Selecting a Lawyer: Questions to Ask
There is an old saying in real estate that "there are three things to consider when buying a piece of commercial property - location, location, location." In the legal profession it is safe to say that there are three things to consider when selecting a lawyer - experience, experience, experience.
Of course, other things are important in your selection of attorneys just like other things are important in a real estate purchase decision. Some of the most important elements to consider when selecting an attorney are the following:
- Experience in the area of law of your case
- Reputation in the community in which they practice
- Reputation among judges and lawyers in court
- Disciplinary History
- Malpractice Record and Experience
- Other Clients' Experience with Attorney
- Client/Customer Service Philosophy
Experience in the Area of Law of Your Case. One of the most important areas to consider when hiring a lawyer to represent you is experience. While overall years of practice, or exuberance are both definitely important, you ought to ask your prospective attorney details surrounding his/her experience in the area of law that you have been presented with in your matter.
Because the law has become so complicated today, and so specialized, it is absolutely critical that you find an attorney who has handled actual cases from filing through trial in the specific area of law. As a recent example, a client dealt with at least three different attorneys to help her with a neighbor who cut down branches from a tree that was not in the neighbor's yard, and not hanging over her property. Over a three year period, the neighbor continued to make the cuts, and no attorney could figure an economical way to stop the neighbor without a serious expenditure of time and legal fees.
Her company became a legal plan subscriber and she was referred to one of our Plan Attorneys for her question. Because our Plan Attorney had 19 years of experience in general and because he was familiar with the area of law and the practice in the local courts, he found a local ordinance that awarded treble [three times] damages to a homeowner who won a battle with a neighbor who continued to cut down trees, not in their yard.
If not for this attorney's actual experience in the area of law, the Plan Member would still be "losing sleep" over this neighbor's illegal activity.
Reputation in the community in which they practice. In our opinion, the second most important fact to consider is the attorney's reputation in the community. We believe that the better an attorney's reputation is in her community, the more an attorney has to lose. Attorneys are almost completely dependent upon their reputation and their case-handling to attract new cases. And no matter how large the community is, a poor quality attorney is almost always known.
In our experience, attorneys either spend years building up their reputations among the citizens of their own communities, or they do not particularly care what the local citizens or small business owners say about them. In almost every instance, the attorney who has a great community reputation will be very careful in handling your case, just as they have been in the past in handling other cases to develop that reputation.
Reputation among judges and lawyers in court. In our experience, attorneys spend years building up their reputations among their peers(lawyers and judges with whom and before whom they practice on a daily basis.) In almost every instance, the attorney who has spent years painstakingly developing a legal community reputation, will not want to take any action in your case that jeopardizes this.
Often, these attorneys will also get an occasional "break" on a legal point or procedural point in the event your case may ever need it, from the judge, or another lawyer, who trusts them to repay the favor when necessary and to not take advantage of the courtesy extended. This can help your case proceed smoothly and, surprisingly, economically, since there may be less pre-trial battles and fewer hearings, all of which, if hotly contested by two attorneys who may not trust each other, will end up costing you, the client, more time and money in legal fees.
Disciplinary History. One of the areas that is extremely important, but where a member of the public will have virtually no real access to information is the area of disciplinary record. Some Bars will publish the names of attorneys who have been disciplined, usually in the more serious instances. But, few state Bar associations will publish every disciplinary action, even if it is minor. They will also not even learn of substance abuse problems in many cases, and certainly will not publish these. Often times, an attorney will have been convicted of a crime and there will be no way to determine this.
One of the best parts of our Legal Service Program, is that we are quite possibly unmatched in finding out this type of information and in protecting our Plan Members from attorneys who may have experienced problems in the disciplinary, substance abuse or criminal area. We believe that the pool of qualified attorneys is so extensive that there is absolutely no reason to "take a chance." But, we may be alone in our pre-qualification scrutiny, since no other legal service plan undertakes more than what appears to be a cursory review of these areas.
Malpractice Record and Experience. Along with the disciplinary record of the attorney, we also focus on the last fifteen years of practice experience an attorney has had. In particular, we are focused on the number of malpractice claims, allegations, lawsuits and judgments against the attorneys in the firm under scrutiny.
Our legal plan again works like no other plan in actively investigating the malpractice history of the law firm and the attorneys in the firm. We compile specific information on each lawyer under consideration for our program. There is no outside source readily available to any client to research or investigate this information. Yet, it is vital to know if your attorney, last year, was hit with a $ 4 million judgment for messing up the exact same type of case that you are now considering giving him.
Other Clients' Experience with Attorney. It is extremely helpful to try to learn more about the attorney you may be about to hire from a person who has already had a lengthy case, preferably in the same area of your case. You can tell if the attorney is helpful, kind and considerate of your feelings and needs or whether the attorney is a brash, "cram-it-down-your-throat" type lawyer, who will go from case to case without appearing to have any time for your case.
Other clients who have used the attorney over a lengthy time will have been through ups and downs with her/him, and will know that when the time is right she/he can argue vehemently or, when necessary, never say a word. This type of attorney is what you want, and often one of the best ways to find her/him is to ask clients. You can also ask the attorney for a few references, but often these will be only his best ones.
Client/Customer Service Philosophy. Perhaps one of the most overlooked concepts in searching for any attorney is to try to find one that is customer-service oriented. This you can measure yourself, by calling for an initial interview. Was the staff courteous? Was the attorney on time for the appointment? Was the office visit pleasant? Did you receive more value from the firm than you thought?
All of these things are important to a client that may have to use the law firm for several years during a lawsuit. This attention for customer service should permeate down into the organization also. If your first call to the office finds a grumpy receptionist on the other end, you might be reluctant to go much further, since, although not always, your next few years with that law firm might be a grumpy experience.
The legal system is daunting enough without having to worry about your attorney's every move. You want someone you can trust, and the only way to get that is to look at all the factors we have discussed. It is interesting to note that some, but not all, legal plans already take some of the "problem attorneys" out of your line of sight in searching for the proper lawyer.