lawyer? But you and I both know, there's a lot more to it than that. What kinds of decisions would somebody who's injured, especially in a catastrophic injury, what kinds of decisions do they face?
Robert Curcio 05:51
That's a great question, because not a lot of our clients, when they first walk in the door understand that there are decisions that they have to make. But that first decision that they have to make is, is this attorney the right fit for me? And similarly, as the attorney who's being interviewed, we're interviewing the client, is the client the right fit for us? And that's where we have to start just base level, is this the right fit? That's a very important decision for the client, because you have to feel comfortable, not only with the attorney’s ability, but with your communication, right off the bat. It's a long-term relationship. And once you're in it, it's very difficult to get out of it.
Karen Covy 06:32
Yeah. I can understand that completely. Can you help enlighten the audience about what they should be looking for? I mean, most people, they walk into a lawyer's office, it might be for the first time ever in their life unless they had a traffic ticket, or maybe a house closing, right? So, how do they know or decide if that lawyer is a good fit? What are they looking for?
Robert Curcio 06:56
Well, when you're dealing with a catastrophic personal injury, whether that's the passing of a loved one due to the negligence of somebody else, whether that is your own personal injury, where perhaps you have a loss of limb, or a significant limitation physically that's been imposed upon you, those are people that we frequently deal with. The number one thing that I always encourage people to do if they call us up and say, “I want to come and talk to you about retaining your services,” check us out online. Look for results, do some independent research. Google is a phenomenal tool. And then when you get in there, the second thing that I think all clients look for, and every person that comes through the door, that I tell them this too, is make sure that we can communicate well. Don't be afraid to hurt my feelings. I'm going to be sensitive to yours for obvious reasons, but that communication is so crucial. Because if we're not able to communicate at that first meeting, that's going to tell me, “Hey, we're probably not going to be able to communicate at the second, the third, and for the next 2, 3, 4 years, depending upon how long it takes.” And if we don't have a good basis of communication, it's going to be a strained relationship. And you're going to not feel like you're getting the absolute best out of our office.
Karen Covy 08:14
That makes total sense. Okay. So, let's say that a client comes to you, they say, “Yeah. RJ, you're the one for me.” They sign on the dotted line, is that it? Are they done making decisions or is there a process they're going to go through and be faced with more decisions coming down the pike?
Robert Curcio 08:34
There's always going to be more decisions for clients to make. But the way that we always frame it is, number one, your first decision is Curcio Law Offices, or whichever personal injury attorney you're interviewing, are they the right fit for me, which we just talked about. And then the second major decision that you're going to make, and probably the last major decision is, is whatever money they're offering enough for me to want to mitigate my risk and settle the case or do I want to go to trial? The decisions in the middle are more that’s why you hire an attorney, that's where they make their money. You want me to figure out what's the right person step to take. What are the right questions? What are the issues that we're looking for? The documents that we want to gather? What's the strategy? But all of those decisions that the attorney makes, then lead back to the client’s decision. And what we always do is we tell them, “Hey, when it's just us, you and me client, we're going to work on education, because this isn't a process that you go through every single day. But when I'm talking to the defense attorney, the judge, the adjuster, doctors, etc., I'm here to advocate for you.” So, you try to kind of create that safe space so they feel comfortable making decisions and then they can understand the different variables in the decision.
Karen Covy 09:52
That makes total sense. I mean, in a lot of what I do, as you know, I do coaching now, not active lawyering but it's still the same process. Education is key because if you don't understand what your options are, as you put it, what your variables are, you don't know how to make a well-reasoned decision. So, let's say you're in a situation where the client is saying, “Okay. The insurance company has offered X, whatever x is, how do you help that person evaluate is X a decent settlement? Is X not a good settlement?
Robert Curcio 10:32
That's one of the hardest parts of our job. It's something that takes several different meetings in order to work through. So, one of the first things we're looking at is the liability, the how this happened. We have to understand, do you have a strong liability case? Or do you have a so-so liability case? The mom and the daughter who get run over by a truck in a city street, while they're in a crosswalk, may have a little bit stronger of a case than the gentleman who fell off a roof while doing some construction work but there were no witnesses, and we don't know why he fell off. So, that's going to be our first variable there is that liability. That can affect how much you're going to be able to get or are you partially at fault? So, that's going to be number one. And then number two is going to be talking about the damages, the effect of what happened. So, what we're going to go through there is, what doctors did you see? Are they favorable to you? Did you follow up with your doctors? Did you do everything that you were supposed to do? Those are questions that are asked and that juries consider. Why should a jury compensate you, if you're not doing everything that you're supposed to do to get better? That's your responsibility. So, those are the two main areas in every personal injury case and that affects ultimately how you get a settlement.
Now, you have to walk them through as well. What's a jury trial going to look like? Are you comfortable with testifying in front of 14 people with a judge and a defense attorney, a plaintiff's attorney? Or are you going to say, “You know what, that's not an experience that I want to relive,” because, remember, a lot of the people that come to us have dealt with a significant trauma in their life. And they may not want to go in front of those people and relive that trauma. They may not want to see the exhibits that we have to put together to tell their story. It's a painful event. So, there's all of these different factors that we have to look at. Then ultimately, is what this insurance company offering sufficient for you to say, “I want to mitigate my risk, I may get more at trial in 8 months, 10 months after an appeal a year or two. As we know, the legal profession does not move quickly. We're still stuck in the 90s. I'm trying to give them some credit here, Karen. Come on. I'm trying to give this legal professional little credit. I mean, we're working.
It moves slowly.
Well, we still have carbon paper. So, you know,
Karen Covy 13:10
It's a little mortifying but yeah, we still do use carbon paper.
Robert Curcio 13:15
Yeah. That would be a great opportunity for you to talk to somebody in Cook County to understand the decision-making process of maintaining the carbon paper.
Karen Covy 13:24
I was surprised that somebody still manufactures that.
Robert Curcio 13:27
I got a box of a hundred sitting in the drawer behind me over here. So, I still keep them just in case you ever need it.
Karen Covy 13:34
Thanks. Good to know. But let's dive in a little bit. I want to pick apart something that you said about mitigating risk. What do you mean, when you say you've got to decide to take a settlement that that might mitigate your risk? Can you say more about that?
Robert Curcio 13:48
Sure. So, one of the things that we always look at here is there's a risk of going to trial. So, going back to my examples before, that mom and the daughter who were hit by a truck, they may not be at fault. They may have great damages, but maybe the company is underinsured, maybe they need to dip into their own corporate pockets. Well, one of the risks in that particular case is a jury may be so sympathetic, that they compensate, and I use the word compensate because you're compensated for your injuries. It's not a lottery ticket. It's not an award. You know what I mean? That's a jury argument right there. What we have to look at is, is that compensation from the jury going to bankrupt this company? Well, if it bankrupts them, you may end up with only the insurance policy. That's a big risk right there.
Going to the other example, the example of the gentleman fell off a roof and ended up passing away. Well, if we can't prove how it happened, or that the defendants did something wrong to affect how this happened, then the jury may turn you away. They may say, “We can't give you anything. You don't have enough evidence to prove your case.” And there's a big difference between proving your case in the workup to the point where they'll offer money versus proving your case in front of a jury. The standards are a little bit different. So, there's always going to be risk. It may be that you're not going to end up with as much money as you think, or it may be that you're very unlikable. We do have people that are just unlikable, it happens. It could also be that we just can't prove your case well enough where we can justify a massive demand, or we can get a massive amount of money.
Karen Covy 15:39
You know what you're saying it's like, this is an insight into the legal system that most people never get. It's really exciting and interesting to be able to have the conversation, because I think people don't talk to lawyers all the time, they don't get how it works. What I hear you saying is that there is a big risk in going to any jury and saying, “Here's the injury, here's the case, give us money,” because you never ever know what a jury is going to do.
Robert Curcio 16:15
As an attorney, you have an obligation to pick 14 people, 12 of whom will decide the fate of your client’s case, based upon a pool of 36, that you get to interview, and you only get a couple of minutes to talk to each juror. There's a gamble in that. There's a big gamble in that. You may think that this one person that you just absolutely love, and your five minutes of getting to talk to them is phenomenal for your case, and they're the ones that submarine it. There's a lot of risk that goes along with that. We commonly use the phrase because we see this process all the time on TV, Jury Selection. Well, it's really not jury selection as you know, Karen, it's jury deselection. We're just looking to get rid of the absolute worst on the far end, basically.
Karen Covy 17:05
Right. You have the pool to choose from that you have no control over who walks in the door that day to be on your jury. It's just whoever it is.
Robert Curcio 17:17
Exactly. So, when those people get those jury notices in the mail, we're getting 36 random people. We're across the street from the Daley Center here, you might as well walk over to Clark and Randolph gather up 36 and put them in a courtroom. That's how random this process is.
Karen Covy 17:37
Yeah, I understand it. And the same thing is true, I know you try most of your cases to juries. In divorce cases, the trials happen in front of a judge, not a jury. But even still the same logic and the same experience applies where you never know who the person is that you're trusting your fate to how they're going to decide. You and I have both been around the block long enough and enough times to know that sometimes things happen and you get a decision, you just wonder where in heaven's name that came from. Those kinds of things happen, don't they?
Robert Curcio 18:18
Happens all the time. Even in personal injury, outside of a jury, a judge may rule one way and you say to yourself, ‘This doesn't even make sense. I don't think the law supports this.’ But those are the rulings that you have to deal with. And those are the variables as attorneys that in that middle section between the decisions for the clients, that's where we make our money. That's the issues that we deal with, and then the decisions that we have to make subsequently.
Karen Covy 18:46
So, it also sounds like what you're calling the middle piece is essentially preparation. It's going through the steps and being prepared. And it's the same in divorce. It's the same in personal injury, it's the same in anything in life, that's not even a legal case. The more prepared you are, the better you're going to do.
Robert Curcio 19:08
Absolutely. That's always the case. Right? Preparation is key. Preparation is king. That is what this entire profession takes. And we have to do years of preparation, in order to be able to educate clients on those decisions, particularly the one at the end, the ‘Is this the right amount of money for me in my case?’ Those aren't decisions that we can make. We can only make recommendations as the attorneys.
Karen Covy 19:35
So, what I hear you saying is that you recommend but you can never make the decision for the client?
Robert Curcio 19:42
No, the decision is solely the client’s. It's their money at the end of the day. It's not my money. It's not coming to me. It's not coming to the firm. It's their money, it's their injury, it's their story. Those are decisions that are uniquely theirs. I can tell them in my professional opinion, in my experience this is a good number, and tell them exactly why, but if they say, “I want more,” then there's not much that I can do other than listen to what the client has to say.
Karen Covy 20:13
Yeah, but what you're saying, this is, in my humble opinion, the biggest value of a lawyer. I mean, yes, having a lawyer to prepare 100%, you need that too. But at the end of the day, when faced with the big decision of do I take this amount of money or don't I? It's your experience and your expertise that are the most important to the client and informing them does taking this settlement make sense or not?
Robert Curcio 20:45
Absolutely. Going back to what we began with, that communication component when we first meet, that's where it becomes really vital here at the end. We've been communicating for years now. And my job at the end is to tell you, “This is what the global picture is.” I tell every single client, there's a couple of different levels to each negotiation. So, there's the area where I would say, “If you take that amount of money, that's foolish. You shouldn't do that. There's going to be more available.” The next one is, “It's something to consider, but I think there's going to be more.” That third level is going to be, “Well, we're getting to the point where you really have to seriously consider this amount of money.” And then the last one is, “If you don't take this, that's maybe one of the dumbest decisions of your life.” And in order to get a client to understand what those different levels are, they have to understand the variables. But to understand the variables, you have to be able to communicate with them. So, it all starts back at day one, in making that decision to hire the attorney, which is going to help put you in the best position to understand when it's time to settle your case, or when it's time to go to trial on your case.
Karen Covy 22:00
That makes total sense. It does sound like you've come full circle in how you help people make these decisions. And it's like any other relationship because as an attorney, you have a relationship with your client. And if you can't communicate in your relationship, you're going to have problems.
Robert Curcio 22:22
That's exactly right. I know that you deal with that all the time, as a coach. Communication is essential to any relationship. And whether you hire an attorney that's going to help you in a criminal case, a divorce attorney, a divorce coach, a personal injury attorney, you have to be able to communicate with them. So that way, you know what decision is going to be the right decision for you.
Karen Covy 22:46
What kind of communication do you want coming the other way? What would you like or expect from your clients in terms of their communication with you? What makes your job easier and the relationship better?
Robert Curcio 23:03
So. that's a phenomenal question and it changes for me all the time. The most recent way that it's changed for me is from the great Steve Fretzin, who's a business development coach. I always want to start off every single meeting with a potential new client by saying, “After we've gotten to know each other, just by telling them, hey, if at the end of this, you don't think that I'm the right fit for you, let me know. Be honest with me, because this is a long-term commitment. And similarly, on the back end, if I don't think that you're going to be a good fit for our firm, I will let you know.” And it takes that pressure off right away. Because I just want them to be honest. It sets up for that honesty at the beginning.
So, there's two requirements, you just have to be honest with your attorney, and you have to be respectful. Those are the only requirements that I have for communication, because if I can have a client that's honest, then they're going to tell me everything that I need to know to help them in their case. And if it's respectful communication, we're going to have a fine relationship. Right? Unfortunately, there's not as much respect all the time as you'd hope and sometimes tempers flare in these cases. But that's okay. Tempers can flare so long as we always come back to that grounding point of just being respectful and honest with each other.
Karen Covy 24:27
That makes total sense. And that honestly applies to every relationship. It applies to marriage. It applies to relationships with professionals, with friends, with family with kids, kind of across the board.
Robert Curcio 24:43
Absolutely. I think that that's something that you could probably attest to a bit more than I being the divorce coach, but hiring an attorney like I said before, it is a relationship commitment, and that relationship, you try to make it as healthy for one as possible.
Karen Covy 24:59
Makes total sense. So, I want to switch gears a little bit and I'm probably going to throw you for a loop here. But I was just wondering, we all make tons of decisions in our lives. What's the best decision you've ever made?
Robert Curcio 25:15
Well, I think that one's pretty easy. At this point, the best decision I've ever made is not becoming a strength coach and wearing gym shorts every single day and listening to loud music. As much as I enjoy that environment, this profession is unbelievably gratifying, selfishly, it's gratifying, just from an intellectual standpoint, I always tell people, I get to learn a lot about how the world works. I know the Federal Motor Carrier Safety regulations now. I understand how the swinging door to grocery store works, what activates it, what holds it open. You get to learn how elevators work. You get to know a little bit about the human body when you talk about nursing homes and medical malpractice. So, you get to learn how things around you work. And that's just one of the absolute coolest things to know.
And then the other part is, when you actually get to help somebody who really needs the help because of how badly they've been wronged. That's a really gratifying experience. Because, unfortunately, as unnecessary as some people may think personal injury attorneys are, they are necessary for a lot of people because they're not going to be able to get the compensation that they deserve after significant life altering accidents.
Karen Covy 26:40
You know, you bring up a really, really good point. And that is I think lawyers get a bad rap. Everybody likes to you know, to diss lawyers and saying we're sharks, we're ambulance chasers, we're this, we're that, we're the other thing. But at the end of the day, when something happens to you, and you're trying to get compensated or fight for your rights, or stand up for yourself or just do the right thing, you want to have a good lawyer by your side.
Robert Curcio 27:13
You need to have that advocate. You need an advocate
Karen Covy 27:17
100%, and it sounds like that's exactly what your firm is and what you are and I think you're doing your father proud.
Robert Curcio 27:25
Thank you. I like to think so. Him being so old school, there are days when he'll tell you that he's proud of you in his own way. But there's a lot more times that he'll tell you what you can do better, but that's okay. Because sometimes the tough love is always great, but I appreciate the compliment. Thank you.
Karen Covy 27:42
You're welcome. RJ, it has been a joy and a pleasure talking to you. Before we wrap this up though, can you tell people where they can find you?
Robert Curcio 27:52
Absolutely. So, the first place you can always find us is at our website. It's curcio-law.com. That’s C-U-R-C-I-O. Second one is you need to you need a personal injury attorney give us a call. We got Chicago's number here were (312) 321-1111 and if you want to see my awful Chicago sports takes, please go ahead give me a follow on Twitter @rjcurcioesq, and we can always talk and chop it up about the bulls, the bears whoever else.
Karen Covy 28:25
RJ, it has been a total pleasure. I will link to all the places that people can find you in the show notes. For everyone out there listening or watching, if you like what you heard, if you like what you saw, then I encourage you give this video a thumbs up. Follow us. Subscribe to the podcast, subscribe to the YouTube channel and we'll see you again next time. Thanks a lot