Choosing a Lawyer
HOW TO MAKE THE RIGHT DECISION
by Jay M. Feinman
There are more than a million practicing lawyers in the United
States. But it can be hard to find the right lawyer when you need
one-a lawyer who is competent, experienced, affordable, and compatible.
You have to get names of lawyers or law firms and then discuss
your legal needs with them. And to make that discussion productive,
you have to prepare.
The first step is to find out which lawyers in your area have
experience with the particular kind of legal work you need. If
you are a member of a prepaid or discount legal services plan,
a good starting point is that plan's list of participating lawyers.
But explore other options as well.
Most people find their lawyers through word of mouth, so ask
around. Talk to friends and coworkers about lawyers they know
or have used themselves and been satisfied with. Your union, employer,
or clergy may have suggestions. For business or financial matters,
your broker, accountant, real estate agent, insurance agent, or
any business person you deal with regularly is likely to know
an appropriate candidate. You may know someone who has been in
a situation similar to yours; if you are looking for a divorce
lawyer, for instance, ask your divorced friends. Even learning
the name of a lawyer they disliked (often an adversary) can help-either
by giving you a name to avoid or because the qualities they disliked
are just what you are looking for. Finally, nobody knows more
lawyers-or knows them better-than lawyers themselves. The lawyer
who helped you when you bought your house might well be able to
recommend another for consultation on, say, a medical malpractice
Advertisements on television or in the Yellow Pages can be useful,
especially in calling attention to firms that specialize in some
very specific area. But since you know nothing about those firms
except what they claim about themselves, investigate them very
Legal referral services-especially those found on the Internet-are
often just another form of paid advertising. Bar association referral
services provide a degree of comfort because they do some screening
of their lawyers. The American Bar Association (ABA) maintains
a complete list of bar association referral services at www.abanet.org/legalservices/lris/directory.html.
Just remember that those services cannot express an opinion on
the lawyers who participate; if you get a referral from them,
you still have to do your own evaluation.
Some limited legal services for the poor are available in many
areas. See the ABA's list of volunteer lawyer programs at www.abanet.org/legalservices/probono/directory.html
and the list of legal aid programs funded by the Legal Services
Corporation at www.lsc.gov/fundprog.htm.
If you are suspected of a crime, you absolutely need a lawyer.
Do not talk to the police without one. If you are arrested, you
have a right to have a lawyer appointed to represent you for free
if you cannot afford to pay. Insist on it.
Once you have one or more names, do a little research. Check with
a state agency to make sure the person is a member of the bar
in good standing and learn about any disciplinary rulings against
the lawyer. Do what lawyers themselves often do: look up the lawyer
or law firm in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory,
available in many libraries and online at www.martindale.com.
At a minimum, this publication gives address and phone information;
many lawyers submit additional information about themselves and
pay to have it included. (Martindale offers "ratings"
of lawyers, but most potential clients find these ratings of modest
value, at best.) Many lawyers and law firms these days also have
their own Web sites, where you can see in detail what they believe
makes them stand out.
Before interviewing a lawyer, collect your thoughts and your
documents. Be prepared to summarize your situation clearly and
concisely; make a written outline of key points and even practice
saying them. If the matter concerns other people, list their names
and addresses so that the lawyer can make sure no existing clients
are involved. If it concerns estate planning, make a list of your
major assets, accounts, and life insurance policies. If it concerns
a contract, court paper, or other document, take it with you.
If it seems worthwhile after a quick inquiry by telephone, most
lawyers will be happy to spend twenty minutes or half an hour
with you (by phone if necessary), without charge or for a nominal
fee, to explore the possibility of working for you. There is much
to cover in that short time:
Feel free to talk to several lawyers before making your choice.
Do not sign any agreement until you understand it clearly. And
do not neglect the intangibles: in the end, choose a lawyer who
seems intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, well organized, and
comfortable for you to work with.
Excerpted from 1001 Legal Words You Need to Know
by Jay M. Feinman. Copyright © 2003 Oxford University Press,
Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, Inc.
$17.95. Available in local bookstores or click