In the past several weeks, I have had several people approach me about various legal matters. Most often, people are not sure how to select an attorney who is both skilled and affordable. While the internet is one good way to narrow down your choices, word of mouth and actual one-on-one contact with the attorney is the best way to ensure you are getting the right man or woman for the job. If you are in the market for an attorney, here are some good questions to ask your potential attorney:
1) How much experience do they have in this area of law?
This is a huge factor. Many attorneys have years of experience, but may not have adequate experience to handle a complex legal matter. For instance, a criminal lawyer who handles a few estate planning cases per year may not be competent to handle a multi-million dollar estate. Conversely, an estate planning lawyer who handles a few criminal cases per year is likely not competent to handle a complex, multi-defendant murder cases replete with DNA, fingerprint, and forensic pathology evidence. Therefore, do not be afraid to ask your potential lawyer questions about his or her professional experience in the type of matter you are involved in. And do not be afraid to “ask around” with other lawyers to find out whether the attorney has the requisite experience. Nothing can replace experience.
2) What are my chances of success?
Although attorneys are ethically prohibited from guaranteeing a particular result, you should ask your attorney about your chances of success. For instance, in a criminal case with a confession and ample evidence of guilt, your attorney will likely tell you that your chances of being convicted are extremely high. This is a great opportunity for you to learn more about your lawyer’s level of candor. Many times, I have told clients that it is not my job to tell them what they WANT to hear. It is my job to tell them what they NEED to hear. In many cases, the client NEEDS to hear that their chances of success at trial are very dim. Conversely, in a few cases where evidence is thin, their chances of success may be quite high. In each case, before the client makes a decision to hire an attorney, they should carefully discuss best case scenario and worst case scenario to increase the likelihood of success. If the worst case scenario seems probable, then perhaps the attorney and client need to discuss ways to mitigate the offense, perhaps by attending AA classes, therapy, or other remedial measures to ensure a fair plea bargain.
3) How many cases have you tried?
It has been said that many lawyers, if they met their reputation on the street, would not recognize each other. The reason for this is simple: many lawyers develop an unfair reputation through marketing and membership to misleading legal associations. In criminal cases, the key question should not be how well an attorney is rated by legal associations, but how well an attorney is known as a “trial attorney.” Many attorneys develop a positive reputation for being an effective negotiator. While this is an important skill, what happens when negotiations break down and you’re staring at a trial? One important point for people to recognize is that prosecutors do not care about what kind of person you are. They are looking at the evidence and where the evidence will lead them in making their decisions regarding plea negotiations. Therefore, you should be considering the type of lawyer you hire if (and when) negotiations break down and you are faced with the inevitability of a trial. Another thing you should be looking for is an attorney who can effectively communicate your position to a jury and effectively persuade 12 jurors of the rightness of your cause. The last thing you want is a lawyer who never tried a case fighting for your freedom, family, or property.
Lastly, do not be afraid to discuss the price with your attorney. Next to medicine, the practice of law is one area where you cannot afford to hire the cheapest lawyer on the market. If you have carefully vetted your potential attorney with the aforementioned questions, you will have an easier time determining whether that attorney is truly worth their asking price. If you want to know “why” the attorney is charging a particular price, just ask. After all, it’s just an honest question. It deserves an honest answer.