Sunday, January 15, 2012

How Do You Find and Select a Good Lawyer?


“The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.” - Abraham Lincoln

It’s very important that the attorney you work with has experience and is specializing in the specific areas that are of interest to you and that you want to pursue. But how can a client find out this information?

Google seems to be the default method lately, but all that Google does is to lead you to lawyers or people who market themselves the best. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the experience needed to deal with the situation for which the person needs an attorney.

Here is a list of ideas to follow:

1.   An attorney has to be an attorney.

This statement may seem really laughable, however, many clients have appeared in my office over the years, especially clients for whom English is not their first language, saying something along the lines of the following: “I was involved in a car accident. I found an attorney in a Russian language newspaper. I signed some sort of papers and since then I have no idea what is going on with my case.”

Something like this can happen in real estate cases, matrimonial cases or other general legal matters that are very important and take a certain amount of time to conclude. Usually I ask these people to give me the name of the attorney and the phone number of the firm. Sometimes, when I make a phone call and ask a few leading questions, it turns out that the person with the Russian name who is the main contact person for the client is not an attorney at all but some sort of middle man who meets with a client and then shuttles the matter to an attorney. The client never really sees or deals with this lawyer and never really understands who represents him and/or if that person is competent.

2.  Does your attorney have the right to practice law?

In New York State, checking on whether your attorney can practice law is fairly easy to do. All attorneys must complete a bi-annual statement and pay dues and each of them has a distinct id number. All that is needed is to go to (make this a link) and click on the attorney tab. The site has a directory of all lawyers who:
  • are licensed and in good standing;
  • have not been disbarred or suspended;
  • are paying their dues; and
  • have been admitted to the Bar in the State of New York, which means they are allowed to practice in the state of New York.
This directory is online and a client can very easily confirm that a lawyer is:
  • licensed to practice;
  • that the license is not lapsed;
  • that the license is not suspended; and
  • that he or she has not been disbarred.

This is extremely important, especially important in cases where a client is giving money to the lawyer to hold in an escrow account.

It is also important to check that your attorney has the right to practice in the state where your case is taking place. For example, if an attorney has a license to practice in New York but you have a family law matter or a negligence matter in New Jersey, it is very likely that your attorney is going to have to delegate or refer most of the work to someone who is licensed in New Jersey. Your New York lawyer cannot really handle the matter without having a New Jersey license.

3.  Meet your attorney.

If you are hiring someone to work for you and are paying them a “salary”, you would not do so without first interviewing that person. Every client has an absolute right to meet with his/her lawyer.

Beware of lawyers that are promising to get you absolutely everything you are asking for.

Beware of lawyers that have not responded to your phone calls or to your letters.

Be aware that when the case is pending you, as the client, have the right to receive copies of all papers related to your case. You have the right to receive regular bills and the right to receive status updates on the progress of your case.

4.   Be sure you understand the retainer agreement before you sign it.

Usually when you meet with an attorney, you are asked to sign a retainer. A retainer basically is an agreement, which may be very simple or very complex, which describes the financial arrangement and the scope of work that the attorney is going to be doing for the client. In New York State, any matter where the attorney’s fee is expected to be at $3,000 or more, requires a written retainer agreement to be signed by the client.

Make sure that you very carefully read the retainer agreement together with the attorney. If you have doubts or are not clear, take the papers home, speak to some friends and relatives to help you go through the document because sometimes the legal language is a little difficult to understand. Do not rely only on the explanation the attorney, or a secretary in the attorney’s office, gives about the retainer.

5. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

If you have started the case but are not thrilled with the attorney you have, I recommend that you go to someone else and get a second opinion just to make sure that your case is being properly handled. You always have the right to switch lawyers and usually if there is a retainer amount of money that you pay up front, the lawyer is only allowed to keep the earned portion of that retainer. That means that if you gave an attorney $25,000 and three weeks later when the attorney has done 5 hours of work, you decide to switch to another lawyer, the first lawyer can only retain a reasonable amount for the hours actually spent on the case and needs to refund the rest to the client.

However, there are certain retainers that provide for a minimum fee and they are legal and enforceable. Be very wary of these retainers before you sign them because if you switch lawyers or if your case ends very quickly, there may be a certain amount of money that the lawyer will receive, even if it is more than the actual number of hours spent on the case.

Overall, the process of hiring an attorney is probably the most important part of a case, regardless of what area of the law that case is in. How you start, the lawyer you select, the personal relationship that you have with the lawyer, the financial relationship, and the understanding of the process as you go along are probably the most critical elements of a successful case.


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