First the disclaimers: I am an attorney. I have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours in California Superior Courtrooms. Also, nothing in this article is meant to establish an attorney/client relationship or is intended as specific legal advice.
That out of the way, how should one go about selecting an attorney? I have had a couple of experiences over the past 15 years where I observed attorneys in court who did not appear to know what they were doing. And in one of those cases the client paid a very hefty retainer fee. Could this have been avoided? How exactly does one find a good attorney while under stress and time pressures? Let’s look at some options:
A. Lawyer Rating Sites: These can be helpful but many of them are little more than advertising. An attorney can upload a bunch of firm information and pay some money to be a ‘premium member’ and voila the firm is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED or something to that effect. Be careful with these: I have seen a very good attorney victimized by one unhappy client’s review on one well-known site. Not good. Recently I was victimized by a false review on both Yelp and Google+. Getting it removed will not be too difficult for me, but it definitely cost me some money. And while I’m discussing websites, you may wish to steer clear of attorneys whose websites are linked to online gambling sites, celebrity gossip sites or ‘naughty cheerleader’ sites. I’m serious.
Also watch out for Google or Bing ads or listings that contain glowing endorsements about how an attorney was the ‘greatest’ or the ‘best’ or that they ‘love’ him or her. Yes, they could be legitimate, but let’s be honest, most people don’t love their attorney and they usually want to forget the whole thing once it is over. In any case, multiple anonymous endorsements don’t mean a thing. (Note: I asked a couple of clients some time ago to consider posting reviews of me and one of them did write a very honest and positive account of my service to them on Avvo.com).
B. Contact Your County Lawyer Referral Service. Often your local bar association will have lists of attorneys to recommend in various areas of law. This can be a good way to narrow down your search to attorneys who are actually experts in the field you need.
C. First-Hand Recommendations: Asking friends and associates and co-workers for direction is probably a good place to start. If they had a positive experience with a lawyer, even if in a different field of law, you may wish to contact that attorney for a referral. Asking around the courthouse where your case will be heard can also be helpful.
D. Yellow Pages: Yes it is paid advertising but it is a place to begin. Do some online searches using appropriate search terms and wade through the results.
After obtaining some names either online or from family/friends/co-workers/yellow pages, here are some questions to ask the attorney when you call or email them:
1. What is your experience in my area of concern? (extremely important)
2. Do you have any references?
3. What are the possible outcomes? Best and worst case.
4. What are the costs going to be? Flat rate or hourly? How do you determine them?
5. How long may this take to be over? Best and worst case.
6. How will you keep me informed?
7. What approach will you take? Aggressive or Compromising? Or something else?
8. Will you personally be working on my case? (very important)
9. Do you have any experience working IN THIS JURISDICTION? (important!– if the attorney knows the court personnel and/or Judges it may provide an advantage. Note that I stated ‘MAY’)
10. Lastly, watch out for questionable promises, guaranteed results, and threats (‘you better hire me or else’). These kind of statements are generally prohibited by state bars and indicate an unethical attorney. And trust me, peers and Judges probably know it.
These questions are a good place to start in selecting an attorney, no matter what your needs are. After getting answers you may wish to check up on them. At a minimum check the attorney’s state bar site entry (here’s mine) to see any discipline or issues that are public. You may wish to see if they are endorsed by the Better Business Bureau. Make sure you speak to the attorney in person or on the phone and verify they actually have an office.
Following the above suggestions will greatly help you in choosing an attorney, no matter what your legal issue is. NOTE: My website has a few ‘recommended law firms’ on the links page that I have found to be among the ‘best of the best.’
Good luck. You might need it.
Updated: July 2013.