A friend recently asked me, “what are the top three things I should be thinking about when hiring an attorney?”
He is not a lawyer, and I know he was looking for help navigating through a complicated and cluttered space and hoping for a simple answer or formula. The truth is that while there is not a magic plug and play formula you can use to find “the Best Lawyer” for your case there are certain things you should be thinking about. I wasn’t able to get it down to three but here is my top ten list of factors you should consider when hiring an attorney. This list applies to any attorney hire – whether you need a business attorney, divorce attorney or personal injury attorney.
1. General Experience
Even if an attorney graduated at the top of his class at Harvard Law, seems like a great guy and is excited about handling your matter, you don’t want to be anyone’s first case. The practice of law is complicated and you don’t learn it in law school. There is no substitute for having spent years in the trenches. My Cousin Vinny is the exception, you don’t want the first year lawyer handling your murder case. Let them cut their teeth on someone else!
2. Relevant Experience
While “years of experience” is important, you don’t just want a lawyer with grey hair who has never seen a case like yours. It is absolutely critical that your attorney have experience not just as a lawyer but also with your type of case. Law, much like medicine, has become highly specialized. You wouldn’t go to a dermatologist if you had a brain tumor and you shouldn’t be taking a complicated hypoxic brain injury case to the lawyer who did your parent’s will. Make sure your attorney has experience handling your type of legal matter, particularly if it is a serious matter. Do ask them how many of these types of cases they handle a year.
3. Who is Who
While you may initially meet with the impressive attorney whose name is on the door, find out who will actually be the day to day person handling your case. Ask who the lead attorney will be and who will be your primary point of contact. You want to make sure that you are comfortable with the specific players that will be handling your case.
Ask what kind of results they have had with cases like yours. I have had clients ask me for a list cases we have won. You want to get a sense of the track record of your trusted team players. You can also ask whether these “wins” were the result of a negotiated settlement or actual jury verdicts. With trial attorneys you want to know that your lawyer is actually capable of going into the court room and trying the case and not just working out settlements for his clients. Trust me, insurance companies and defense firms smell fear. If you are not willing to go to the matt for your client and try the case to a jury you will spend your career taking pennies on the dollar in negotiated settlement. You don’t want a lawyer who is scared to go to trial and will sell your case cheap to avoid that.
Get specifics on how often you will expect to hear from your attorney – will it be a weekly, monthly or just when there is something to report. The answer is likely to depend on the type of case you have and where you are in the proceedings. Ask how communication will take place, email, phone calls? Is your attorney accessible 24/7 should something come up? The number one source of bar complaints is a lack of communication between lawyer and client. Clients differ in their needs and expectations. I have some clients who only want to hear from me when I have their check ready. Others, want to be intimately involved in their case. Have this conversation early on with your attorney to avoid any misunderstandings.
6. Talk Money
The type of case you have will likely dictate the fee structure. Most attorneys and law firms charge by the hour with an upfront retainer required. The hourly fee will vary depending on the level of experience of the attorney. In other cases, attorneys may charge a flat fee for a specific defined scope of work such as a business transaction. This type of fee has the advantage of certainty. The client knows up front what the case will cost. Immigration and criminal cases are often charged on a flat fee basis. Plaintiff firms such as ours, will often take cases on contingency basis. That means the attorneys get paid at the end of the case an agreed percentage of what the client recovers. The percentage may vary depending on how far along the case went.
We have many clients who have suffered devastating losses caused by the negligence of another party but don’t have the financial resources to go after them. If we believe in the case we can finance the expenses on behalf of the client and invest our time and money with the understanding that we will get paid back in the end. This type of arrangement has the benefit of allowing people to pursue justice who otherwise could not afford a lawyer. It also acts as a filter for the lawyer who are not going to invest in cases they don’t believe in.
7. Do your Digital Homework
Check out an attorney’s digital profile and reviews. Google, Avvo, Lawyers.com are easy reviews to find and you can read about them easily and quickly. Martindale Hubble is an old attorney directory that has modernized and lists lawyers by practice area and geographically. They use a peer rated system with the highest rating available being an “AV” rating. Only a small percentage of attorneys achieve this coveted AV rating. Check and see is your lawyer is AV rated. At our firm all three partners have the highest AV rating. You can also check with the local bar or Supreme Court website for your state to see if there have been any bar complaints or, even worse, disciplinary matters, against your lawyer.
Go ahead and ask a prospective firm for client references that you can communicate with. If these are not available, perhaps the firm has some testimonials or written recommendations that they can share with you. Our firm gets a lot of its business from referrals from old clients. That is something I am very proud of. No ad on the side of a bus or on the web speaks louder than a referral from a happy client.
Go check out your prospective attorney’s website. It often contains all kinds of information about the types of cases they handle, their track record and who might be working on your case. What does the web site look like? Is it professional, credible and robust? Do they talk about the kind of work you are looking to have them do? Read about the partners, their philosophy and the key services that they focus on to make sure it’s a good match.
10. Trust your Gut
I put this last on the list but it is probably the most important. Even if an attorney checks all of the boxes above, you want to make sure that they are a good fit for you and your family. We handle cases involving catastrophic injuries where our clients lives have been turned upside down. They are literally putting their future and lives in our hands. This is not a trust we take lightly and it is absolutely vital that there be an element of trust and comfort between the client and the attorney that will be handling their case.
This is my advice.
Check out The Federal Trade Commission for more suggested help on what to look for when hiring an attorney.