Hey, Do You Know a Good Attorney?

By: John P. Weis

I have often heard this question and have stumbled on my reply.  It is not because I am not familiar with highly qualified attorneys who can provide high levels of service.  My hesitation comes from not having enough specific information to make a reasonable suggestion.

That this question is asked so frequently highlights the fact that the largest source of referrals for attorneys comes by word of mouth.  But, an attorney who provides great service for one client might not be the best choice for another.  Attorneys provide a wide array of services; trial representation, being an advocate in conflict resolution, estate planning, contract preparation, business formations, counseling to avoid violations of laws or regulations, etc.  It is rare to find a single attorney equally adept in all of these areas.  The excellent trial attorney may have little to no experience in handling estate planning matters or dealing with tax regulations.  Consequently, the first question to be answered is what type of attorney is needed.  In today’s electronic world, virtually every attorney, whether in a solo practice or employed by a larger firm, has a website that will describe the attorney’s preferred areas of practice.  Focusing on a certain practice area will significantly narrow your search by eliminating from contention those attorneys who might otherwise be excellent -- just not in the legal arena you need.

However, doing a Google search for divorce attorneys in your area is just a starting point.  An internet search is likely going to provide several possibilities.  So, do you focus on the attorney who is (or looks like) the oldest?  The attorney who works with the largest law firm?  The solo practitioner?  The cheapest?  The most aggressive?  The most reasonable?  Probably, any of the attorneys on the list will do a good job but which one is the best for you?  There are several questions that should be reviewed with each attorney in order to properly answer that question.

I have heard people say that they want an attorney who is a real pitbull, a junkyard dog that will fight with everything they have.  While that type of practice is sometimes necessary, there are other considerations.  The aggressive attorney may fight just to fight, and that will cost you money.  Rather than trying to be reasonable and cooperate with opposing counsel, an overly aggressive attorney may file motion after motion with the court, each time necessitating a trip to the courthouse to argue the motion in front of a judge.  Similarly, the aggressive attorney might write letter upon letter to opposing counsel making threats and unrealistic demands just to support the attorney’s “barroom brawler” image.  Every motion filed, every letter written, every trip to the courthouse, is charged to the client.  So, it is incumbent to weigh the need for aggressive representation against the amount of money that representation will likely cost.

Experience is another way to measure the quality of an attorney’s service but, remember, age does not necessarily equate to experience.  There is an important distinction to be made between how long an attorney has been practicing, generally, and how much experience the attorney has in a specific practice area.  An attorney may have been practicing for 25 years but hasn’t been involved with an automobile accident and personal injury case in the past 10 years.  Likewise, a younger attorney who has only been practicing for 10 years might be the better choice because he specializes in, and has done nothing but, personal injury cases.  Also, the younger attorney might charge a less expensive hourly rate based upon his fewer years of experience.

Often, people are convinced that hiring an attorney employed by a large and lavish law firm is the best way to go.  But it doesn’t mean that you will get the best attorney for you.  If your finances are limited, remember that the attorney working for the large and lavish law firm will be charging a higher hourly rate and that a certain percentage of that hourly rate is just to help pay for the fancy offices and fancy cars of those attorneys.

While the considerations outlined here should be investigated, the most important consideration is that you feel comfortable and trust the attorney of your choosing.  You will be sharing confidential, personal, sensitive information with your attorney, or at least you should be.  How can you share such information if you are not comfortable with or trust your own attorney?  To be fair to the attorney, if there isn’t a free exchange of information with the client, then that lack of complete information prevents the attorney from providing the best service.  A client should trust that the attorney will take all appropriate actions and provide advise that is in the client’s best interests.  If, after speaking to a potential attorney, that level of comfort or trust isn’t there, go back to the list and make some more appointments.  The right attorney for you is out there, you just have to keep looking and asking the right questions.