How do you choose the best lawyer for your needs? Legal services are like any other product: the wise consumer conducts thorough research before making an informed decision. Once you secure several lawyer referrals with expertise in the appropriate practice area, you should carefully research each candidate (for tips on how to find a good lawyer, see How to Find a Lawyer). Below are five steps to choosing the best lawyer for your legal needs.
1. Conduct candidate interviews. One of the best ways to assess a lawyer’s legal ability is by interviewing the lawyer. Most attorneys will provide an initial consultation (usually an hour or less) at no charge. A few important questions to ask during this meeting are:
- What experience does the lawyer have in your type of legal matter?
- How long has he been in practice?
- What is his track record of success?
- What percentage of his caseload is dedicated to handling your type of legal problem?
- Does he have any special skills or certifications?
- What are his fees and how are they structured?
- Does he carry malpractice insurance? If so, how much?
- Who else would be working on your case and what are their rates?
- Does he outsource any key legal tasks for functions?
- What additional costs may be involved in addition to lawyer fees (postage, filing fees, copy fees, etc.)?
- How often will you be billed?
- Can he provide references from other clients?
- Does he have a written fee agreement or representation agreement?
- How will he inform you of developments in your case?
Keep in mind that a higher fee does not necessarily equate with a more qualified attorney. Also, a rock bottom fee may signal problems, inexperience or incompetency.
After meeting with the lawyer, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Is the lawyer’s experience and background compatible with your legal needs?
- Did he provide prompt and courteous responses to your questions?
- Is he someone with whom you would be comfortable working?
- Are you confident he possesses the skills and experience to handle your case?
- Are you comfortable with the fees and how they are structured?
- Are you comfortable with the terms of the fee agreement and/or representation agreement?
2. Consult Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. Found on-line at Martindale.com and at your local public and law libraries, Martindale-Hubbell is a great resource for information about a law firm and its lawyers. This guide is often used by lawyers themselves when choosing legal talent in another jurisdiction. The directory includes basic practice profile data on virtually every lawyer in the United States and Canada and detailed professional biographies of leading lawyers and firms in 160 countries. It also includes lawyer and law firm ratings based upon peer reviews which may help when choosing between two equally qualified candidates.
3. Ask other attorneys. Lawyers know the skill and reputation of other lawyers. Attorneys may be able to provide information about a fellow lawyer that you may not find in a book or online such as information about a lawyer’s ethics, competence level, demeanor, practice habits and reputation.
4. Conduct a background check. Before hiring any lawyer, contact the lawyer disciplinary agency in your state to confirm that the lawyer is in good standing as a member of the bar. For an online listing of each state's lawyer disciplinary agency, review this directory of lawyer disciplinary agencies. You should always check references, especially if you located the attorney through the Internet. You can also check a lawyer’s peer review ratings online at Martindale.com. Peer review ratings provide an objective indicator of a lawyer's ethical standards and professional ability, generated from evaluations of lawyers by other members of the bar and the judiciary in the United States and Canada.
5. Tour the lawyer’s law office. You can tell a lot about an attorney from his law office. Request a brief tour of his office, beyond the office or conference room where you met with the lawyer. Is the law office neat, orderly, efficient and well-run? What kind of support staff does the lawyer employ? Does staff appear friendly and helpful? Is the lawyer’s office local and easily accessible? Is a large portion of his office space unoccupied? Watch for red flags such as mass disarray, unhappy staff members, empty offices and unreturned phone calls.
By taking these five steps, you can select a lawyer with the legal skills and personal qualities that will best serve your needs.