So, you need a lawyer, for an elder law issue such as long-term care planning or guardianship, for estate planning, an employment matter, litigation, a personal injury, or perhaps you're starting a new business. How do you find the right attorney for you? What's most important to you—reputation, price, location, experience, age, ethnicity, religion? There are a lot of lawyers out there and your choice can make all the difference between a good experience with successful results and a poor experience that does not help you reach your goals.
So, here are some ideas on how to start:
- Ask friends, family and professional advisors. Start by asking for referrals from people you trust, including family members, friends and other professionals, such as accountants, financial planners, and lawyers in other specialty areas. The best assurance that you will have a good experience and good results is by engaging an attorney who others have worked with successfully in the past. They will know whether the attorney responds to inquiries, explains legal matters coherently, and achieves favorable results efficiently and economically. We always say that good clients are great referral sources because they often know people similar to themselves. Likewise, the people you know likely value the same characteristics in professionals they work with that you do. Of course, it may be easier to ask around for an estate planning or elder law attorney than for a divorce lawyer if you don't want anyone to know there are issues in your marriage.
- Check out the internet. Once you have a few names, check them out on the internet. Look at their websites. See what they say about themselves and what others say about them. Determine whether they have adequate experience in exactly what you need. See if you feel comfortable with their approach to the law and taking care of clients. But don't worry too much about how glossy or modern their website looks. You're not hiring a marketer or web designer. The words they use are much more important than the look and feel of their site. Also, check out attorney rating websites such as AVVO, Martindale Hubbell, and SuperLawyers. But be careful. As a test, I searched on the Martindale Hubbell site for Boston elder law attorneys. The eight attorneys who showed up may be terrific lawyers, but they had simply added elder law to a long list of fields of practice. None are specialists in the field.
- Consider what's most important to you. Before interacting with an attorney or her office, it's important to take a few moments to reflect on what matters most to you. Is it the cost? The location of the office? The firm or attorney's reputation? Her credentials in terms of certification as a specialist or being named a Super Lawyer or other accolade? Your comfort level in talking with the attorney? Or is it more important that you hire a gladiator to represent you in tough litigation or negotiations? Consider these issues before contacting any law offices so that you keep them in mind when speaking with the lawyer or his office staff. But also keep them all in perspective. If you will be meeting with an attorney or his staff often, location can be very important. But if you will meet in person only once or twice and carry on your communication mostly by email and telephone, location becomes much less important. As I've discussed in this post, If You're a Super Lawyer, Where's Your Cape?, accolades and certifications can reflect skill or simply popularity among other attorneys. Costs are often difficult to determine in advance. Would you prefer to get an answer in 15 minutes from a specialist in a particular field of law who charges the extremely high rate of $500 an hour, or pay a neophyte $200 an hour who needs five hours of research to answer the same question?
- Interview the lawyer. You can only be certain of whether you have a good fit with an attorney by talking with her either over the phone or in person. Lawyers have a wide variety of systems for communicating with prospective clients. Some will talk with them on the phone, some won't. Some will provide a free consultation, some charge from the start or provide a flat fee initial meeting. Their practice often depends on the type of cases they handle. Almost all personal injury attorneys will provide a free consultation because if they take a case it will involve a considerable amount of work over a number of years with a potentially large payoff in the end. Estate planning and elder law attorneys are less likely to provide free initial consultations because their work is more transactional—the client hires them to complete a specific task as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. A lot of the planning work is actually accomplished in an initial meeting, often lasting from one to two hours. But they may be happy to talk with the potential client on the phone for 10 to 15 minutes prior to her choosing to make the initial appointment, to make sure there's a good fit. When you do interview the attorney or talk to a staff member, here are some questions you can ask: How long have you been in practice? What fields of law do you practice? How long have you been focused on elder law (or another specialty)? What percentage of your practice is devoted to special needs planning (or another field of law)? What is your fee for an initial consultation? What documentation or information to you need for the initial meeting? How do you determine fees?
- Clarity. Once you have chosen your lawyer, make sure you and he are both very clear about your expectations, what work the lawyer will accomplish on your behalf, and what he will charge. This should be in writing, whether in the form of a fee agreement or an engagement letter the lawyer sends to you. In terms of expectations, make sure the lawyer and you are on the same page about timing and the level of communication. If you think you will see drafts of documents in a week and the lawyer is thinking they'll take a month, you may be disappointed in his turn around time, even though he thinks he's done nothing wrong. This type of misunderstanding could also occur around communication. If you expect the attorney to respond to emails within an hour and he's receiving 100 emails a day and spends much of the day in client meetings, you may not hear back until the end of the day or even the end of the week if he keeps his calendar clear on Fridays in order to catch up. No one is right or wrong, you're just on different pages and need clarity as to expectations.
If you follow these few rules, you are likely to have a good or excellent attorney-client experience and be able to refer your friends and family members to your attorney when they ask for a recommendation.