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Got a question about the law? Some issue been haunting you, and you really want to know the answer? Then you’ve found the right place. Here, real people ask questions and attorney Steven Shelton finds the answers. Got a question for “Ask a Lawyer”? Ask it here!

Remember: this information is generalized and for educational purposes only; it does not constitute legal advice. Before taking any course of action regarding the law, you should contact a lawyer. Each situation is unique, and competent legal advice cannot be given without all of the details, many of which may be confidential.

 

How Do I Pick an Attorney?

I need to hire an attorney. I’ve gotten a lot of advice on where I should look and what kinds of things I should look for, but none of the advice seems to be especially helpful. What’s the best way to find a good attorney from the perspective of someone who actually knows how the legal profession works?

Steven Shelton Responds:

When it comes to picking an attorney, there’s no one “right way” to do it. Nonetheless, it is a very important decision to make. It’s definitely not a smart idea to simply select an attorney at random and assume that he or she will be able to represent you, let alone represent you well. You obviously need to consider things like the attorney’s area of expertise (a tax attorney is probably not a good choice to represent you in your drunk driving case) and experience, but there are other things to consider, as well. You need to do a little work yourself to make sure you select the correct legal representation. Here is a short (and not comprehensive) list of things you should and should not do when selecting a lawyer.

Ask for recommendations. Lawyers can say anything they want about their services and their abilities, and you can’t expect them to say negative things about themselves in their advertising or on their website. (The old joke comes to mind about a customer asking a waitress “What do you recommend?” and she says, “The diner down the road.”) People who have actually been represented by an attorney can tell you if he or she did a good job, was knowledgeable, explained what was happening, answered all of the client’s questions, and obtained a good result. If you have one or more friends who have used a lawyer before, and they give glowing recommendations about that lawyer, then you probably have a good lead on an attorney to speak with. If, on the other hand, you consistently hear that the lawyer disappeared as soon as the retainer fee had been paid, you should steer clear. You can also find good reviews at places like AVVO.com and other lawyer referral services that allow actual clients to post reviews.

Consider the source. The counterpoint to asking for recommendations, of course, is that you need to know the reliability of the person you are asking. A person with a history of criminal convictions that are all “someone else’s fault” probably lacks credibility when he claims that he went to prison because his lawyer was incompetent. The same is also true of people who think they know more about the law (and usually, every other topic) than their lawyer. Also, pay attention to clues that tell you the circumstances under which your source experienced the attorney: a person who had a case with a great outcome may be happier than a person whose outcome was only “so-so”, but if the “so-so” result came from a case with very bad facts, the “so-so” outcome may be a better indicator of great work by the attorney than the great outcome (because easy cases requiring little work from the attorney frequently result in great outcomes).

Know what to ask (and what not to ask). The first question most people want to ask a potential lawyer is “How many cases have you won?” This is, in fact, a terrible question for any number of reasons:

  • Many people imagine the practice of law being like sports, where the athletes (in this case, the lawyers) go onto the field (here, the courtroom) and battle until there is a final victor. That’s not remotely how the practice of law works, and attorneys don’t keep “win-loss” records. Even if they did, what it means to “win” varies from case to case. Certainly, going to trial and obtaining a favorable jury verdict would count as a “win”, but trials are a fairly uncommon for a very good reason: trials are one of the worst ways to resolve a case. They are expensive, they are risky, and it takes a long time to go from the beginning of a case to a trial. So, in the end, even the party who “wins” at a trial often ends up losing in the end because of the money and time lost in the process. Plus, not every case is a “triable” case; where the facts are lop-sided against an attorney’s client and the attorney manages to minimize the damage (paying a fraction of the damages sought in a civil case, or obtaining a plea to a lower charge with a lenient sentence in a criminal matter, for example), then this might be a “win”, even though the client has an adverse judgment in the end. There are also many ways to “win” a case without a trial, especially in criminal cases: an attorney might be able to convince the prosecutor to simply dismiss the case (it is rare, but it happens), the client may be allowed to take advantage of a diversionary program that results in the case being dismissed after a probationary period, and so on.
     
  • Outcomes usually depend on the facts of the case, and attorneys who take a lot of cases with easy facts will typically have more “wins” that attorneys who take more difficult, complex cases. After all, the worst professional baseball player will still have an impressive batting average if he only plays against little league pitchers.
     
  • Whether a case is a “win” often depends on the client. A client may refuse to follow an attorney’s advice, sabotaging the case. Clients may also want outcomes that are less than the attorney could achieve because they are hesitant to go to trial or are simply satisfied to make the case “go away” no matter what it takes.

And so on. The better question to ask is, “How effective are you in getting the best possible result for your clients?” In the end, that is the only true metric of an attorney’s effectiveness.

Select an attorney who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. People have a tendency to believe what they want to believe, and there are any number of attorneys who will tell every potential client “You have a great case!” even when this is not true, then wait until the retainer check has cleared to tell them how bad the case really is. When you talk with an attorney, ask about all of the potential outcomes of a case. Do not phrase the questions in terms of “What can you get me?” This is a question that puts pressure on an attorney to go into “salesman mode”. Instead, ask “What are the potential outcomes, and why?” This puts the attorney in "analysis mode", and should give you a chance to really explore how the attorney thinks. If the attorney can explain to you honestly about all of the potential outcomes—good and bad—and give you a realistic assessment of your case from all angles, then you are far more likely to go into the relationship with this attorney fully informed.

Have realistic expectations. If you walk into an attorney’s office expecting the attorney to magically solve all of your problems, you will inevitably be disappointed. Attorneys are not magicians who can wave a wand, nor are they Jedi masters who can wave their hands and say to a prosecutor, “You will dismiss the charges” and make it happen. If you expect an attorney to have this magical power, you will be upset no matter what attorney you choose. Therefore, you should avoid attorneys who try to convince you that they can get results in this manner, as well as attorneys who tell you they have some kind of special connection to the prosecutor or judge that they can use to obtain special treatment. (Not only is this probably not true, it is highly unethical. Any attorney who will use unethical means in dealing with the courts will also use unethical means when dealing with you, so this should send up a huge red flag.)

Discuss the facts thoroughly. An attorney can not give you an honest, realistic assessment of your case if you do not give an honest, realistic description of the case. If you tell an attorney that you got into a fight with someone and leave out the part where you had a knife and that people were shooting video of the whole incident, then the attorney’s opinion of your case will probably change as the new facts become known. Assume that the attorney knows nothing about the case, and do not assume that you know which facts are and are not important. After all, if you were trained and qualified to make that kind of distinction, you probably would not need to hire an attorney.

Pick an attorney with whom you can relate. Remember that through the course of your case, you will need to work together and communicate effectively. Find an attorney with whom you can discuss your case--including the embarrassing parts--comfortably. This will help your attorney better understand your goals and help you place more trust in the person representing you.

Do not assume a higher rate means a better attorney. There are a certain number of people who live by the motto “you get what you pay for”, and assume that an attorney who charges $300 per hour must be “twice as good” as an attorney who charges $150 per hour. There is really little truth to this proposition; rates are typically set due to a variety of factors, including the attorney’s overhead (an attorney in a big, expensive office building will need to charge more than an attorney working from a less ritzy location), the attorney’s geographic location, the attorney’s typical or desired clientele, and the attorney’s experience or specialized areas of expertise. There are some attorneys--aware of the “more expensive must be better” mindset--who charge high rates merely to play into that perception. On the other hand, there are attorneys who charge lower rates because they want to be more accessible to clients who may not have the money to pay excessive rates but are still in need of skilled representation. While it is important to consider the rate the attorney charges for purposes of your own budgeting, it is foolish to assume that rates are any reflection on ability.

Look for signs that the attorney is familiar with (or can become familiar with) the practices of the court where your case will be heard. Every county has its own processes and local customs, and even judges within a court have different procedures that they want followed. An attorney who practices in that court frequently will be more likely to know the local practices and the temperaments and personalities of the judges. This does not mean that an “out of town” attorney is a bad idea; in fact, “out of towners” are sometimes more willing to confront a judge or prosecutor with whom they do not have to work daily. If you pick an “out of town” attorney, get some assurance that he or she will be able to learn the local practices. (And don’t sweat the little things; whether the judge wants you to check in with the clerk’s office or the court officer in the courtroom first is not a big deal, whereas failure to send a required “judge’s copy” of a motion may cause big problems for your case.)

In the end, how you decide which attorney you want to hire is up to you. However, by avoiding some common pitfalls and asking the right kinds of questions, you will have far more luck in finding one who can assist you in getting the best result possible.

 

 

 

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Information presented on this site is intended for educational purposes only and does not constitute—and should not be considered a substitute for—legal advice. Neither use of this website nor communications through it (including but not limited to messages in forums or answers in the “Ask a Lawyer” section) create an attorney-client relationship. For legal assistance, contact a lawyer.

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