Choosing The Best Attorney

So, you need an attorney. Maybe you have been sued or threatened with a lawsuit, need to file a lawsuit, or need legal counsel for a business decision.

How do you choose the best attorney ? If you look  online it seems that there are many attorneys to choose from. Are they all about the same, or does your attorney choice make a big difference?

The attorney you choose can make a huge difference! All attorneys are not equal. In fact, there are only few excellent attorneys in any given legal field. Your attorney selection can make the difference between winning and losing your case before you even get to court, so choose wisely.

So how do you choose a good attorney? There is no foolproof way to choose the best attorney. In my career I have selected or approved hundreds of attorneys for important matters, and helped interview and select hundreds of attorneys for judgeships.  Even with this extensive experience, I made a few mistakes when choosing attorneys, but the vast majority of choices were good one. However, there are key considerations that can increase your odds of hiring the best attorney.

First, know that the better your case, or the more important the matter you are seeking advice about, the more important is your attorney selection. If you have a poor case, a case in which neither the facts nor the law is in your favor, then you are likely to lose the case, even if you have a good lawyer; few attorneys will be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat and win a case in which the law and the facts support your opponent. It is always important to have a good lawyer, but if you have a poor case, having a good lawyer is often not enough to win the case.

Conversely, when you have a good case, because the law and the facts are on your side, then you really need a good lawyer! More good cases are probably lost by bad attorneys than weak cases won by good lawyers. Stated another way, it is more likely that a poor lawyer can cost you a win in a good case than it is that a good lawyer can obtain a win in a weak case. So if you have a good legal case, you owe it to yourself to select the best possible attorney.

Of course, before retaining a lawyer, it is often difficult for you to know how strong or weak a case is, so always seek an excellent lawyer.  Such a lawyer will be candid with you about your chances of prevailing in a weak case – advice that may save you much money and grief over the long run.

So, how does one choose a good lawyer? Following are key points to consider:
Character and Candor

You are looking for a lawyer that is honest and that has the strength of character to do what is right even when no one is watching. How can you test this- well, a Google search will often pull up information if an attorney has been disciplined or involved in shady dealings, and these are matters that you will at least want to ask any attorney to explain. In a number of states AVVO now provides public information on any disciplinary actions. Beyond this basic screening, you can tell much from your discussion with an attorney. Is he or she promising more than can be delivered, such as a guaranteed result in a case ? Or, is he  upfront and candid with you about problems or difficulties and costs and risks inherent in your case?

Sometimes the best advice you can get is that you should not bring a case or that you should settle a case that has been brought against you. The best lawyers will give you an honest judgment of the case, even if that means they will not gain your business. Ask an attorney not only how to win, but whether you should bring or defend the case. An excellent attorney we be able to advise you well.

Experience

Experience is an important consideration when choosing an attorney, but you are looking for more than just the number of cases handled. Some of the best attorneys  work on the largest cases, so an attorney handling 5 major matters in a year may be a much better attorney then someone who has handled 200 small matters. And, an attorney may have done a poor job on few cases or a good job on many. You want some experience, but the raw numbers will not tell you much.

When looking at experience, does an attorney have broad experience in the area you need help, such as trial or appellate or administrative experience? Does an attorney have federal or state court experience? Does an attorney handle criminal or civil cases, or do plaintiffs’ or defense work, or both? You need to be sure your attorney has experience in the general area for which you need counsel.

You should then ask if he or she has specific experience applicable to your case, especially if you are looking for a specialized area such as tax law. Be aware however, that trial, appellate, governmental, and administrative attorneys often have skills that apply to a number of legal specialty areas. For example, an excellent appellate attorney may never have handled your specific topic, but will have learned how to master many substantive topics for purposes of appeal.

You will also want to know if your attorney has experience that demonstrates that people skilled at choosing attorneys have shown confidence in your attorney. This is often demonstrated by looking at whether an attorney has completed a judicial clerkship. For those in the know, judicial clerkships, particularly appellate court clerkships, are highly sought after and very competitive, with often hundreds or thousands of applicants for one opening. If your attorney completed a judicial clerkship, this is often a sign that his or her abilities were  highly regarded by people who deal with many different attorneys (judges).

Another thing you will want to look at is whether he or she has had high level public sector experience with significant responsibility at either the state or federal level. Again, what you are looking for is whether people in a position to work with many attorneys and with the ability to hire the best have chosen to work with your attorney. Some of the most responsible positions are high level positions in the White House, the Justice Department, and positions at major federal agencies, such general counsel or deputy general counsel. At the state level, such as Florida, some of the most responsible positions are those directly in the Governor’s Legal Office (but you will need to consider under which governor, some are better than others) and positions as general or deputy general counsels at the major state agencies.

When looking a experience in private practice, there are major firms that have selective reputations, such as Hogan Lovells and Gibson Dunn, listed as just two of many examples. An attorney being at a selective firm is often a good indication of general quality. There are very many excellent attorneys not with the major firms, but the major firms tend to pull from the top of the class. However, keep in mind that you will often pay more for the same quality of attorney at a major firm than at a smaller firm, because expenses and overhead tend to be higher. A smaller firm may be able to charge you 50% less for the same quality of representation you would get at a larger firm.

The other thing you are looking for in private practice is the level of responsibility and the caliber of clients that the attorney has had. While all attorneys start out not having primary responsibility for a case, ultimately good attorneys will have primary or major responsibility for the cases they handle for significant clients. Ask your attorney questions about these factors.

And, look at reported cases for your attorney. If you are not looking for a trial or appellate attorney, this may not be as important, but good trial or appellate attorneys will have reported cases. Having reported cases does not make someone a good attorney: one may have done a poor job in reported cases, but almost all good attorneys will have reported cases if they have been in practice for any length of time.

Academic Excellence

The quality of the school your attorney attended and whether he or she was at the top of the class or the bottom can make a difference in the quality of representation you get. As a general rule, an attorney that has attended a very selective law school, such as Yale, if they have had significant relevant legal experience since then, will be better than an attorney who has graduated from an unaccredited law school in say, California (noted since California has probably the greatest number of such schools). And, as a general rule, an attorney who graduates from law school with honors and has had relevant legal experience since then will be better than an attorney who graduates from the bottom of his or her class. For those in the know, things to look for in this regard are whether the attorney graduated with honors, received any “book awards,” which are awards given to the top student in a particular topic, and whether the attorney served on law review, another marker of being at the top of the class. None of these things are by themselves sufficient to know you have selected the best attorney, but are all factors to consider.

Reputation and References

An attorney’s reputation is important, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt, depending on the source of the reputation. The validity of a reputation is only as good as the source. Think about this in the context of barbecue; if you are asking someone for a good barbecue place, you hope they know and appreciate good barbecue, or you will get a recommendation and then realize that their standards for good barbecue are not high . Therefore, make sure you ask people you trust for referrals or recommendations. The other thing to keep in mind is the the reputation’s point of reference- you should tend to trust someone who has had occasion to work with and compare many attorneys more then someone who has only used an attorney once or twice.

Cost

Yes, cost is something to consider when considering how to choose the best attorney. It gets a little complicated, however, in that it usually will cost more to hire a better attorney, but many poor attorneys will try to charge as much as a good attorneys in the same area. So, here is one way to look at cost; be suspicious of someone that quotes you a low rate compared to other attorneys, unless you understand why the rate is low. Is it a case of an attorney charging less because he is in a smaller firm, and does not have the same overhead as a large firm, but can offer the same quality of representation? This can be a good thing. Is it a case of a young attorney that is trying to gain experience and willing to take your case for less; that can be acceptable if the cost is a major concern. Otherwise, you need to be careful of what seems to be too good of a deal. Caveat Emptor . But, also be suspicious of someone that quotes you an unusually high rate compared to others you have received, particularly if it is for a routine matter. One thing to be cautious of is just focusing on an hourly rate, without looking at more. A low hourly rate may sound good, but for all you know it might take this attorney twice as long as one charging a higher rate, so a low rate may not be a good deal.

In Person Evaluation

Whenever possible, I think that it is a good idea to sit down in person with a potential attorney before making a hiring decision. Even if someone is an excellent attorney, if you do not have good rapport with them, they may not be the right attorney for you. Sometimes, because of time constraints and distance, it is not possible to sit down before retaining, but if you can, try to do it and then ask them all the questions you want to know up front, before you sign an agreement.

Caution Signs with an Attorney – things that suggest taking a second look.

Agreeing to take your case without enough information and investigation.

Not being candid about the strengths and weakness of your case.

Not being candid about whether the attorney you talk to will handle your case or if it will be someone else in the firm, or does he plan to refer your case to another firm.

Failing to explain the risks of your course of action, as well as the benefits.

Promising you will win, or telling you what you will recover.

Not explaining how you could win and explaining what the standards are you will need to meet if asked.

Charging a price that is too low or too high compared to other attorneys without an explanation for the difference.

Finally, congratulations! If you have read this far, you are serious about selecting an attorney, and that is awesome.