Many people are confused and confuddled when it comes to choosing an attorney. But they should not be. Every day, people make choices about professionals.
For example, how did you choose your doctor? You looked at the list of available health care providers from your insurance company, then spent several hours calling them until finding one that accepted new patients. Okay, maybe that’s not a good example. But mechanics, real estate agents, home contractors? Perhaps you just called them at random, based on their location and/or snazzy sign and/or advertisement on the side of the bus that was almost kinda funny. Or, more likely, you received the recommendation of a friend. “Hey, you should take your car to Ralph’s- he does great work, and charges a fair price! That’s who I use.” In essence, the same way to find any good professional assistance is the same way to find a good attorney.
Now, before getting into this, allow me to explain why various other resources don’t work-
1. Advertisements. Many good firms and attorneys don’t advertise. Have you even seen an ad that says, “When you positively, absolutely, have to crush the little guy ... CRAVATH.” No? I didn’t think so. Advertisements don’t necessarily mean that the attorney is bad, but they don’t mean the attorney is good either. I suppose they mean the attorney is successful enough to advertise, so there’s that. But it doesn’t cost that much to put up a youtube video.
2. Internet. There are various ways to get information about attorneys- their firm website (which we previously discussed), the state bar website (which might include any disciplinary action against the attorney), and other websites might have information about the attorney. But ... there’s no good “yelp” for attorneys. There are attempts (avvo), but they are almost all terrible. In the end, people would rather talk about how the Bahn Mi they ate doesn’t reflect the true spirit of Vietnam than about the quality of their legal service.
3. Magic 8-ball. Ask again.
So, when left with this infomation dissymetry, what is there left to do? And the quick and dirty answer (which is always the best kind, unless you’re OCD), is to ask people you know for recommendations. You may not have engaged an attorney before, but someone you know has- whether it’s your parents, your siblings, your friends, your friends of your friends, or your crazy neighbor Gustav who keeps peeing in the bushes because he believes his magical urine helps the plants. And they will give you a name, or names, for you to try. Or, at least, a starting point- like when you mom tells you, “Yeah, you know, that guy, he was really nice, your dad used him one time, I think his name was John? Jason? Anyway, he looked just like the dad from Family Ties!”
What then? Well, first, you run into the Second Cousin Jake Rule. Your friend loved this attorney, who did a great job for them and always was nice and returned their phone calls. But the attorney tells you, “Sorry. I litigated a probate case for your friend. You’ve got a federal employment claim, and I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t think I can help you.” If you are otherwise out of options, ask for a referral.
Sidebar- Referrals! We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all attorney referrals are created equal.
- Friend/Good Client referral. Let’s say the attorney’s mom got busted with the crack pipe again. Or Mr. Big, who is the biggest developer in Tropico, needs a little bit of help with his slight “getting his hand caught in the cookie jar of his company’s funds” problem. The attorney will rack their brain, and their network of law-addled friends, to come up with the best attorney for their needs. Because this time, it’s personal.
You can put your own shark/lawyer joke here.
- Fee referral. Many firms have deals with other attorneys. Shhh.... don’t tell anyone. Let’s say the firm is a standard civil litigation firm, specializing in defense work. They might occasionally stumble upon Plaintiffs, with good claims (when you’re kicking a lot of Plaintiffs when they’re down, you sometimes stumble on ‘em!). They will refer these potential clients to a particular Plaintiff’s firm, for a small fee (which can be a very small percentage of the eventual recovery in some jurisdictions). This follows the standard rule for all attorneys; the sun will rise, the sun will set, and the attorney gets paid.
- Referral lists. Some firms already have either written referral lists for certain matters or “go-to” attorneys in different areas that they have pre-established relationships with. You know- anyone coming in asking about Gustav and his magical urine gets sent to a certain attorney familiar with Gustav- one that has waterproofed the furniture in the conference room.
The important takeaway is two-fold; first, that not all referrals will be equally awesome, but second, and more importantly, that any referral will likely be better than the information you have. Huh? Okay, let’s break this out. If the attorney you originally went to is a good attorney, it stands to reason that he associates with other, good attorneys. And even the standard referrals he offers will be decent. Even if it’s a fee referral- the attorney will have a vested interest in getting some recovery down the road, so it’s not like he’s going to send you to McDoofus, Moron & Maleficent, LLP.
This goes to the original issue of information dissymetry. An attorney will know something about the standard of practice, who will be able to handle your type of claim, and so on. You, if you are going in blind, likely do not.
So, now you’ve done it. Your best friend, Bob, has told you about this wonderful firm, Nelson & Murdock, that totally helped him out with his legal problems. Well, he wasn’t sure how they helped, but they were really nice, charged him in baked goods, and it just so happened that the Plaintiff that had filed the frivolous suit against him got the holy crap beaten out of him by a masked vigilante and withdrew the lawsuit. So now that you’re meeting with an attorney, how do you know if he’s a good guy, or an attorney?
But that’s the subject for another day.* Yeah, just like a juror twiddling their thumbs, what started as a small sidebar turned into a long conversation, followed by “And the Law Blog is in Recess.”
*Ha ha! Surprise twist Jackson-ed self referential!