- Complex Litigation
- Family Law
- Criminal Defense
- Personal Injury
- Civil Litigation
- Stalking/Restraining Orders
- Estate Planning
Meeting with your attorney for the first time
When you first meet with your attorney, you should be pleased with what you see. If you hire this person, he or she will represent you. They will stand for you and speak for you. We aren’t talking about age, race, or gender. We are talking primarily about style and neatness of appearance. The attorney should be dressed professionally, unless you were notified in advance that the attorney was coming from farm chores or from something that required alternative clothing. The attorney should look you in the eye and speak to you directly. Shake his or her hand, and decide whether that handshake tells you anything. On your side, make sure you shake their hand firmly and look them in the eye. Check to see if they are doing the same to you. Old-fashioned values would question the attorney’s character depending on the quality and strength of their handshake.
You may meet with the attorney in a conference room, instead of his office workspace. There is less information to be gleaned from a conference room, but you can still look around and observe whether it is neat and tidy. The fact that an office is big enough to support a conference room is also a good sign.
If you meet with the attorney in the attorney’s office, you’ve hit the jackpot. You can learn so much from being in the attorney’s sanctuary. When you get into their office, look around. Is it messy? Are there?files everywhere? And if there are, does he laugh and explain to you that he is preparing for a trial next week or does it look like there are things on the desk from months ago? Is there confidential client information that is face up on his desk? Also, any attorney that has internal calendaring mechanisms that are essentially reminder-by-stacks-on-the-desk (aka the “pile method”) is going to be a problem. Failing to manage cases and deadlines is where a lot of malpractice occurs, especially where an attorney is only working on whatever file is on top of the stack. Being a successful lawyer is mainly about managing deadlines. A sloppy office can be, but not always, indicative of a lawyer who is not responding timely to matters that require attention.
For any case that is set for trial, the most likely indicators of success are how well organized and prepared the case is. If you meet with an attorney who has stuff everywhere all the time, then you have to look forward to how that might play out at hearings or trial. If the attorney can’t get his own office organized, then he may struggle to get your case organized when you finally get to some place where this really matters.
Finding the Right Fit
I often tell clients that picking an attorney is more difficult than picking a spouse (at least it should be). When you have a marriage that doesn’t work out, you get a divorce. It’s sad. It’s messy. There are tears. It’s probably expensive. But when it is over, you get to go out into the world and rebuild your life. If you pick an attorney poorly in your criminal case, it’s messy, there are tears, and you go to prison. And you can’t undo prison with a simple divorce, i.e. a malpractice claim or post-conviction relief, because you are in prison and that can’t be undone without a time machine or a magic wand. Therefore, you must make the choice that you can live with for the rest of your life.
To do so you want to make sure you and your attorney are a perfect fit. There’s no sense of hiring Perry Mason as your lawyer if you don’t feel comfortable with him as your lawyer. You may already be going through some hard times in some of the lowest moments of your life. You need to be able to look him in the eye and trust that he is working in your best interest.
In that first interview, if you don’t trust him or you get some sort of bad feeling about him, go to the next person on your list. Go to another local “big name” or go to John Doe who has no name for himself but appears to be a hard worker and has met the other criteria we discussed in this book – so long as you have a good fit.
This is vital because the fit is everything. You are going to be sitting next to this person for days or weeks at a trial. If you don’t trust them at the beginning, this will be the most uncomfortable experience of your life.
One common question that clients will have during initial consultations is about the attorney’s “win-loss record.” This is a loaded question in the sense that it is difficult to answer it in a meaningful way that will assist the potential client. The cases that go to trial are often unique and may be the toughest cases. If the potential attorney is doing a lot of trials, the experience of the trial is often more important than the result. Attorneys don’t really get to choose when to take a case to trial. Clients ultimately decide if the case goes to trial. The attorney goes to trial even if it hurts an attorney’s win-loss record. That notwithstanding, a good lawyer will have the trust of his client regarding the propriety of taking a case to trial and a good lawyer will have a pretty good record at predicting the success at trial, thus reducing the unsuccessful results. The better question, therefore, might be this: “How accurate are you at predicting the results of trial?”
What is most important is actual trial experience. Ancient trial experience may as well be never. If an attorney is living off their reputation from 10 or 20 years ago, that is a problem. The rules of evidence change, the law changes and, most importantly, if you don’t sharpen your tools frequently, they get dull and they are useless. We are trial attorneys. We can sometimes feel a bit rusty after only an absence of a few months from the courtroom, especially with jury selection and with objections. Trial experiences and abilities are “use ’em or lose ’em” tools.
There are some instances where an attorney who has five to seven years of consistent trial experience might be a better fit for you than an attorney who has been practicing for 20 to 25 years. If that older and more experienced lawyer hasn’t recently been to trial as frequently as the other individual, then they might be equal in terms of value.
Another thing about the win-loss record that makes that question really difficult to answer is that the attorney and the potential client are going to have different definitions of what counts as a win. A potential client who is inexperienced in the justice system is going to look at any outcome that results in a conviction as a loss for that other client. However, in a lot of cases where a client has been arrested and charged, a jail sentence after trial that is better than the offer or a settlement that is better than a risky trial outcome, is considered a win – especially when the client is actually guilty.
If someone is facing 25 years to life imprisonment and gets offered a guaranteed result where he is out in two years, that client (who doesn’t really want to go to jail) is still going to be satisfied with the outcome even though he is going to jail. A potential client will only see that jail outcome, without knowing all the facts. The potential client is never truly going to know an attorney’s win-loss record without knowing the ins and outs of the attorney’s cases, something the attorney is generally prevented from disclosing in much detail due to his duties of confidentiality. For the most part, the win-loss record is not a useful question and if an attorney gives you some win-loss record in response, question what it really means. They might just be selling you a bill of goods.
Instead of a win-loss-record, you should ask the attorney to tell you about their experience in cases like yours. He may give you war stories about a civil litigation case instead. That might be good because broad experience that allows an attorney to transfer experience and lessons learned may be a good fit for you. For example, if you are accused of vehicular homicide, your attorney might explain that he has worked on plaintiff’s personal injury cases involving similar accident scenarios that needed to be recreated by an accident reconstructionist. This civil case experience means that he has the relationships to do your criminal case already, as well as the experience and know-how to interpret the physics and engineering data. This civil experience is a good thing for your situation.
The most common case where experience matters is in the “every-man case” of drunk driving and divorce. These practice areas draw clients from every background and socio-economic status. The most common case where folks are looking for attorneys is for DUII/DWI charges or divorce/custody cases.
DUI cases are unique in the sense that you essentially need a DUI specialist to handle those. War stories about defending DUI cases are important to let the attorney talk to you about situations that they have encountered and how they think they can relate it or transfer the experience to your case. This is vital because of the complexities of DUI prosecution and defense. Even most police officers will confess that DUIs are more complicated to handle than murder cases due to the science and technical issues involved.