Greetings, pleebs! I trust that my engaged readership is fully aware of the dangers of representing yourself, as detailed in my prior post. But there is one thing worse than going pro se (that’s Latin for “without your pants”), and that’s hiring a crummy attorney. Today, in the tenth in my occasional series on the Law and/or the deliciousness of Arctic Orange, I will begin a series of posts that will allow you to pick an attorney that will represent his own interests well, and, in so doing, will help you out.
The average person is intimidated when it comes to choosing their attorney. Do not be afraid. Fear is like money to attorneys; they can smell it. Forearmed with a little knowledge, you will have the power to choose a not-completely terrible attorney. And part of the battle is understanding your attorney’s credentials. Because, much like the law, attorneys use credentials that only they understand.
Go to any random law firm’s website, and look at the biography of a random attorney. On it you should find a fair amount of semi-valuable information. In addition, you can research information about an attorney on the state bar website (protip- the state bar is the only bar than an attorney will actually pass ... think about it ... and then remember that all lawyer jokes are bad). But what does it all mean?
Most attorneys will put various things on their biography that sound impressive. As most attorneys come from a long line of craven, money-hungry, yet fundamentally insecure folks, they thrive on self-puffery and seek to feed the gaping hole that lies at the core of their being with external recognition. Here’s what you need to decode the information that you find-
Education- See how long the lawyer has been practicing (if it’s not on the lawyer webpage, it will be on the bar webpage). The basic rule of thumb is that the longer the attorney has been practicing, the less information you’ll find in their education section. Why? Because, just like with everything else - who cares about what you did in school when you’ve been working for a while? I mean, really? Do you want to be that guy, in the bar, reliving their football high school championship? An attorney one year out of law school will list every single thing that ever happened to them in school, like that time they were asked to bring bagels to the law review office. An attorney with thirty years of experience might list, “Yeah, I got a JD somewhere. But now I’m rolling in partner money, y’all. It’s not like you’re going to get me on the phone. My name is on the door. SAY MY NAME!” Still, a lot of the information may be helpful once you understand what to look for. And this is what you what you look for-
- School. Some schools are better than others. Is every Harvard Juris Douche better than every graduate from the Correspondence University of Law and Janitorial Services? No. But this gives you a general idea of how smart the person was before they became another dumb ambulance chaser.
- Class Rank. You might see more Latin here. Most schools rank their graduates, and Law Schools, which attract Type-A evil people, are very competitive. You need to look for Latin Words like Summa Cum Laude (Really smart, or not afraid to lie- either way, damn impressive for an attorney), Magna Cum Laude (Really, really good), or Cum Laude (not bad). The absence of evidence is evidence of absence; lawyers will brag about this. If they earned some Latin in school, they will tell you.
- Extracurriculars. Don’t care. But if you’re translating, Law Review means that they were really smart and liked book-learning, Moot Court means that they were really smart and liked arguing, Trial Team means that they always knew they wanted to chase ambulances, and a book award means that they finished at the very top of their class in a particular subject. Everything else? You don’t care.
Clerkships- You will see some attorneys list clerkships. A clerkship means that, for a period of time, the lawyer served as some Judge’s bee-yotch. This may mean nothing to most people, but it is very impressive to most lawyers, and it means that the attorney has real experience working with the people that decide cases. It’s also one of those barriers to entry; it’s usually so hard to get some of these clerkships that you have to be pretty, pretty impressive just to get one. As a rule of thumb, again, a Federal clerkship > state clerkship.
Bar Admissions- This is where the lawyer can practice. You should see the state the lawyer is in (confusion?), as well as a smattering of federal courts. Do not be impressed if you happen to see the Supreme Court listed; this is a vanity admission, available with the submission of a few dollars and some boxtops. One thing to note- every state bar admission, for the most part, requires annual fees, and many have varying rules requiring reciprocity, admission, etc. So seeing many state bar admissions is either an impressive sign, or a sign that the attorney has contracted some sort of Pokemon-style “gotta catch-em all” mental illness.
Practice Areas- Depending on the type of attorney you are looking at, this could either be a serious thing, or something fanciful. For example, large firms often have defined practice finance areas, although the names may not map on to what you believe them to be. “Consumer financial services?” That means, “I help banks take your house.” For smaller firms, or solo practitioners, this may just be a wish list of what they might want to practice. “Space law sounds awesome! Let’s put that in there! Screw you, Vader!”
Title- What does the attorney call himself? You might see a number of different titles flying around, but some of the most common are- Partner, Shareholder, Associate, Of Counsel. Now, there are meaningful distinctions to be drawn with all of these, but in essence Partner/Shareholder means “the Big Cheese with the Name on the Door,” Of Counsel means “Too old to be an associate, but the powers that be don’t want them to be a Partner,” and Associate mean “Doing all the work.”
Other- An attorney might list publications they have written, local community organizations they have helped (or hurt ... we’re talking about attorneys), prior firms they have worked at, flattering articles written about them, or have beefcake-y photos taken of them. None of that really matters. Some attorneys might list “representative cases,” which is often meaningless, given that you won’t know whether or not the attorney was the lead trial counsel in the case, or was a young associate who once drafted a meaningless motion in the case.
So what does this all mean? Well, attorney biographies are essentially advertising for the attorney. A fairly empty biography can either mean the attorney hasn’t done much, or is so amazing and respected that they don’t need to bother puffing themselves up. This guide should help you decode what the attorney is telling you about themselves, but the one takeaway should be this-
Don’t choose your attorney based on their own biography written on a website. Seriously. Would you pick your mechanic based on what the mechanic wrote about themselves (“I fix cars real good. Here’s a representative list of cars I have fixed:”)? Would you pick your doctor based on what the doctor wrote about themselves (“I fix hearts real good. In Doctoring School, I earned a community service certificate.”)? Do you pick classes at college based on what the teacher writes about themselves (“I teach real good. Here’s a black & white picture of me looking thoughtful, with a bunch of books.”)? No? Then read the bio, understand what it means ...
And stay tuned for the next post.