The single most important decision you can make in handling your injury case is choosing the right attorney. Put simply, a bad lawyer can ruin your case. That could result in real tragedy.
Not all attorneys are created equal. The right lawyer could be the difference between winning and losing.
Time is of the essence. In some situations, such as a car accident, the clock begins to tick on important legal deadlines right away, so you must decide on whom to hire in a hurry.
Nevertheless, you can make a smart, informed decision quickly if you use common sense and follow a few straightforward guidelines:
Begin by considering the importance of hiring a good lawyer. This will motivate you to put in the work necessary to finding the right attorney. For example, as mentioned above, in a family law dispute, you may risk losing your children. Auto accident injury cases put your health and wealth at stake. Finally, estate planning helps you protect your family’s legacy. In short, when dealing with the law, the stakes are high. You deserve legal protection provided by an effective, experienced lawyer that you can trust. If you do not take a moment to consider how much you have on the line, you will never commit to doing the work necessary to selecting the right lawyer.
Do Your Homework
Once you appreciate the significance of hiring the right lawyer, the first step is “Doing Your Homework.” With any important dilemma in life—buying a home, choosing a career, hiring a doctor or lawyer—you will make a better decision if you carefully investigate your options. There is no reason to put less effort into choosing your lawyer than you would to pick out your next automobile or smartphone. Study your options carefully. It’s important.
The quickest and easiest place to begin is the internet. The obvious upside of an online search is that it allows 24-7 access to a tremendous amount of information about the law and lawyers. However, there is such a thing as internet information overload, a fact you may observe when your search turns up an abundance of self-serving hype by “lazy lawyers” who are more interested in their financial bottom line than your legal needs. You must be especially suspicious of lawyers’ ads and law firm websites that promise to “be aggressive” and “care about you.” Remember, no lawyers (even “lazy lawyers”) look bad on their own websites!
The best way to balance the abundance of the web’s online information with its potential negative effects is to supplement your internet search through word of mouth investigation, written information requests, and attorney-client interviews.
As discussed below, the most important considerations in selecting the right lawyer are:
Websites, legal directories, publications, friends, attorneys, and many other sources can provide you with this information. However, while each of those sources can be helpful and informative, none is ultimately as effective as speaking to the attorneys directly.
Most attorneys will talk to you by phone about the legal issue you are facing and, if they handle the type of case you have, they will typically offer to meet with you in-person. This initial meeting is called a consultation. You should use this opportunity to interview attorneys and confirm who the best fit is for you.
However, before you schedule your first attorney interview, you should conduct some advance research at home. This will help you “weed out” any obviously bad fits.
Ultimately, investigating your options up front could save you time and energy. A few minutes of smart online research could prevent hours of meetings with lawyers who are patently wrong for your case. It could also prevent you from overexposing yourself to the awkward “sales” situation created when lawyers try to pressure you into hiring their firms during the meetings.
Before you set up consultations with any attorneys, ask the lawyers you are considering to send you written information through the mail or email. Specifically, request the following:
A written outline or explanation of the process involved in your type of case;
A professional biography or curriculum vitae that summarizes the lawyer’s qualifications and experience;
A sample fee agreement that outlines the fees and costs the lawyer will charge you; and
A written confirmation of professional responsibility insurance (a/k/a legal malpractice coverage) of at least one million dollars.
If any lawyers refuse or fail to produce these basic materials upon request BEFORE you meet with them, watch out!
Experience is incredibly important. Hiring a “green” lawyer could be disastrous. Do not assume all attorneys have the experience necessary to handle your case properly. Not all lawyers have “paid their dues” obtaining the quality experience you need.
The first aspect of experience to consider is the length of each lawyer’s legal career. In general, you should probably avoid rookie lawyers if you can afford a more experienced attorney. However, do not focus exclusively on how many years the attorneys have practiced law; question them about what they have been doing all those years. With regard to experience, quality is as important as quantity.
Next, you should examine the focus of attorney experience. For example, if you need an injury lawyer, determine how many similar injury cases the attorneys have handled, how many of those cases went to trial or settled, what results were achieved in those cases, etc.
Another aspect of experience worth exploring is employment history. Some prior jobs prove particularly helpful to preparing lawyers to handle certain types of cases. For example, if you have a criminal defense case, you should consider hiring a former prosecutor or public defender who has worked in that jurisdiction. If your matter is pending in a certain court, ask whether any of the attorneys have clerked for that judge.
Experience matters. The following is a list of helpful questions addressing experience that you should consider asking any attorneys you interview:
Every lawyer licensed to practice in Louisiana is technically “qualified” to handle your case. However, you should demand much more than this basic “qualification” in your attorney. Do not settle for the bare minimum.
Begin by considering intelligence. It will benefit you greatly if your lawyer is the “smartest person in the room” during trial and negotiations. Although IQ is difficult to measure, law school grades nevertheless provide valuable insight into attorneys’ intellectual capacity and legal analysis skills. Intelligence is just one of many qualifications to consider, but it is extremely important.
Publications are another window into attorneys’ capabilities. Ask lawyers whether they have published any articles, reports, or books. Materials written about your type of case can help you determine whether your expectations align with an attorney’s approach. Moreover, authors are typically respected as thought leaders and authorities.
Additional aspects to address are manner and appearance. Your attorney should be well-spoken with a professional demeanor. Regarding appearance, begin by verifying that the lawyers you are interviewing have quality websites. An impressive online presence is important in this day and age. Next, check out their office space. Is it clean and professional? Finally, analyze the personal appearance of the attorneys and their support staff. They need not be physically attractive, but their looks should be professional and appropriate. Your lawyer’s image should command respect.
When you hire a lawyer, you actually engage a law firm of legal professionals and support staff. For this reason, you should ask about the entire team of partners, associates, and staff. Who will answer and return your phone calls and emails? Will the lawyer handling your initial consultation appear at all hearings and meetings, or will a separate associate attorney be assigned? In short, take a moment to analyze the entire team, not just the lead lawyer.
Finally, a key qualification to consider is community involvement. The best lawyers serve both the legal industry and the community at large in leadership positions. Within the legal field, ask about participation in bar associations, Inns of Court, and other lawyer groups. Also, check to see if the attorneys have taught continuing legal education (CLE) courses for other attorneys and judges. Look for lawyers who have helped the greater community through non-legal civic groups. Top lawyers serve society through service organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis, and Jaycees, as well as PTAs, nonprofits, and public boards. You should hire an attorney who has not only participated in organizations as a member, but has lead these groups as an officer elected by their fellow members. Serving as president or treasurer of a community organization demonstrates that they have earned public trust.
The following questions about qualifications will help you interview attorneys for your case:
This topic can be awkward to address and difficult to evaluate, but it nevertheless remains extremely important. Your lawyer’s reputation could be critical to your success. Do not assume the lawyers you interview are widely respected. Rather, investigate their reputations via industry insiders, online legal directories, social media, word of mouth, awards, and actual client testimonials.
If you have access to judges, court reporters, bailiffs, or even other lawyers, bluntly ask them what they think of the attorneys you are considering to handle your case. This “courthouse gang” of local “insiders” would know better than most people which lawyers are the most capable.
Online legal directories are another excellent reputation resource. The most respected and popular directories are Martindale-Hubbell®, Avvo®, and Super Lawyers®. Unlike some less reputable sources, ratings in these directories are earned rather than purchased.
Perhaps the most credible source of this type is the Martindale-Hubbell® Peer Review Ratings™ system available at www.martindale.com. At over 130 years old, Martindale-Hubbell’s system is the trusted “granddaddy” of attorney ratings services. Moreover, due to its system of obtaining anonymous ratings from peer attorneys and judges, this directory provides a fairly objective indicator of a lawyer’s ethical standards and professional abilities. Ratings are based on attorneys’ legal knowledge, analytical capabilities, judgment, communication ability, and legal experience. Ideally, you should hire a lawyer rated AV Preeminent® by Martindale because this rating reflects an attorney recognized by judges and other lawyers as having achieved the height of professional excellence in legal ability and ethical standards.
Martindale-Hubbell® also provides client review ratings that allow actual clients to provide feedback on attorneys and evaluate their services. Martindale’s system asks clients questions that assess communication ability, quality of service, responsiveness and value for the money on specific matters for which they engaged the lawyers.
If Martindale-Hubbell® is the gray-bearded veteran of lawyer review services, Avvo.com is the scrappy up-and-comer. Since 2007, Avvo (short for “avvacato,” the Italian word for lawyer) has grown to become the world’s largest legal directory. It claims to rate over 95% of American lawyers. Avvo rates lawyers on a numerical scale from 1-10, with 10.0 Superb being the highest rating available. The Avvo rating is calculated using a mathematical model that considers the information shown in a lawyer’s profile, including a lawyer’s years in practice, disciplinary history, professional achievements and industry recognition – all factors that, in Avvo’s opinion, are relevant to assessing a lawyer’s qualifications. Avvo claims its method can help you find the right lawyer because it’s unbiased and easy to understand.
Another popular lawyer rating service is Super Lawyers®. With a selection process patented by The United States Patent and Trademark Office, Super Lawyers® selects its attorneys using peer nominations combined with third party research. Each candidate is evaluated on 12 indicators of peer recognition and professional achievement. Selections are made on an annual, state-by-state basis. Less than 5% of Louisiana attorneys make the Super Lawyers® list and less than half of that total make the Super Lawyers® Rising Stars list of exceptional lawyers under the age of 40. The lists are available at www.superlawyers.com.
In addition to online legal directories, the internet provides tremendous resources for reading reviews of attorneys by their clients. The two most popular places should be no surprise: Google and Facebook. Google is constantly improving its local services. Part of this process has been the evolution of Google+ Local, which allows people to review local businesses and other places they visit using a 5-star scale and comments. Facebook also rates local businesses using a 5-star scale and comments. For all lawyers and law firms that you are considering, check out their reviews on Google and Facebook. These online services are a great source of modern word-of-mouth information.
Awards are another indicator of a good reputation. With awards, it is important to consider the source and verify that the awards are not “for sale.” For example, some advertisers, like the telephone book, reportedly offer their advertising customers “awards” only if they purchase certain advertisements. Beware of “awards” that are for sale; these are a scam. A few awards you can trust are Martindale’s “Client Distinction Award” and Avvo’s “Client Choice Award.” They are earned through superior ratings from real clients, not bought.
Finally, client testimonials are perhaps the best source of reputation information. In addition to online reviews of attorneys by former clients, you should ask the lawyers you interview for copies of client satisfaction reviews, quotes, and other testimonials.
To research reputation, consider the following questions:
Once you request, receive, and review the written materials discussed above, it is time to consult the top lawyers on your list. This is perhaps the most important step in hiring the right attorney. This “initial consultation” process is important because it allows you to determine whether you like and trust the lawyers, and it permits the attorneys to decide whether they want to handle your case. Use this time to conduct a thoughtful interview. (A checklist with sample interview questions is provided at the end of this guide for your convenience.)
Accomplished lawyers will welcome your questions because they will take it as a sign that you have done your homework. It shows the attorneys that you take your case (and their job) very seriously. Remember that when you are interviewing an attorney, that lawyer is also interviewing you to see if he or she wants to take your case. A good lawyer would rather represent a truly prepared client—that is, a client who is committed to getting the best legal representation available.
If you dedicate yourself to a thorough attorney-client interview focusing on the lawyer’s experience, qualifications, and professional reputation, your chances of choosing the right lawyer for your case will increase tremendously. Therefore, you should not be afraid to interrogate the lawyers regarding these topics. Ask thoughtful, direct questions. Demand straight answers. Consider the information you obtain, and go with your instincts. It is important to be both comfortable with and confident in your attorney.
Parker Layrisson Law Firm