How to Hire A Lawyer

Five part series on how to identify, interview and hire the best lawyer for you.

full course
  1. How to Hire A Lawyer Part One: It All Begins With You
  2. How to Hire A Lawyer Part Two: What Doesn’t Matter
  3. How to Hire A Lawyer Part Three: Traits of the Best Lawyers
  4. How to Hire A Lawyer Part Four: Essential Qualifiers
  5. How to Hire A Lawyer Part Five: Interview

Essential Qualifiers

In the third part of this course, I told you about the traits to look for in a lawyer. You can get a good feeling for the personality and skill of a lawyer by reading their blog. But before you spend hours reading a dozen legal blogs, there are some technical qualifications that you should also know about. If the lawyer does not meet these specific qualifications, no amount of amazing blog posts will make up for it.

yoga in a suit

Is the Lawyer Licensed in Your Jurisdiction?

In order to represent you, the lawyer must be licensed to practice law in the jurisdiction of your legal issue.

Jurisdiction refers to which state has power over you, your lawsuit, your transaction or business, or your property. Usually jurisdiction is the state you are in already, but not always. If you are bringing a lawsuit or dealing in a transaction, then you should start with lawyers in your state. If you are defending a lawsuit, you should start with lawyers in the same state as the lawsuit you are defending. Jurisdiction can be complicated, however, so if it is not obvious which state’s laws apply, then call a lawyer and ask.

When you interview a lawyer, ask whether he is licensed to practice in the state where jurisdiction applies. This is an elementary issue. If the lawyer doesn’t consider jurisdiction first off, then he or she has poor skills. In rare instances, a lawyer will take work in jurisdictions in which he is not licensed, which means the lawyer does not have the expertise to practice law in that particular state and may be prevented from doing so by law and ethics. Practicing law without a license is also a crime in many jurisdictions. You don’t want a lawyer who flagrantly violates the law and ethics! This is a rampant problem in hiring lawyers off of services like oDesk or eLance.

 

Without Serious Bar Discipline

On top of being licensed in your state, you need to know whether a candidate lawyer has been disciplined by the bar at any point. There is more than one way to check license status. Most state bars have a website where you can check the member’s standing by searching their name. Most also have a phone number you can call to ask. Or you can check a website like Avvo, which collects and displays discipline information on pretty much all lawyers nationally.

While Avvo can be useful, you shouldn’t ask confidential legal questions on the site. Foremost, it’s a public site and you need to keep your legal issues private. Second, there are a bunch of lawyers on Avvo who answer questions outside of their jurisdictions and practice areas to get points. Neither those lawyers nor their answers can be trusted!

 

Practices In Your Area of Law

There is a joke lawyers make about a lawyer who does not specialize: he practices “door law” — as in, anything that walks through the door. Lawyers who practice door law can be pretty incompetent. You want a lawyer with some experience in your issues.

When you are first looking to hire a lawyer, try to identify the kind of lawyer you need. For example, if you are dealing with a contract or transaction, then you need a lawyer who handles business and contracts, not a divorce lawyer or a patent lawyer. If you have a lawsuit, you probably want a lawyer who has trial skills or associates in his firm with a trial lawyer. If you have a DUI to defend, a civil litigator isn’t the right guy.

There are literally a hundred distinct practice areas. Most lawyers practice in several related areas. You won’t necessarily to be able to pinpoint the exact legal bucket, but you can get pretty close. You can know whether you need civil, family, criminal or patent attorney, for example.

Once you have a basic idea, this is where you can start reading the blogs to see if the lawyer discusses problems like yours. Bellatrix PC has hundreds of pages of content on multiple areas of civil law.  Once you narrow down the area of law relevant to your situation, you can start educating yourself and you’ll be better equipped to evaluate a particular lawyer’s knowledge through her body of work.

 

Special Licenses and Court Admissions

This isn’t typical, but some lawyers have special licenses that are necessary for your legal needs. The most obvious of these are patent lawyers. No lawyer can file a patent for you unless he is also admitted to practice before the patent office. Getting a patent license is actually really difficult, so you have to hire a patent specialist for this work.

Other areas of legal specialization may include admiralty law or admission to special Federal and international courts.

Some states allow voluntary additional specialization in areas like family or criminal law (but these aren’t required to practice in these areas). Most civil law does not have specializations like this. But in California, I typically recommend lawyers in family and criminal law who have such state certified specializations over those who don’t.

 

Recommendations

Testimonials and client recommendations or a list of client references is useful. If you are having a hard time narrowing down the list of lawyer candidates, make this an essential criteria. A lot of lawyers do not go the extra mile to earn and ask for references, so it tells you a little something about their approach to customer service.

 

Responsiveness and Communication

You should also consider how responsive a lawyer’s office is, how organized her staff is, and how clients feel about access to their lawyer. The number one complaint to the bars is that a lawyer does not call back or communicate about the case. This is very common. A well-run law office, however, has systems in place to make sure that clients are treated as VIPs — especially one where the law office is selective about its clients (remember that was one of the traits of the best lawyers described in the third article).

This is something you will quickly get a feel for in the process of setting up an interview. You should expect the staff to respond promptly (certainly within one to two business days) and to use an intake process. You should expect them to ask you professional qualifying questions (such as who is involved in your legal matter) because legal ethics requires lawyers to check for conflicts. A lot of well-run offices will have a legal intake questionnaire (or similar forms) and ask to receive documents in advance of the appointment, so that they can be fully prepared to give you advice at your consultation.

You should also expect them to answer your questions directly. This means that they will tell you about the intake and new client interview process, be able to answer basic questions about your legal matters and the firm’s approach, and treat you with honesty and courtesy. It does not mean that you should expect legal advice and a fee quote for any complex matters. (Routine matters may be sold using flat fee packages. But most legal work requires individualized quotes.)

The reason a law firm’s intake staff (even if that includes lawyers or paralegals) will not give you detailed legal advice on an initial phone call is that it could be malpractice. Most situations are complex enough that a lawyer must have documents and ask in depth questions before rendering an opinion. As an analogy, you wouldn’t expect your doctor to diagnose you after just talking to you, without taking some blood tests and giving you a physical inspection. A lawyer should not jump to diagnosis and treatment either. They may give you some ideas about what they are thinking, but ultimately a careful lawyer will ask for an intake form and related documents before providing you with a legal plan.

 

In the fifth and final article in this course, you will learn how to interview and hire your lawyer. I will also discuss fees.

Alicia Dearn

Alicia Dearn

CEO + Trial Lawyer at Bellatrix PC
Ms. Dearn gives sharp and insightful legal counsel to entrepreneurs and employers so they can advance their businesses fearlessly. She fixes legal problems.
Alicia Dearn