Finding the right lawyer isn’t easy. Most people only need to see a lawyer a few times in their lives.
The lawyer you hired to write your will probably isn’t the lawyer who should help you sue your employer for failing to pay overtime. The lawyer who helped you buy your house might not be the right lawyer to help you settle an injury claim.
No lawyer is right for every case or for every client. Here are six important things you should look for when you choose a lawyer to help you with your legal problem.
Every lawyer begins as a new lawyer. Many new lawyers are bright and talented and will have successful careers. When new lawyers handle litigation, they typically start with small, simple cases, often working under the supervision of a more experienced lawyer. After they acquire experience, they begin to work on more complex matters.
Experience is the best teacher. Like everyone else, lawyers learn from their mistakes. Experienced lawyers can be expected to make few mistakes because they have learned how to avoid them.
Experience allows lawyers to gain skills that can’t be acquired in law school, including:
Negotiating with a seasoned lawyer or insurance adjuster
Valuing a case for settlement
Picking a sympathetic jury
Making effective arguments to juries
Persuading judges to make rulings that favor a client
As they gain experience, lawyers learn how to deal with other lawyers and with insurance adjusters. They learn about the tendencies of local judges. They get a sense of how local juries will respond to different kinds of evidence and witnesses.
If you have a small, simple case, any competent lawyer might be able to handle it well. If you have more at stake, however, you probably want to find a lawyer who has experience.
Small town lawyers tend to do a bit of everything. They incorporate small businesses, they probate estates, they defend shoplifters, they draft contracts, they help people file bankruptcies. Maybe they handle an occasional car accident case involving minor injuries. General practice lawyers who practice in a dozen or more areas of law serve a need in small communities that can’t support more specialized law practices.
When cases demand a greater level of expertise, however, general practice lawyers usually refer cases to lawyers who limit their practice to a just a few areas. A lawyer with a limited practice has the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills that general practice lawyers may not have the opportunity to acquire.
Lawyers with a limited practice usually belong to professional associations that address a specific field of law. A lawyer who regularly represents injured employees in workers’ compensation cases might join the California Applicants’ Attorneys Association. A lawyer who is serious about representing employees who have been subjected to employment discrimination or wage and hour violations will probably join the California Employment Lawyers’ Association. Professional memberships in organizations that are devoted to specific fields of law give lawyers an opportunity to attend seminars and make professional contacts that enhance their ability to represent their clients.
Lawyers are judged by their clients, by judges, and by their peers. Over time, lawyers develop a reputation. Lawyers who have a reputation for excellence are usually a good choice if they have time to take your case.
One way to learn about a lawyer’s reputation is to ask friends about lawyers they have used in cases that are similar to yours. Are they happy with the representation they received? If your friends praise a lawyer, it might be worth making an appointment to chat with that lawyer about your case.
If a lawyer representing you in an unrelated matter, you might want to ask that lawyer for a referral. For instance, the lawyer who wrote your will or handled your divorce might not do personal injury cases, but will almost certainly be able to recommend attorneys who work in that field of law.
Everyone knows a lawyer joke. Most lawyer jokes suggest that attorneys are shady or dishonest. And let’s be clear: some lawyers fit that stereotype. But most don’t. Most lawyers are honest, hardworking, and dedicated to their crafts.
Good lawyers might need to be tough negotiators and aggressive advocates, but they develop those skills to better serve their clients. A lawyer can be strong without being deceitful.
Good lawyers know that their reputations are everything. They don’t cheat their clients because they depend on clients to refer their friends who need a lawyer. A satisfied client is the best kind of advertising. Good lawyers maintain a high standard of integrity so that clients will tell their friends, “This is a law firm you can trust.”
Some attorneys see law as a job. The best lawyers view law as a way to bring justice to people who need help. Good lawyers care about their clients.
During an initial interview, lawyers need to ask lots of questions to learn the important facts of the case. But good lawyers listen carefully to the answers and make clear that they understand a client’s concerns.
Good lawyers feel a client’s pain. Lawyers cannot become emotionally attached to clients, because that kind of attachment clouds professional judgment, but good lawyers care about their clients and want to do everything they can to help clients achieve justice.
Clients spend significant time with the lawyer they hire. If a case goes to trial, a lawyer and client will spend hours together in preparation. No client wants to spend that amount of time with someone they dislike.
Clients and lawyers need to communicate with each other effectively. They need to respect each other. Lawyers need to understand a client’s goals and clients need to understand that a lawyer will help them understand whether their goals are achievable.
Communication, respect, and understanding are all part of the rapport that clients should develop with their lawyers. If you decide to interview a few lawyers before you select one, use the criteria listed above to decide whether a lawyer is highly qualified to represent you. Then decide whether you will be able to develop a rapport with the lawyer.