A Lawyer’s Guide to Hiring a Lawyer
(Choosing an Advocate You Can Trust)
MIKE ARNOLD & EMILIA GARDNER
Table of Contents
COURT APPOINTED VERSUS RETAINED ATTORNEYS 2
FIRST THING YOU NEED—A NAME 4
YOU’VE GOT NAMES: NOW WHAT? 7
Lawyer-Client Speed Dating: The Mutual Evaluation 10
Size Matters 11
Meeting with your attorney 12
Finding the Right Fit 14
Experience Matters 15
What is an “offer” of settlement? 17
Attorney Fees: You Get What you Pay For 18
How do attorneys get paid? 18
If It Isn’t in Writing, It Didn’t Happen: The Fee Agreement 21
Disclaimer: This text of this book is for informational purposes only. The authors of this book are licensed to practice only in Oregon. Nothing in this book makes the reader a client of the authors or of the authors’ law firm. If the reader has questions of a legal nature or needs legal advice, the reader should contact and consult with a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction.
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This book is for individuals and families who need to know how to go about hiring a lawyer. It’s all about educating yourself. If you are reading this, you might be someone who has been arrested or charged with a crime, or someone who is going through a divorce. You might be someone who has not been arrested, but worry that you will be. You might be a worried spouse, partner, family member or friend of someone who could be entering the criminal or civil justice system. Or you might simply be someone who adheres to the Boy Scout Motto, “Be Prepared!”
There are many important considerations that go into selecting a lawyer. You will find that there is no one right way to locate, interview, and make the decision to hire a lawyer. In our experience, people who are better informed before they even begin the process of trying to find a lawyer are generally better satisfied with their ultimate choice. Also, those that follow their gut instincts about the attorneys they interview tend to be happier with their choice.
In the chapters that follow, we have provided the information that we believe is vital to know before you step into a lawyer’s office for that first meeting. When you meet with a lawyer for the first time, you need to know what you are looking at, what you are looking for, the right questions to ask, and whether or not the information you are receiving is helpful and accurate.
This only applies to hiring a criminal defense attorney but also may apply to someone using a legal aid lawyer for a domestic violence or divorce case. There are many individuals in this country who cannot, for whatever reason, afford to hire an attorney to represent and advise them. They should not despair, as the right to counsel for a criminal defendant in this country is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Generally, if you cannot afford to hire an attorney, one will be “appointed” for you when you first appear in court. You will not get to choose which court-appointed attorney, but you will not have to go it alone – unless you have a divorce or other civil matter, where pro se (self-represented) litigation has become increasingly common.
Even if you qualify for court-appointed counsel, should you accept that attorney’s representation or should you beg and borrow money from your friends and family to help you retain an attorney of your choice? Read on. If you observe in your appointed attorney some or all of the concerns we raise in this book, you may want to consider trying to find out whether retaining an attorney of your choice is possible.
So you want to meet with an attorney. Where do you start? The first thing you need is a name of a potential lawyer. Ideally, you would want to assemble a list of at least three to five potential lawyers to vet and consider. Once you have a name, you can get to work. But where do you get a name?
The best way generally to get the name of a potential attorney is from someone who has previously hired that attorney, or someone who can vouch for the attorney’s experience, personality, and reputation. If your uncle, brother, sister, cousin, best friend, or co-worker hired an attorney and was overwhelmingly pleased with that attorney’s services, that attorney should be on the top of your list.
Referrals from others is the traditional way to hire an attorney for your divorce, business, car accident, or wills and trusts. However, many people are too embarrassed to ask for a criminal defense attorney referral or do not known anyone who has gone through the criminal justice system. That’s okay. If you get the name of a trusted lawyer who does not practice criminal defense, you can still contact them to get a referral to a criminal defense lawyer.
Nowadays, most people find the most success starting with the internet. They simply Google “criminal defense lawyers” or other relevant search terms. Most attorneys will have professional websites, Facebook page reviews, Avvo.com accounts with high rankings, and a list of awards and achievements following them around. While rankings and awards are helpful, there is no substitute for the direct pipeline of information you will obtain from that attorney’s current or former clients. Does the attorney return phone calls? Does that attorney deliver on his promises? Does that attorney keep you sufficiently informed about what is happening in the case? Is the attorney honest? The only way to truly know the answers to these questions is to be the client of the attorney.
Direct information from former clients is worth its weight in gold. In the same way you look for names of attorneys you might want to hire, you can also use your friends and family to help you cross off some potential candidates. But remember to take all of your recommendations with a grain of salt. Is your friend the kind of person who is dissatisfied with every service she receives? Or is she the kind of person who trusts everyone and sees faults in no one?
There may be reasons in your situation why getting the names of direct referrals is not an option. You may not want anyone to know or suspect that you are even in the position of needing to hire a criminal defense attorney. Or you just may not know anyone who knows any attorneys. If you can’t get names from people you trust, your next step would be to find some names on your own. There are a handful of ways that people get names for lawyers if they don’t have a referral source: your state bar’s referral service, the yellow pages, and the internet.
In most states, the state bar organization will maintain an attorney referral service. Simply Google “[your state] state bar lawyer referral service.” Attorneys who are looking for clients register with the service. People who are looking for an attorney in a particular area of practice can obtain the name and contact information for an attorney by calling the service hotline. After that, it is generally the potential client’s job to follow up and contact the attorney to schedule an appointment to meet.
Not every state bar referral will result in an engagement. The client and the attorney still have to vet each other and come to an agreement about the scope and the costs of representation. However, if you don’t have any other options, these types of referral services can be a good place to start. Some referral services will even have a “modest means” program for those you can’t afford the costs of an attorney. Attorneys who are willing to consult with modest means clients register separately for this service, so potential clients don’t have to waste their time trying to consult with lawyers that they can’t afford. But, as with most things, you get what you pay for and the client is often better served with a court-appointed lawyer for free in a criminal case. However, many of the divorce lawyers who register for a modest means program can be young, ambitious, and doing their best to impress. They could be a better alternative than going it alone.
Before the internet, the yellow pages’ advertisements were a huge source of revenue for phone book companies. The ads would vary from a simple line in the listing, name and phone number, down to a multi-page color, glossy spread with photographs of the attorneys standing in front of books or expansive downtown views. There was often little to be gained for the potential client besides some names, phone numbers, an idea of the practice area, and maybe an idea of what they attorney looks like (young, old, male, female, etc.). However, with the meteoric rise of the world wide web, many attorneys have scaled back their yellow pages advertising, or eliminated the ads in their entirety, in favor of trying to attract clients with websites and professionally edited online videos. Many attorneys continue to advertise in the yellow pages to try and capture the web-adverse, such as senior citizens. It seems to be a dwindling population. The yellow pages are a good place to get names, but the information you receive there otherwise is incredibly minimal given space restrictions.
Opening up your favored search engine and typing in “[practice area] lawyer” will likely return thousands of potential candidates, although Google has lately been limiting the geographic area based on your location automatically. We recommend that you narrow your search to include the name of the city, state, court, and type of case you need assistance with, unless you are in a small town with slim pickings for lawyers. In that case you are often best served by going to the next largest town or the main metropolitan area nearby. Right or wrong, many clients look skeptically on small town lawyers, particularly in criminal defense cases. They fear that they are too close to “the system” and do not want to anger judges or prosecutors. In effect, they go along to get along. That is the fear at least.
The top attorney websites you will see using Google are paid spots. As of the publication for this book, they are distinguished from “organic” listings with a small green box to the left of the webpage address with the letters “Ad” inside. Feel free to click on those links, but know that the reason they pop up first is because an attorney is shelling out some cash to get in front of your eyes first. In larger markets, it could be upwards of $100 per click. As of October 2016, the average bid for “Portland Oregon personal injury lawyer” is $64.22 per click. For “phoenix personal injury lawyer” the average bid is $148.42. However, in the smaller market of North Dakota, the term “Fargo car accident lawyers” is still relatively high at $54.70.
The organic (non paid) listings are often better at informing the consumer than Google’s paid ads. Google’s mysterious search algorithm currently rewards content. The more relevant content on the website, the higher it will rank. This means that a lawyer with lots of information relevant to your practice area is going to rank higher. This means the lawyer either paid a lot for a web developer or actually put pencil to paper and wrote down what they know about your case type.
Still, we recommend going through at least the first couple pages of Google results to get a feel for who is practicing criminal defense in your community. While you won’t get the personal information you’d receive in a direct referral, you will get several names to vet and might even learn a little about your type of case, making you more informed in vetting lawyers. To keep track of your research, right click on the websites that interest you to open them into a separate search window. Or, you might want to consider logging relevant information in a spreadsheet with columns that include name, city, years of practice, number of attorneys at firm, support staff to attorney ratio, representative cases, reviews, other notes, etc.
Next, scour the attorney’s website to get a feel for them and their practice philosophies. Peruse their representative cases to see if they truly are experienced in your practice area or if they are dabbling in it because business is slow. Make a list of the top three to five and start making contact, either by requesting contact on their website or by calling their office.
It all starts with first impressions. Can you think of a time when your first contact with someone really mattered? It almost always does. This is especially true for a criminal defense lawyer. If your first impression of them personally is poor, think about how a jury, judge, or adverse counsel will perceive them. If your first impression of the staff at their office is poor, think about how client service will by once you are a paying client.
For example, Arnold Law Managing Partner Mike Arnold remembers a time when a first impression really mattered to him:
I remember when my wife and I were applying for law schools. I applied for a scholarship to a prestigious state university. I called them after not hearing back about the scholarship application that I submitted to them weeks earlier. I talked to someone _][_in _][_the front desk in admissions. She asked me my name and said she couldn’t see me on the _][_list of applicants. She then asked me what my LSAT score was and my GPA. When I told her, she kind of laughed to herself and told me that I didn’t need to worry about getting this scholarship, because it probably wasn’t happening. I thanked her for her candor and apologized for wasting her time. I went out to the _][_mailbox _][_later that day and there was my scholarship award in the mail. I threw it right in the trash and had no intent whatsoever of even visiting this university. If that was the customer service they give me when I hadn’t even decided to give them any money yet, imagine what customer service is like once I was trapped there as a student with no other options.
Now, Mike’s application experience doesn’t completely transition to the service industry because we attorneys have obligations to our current clients to meet their needs before spending time with prospective clients. But when you are first contacting a law firm’s office, first impressions matter.
How does the front desk treat when you call when you are a prospective client? Even if a law firm is too busy to take on a new case, the firm staff should be responding in a timely manner because that shows that they organized. The last thing you want to do is to hire a law firm that is so disorganized that they can’t even control their internal follow-up mechanisms. How do you think they are going to handle court deadlines that need to be self-imposed by the attorney when you are actually a client? However, mistakes happen, people go on vacation and attorneys go to trial, so this isn’t necessarily a fatal problem if a genuine apology follows a delay in contact.
Once you contact the law firm, you will learn that different attorneys have different intake procedures. Some attorneys may get you on the phone right away for a free conversation for a few minutes. Some may want you to come to the office in person more formally. Regardless, you will eventually want to meet them in person, look them in the eye and shake their hands before making your final decision.
As you talk to the law firm personnel, try to think about why they are telling you certain things. Are they overselling themselves as if they were selling a used car? Or are they soft selling themselves by strictly presenting their firm philosophy, past case successes and client reviews?
What if the attorney or their staff bad mouths other lawyers? Stay away from them. That is a warning sign that they are unprofessional, disagreeable, and bad businessmen. As your mother probably taught you, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Those that are disparaging their competitors are probably desperate for your business. The supply and demand curve will tell you the reason they are not in high demand: quality of service. One trick to really learning about the lawyer is to tell them that you are also considering lawyers X, Y and Z, and then ask them what they think of them. Most good lawyers will speak highly and recommend the ones they trust and say nothing at all about the ones where they have nothing good to say. You will learn a lot about the character of the attorney by doing this.
If none of the lawyers have been disqualified by your initial contact, go back and continue learning about their experience. After you review the website, if you haven’t seen anything that would cause you to take the potential attorney off the list, you should google him or her. The internet is a wealth of information about your potential attorney, not just her own website but other people’s websites. You may find Facebook, Twitter, and other social media posts about or by your attorney.
You should be looking closely at media and news articles to get an idea of what kind of cases your attorney takes on. For example, on the firm website your attorney may have portrayed himself to be this incredible, seasoned defense lawyer but when you go online, you may find out that primarily the cases that he is doing that are being reported on are civil cases. This may cause you to have some real questions when you meet with you lawyer about what his or her criminal defense experience actually is.
Checking the local news for information about your attorney is especially useful for those seeking criminal defense lawyers because the modern 24/7 news cycle has turned most, if not all, small town newspapers into crime beat police press release firms. They simply report about ongoing cases because those cases are the low hanging fruit of the media world. Arrests and court cases are always a matter of public record and there’s always something going on. Look and see by clicking on Google’s “news” tab. Is the attorney taking cases that are of local interest? If you do not see any cases in the media involving this attorney that may be a good example of supply and demand. This attorney is not in high enough demand that he or she is working on these locally “high profile” cases.
There are also multiple “review” sites like Facebook’s pages, Avvo.com, Lawyers.com, etc. People are free to post about lawyers and rate them. Most of the websites require a statement that you have actual personal knowledge about the lawyer, but there is little that they do to enforce the requirement. You should take the online reviews with a grain of salt. Most happy clients, particularly non-millennial folks that are over the age of 30, don’t go to the internet to praise someone. They typically thank their attorneys with a more personal touch, such as flowers or a fruit basket.
The negative reviews may or may not be useful to you. The negative reviews are clearly unhappy people. In some cases, those reviewers are adverse parties that have been slighted, or even trounced by the lawyer they reviewed. In other cases, the review may have been completed by someone who was unhappy with the result that he obtained, which had less to do with his attorney and more to do with the trouble that he had gotten himself into in the first place. Finally, we all know someone who, because of a personality quirk or personality disorder, can never be satisfied. Log what you see, and then as you do your research, see if the bad review is supported by the rest of your research.
Further, if you want to confirm whether your potential attorney has ever been disciplined or had any trouble with the state bar, you can contact the state bar and ask for the information about them that is publicly available. An attorney who has been disciplined for mismanaging or stealing a client’s money, neglecting a client’s case, lying, or lacking the knowledge and skills to handle a case like yours should be avoided.
Before you call that office for the first time, also try to keep in mind that not only are you interviewing them to be your attorney, but they are going to be interviewing you to see if they want you to be their client. First impressions matter there too. For example, our office turns down far more cases than we accept and many times that is because we just don’t think it’s the right fit. That’s a polite way of saying, “I am not sure I like you and want to spend a lot of time with you.” And if we don’t like you, we don’t want to help you; that’s one of the beauties of capitalism. So, if you are mistreating the staff or being rude, your money may not be good there. Keep that in mind. Be professional. Be polite. They should be doing the same to you. Always follow the Golden Rule.
The same attitude is true when you get an appointment and you visit the lawyer’s office. The first impressions matter there too. When you go into the office, pay attention. You are evaluating the attorney and the attorney’s office but the attorney is also evaluating you, your appearance and your demeanor. A sophisticated attorney is imagining what it would be like to represent you for days or weeks or months or maybe even years depending on how long your case could go on.
The First Office Meeting
You’ve walked into your attorney’s office reception/waiting area for your first appointment. If the office is spartan or one that just doesn’t feel welcoming, take that for what it is. Your impressions are going to have to be variable there. There are plenty of small town rural lawyers with very frugal offices that are of super high quality. However, you are still really going to learn a lot when you take a look around the lobby. How clean is it? Are they offering coffee, soda, or water? They should offer you something to make your wait more comfortable. These little things are important.
You also need to listen to the phone calls that are coming in with the receptionists. How is she speaking to these people? Is she speaking about confidential information in front of you? This will show the sloppiness or the high-quality nature of an office based upon their front office staff. Are the staff polite? If the staff member is impolite or rude to other clients on the phone while you are waiting and listening in, they are going to be rude to you later. Everybody has a bad day now and again, but overall you should have a pleasant experience during that first encounter.
Look around, what does this law firm look like? Does it need to be glitzy and full of granite and gold? No, but glitz and gold can be a concern. If you walk into a law office and there’s hardwood trim 12 inches wide around the doors, along the floor and on the ceiling, you have to wonder, where are the attorney fees are going? Are they going to support gold-plated bookends or they are going to support staff that actually help improve client services?
Make sure to ask about the ratio of attorneys to legal assistants. Ask how many attorneys work there. When you know how many attorneys there are, ask if they are all partners that eat what they kill. It is often helpful to know if they just have a pretend law firm where everybody is out for themselves, or they are a true law firm in that traditional sense where you have partners and associates – a team that is there to help you.
If they are a true law firm, is it an upside down pyramid or proper pyramid. If you have a top-heavy firm (lots of partners, few associates), those attorneys may need to bill a lot in order to meet overhead. What does that mean? If the firm is top heavy, there might be concerns about how solvent the firm is. If you have a higher associate-to-partner ratio, a correct pyramid, then you just know they are good businessmen and capitalists. You also know they have good internal policies, which means they probably have some wits about them.
Another thing you need to know is whether the law firm or the lawyer that you are hiring is the right size for you. The right fit is going to depend upon you and upon the case. You may discover that the potential lawyer is really great and he is really well reviewed but he also is working by himself. In most cases, the fact that he is a solo practitioner should not prevent you from hiring him outright. The lawyer will probably be able to utilize staff or otherwise get the help that he needs if it is needed. However, if your case is a giant complex multi-state case, with hundreds of witnesses and you are working with one lawyer that has no support you have to wonder and question whether or not that law firm is the right size for your case. Whether or not your firm is small, medium or large is going to depend on what market you are in. A small law firm in New York city is going to be different than a small law firm in rural Oklahoma.
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