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How To Choose A Lawyer

How to Choose A Lawyer:  The Insiders Guide

Ok,  I'm a lawyer so I suppose that I have a vested interest in writing an article about choosing lawyers.  But at the same time, I realize that I can't represent ever person in the world, and I see people choosing lawyers that I would not let represent my dog, Winston, if he got hit by a car.  So I'm going to tell you how I would pick a lawyer, or at least how I would advise Winston on how to get one.

Let's start out with the most important concept in the form of a brain teaser:   Imagine if ALL cars cost the same thing.  Let's say every new car in the world cost $25,000.  Which car would you choose to drive?  Porsche Boxter or Geo Metro?  Remember, they cost the same amount....

   or ?

This is not a trick question, but it is a concept most people fail to realize about lawyers, price.

PRICE.  Guess what?  For an injury case, all of us lawyers charge the same thing!  A one-third (33.3%) contingency fee is the standard charge for car wrecks and you will typically see a 40% fee for more complicated matters such as insurance coverage litigation, medical malpractice and nursing home cases.  A few (and I mean few) lawyers will charge 25%, but I caution you from choosing by price alone.  So guess what?  This is really good news.  Why? 

If all lawyers charge the same thing, you are going to pay the same price for a crappy lawyer as you will pay for an excellent lawyer.  So why not pick the best lawyer you can?  Even better, the best lawyer will not cost you any more than the worst, so you either get the best bargain (more good lawyer for your money) or the worst deal (really bad lawyer for the same money).  Pick the Porsche!

By the way, here are the basic qualities that I would look for in a lawyer:

  • Trial Experience
  • Personal Attention
  • Reputation among Lawyers
  • Use of Technology
  • Knowing my actual lawyer

With those goals in mind, here are nine things to consider:

BIGGER IS NOT BETTER.  A lot of law firms advertise on television 24 hours a day.  They will boast that they have lawyers and operators "waiting to answer your call."  Well, I've worked in those giant law firms, and I can tell you that when you are a client, you are a number, not a person.  Smaller law firms will provide more personalized service.  I recommend choosing a firm that will know who you are, and what you need, not a firm that just wants your "case" and then puts you into their "system."  Personal attention means talking to a lawyer when you call even from the the very first call.  (Of course, not evryone sits by their phone all day.  You may have to leave an initial message.)Even more important, make sure you talk to THE lawyer.  Ask the lawyer you speak with on the phone if they will be your lawyer.  Are you going to hire a firm where you are not even speaking to the lawyer that will eventually handle your case?  Would you go to the best doctor in the state for a surgery and let the receptionist cut you open with a scalpel? 

BEWARE of INVESTIGATORS.  If you call a law firm and they say, "We'll send our investigator out to see you right away" then you need to beware.  Investigator =  Non-lawyer.  This means that this law firm may have a lawyer take the initial phone call, but from that point forward only non-lawyers will be handling your case, for the most part.  Do you know what training or education it takes to be a non-lawyer investigator for a law firm?  NONE.  No certification, no legal training, nothing.  If a law firm uses a non-lawyer to "sign-up" cases, this is a sure sign that that law firm has too many cases and not enough lawyers.  Sure, a lot of great law firms use "investigators," but only after the client has met with a lawyer, in person, and the lawyer has ordered the investigator go out to do something specific, like interview a witness, or take a photograph.  Finally, the law firms that let "investigators" interview the client, and present the legal fee contracts, may be missing the most important part of a legal case.  Remember, the investigator is "filtering" the information that goes back to the law firm.  The investigator may not know enough about law to recognize causes of actions against vehicle manufacturers, other vehicles, or road construction defects.  Again, this is like having the world's best surgeon perform a surgery based upon the observations of the receptionist.

The Lawyer Bait & Switch.  So the lawyer on the advertisement has the gray hair you want your lawyer to have?  She or he may even have the years of experience, and the reputation you seek.  But is that particular lawyer going to handle your case?  Find out up front.  Demand to meet with the actual lawyer that is going to handle every step of your case.  If a law firm gives you any grief about that, or acts surprised that you asked, get another law firm.  I've personally seen law firms advertise "we have 100 years of combined experience" and then assign the client's claim to a lawyer fresh out of law school.  And guess what?  Unlike medical school, in law school you get little or no training in handling a case, especially a personal injury case.  Most new lawyers have never tried a jury trial.  Sure, new lawyers have to learn sometime, but why on your case?  Let someone else be the lab rat.

Experience Counts.  If you called me right now and offered to pay me $50,000 to handle your real estate closing, I would decline your case.  I don't know about real estate law because I don't practice it.  Likewise, don't go to your family law attorney, or your real estate attorney, or the guy that handled your wife's speeding ticket to help you with your personal injury or worker's compensation claim.  If you do, you know they are a good lawyer if the help you find a lawyer that practices in the specific area of law.

Experience counts in another way.  Don't hire a law firm unless you know exactly which lawyer will handle your case from start to finish.  Be wary of firms that say they use a "team" approach and have many lawyers that may handle your claim.  This is related to the "bait and switch" discussed above.  Don't hire a law firm for one lawyer's reputation, only to have the newest, greenest lawyer handle your case.

Research your Lawyer.  Clearly, if you are reading this, you have access to the Internet.  Great!  Use it.  Look at any potential law firm's website.  Is it updated, does it provide helpful information, or is it simply an on-line advertisement? (As I write this my website is down for a "redo" ...gulp!) Does the lawyer post information about every lawyer in the law firm?  Some law firms will only post the senior partners' info in an attempt to "hide" the inexperience of the junior associates.

Things to look for:

  • how many years of legal experience does your lawyer have?
  • what level of concentration in the field of personal injury?
  • does this lawyer teach other lawyers at CLE's (continuing legal education classes)?
  • has this lawyer ever published articles, books, or manuals?
  • does this lawyer publish anything on the Internet?

Ask your Lawyer Questions.  In the world of personal injury law, most cases are settled without a trial.  That's a good thing, because trials are expensive and sometimes unpredictable.  But the trial is the "last resort."  If an insurance company makes an offer that is too low, the only way to "force" them to pay a fair amount is to file a law suit.  Thus, when an insurance company makes an offer on a case, one thing they factor into the settlement amount is whether the lawyer will "go to the mat" and take the case to trial.  Also, they consider whether the lawyer has a reputation for winning. 

If a lawyer is known by an insurance company to NEVER try a case, the insurance company is not going to be very afraid of making a low offer to the client, knowing that the lawyer will not want to file a lawsuit.  Remember, Insurance Companies are bullies, and who do bullies pick on?  The weak kids who won't fight back.  A lawyer's only weapon to fight back is to take the case to trial.  You'd be surprised how many lawyers don't ever go to trial.  Pick a fighter to represent you, not a wimp.

or

So ask your lawyer some questions (and make sure you are talking to the lawyer that will take your case all the way to trial):

  • How many civil jury trials have you been the lead counsel for?
  • When was the last time you tried a personal injury case to a jury?
  • How many verdicts have you received?  (this means the case was not settled during trial)
  • How many cases have you taken to a jury verdict in my county?
  • Will you assign my case to another lawyer for trial?  If so, tell me about that lawyer.

Communications.  The most important part of having a lawyer represent you is being able to communicate with the lawyer.  You need to be able to communicate in a way that is convenient for you, not just for the law firm.  Also, when you do try to communicate with your lawyer, you need to be able to reach them.  Here are some things to ask or consider:

  • Does the lawyer have a direct dial number?  (so you can skip the receptionist screening calls)
  • Can you e-mail the lawyer directly?
  • Can you video conference with your lawyer through your computer?
  • Will your lawyer talk with you after normal business hours?
  • Does you lawyer have voice mail that is checked regularly?
  • When you call for the lawyer, do you wind up talking with the paralegal?
  • Can you fill out legal forms on your computer, rather than on paper?

Reputation Among Lawyers.  This may be one of the tougher areas to determine about a potential lawyer or law firm.  One of the best ways to find out about a lawyer is to ask another lawyer who practices the same kind of law.  Just say, "have you ever heard of such-and-such lawyer?  What do you think of him/her/them?"

TRUST YOUR GUT.  Hiring a lawyer is like choosing your underwear.  It's a very personal thing, and not really anyone else's business.  You need to feel comfortable with your lawyer and you need to have a good one.   If you call a law firm, and you are not connected to the lawyer that will actually handle your case, you need to figure out how you feel about that right away, because chances are, you will not have a law firm that gives you personalized attention.  Of course, this is just my opinion.  But when you stop to think about it, that's one of the main reasons that you hire an attorney- for their opinion.

Chris Nichols

Nichols Law Firm

www.NicholsTrialLaw.com

www.NicholsTrialLaw.com 1.800.906.5984

Comments

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sherri

I wish I had read this before I picked a lawyer out of the phone book. I think they spent all their time making advertsiments not being lawyers. They certainly didn't spend the time working on my case, and then I got bad advice because they pushed me to settle. I think they were afarid to go to trial.

Judy Tseng

Hi Chris-
Your blog is great. I don't know how you find time to do all this. You give great advice on how people should find the right attorney. I think it's a bit unrealistic for people to expect to get a lawyer on the phone while they are researching firms though. Also, it is true that with some firms, the "grey-haired" person that is supposed to look like a stereotypical lawyer is not an actual attorney in the firm at all! Good lawyers come in all ages/races/genders. Anyway, keep up the good work.

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