Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Through the Legal Looking Glass: How to Pick A Good Attorney

How do you find a good attorney? How do you know if your attorney is doing a good job? Today we help you answer these questions.

Sadly, there are no easy answers. Local referral services? No, they just give you the name of one of their members. Friends? No, they don’t know any more than you do. And, let me assure you, many people lie about how well their attorney did for them. The lawyer you met at the bar the other night? Puulease. I can’t tell you the number of clients who have gotten amazingly wrong information from some drunk attorney they met. How about the guys on television? Maybe, but most of them are high volume guys who are more interested in getting a quick settlement.

So what do you do? You listen, you ask, and you watch.

Listen To Their Pitch

When you first meet with an attorney, they will give you a pitch. You need to listen closely for danger signs that this is not the attorney you want. For example:

• Do they over-promise? Competent attorneys will never promise to win your case, and they will never tell you how much money you are likely to get. A competent attorney will explain to you the pros and cons of your case, and will give you an indication of what you should seek as damages. They will also caution you, repeatedly, that there are no guarantees.

• Does the attorney get emotional about your case? Attorneys should believe in their cases, but should not become emotionally involved. If the attorney starts foaming at the mouth or promising to “get them”, “punish them” or “crush them,” you want to move on.

• Does the attorney suggest that they have some special relationship with the judge? If so, move on. Not only is this rarely true (and unethical when it is), but guys like this are usually incompetent.

• Does the attorney talk about their win/loss record? It is basically impossible to have a win/loss record in the legal profession. Most matters involved mixed results, e.g. a two year sentence can be a big win for someone who was expecting ten years. The real question is how happy the clients are with the results they have achieved.

• Does the attorney claim to be ranked? This is pure garbage. There is no system to rank attorneys, nor would such a system make sense because what attorneys do is too varied and impossible to track. When you hear about rankings, these are created by groups that usually were formed by the very attorneys they rank. It’s marketing.

• Does the attorney spend time trying to understand your case or do they just keep pitching? And, do they seem to grasp what you are telling them?

Ask Some Questions

Not only should you listen to the pitch, but you should ask questions to get your hands around the attorney’s level of experience. For example:

• Have they handled cases like yours before, and what results did they obtain? The greater the experience, the deeper the experience, the better.

• Ask about their trial experience generally. How many trials have they personally had, and what was the subject matter of those trials?
• What issues (pro and con) do they see in your case? A competent attorney should always be able to outline the issues for you, even if they need to research how to handle those issues.

• What kind of experts do they think need to be hired? This question will give you a good sense of how competent the attorney is to handle trial work, especially when you are a dealing with a technical issue (such as medical malpractice cases). A competent trial attorney should always have a game plan, which includes the need for expert evidence.

• Who will do the work on your case? Will the attorney do the work or will you be palmed off on a junior associate?

• What does the attorney need from you? The attorney needs you to make the case happen. They should ask you right off the bat to gather documents and help them meet with witnesses.

Keep Paying Attention

Even after you’ve hired the attorney, you need to keep paying attention. If you’ve made a mistake, change attorneys. Here are some good rules to follow:

• Ask for copies of all documents produced by either side. If you can’t understand what your attorney wrote, the judge probably can’t either. Also, comparing the filings may tell you whether your attorney is being outclassed. Moreover, this lets you track whether or not your case is being worked or has been pushed aside.

• Attend depositions. You have a right to attend any deposition in your case. Take it. This is your chance to see what all of the witnesses will say and whether your attorney can get information out of reluctant witnesses. It will also tell you if your attorney grasps your case. Good attorneys involve their clients in depositions.

• Attend hearings. This is your chance to see your attorney in action before the judge, and to compare them to the other attorney.

• Does your attorney dismiss your concerns? Does your attorney never return your phone calls? Does your attorney seem unable to explain to you what is happening in the case? Do they blame you for problems? Move on if they do.

In all of this, use your judgment. If your attorney doesn’t seem to know or care what is going in your case, move on. If your attorney seems reluctant to proceed and only seems to be humoring you, move on. If your attorney can’t answer your questions, move on.



Writer X said...

Very helpful, Andrew. Thanks. Like anything else, the more you know, the better choices you can make. Buyer beware, right?

Conversely, are there things that your clients do that would make you fire your clients? Is that common?

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: There are no good lawyers, only competent ones. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

Absolutely, and in fact, that question probably deserves it's own article.

At this point though, suffice it to say that one of the hardest parts about being an attorney is figuring out if your client is for real or not.

If a potential client lies to me, or their story is clearly fake, or they can't tell me how they were hurt, or they want millions of dollars for nothing, then I won't take the case.

And of course, if I learn during the case that they are lying or faking, I will drop them in a heartbeat.

There's also an old adage that you should never care more about a case than your client does. And that's true. When clients start to blow the case off or become impossible to track down, I drop those clients as well.

I will also drop any client who gets hostile or makes threats.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I never had a problem telling a non-contingency client that I don't work for free, you haven't paid my bill, please come in and pick up your file and sign a substitution of attorneys form. I'll be glad to provide you with the phone numbers of the public defender or legal aid. As Abraham Lincoln said: "A lawyer's time is his stock-in-trade." I expected clients to pay so that I was free to take cases from people who needed legal services, but told me up-front they had no money to pay a lawyer.

In addition I don't tell my doctor how to treat me, or my mechanic how to fix my car. When a client told me how to conduct the case, I showed him the door. Tell me what result you want, but don't tell me how to get it.

StanH said...

A quick anecdote! Twenty five years ago as a young business man I leased a couple of stores and I used my good friend who was an attorney to help me with the details. Several months later I got into a dispute with one of the leases that led us to a courtroom. I couldn’t use my buddy as it was a conflict of interest in this particular case. So I had to hire a different attorney and I was referred to this individual, whose specialty was contract law. This guy graduated number one in his class and was recommended highly, even my buddy new this fellow to be great with contracts. When we found ourselves in court “summary judgment,” and the contest began this normally confident attorney began falling apart, his hands were shaking, he stuttered, he forgot his case law, at one point I almost stood up and objected, needless to say we lost, it was an expensive lesson. I seldom need an attorney but, I always make sure how I use my buddy’s services incase, he’s great through the whole process.

Tennessee Jed said...

I have been fortunate not to have experienced a great need for an attorney other than standard items like wills and trusts, but thanks for this article Andrew. It makes a lot of sense. As they say, everyone wants to bash lawyers until they need one

AndrewPrice said...

StanH, that's why you want to see your attorney in action long before the big day. If they fall apart in simple hearings or can't handle depositions, they aren't going to get any better at trial.

Jed, you're welcome. I hope you never need to use the information here, but if you do, I hope it's useful.

StlDan said...

If I may add one suggestion Andrew, If you do not know who to contact, and you happen to know a Law Enforcement Officer, Bailiff or even a jailer, they can be a great wealth of information about which Attorneys work and which ones don't. Especially in criminal law, bailiffs are good for both criminal and civil law. Trust me, they know which attorneys they need to cross all the T's and dot all the I's when it come to court.

AndrewPrice said...

StlDan, that's actually a great point. If you know a bailiff or a law enforcement officer or a clerk, they can certainly steer you to the better attorneys and help you avoid the bad ones. They tend to see them all and they hear all the stories.

Unfortunately, they are usually prohibited from providing such advice, so average people can't just ask a clerk, a cop or bailiff. BUT if you do know one -- by all means ask.

patti said...

whoa. i learned so much in this post. i would have figure frothing at the mouth and pounding fists would be a good sign. (note: just because you're a drama queen ~coughperezhiltoncough~ doesn't mean your lawyer has to be one.)

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, I'm glad you found it helpful. A lot of people think that the guy who shouts the loudest is the best lawyer, and many of the worst lawyers know how to play into this.

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