The Legal Needle
Face it. Hiring an attorney is kind of like going to the doctor. You don’t make an appointment with your friendly proctologist and pay several hundreds of dollars just to walk in the door and say, “Hey doc! I just came to see you because I am doing great!” In the legal world, we live in adversity. Most of us who end up utilizing an attorney walk into their office with our stomach in a knot and beg them to get us out of the pickle we are in. Now, I am the last one to knock on attorneys, especially since I am going to be one sometime soon. However, over the past month or so, I have had 3 clients hire me because they were not adequately represented and had to pick up the pieces of their lawsuits themselves. I can’t help but think that if they were a little more informed and had been less scared when they walked through that door, they may have made a wiser decision. This inspired me to come up with a few tools for the old tool box to use when hiring an attorney. [Mandatory Disclaimer inserted here – this article is for information purposes only and not intended to provide legal advice or substitute for it. The opinions cited herein are personal in nature and not to be construed as legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to your particular issue or problem.] Now, as I said, a few questions to ask yourself and the attorney:
Do you understand what distinct area of law you need an attorney to represent you in? Believe it or not law school does not train attorneys to work in all areas of law. Do you have a state or a federal case? Is your case an average run-of-the-mill auto accident related personal injury or is it a products liability case because a defective part on the vehicle failed? Would you like to be represented on charges of murder by an attorney who primarily does traffic court cases? These and more are very serious considerations. If you are unsure of what kind of attorney you are searching for, contact your local attorney referral service. Explain your case. Ask what type of attorney would handle the matter and get some names. Although usually the person that answers the phone cannot give legal advice, they can most likely point you in the right direction.
Ask the attorney you choose if they specialize in the area of law that you need help. Attorneys who work in specific areas of law often routinely frequent the same circles as their opposing counsel. They are familiar with the other attorney’s work ethics and habits. They may be able to get concessions that other attorneys may not, and have probably handled cases similar to yours so they can better advise you of your options and improve on your position based on their first-hand experience.
Be sure your attorney can go all the way. Think beyond going to the mat. What if you lose? Would you appeal? If you have major issues at stake like losing your freedom due to a criminal conviction, you will most likely need to appeal if you have a negative result. If you do not choose an attorney who has appellate experience, you would most likely have to start over by retaining a new attorney to file the appeal. How much of the new attorney’s time (and your money) do you think is spent becoming familiar with your case?
Look for good personal qualities. In the battle arena, it sometimes isn’t all about winning or losing – sometimes it comes down to who is the better negotiator. Choose an attorney who has great communication and negotiation skills. Make sure they want to learn about your case and put in the time doing it. Know what outcome you are looking for when you walk in their door. Remember, you are hiring them to work for you. In some cases, your life is in their hands. If you are going to spend $250 to $475 per hour, don’t be afraid to ask them about their track record and the names of cases similar to yours that they have litigated. If the case has been in litigation, it is public record. Look into the cases, ask questions. Check the local bar association website for complaints and websites like Avvo.com that are not only open to public comment but also peer review. Check the Martindale-Hubbell rating (non-criminal cases). “AV” is the highest rating, with “BV” and “CV” being second runner-ups. Ask them about their legal organization affiliations and whether or not they taught at law schools, continuing legal education seminars, or have produced any legal publications. If they have, that means they really know their stuff.
Most of all I think it is important to not be afraid to walk away and think about it, or interview more than one attorney. Unless you are under the gauntlet by the court to have representation the next day, sometimes it is better to chew on the idea for a day or two. Know what you are getting into, what the possible results are and what you are paying for. Chief Justice Warren Burger once said “75 to 90 percent of American Trial Lawyers are incompetent, dishonest, or both.” Whereas I disagree with the number Justice Burger has placed on this evaluation, there are some apples out there. Having the right tools and some patience can help you sort them out of the barrel.