- Complex Litigation
- Family Law
- Criminal Defense
- Personal Injury
- Civil Litigation
- Stalking/Restraining Orders
- Estate Planning
A Lawyer’s Guide to Hiring a Lawyer (Choosing an Advocate You Can Trust)
This book is for individuals and families who need to know how to go about hiring a lawyer. It’s all about educating yourself. If you are reading this, you might be someone who has been arrested or charged with a crime, or someone who is going through a divorce. You might be someone who has not been arrested, but worry that you will be. You might be a worried spouse, partner, family member or friend of someone who could be entering the criminal or civil justice system. Or you might simply be someone who adheres to the Boy Scout Motto, “Be Prepared!”
There are many important considerations that go into selecting a lawyer. You will find that there is no one right way to locate, interview, and make the decision to hire a lawyer. In our experience, people who are better informed before they even begin the process of trying to find a lawyer are generally better satisfied with their ultimate choice. Also, those that follow their gut instincts about the attorneys they interview tend to be happier with their choice.
In the chapters that follow, we have provided the information that we believe is vital to know before you step into a lawyer’s office for that first meeting. When you meet with a lawyer for the first time, you need to know what you are looking at, what you are looking for, the right questions to ask, and whether or not the information you are receiving is helpful and accurate.
COURT APPOINTED VERSUS RETAINED ATTORNEYS
This only applies to hiring a criminal defense attorney but may also apply to someone using a legal aid lawyer for a domestic violence or divorce case. There are many individuals in this country who cannot, for whatever reason, afford to hire an attorney to represent and advise them. They should not despair, as the right to counsel for a criminal defendant in this country is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Generally, if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be “appointed” for you when you first appear in court. You will not get to choose which court-appointed attorney, but you will not have to go it alone – unless you have a divorce or other civil matter, where pro se (self-represented) litigation has become increasingly common.
Even if you qualify for court-appointed counsel, should you accept that attorney’s representation or should you beg and borrow money from your friends and family to help you retain an attorney of your choice? Read on. If you observe in your appointed attorney some or all of the concerns we raise in this book, you may want to consider trying to find out whether retaining an attorney of your choice is possible.
FIRST THING YOU NEED—A NAME
So you want to meet with an attorney. Where do you start? The first thing you need is a name of a potential lawyer. Ideally, you would want to assemble a list of at least three to five potential lawyers to vet and consider. Once you have a name, you can get to work. But where do you get a name?
Generally, the best way to get the name of a potential attorney is from someone who has previously hired that attorney, or someone who can vouch for the attorney’s experience, personality, and reputation. If your uncle, brother, sister, cousin, best friend, or co-worker hired an attorney and was overwhelmingly pleased with that attorney’s services, that attorney should be on the top of your list.
Referrals from others is the traditional way to hire an attorney for your divorce, business, car accident, or wills and trusts. However, many people are too embarrassed to ask for a criminal defense attorney referral or do not known anyone who has gone through the criminal justice system. That’s okay. If you get the name of a trusted lawyer who does not practice criminal defense, you can still contact them to get a referral to a criminal defense lawyer.
Nowadays, most people find the most success starting with the internet. They simply Google “criminal defense lawyers” or other relevant search terms. Most attorneys will have professional websites, Facebook page reviews, Avvo.com accounts with high rankings, and a list of awards and achievements following them around. While rankings and awards are helpful, there is no substitute for the direct pipeline of information you will obtain from that attorney’s current or former clients. Does the attorney return phone calls? Does that attorney deliver on his promises? Does that attorney keep you sufficiently informed about what is happening in the case? Is the attorney honest? The only way to truly know the answers to these questions is to be the client of the attorney.
Direct information from former clients is worth its weight in gold. In the same way you look for names of attorneys you might want to hire, you can also use your friends and family to help you cross off some potential candidates. But remember to take all of your recommendations with a grain of salt. Is your friend the kind of person who is dissatisfied with every service she receives? Or is she the kind of person who trusts everyone and sees faults in no one?
There may be reasons in your situation why getting the names of direct referrals is not an option. You may not want anyone to know or suspect that you are even in the position of needing to hire a criminal defense attorney. Or you just may not know anyone who knows any attorneys. If you can’t get names from people you trust, your next step would be to find some names on your own. There are a handful of ways that people get names for lawyers if they don’t have a referral source: your state bar’s referral service, the yellow pages, and the internet.
In most states, the state bar organization will maintain an attorney referral service. Simply Google “[your state] state bar lawyer referral service.” Attorneys who are looking for clients register with the service. People who are looking for an attorney in a particular area of practice can obtain the name and contact information for an attorney by calling the service hotline. After that, it is generally the potential client’s job to follow up and contact the attorney to schedule an appointment to meet.
Not every state bar referral will result in an engagement. The client and the attorney still have to vet each other and come to an agreement about the scope and the cost of representation. However, if you don’t have any other options, these types of referral services can be a good place to start. Some referral services will even have a “modest means” program for those who can’t afford the cost of an attorney. Attorneys who are willing to consult with modest means clients register separately for this service, so potential clients don’t have to waste their time trying to consult with lawyers that they can’t afford. But, as with most things, you get what you pay for and the client is often better served with a court-appointed lawyer for free in a criminal case. However, many of the divorce lawyers who register for a modest means program can be young, ambitious, and doing their best to impress. They could be a better alternative than going it alone.
Before the internet, the yellow pages advertisements were a huge source of revenue for phonebook companies. The ads would vary from a simple line in the listing, name and phone number, down to a multi-page color, glossy spread with photographs of the attorneys standing in front of books or expansive downtown views. There was often little to be gained for the potential client besides some names, phone numbers, an idea of the practice area, and maybe an idea of what they attorney looks like (young, old, male, female, etc.). However, with the meteoric rise of the world wide web, many attorneys have scaled back their yellow pages advertising, or eliminated the ads in their entirety, in favor of trying to attract clients through websites and professionally edited online videos. Many attorneys continue to advertise in the yellow pages to try and capture the web-adverse, such as senior citizens. It seems to be a dwindling population. The yellow pages are a good place to get names, but the information you receive there is incredibly minimal given space restrictions.
Opening up your favorite search engine and typing in “[practice area] lawyer” will likely return thousands of potential candidates, although Google has lately been limiting the geographic area based on your location automatically. We recommend that you narrow your search to include the name of the city, state, court, and type of case you need assistance with, unless you are in a small town with slim pickings for lawyers. In that case, you are often best served by going to the next largest town or the main metropolitan area nearby. Right or wrong, many clients look skeptically on small town lawyers, particularly in criminal defense cases. They fear that they are too close to “the system” and do not want to anger judges or prosecutors. In effect, they go along to get along. That is the fear at least.
The top attorney websites you will see using Google are paid spots through Adwords. As of the publication of this book, Adwords’ paid spots are distinguished from “organic” listings with a small green box to the left of the webpage address with the letters “Ad” inside. Feel free to click on those links, but know that the reason they pop up first is because an attorney is shelling out some cash to get in front of your eyes first. In larger markets, it could be upwards of $100 per click. As of October 2016, the average bid for “Portland Oregon personal injury lawyer” is $64.22 per click. For “phoenix personal injury lawyer” the average bid is $148.42. However, in the smaller market of North Dakota, the term “Fargo car accident lawyers” is still relatively high at $54.70.
The organic (nonpaid) listings are often better at informing the consumer than Google’s paid ads. Google’s mysterious search algorithm currently rewards content. The more relevant content on the website, the higher it will rank. This means that a lawyer with lots of information relevant to your practice area is going to rank higher. This means the lawyer either paid a lot for a web developer or actually put pencil to paper and wrote down what they know about your case type.
Still, we recommend going through at least the first couple pages of Google results to get a feel for who is practicing criminal defense in your community. While you won’t get the personal information you’d receive in a direct referral, you will get several names to vet and might even learn a little about your type of case, making you more informed in vetting lawyers. To keep track of your research, right click on the websites that interest you to open them into a separate search window. Or, you might want to consider logging relevant information in a spreadsheet with columns that include name, city, years of practice, number of attorneys at firm, support staff to attorney ratio, representative cases, reviews, other notes, etc.
Next, peruse the attorney’s website to get an idea about the attorney and his/her practice philosophies. Peruse their representative cases to see if they truly are experienced in your practice area or if they are dabbling in it because business is slow. Make a list of the top three to five and start making contact, either by requesting contact on their website or by calling their office.