HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT LAWYER

by William Dickerman, Esq.

 

     Guy walks into the Bar, asks for a beer. “Sorry,” the Bar-keep replies, “no beer for you! But I’ll give you something better, and for free: a primer on how to go about choosing the right lawyer.” And here is what he told me:

Lawyers vary in quality more than perhaps any other professionals. Passing the Bar Exam means merely that the student knew enough law and could conduct the minimal amount of analysis necessary to begin to handle legal matters. A law license tells nothing about the person’s honesty, integrity, emotional stability, judgment, interpersonal skills, and other critical intangibles.

It therefore falls to the client to protect himself (“him” includes “her” in this article) when retaining a lawyer, lest he invite the kind of unfortunate situation I see too often: A client frantic with fear and anxiety because his trial is imminent and his lawyer just bowed out because he was disbarred, or is unprepared, or can’t take the pressure, or he squandered his client’s money, etc. I got a call recently from an overwrought fellow whose trial was to begin in three weeks, and who had just discovered his “lawyer” wasn’t, in fact, a lawyer. And that was the good news: The bad news was that no desirable attorney was likely to play Lone Ranger, after a year’s litigation that was in disarray.

Such scenarios can easily be avoided, as can more “ordinary” instances of unhappiness with chosen counsel—which I am called on regularly to cure. That requires careful investigation, including personal referrals, if possible; checking out the lawyer’s discipline status with the State Bar; using search engines to see what’s been written about the lawyer (aka Google); examining his website; scrutinizing his academic and professional credentials; and interviewing him with questions designed to determine if he’s the right lawyer for you. Here are, from my experience, some of the factors that are most likely to lead to success and avoid disaster:

Make sure the person you’re considering is a lawyer.

     This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how often imposters are discovered handling legal matters and ruining them. If you don’t check the person out with the State Bar, you won’t know for sure. Their website (http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/MemberSearch/QuickSearch) will tell you that and much other useful information.

Investigate the lawyer’s disciplinary record.

     It, too, is available at the State Bar’s website. Lawyers are disciplined for numerous transgressions—ranging from relatively minor sins such as improperly promoting themselves, to serious wrongdoing such as commingling personal and client funds. Many clients who were unaware of their lawyers’ malfeasance would not have hired them if they’d known.

Demand competence and experience for your legal matter.

     Lawyers used to be generalists; now many more of us are specialized. A generalist might be adequate to write a simple contract, petition for an uncontested marriage dissolution, or obtain a default in a lawsuit, which do not call for expertise and the high fees that expertise tends to command. But the law is constantly expanding as the lawmakers go about their jobs with alacrity, and that means that many matters require someone who is well-versed in a narrow practice area.Learn whether yours is one. It is altogether proper to ask the candidate to explain how many matters of your type he has handled, and what his results have been. Keep in mind that in this tight economy, attorneys are suffering as much as anyone else, and may be tempted to take on matters for which they’re not truly suited. You might also ask the lawyer to allow you to contact a couple of clients for whom he has handled a similar matter. Happy clients are often willing to consult with prospective clients.

Hire a busy lawyer.

     Legal matters are expensive.A lot may be at stake, and doing things right takes time by a skillful lawyer. Manage that expense by avoiding the practitioner who has all the time in the world to attend to you. True to Parkinson’s Law, the work may expand to fit the time available for its completion. Because the busy lawyer is not too dependent on the income from your matter, he will likely charge a reasonable fee.

Retain a lawyer who will be attentive to you and your concerns.

     I am often asked to take over for an attorney who all but disappeared after he got the case.Having volunteered in the Bar’s attorney-client dispute resolution program, I think it’s safe to say that the most common complaint is that the lawyer doesn’t communicate with the client. “My attorney won’t talk to me”; ”he doesn’t return my calls”; “he doesn’t keep me advised on the status of the case”.That is inexcusable. Find out if the candidate is one of those attorneys; if he is, look elsewhere. If not, get his written commitment to keep you informed; to return phone calls within 24 hours; to copy you on all important documents; to oversee the matter personally rather than fob it off on someone else; and, by no means least, to seek your input on crucial issues before incurring substantial fees and expenses.

Go with your gut feeling.

     Retain only someone whom you trust, with whom you feel safe, and who you believe really cares about you as a client, not a meal ticket.

     The foregoing are only some of the many factors to consider. (For some particular suggested inquiries of lawyers whom you interview, see the page What to Askon our website) If you take these suggestions to heart, you’ll likely have a positive client-attorney experience.

 

William Dickerman, the principal attorney of Dickerman & Associates, has been litigating business, real estate, and other commercial and personal lawsuits for over 30 years in and around Los Angeles. For more information, go to www.dickermanlaw.com. This article is not meant to constitute legal advice; please consult and rely only on competent counsel after a thorough review of your individual circumstances.

© William Dickerman 2015 - All Rights Reserved.