One of the most common questions that people ask about lawyers is: How do I find the best lawyer? If you need a lawyer, for whatever reason, that is the right question to start your search. Choosing a lawyer should involve as much thought as buying a car. Lawyers are not cheap; people don’t choose lawyers for insignificant reasons; so choosing a lawyer should be done with care and thought.
As with any significant decision, you should begin by doing your due diligence. While car purchases are often made on impulse, the better approach is to do your homework before ever setting foot on the dealership lot, and that is just as true with choosing a lawyer. You are much more apt to find the right attorney for you if you do your homework.
Obviously, you should know what kind of lawyer you are looking for. If you need representation in a divorce, you might not want to go to a general litigator. If you need estate planning, you might not want to use your business attorney, unless your business attorney focuses a considerable amount of attention on estate planning. You need some focused experience, knowledge and skill. If you don’t know what kind of lawyer you need, you should research that first.
Ultimately, you are making a big personal decision when you retain an attorney. The attorney/client relationship is a personal one. It’s a trust relationship. You want to look for a good personal connection with the attorney you choose, and trust your gut. Some lawyers may look good “on paper”, but you are hiring a person, not a resume.
Trusting your gut alone can be somewhat dangerous, especially if your gut feeling is nothing more than an impulse. That’s why doing your homework first so you can narrow the choices before making a final decision is so important. As with a car purchase, you can do your research without ever stepping into a law office. Friends, family and people you know are good resources. A personal referral with a good recommendation is always worth considering. Don’t just ask for a name, however, ask questions and get more facts and details about the relationship and the experience of the person making the recommendation.
Whether you have a recommendation or not, Google is your friend. When you start your search, don’t just go with the top names that pop up. These people are likely the ones who have paid the most for advertising and/or have a good marketing strategy, but that doesn’t make them the best attorneys. Dig deeper than that.
One good tool is lawyers.com. Other sites have ratings, but most ratings are based on things as superficial as how complete the profile is. Lawyers.com ratings are based on client and peer reviews that are not controlled by the attorneys, and they are not based on the amount of time the lawyer has spent polishing her profile online.
But that isn’t enough either. You need to go to the attorney’s website. Get a feel for who the attorney is. Look past the polish and get under the hood. What is this person really like?
Ask questions. Do the websites reveal a high degree of competence? Are they friendly and inviting? Or do they simply have the feel of a hired gun? Many attorney websites are “canned”. Most or all of the content is generic, borrowed from outside sources. Do the websites reveal an authenticity that comes from the attorneys themselves? Or is it a facade?
Online reviews can be a valuable tool. Don’t be completely swayed by a bad review. Attorneys by the nature of what they do often have unhappy clients. Sometimes the attorney has earned a bad review, but sometimes a client’s anger, disappointment and bitterness with an outcome is projected upon the attorney in spite of the attorney doing a good job.
Still, online reviews are a good measure. Too many bad reviews is a good indication that you should steer clear. Read what people are actually saying. Does it sound like puffery and shallow promotion? Or is it genuine and heartfelt? All along you should be looking for clues about who these people are that you may possibly retain to represent you in this significant matter that lies before you.
After you have done these things, you are ready to make some calls or send some emails. When you do this, you want to get a feel for what the office environment is like. Are the staff friendly? Do they seem competent? The office environment is often a clue about what the attorney is like. Of course, you can always find someone having a bad day, a new hire, or an outlier. As you do your homework, no single factor should dictate what you do; rather, you are “making a case” with the collective information you gather in order to make a good decision.
Finally, you want to spend some time communicating with the attorney before you make a decision. That communication might be in person; it might be over the phone; or it might even be by email. You want to have some personal interaction that gives you a feel for who the attorney is. How does she project herself? How knowledgeable and competent is he? Is she truly interested in you, or is she just trying to get you in the door?
If the attorney offers a free consultation, set one up. Don’t expect to get legal advice for free, though. Free consultations are for kicking the tire to be sure this attorney is a good fit. If the attorney will talk to you on the phone, or by email, that is the next best thing.
Many people make the mistake of launching into their life stories at this stage in the process. An attorney doesn’t have time for that. They are not going to give you free legal advice, and you will not get the answers to the key questions that you have by that approach. A succinct statement of what you need will suffice. You are better off spending the little bit of time you have trying to understand what kind of person this attorney is so that you have some confidence to retain him, or to strike him off the list.
Ultimately, the attorney/client relationship is a personal, trust relationship. You can look for a hired gun, but you won’t get anything more than that. A good attorney is an adviser and a counselor. A good attorney is a personal resource that goes beyond your immediate legal needs. An attorney in which you have trust and confidence is an extremely valuable resource and spending time and doing your due diligence to make a good decision is extremely important.