Avoiding the Pitfalls and Selecting the Right Lawyer for Your Needs
Written by Jeffrey Caminsky, a Michigan Prosecuting Attorney
Most people who need legal help are not trained legal professionals, and may have little real knowledge of the law. This makes finding the right lawyer much like rolling the dice. You can take your chances and hope for the best, but you may not know the result until it is too late to change your mind.
Other lawyers can usually tell if an attorney is sensible and competent, or one step away from disbarment. Unfortunately, investing in a law school education is not a practical way for most people to go about selecting the right lawyer. There are, however, a number of things you can look for to tell if the attorney sitting across the table will be able to help solve whatever problem you may have, or whether you should run away screaming, and never look back:
Regardless of the trade or profession, you usually know when you meet true professionals. They are completely at ease in their environment; they act in a way that seems natural and appropriate; and they exude a quiet confidence. Lawyers are no different, and the professionalism they exhibit should instill a sense of trust in their abilities and judgment. They should be polished and personable, and proud of their accomplishments, but not arrogant or condescending. Their questions should be directed to making you feel at ease, yet thorough enough to convey the sense that they are deadly serious when it comes to your legal business, and will be leaving nothing to chance. Above all, they should be more interested in finding a sensible solution to your particular problem than in finding someone to blame for it.
Part of every lawyer’s job is communicating-either explaining options and risks to the client, or persuading a judge or adversary of the merits of a case. They should be well-spoken, and willing to communicate effectively on your level. Lawyers who hide behind legal jargon may be quite competent, but they may also be hiding their incompetence behind a lot of words that non-lawyers and other normal people would never use in ordinary conversation. If a lawyer cannot explain legal concepts to you in language that you can readily understand, it is likely that he does not understand it very well, himself. Lawyers often need to use jargon in court, when dealing with judges or other lawyers; there is rarely a need to do so with a client.
Besides being professional and articulate, be sure to pick a lawyer with experience in the field for which you need the help. Some states have specialty certification programs; others do not. But unless your problem is routine paper-processing, an attorney who lacks experience in the field will have a poor feel for the nuances and subtleties of a problem, and may cause avoidable complications while trying to resolve things to your satisfaction. A brilliant securities lawyer is likely to founder if called upon to defend a murder case; by contrast, the best courtroom defense lawyer is likely to be lost if called upon to handle a tax matter in front of the IRS.
You should also find out about the lawyer’s professional credentials, especially if your prospective attorney does not bring it up himself during conversation. Lawyers are bound by attorney-client privilege not to reveal anything about the legal affairs of another client. That does not prevent them from telling you about other cases they have worked on, or about their professional background. Remember, though, that the law school they attended is usually less important than the kind of work they have done since. After all, very fine lawyers come from every law school in the country, and Yale and Harvard have produced their share of fools. Attending Harvard assures you that they got good grades in college, and are very bright. It says nothing about their professional ethics, and is no guarantee that they have an ounce of common sense.
Trust is critical to a good attorney-client relationship. Yet your level of “comfort” with an attorney will be highly subjective…and quite possibly very unfair to the lawyer. Still, most people have good instincts about others. If you don’t trust him, you should not entrust him with your legal affairs. And if something about him or his practice strikes you as not quite right, you should probably trust your instincts and go elsewhere.
Questions to Ask
Many questions arise from the nature of your legal problem, others from the nature of the profession. If you are trying to incorporate your business, for example, you will need answers to different questions that if you are accused of drunk driving. But there are some questions that all clients will need to know. And you should not hire someone to act as your lawyer without asking questions-and getting answers-on a number of important, if ordinary topics:
- Fees-that is, how much the attorney will charge for his services
- Costs-that is, how many “other fees” you are likely to be billed for, such as mileage, photocopying, legal filing fees, and the like.
- The precise limits of the lawyer’s duties-and what, if any, responsibilities you will have during the course of the representation.
- Whether the attorney will be handling your case personally…or giving it to an associate after you leave the office.
- And last, but not least-whether they have ever been disciplined by the state bar association.
There is no sure-fire method for selecting legal counsel. The decision often depends on many intangible factors that vary from person to person, and case to case. But that is probably as it should be, for the decision to hire a lawyer is intensely personal. You are trusting the attorney with your legal affairs, which may involve some of the most intimate aspects of your life. In the end, you should devote at least as much attention to picking the right lawyer as you would to picking out the right car. You can, after all, ride around quite nicely in a car that is not quite the color you wanted, or has less trim that you would have preferred. But entrusting your affairs to the wrong lawyer can prove disastrous to your legal well-being…and quite expensive.
A Note from the Author
Jeffrey Caminsky, a veteran public prosecutor in Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. Both his science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the first volume in the Guardians of Peace ™ science fiction adventure series, and The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating, are published by New Alexandria Press, http://www.newalexandriapress.com.