- Complex Litigation
- Family Law
- Criminal Defense
- Personal Injury
- Civil Litigation
- Stalking/Restraining Orders
- Estate Planning
Lawyer-Client Speed Dating: The Mutual Evaluation
Before you call that office for the first time, also try to keep in mind that not only are you interviewing them to be your attorney, but they are also going to be interviewing you to see if they want?you?to be their client. First impressions matter there too. For example, our office turns down far more cases than we accept and many times that is?because?we just don’t think it’s the right fit. That’s a?polite?way of saying, “I am not sure I?like you and want to spend a lot of time with you.” And if we don’t like you, we don’t want to help you; that’s one of the beauties of capitalism. So, if you are mistreating the staff or being rude, your money may not be good there. Keep that in mind. Be professional. Be polite. They should be doing the same to you. Always follow the Golden Rule.
The same attitude is true when you get an?appointment?and you visit the?lawyer’s?office. The first impressions matter there too. When you go into the office, pay attention. You are evaluating the attorney and the attorney’s office but the attorney is also evaluating you, your appearance and your?demeanor. A sophisticated attorney is imagining what it would be like to represent you for days or weeks or months or maybe even years depending on how?long?your case could go on.
The First Office Meeting
You’ve walked into your attorney’s office reception/waiting area for your first appointment. If the office is spartan or one that just doesn’t feel welcoming, take that for what it is. Your impressions are going to have to be variable there. There are plenty of small town rural lawyers with very frugal offices that are of super high quality. However, you are still really going to learn a lot when you take a look around the lobby. How clean is it? Are they offering coffee, soda, or water? They should offer you something to make your wait more comfortable. These little things are important.
You also need to listen to the phone calls that are coming in with the receptionists. How is she speaking to these people? Is she speaking about confidential information in front of you? This will show the sloppiness or the high-quality nature of an office based upon their front office staff. Are the staff?polite? If the staff member is impolite or rude to other clients on the phone while you are waiting and listening in, they are going to be rude to you later. Everybody has a bad day now and again, but overall you should have a pleasant experience during that first encounter.
Look around, what does this law firm look like? Does it need to be?glitzy?and full of?granite?and gold? No, but glitz and gold can be a concern. If you walk into a law office and there’s?hardwood?trim 12 inches wide around the doors, along the floor and on the ceiling, you have to wonder, where are the attorney fees going? Are they going to support gold-plated bookends or are they going to support staff that actually help improve client services?
Make sure to ask about the ratio of attorneys to legal?assistants. Ask how many attorneys work there. When you know how many attorneys there are, ask if they are?all?partners that eat what they kill. It is often helpful to know if they just have a “pretend”?law firm where everybody is out for themselves, or they are a true law firm in that traditional sense where you have partners and?associates – a team that is there to help you.
If they are a true law firm, is it an upside-down?pyramid?or proper pyramid.?If you have?a top-heavy firm (lots?of partners, few associates), those attorneys may need to bill a lot?in order to meet overhead. What does that mean? If the firm is top heavy, there might be concerns about how solvent the firm is. If you have a higher associate-to-partner ratio, a correct?pyramid,?then you just know they are good?businessmen and capitalists. You also know they have good internal policies, which means they probably have some wits about them.
Another thing you need to know is whether the law firm or the lawyer that?you are?hiring is the right size for you. The right fit is going to?depend?upon you and upon the case. You may discover that the potential lawyer is really great and he is really well reviewed but he also is working by himself. In most cases, the fact that he is a solo practitioner should not prevent you from hiring him outright. The lawyer will probably be able to utilize staff or otherwise get the help that he needs if it is needed. However, if your case is a giant complex multi-state case, with hundreds of witnesses and you are working with one lawyer that has no support you have to wonder and question whether or not that law firm is the right size for your case.? Whether or not your firm is small, medium or large is going to depend on what market you are in. A small law firm in New York city is going to be different than a small law firm in rural Oklahoma.
Here’s a personal example from author Mike Arnold about an example where law firm size really made a difference for a client:
Once, several years ago, I had a client retain us to represent a company in a complex commercial litigation case. Trial was less than two months away, so we needed to get to work right away. After the documents were dumped on me I spent the entire weekend reviewing the tens of thousands of pages of documents and drafting a critical court document that was due in several days. I slept on the floor of my office and committed to mastering the material.
The case was unique because three prior law firms had been fired from the case. Typically, that is a huge red flag for an attorney. We stay away from a case if prior attorneys have been used up because it’s just not worth the headache. We made an exception this time, though, because the client had a rational reason for doing so and because the case seemed like so much fun.
After several days of working the case day and night, I called co-counsel (and co-author) Emilia Gardner and told her that I had figured out why all the prior law firms had failed. “What’s that?” she asked earnestly.
“They were all too small to handle the case,” I replied matter-of-factly.
She hesitated and said, “Um, that’s a problem, Mike. Those law firms are all bigger than us.”
“I’ve got a plan to fix that,” I answered.
I spent the rest of that day growing my law firm just for this case. I contacted the law school for recent graduates who were still in town and could work on research, drafting, and discovery review. I went on Craigslist and hired a new receptionist, and promoted the current receptionist to full-time discovery manager to coordinate the hundreds of thousands of pages of e-discovery. I contracted with an e-discovery firm to host and assist in management and production of documents. I hired two contract lawyers to work on nothing but this case. One was in charge of research and drafting and the other was in charge of coordinating trial witnesses. I welcomed our newest addition to our then-five-attorney firm. He had been hired a few weeks earlier and his first day at the law office as a family law attorney was that same week. I told him, “Welcome, you are a commercial litigator now.” I tasked him with several projects. Finally, I enticed Emilia Gardner to come back from maternity leave to coordinate the entire team. Problem solved. We went from a small firm to a medium sized firm overnight.
What does this mean for you? If you are doing a multiple defendant complex civil litigation matter, maybe?a big firm with lots of associates is what you need. We don’t need to say that your case will be an expensive one. If there are tens of thousands of pages of discovery (maybe even millions of pages of emails and documents), that requires lots of overhead and lots of people. Keep in mind that the largest expense in a law firm is going to be its people. That’s the same thing for any service industry.
While most solo practitioners make things work, it can benefit you greatly to see a firm of at least two or three attorneys working together. If you are hiring an experienced, sought-after trial lawyer, the downside for you is that your lawyer is going to be in court all the time. When your attorney is in trial, it will be difficult to reach him or her. That lawyer is not in front of his computer answering your emails or working on your case at all. That lawyer is not sitting by his telephone answering your calls. That attorney is not looking at his cell phone responding?to your text messages. Consequently, if you are going to a sole practitioner who has little or no staff, you are going to be getting his voicemail a lot or getting return calls after 6 or 7 o’clock at night to answer your questions. Whereas, if you hire a lawyer?who is working with an associate, with another partner and working as more of a team approach on cases, then you are more likely to get responses to your request for information about the case in a timely manner.