Thursday, September 15, 2011

What to look for when hiring a lawyer

Every day in my practice I have at least one person come into my office with a tale of woe about a bad experience with a prior lawyer.
   Most of the people with such stories tell me they paid a lawyer a great deal of money and when it came time for the lawyer to perform the lawyer didn't perform to the level of the client's expectations.
   Many others complain that they paid too much, or were overcharged by their prior lawyer.
   Still others feel like their lawyer didn't care about them.
   So, here's some tips on what to look for when hiring a lawyer.
   First: Make sure the lawyer has experience in the type of case you have. If you have a felony criminal case, for example a sex crime allegation, you need to make sure that the lawyer has experience in that type of case AND that the lawyer has actually won not guilty verdicts in sex crimes cases.
   Second: Look online. Many lawyers have websites. Look and see what they list as the areas of law in which they practice. If you have a criminal case and the lawyer's website focuses on personal injury claims, perhaps that lawyer doesn't focus on your type of case.
    Look at legal referral websites, such as Many of these websites not only list lawyers, they also rate them and allow clients and fellow lawyers to rate them. Also check, a service of Martindale-Hubbell, a legal rating service. You will get a very candid look into what others think about the lawyer you are considering.
    Then check out sites like Google News to see if a newspaper story was published showing that the lawyer you are considering won a not guilty verdict in a newsworthy case. If the lawyer you are considering has won a not guilty verdict in a case that's noteworthy enough for the media to cover it, that tells you the lawyer can try a tough case even under intense scrutiny.
     Third: Go to a consultation with the lawyer. Most lawyers give free consultations. Many charge for the initial visit. Personally, I believe a lawyer who charges for the initial meeting is charging you because he doesn't think you'll end up a client. I believe a lawyer needs to always consider the initial consultation as a two-way information gathering session. The lawyer needs to learn about the client and the client needs to learn about the lawyer.
     When you arrive for the consultation, look at the lawyer's office. You should see a wall full of credentials, such as the lawyer's college degree and law degree. You should see the lawyer's certificates of admission -- the certificates which state which courts have admitted the lawyer to practice. You should look for the lawyer's Martindale Hubbell rating and/or AVVO rating prominently displayed.
    When you talk to the lawyer, ask the lawyer about his experience and qualifications. Ask about how many cases similar to yours that the lawyer has tried and won. Ask how many of his cases are tried versus how many are settled.
     If the lawyer is casual and answers your questions freely,you're off to a good start. Many clients tell me about how standoffish their prior lawyer was. I get complimented all the time because I am personable and don't rush a client. I listen to them and I ask questions. I never rush that free consultation. That's because a good lawyer knows that he's looking to establish a trust with the client. Also, a good lawyer knows when to NOT take a case. Sometimes a case is so different from the lawyer's experience that the lawyer must walk away. For example, I'm a criminal defense lawyer. I don't take worker's compensation claims or civil cases or anything except criminal cases.
     Fourth: Ask the lawyer to spell out his fees in writing. Many clients tell me that their prior lawyer simply named a price and that the price was given as an all-or-nothing quote. This is dangerous for the client because the lawyer isn't spelling out what the services are for that price, how that fee is earned, and what additional -- if any -- fees will arise.
      If you are sitting talking to a lawyer and that lawyer is vague about fees, watch out! A good lawyer puts his fees in writing, explains what the fee entails and, even more importantly, what they do not entail. I spell out in a fee contract exactly what my fees are, how they're to be paid, how I earn those fees, and unlike most lawyers, I put a cap on my fees plainly in my fee contract. This is important because many attorneys quote a fee to a potential client without telling the client that the fee is only a partial retainer.
     And ask for a copy of the fee contract and attorney/client contract. If a lawyer has a written contract or contracts and is willing to give you copies, that's a good sign. Never hire a lawyer who won't put in writing what your agreement is.
     For example, many people who are accused of crimes come to my office for a consultation. They tell me about lawyers who quote outrageously low fees. I ask them if the lawyer told them that was the total fee. Most of the time they say no. Many lawyers will charge a rock bottom fee to get the client but want an additional fee down the road. For example, a criminal defendant hires a lawyer for a rape case and pays that lawyer $1,500 retainer. The client thinks he's paid the lawyer in full. The lawyer doesn't tell the cilent that the fee is only for getting the client a plea bargain. Lawyers call that a "fee to plea." If the case doesn't plea bargain, the client is suddenly (and usually on the eve of trial) told by the lawyer that an additional $5,000 fee is needed immediately in order for the lawyer to try the case. Also, beware of lawyers who charge outrageous rates, such as the lawyer who charges $150 per phone call. That's unconscionable, but I've seen lawyers get away with it.
     You need to look for a lawyer who spells out his fees. Period. Also, the lawyer who puts his fees in writing is saying explicitly that he's living by his quote.
     Fifth: Look for a lawyer who doesn't promise you any particular result. Many people mess up and hire lawyers who tell the client that "this case is going to be dismissed!" Or, "This case is guaranteed not guilty!" Any lawyer who guarantees a result is lying to you and breaking the rules. No lawyer can predict an outcome and no lawyers is allowed to. But they often do! You want a lawyer who lays out in detail the case against you, explains the possible strategies to attack the case and win, and then gives you a candid assessment of your chances.
     Also, don't ever hire a lawyer who tells you "I can get you off because I know the (judge)(prosecutor)(cop)(court clerk)..." All lawyers know these people, and trust me none of them will change the outcome of any cases solely because they know a lawyer. That's absurd. The same goes for lawyers who say that if you can find someone else to take the rap, you'll be fine. That's make believe.
    So, if you're looking for a lawyer, keep in mind that with some intelligent inquiry you will be able to choose a good lawyer for your case.

(Required by Alabama Law: No representation is made that the quality of legal services performed is greater than other lawyers.)

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