For some time now I have seen references to "bike lawyers" on various cycling websites, and wondered whether this was a genuinely useful service or a gimmick. Do bicyclists really need a special brand of lawyers, or are lawyers just trying to capitalize on the momentum of the bicycle culture?
My skepticism softened a couple of years ago, as I got my first glimpse into how powerful this profession can potentially be in the world of bicycle advocacy. I was living in Vienna at the time and was introduced by several friends to the local bike lawyer - Johannes Pepelnik. Well known for his annual bicycle-themed street parties, for representing cyclists pro bono, and for publishing several books on bicyclists' rights under Austrian law, he is a well-liked and respected figure in the Viennese cycling community. More importantly, he is credited with helping change the balance of power of the city's cyclist-driver relationship in the bicyclist's favour. That struck me as pretty significant.
More recently I became acquainted with Josh Zisson of Bike Safe Boston - Boston's own bike lawyer and creator of the Bicyclist's Accident Report cards - and we've since spoken a lot about the role this profession can play in American cities. Obviously, bicycle law specialists provide paid services and profit off of them; that is how they earn their living. But they can also benefit cyclists in a number of ways with no cost involved.
In the US, bicycle law is an informal specialty within what's known as personal injury law. And typically personal injury lawyers get paid only if and when their clients receive a financial settlement from the party at fault. This means that consultations with bicycle lawyers tend to be free of charge and cyclists can approach them for legal advice at no cost.
But in a more general sense, when bicycle law specialists establish themselves in a city, their advertising campaigns often go hand-in-hand with promoting cyclists' rights and educating the public about those rights - either on their websites, via community outreach, or on various on-line forums. And in a sense, spreading this information in a way that is comprehensive to a layperson, is a public service: Thanks to bike lawyers' promotional materials, cyclists can easily look up answers to questions about bicycle law in their home state; they can be better informed.
Finally, I would argue that the prominent existence of a bike lawyer in a community can act as a deterrent for motorists - simply by making them aware that there is someone around who is eager to go to battle against them on the side of the cyclist. Once in a while there are articles published that ask why so few drivers who injure and kill cyclists get convicted. The answers vary, but the bottom line is that there are no real incentives for motorists not to hit cyclists if they know the legal system favours them no matter what. By aggressively advertising their services, bicycle lawyers actually have the power to change that perception.
All of these are reasons why I am in favour of community-minded bicycle law specialists, and believe that the more they promote their services, the better it is for everyone. Maybe some day, fear of litigation will make cautious, courteous motorist behaviour common practice.