Let’s assume you decided you need to hire counsel to help with some aspect of your business. I might be biased, but I think that’s a great decision! I firmly believe in delegating out various functions of your business that are outside your realm of expertise, especially legal matters.
The question becomes how to select a lawyer. This article provides insight, from a lawyer’s perspective, on how to research and select the best lawyer for you.
Consider Your Legal Needs
Lawyers are educated on a wide variety of legal concepts. Law schools require us to take classes across the spectrum just to graduate, and the bar exam tests us on a broad and rotating list of subject matter. However, once we enter the real world most lawyers, like doctors, become specialists. Would you rather hire a lawyer who knows a little about many practice areas, irrelevant to you, or someone who is a specialist in your area of need?
I’m a business attorney. I do litigation and transactional work. This often bleeds into related fields, such as real estate, employment and consumer law, but I stay in my lane. I won’t touch a family or criminal issue with a 10-foot pole. Maybe don’t hire an estate planner to litigate your contract dispute? Maybe don’t hire a criminal defense lawyer to file your trademark application?
Figure out the nature of your legal need (i.e., employment, contract, regulatory, insurance, real estate), and look for an attorney in that area of practice. Find a specialist whenever possible.
How to Find Counsel
It can be tempting to run a web search for an attorney in a certain practice area in a certain geographical region (i.e., “San Diego Contract Lawyer), but the results will not necessarily pair you with the right person. The top hits of every web search are paid ad placements. Those attorneys are literally paying for those placements, and they pay per click. The person at the top of the list isn’t necessarily the one you want to hire.
The hits just below the paid ads aren’t necessarily the “best” lawyers; they are just the ones with the best SEO. It could be because their website is packed with valuable content, rich in keywords, or it could be because they invested heavily in digital marketing. This isn’t necessarily the person you want to hire. To clarify, I’m not advising you against hiring someone with good SEO; I am advising you not to hire someone just because they’re at the top of the page. Good search placement just means this person has money to burn.
I suggest you tap your network and seek a referral. Word of mouth is the best marketing, and a recommendation says a lot more about a person’s competency than their SEO. If you belong to a networking group or chamber of commerce, I suggest kicking the tires on a lawyer in the group. It’s a great way to build a relationship, plus the lawyer should raise his or her game because they will feel more accountability.
Don’t be afraid to ask the attorney for references. You really don’t need this if the attorney came from a referral, and the need for references really depends on the intensity or complexity of the project. A simple contract or trademark filing probably doesn’t warrant references, but a heavy litigation case should. I’ve had a couple prospective clients request references from me and was happy to comply because I respected their diligence.
Another resource is your county’s local bar association. Most counties have bar associations, which are separate from the state bar (a governmental licensing agency), where attorneys voluntarily pay for membership. These associations often have lawyer referral services, where you can connect with attorneys experienced in your area of need. For San Diego County, visit www.sdcba.org/lris.
How to Interview Attorneys
You absolutely should interview your prospective attorney before making a hiring decision. The interview serves multiple purposes, the most important being whether you are a fit for each other and whether the attorney has the requisite experience.
Attorneys and clients tend to take after each other. In my years of litigating disputes, I’ve come to learn that attorneys and their clients often seemed to share values and personalities. Hire someone who makes you feel comfortable, who listens to you and doesn’t talk over you and dominate the conversation. Hire someone who returns your call and responds to your email, someone whom you like and with whom you feel chemistry. You might be working together for a long time, so only hire someone you like and trust.
Personality aside, you want to hire an attorney who is competent and experienced in your area of concern. You don’t want to pay for your lawyer’s education, so ask the attorney if he or she has worked on your issue before, how many times and with what results.
On the one hand, you want to probe the attorney’s experience and competency for your legal issue. On the other hand, you do not want to come across as seeking free legal advice. It is unwise for any attorney to offer opinions with incomplete information and without having first been retained.
Don’t be shy to inquire about the anticipated cost of your project. Ask the attorney whether the project is more conducive to flat rate or hourly and request a quote. I’ll quote a project on the spot if the matter is straightforward. If it is more complex I’ll think it over and submit a written proposal.
Also, you want to inquire about the attorney’s availability. Does the attorney have the time to give attention to your matter and what is the turnaround time?
Don’t be afraid to interview multiple attorneys while seeking the best fit. Find the right balance between chemistry, experience and cost. I’m not offended when prospective clients disclose they’re interviewing other candidates. I tell them to go with their gut and hire whomever they believe to be the best person for the job. I do not recommend trying to put lawyers in a bidding war. Just go with the person who offers the best value and results for your money.
How to Research Attorneys
Attorneys are licensed by the State Bar, and information relating to all attorneys’ licensing is public record. Here you can find the attorney’s contact information, how long they have been practicing, where they went to school (undergrad and law) and whether they have been subject to disciplinary action. If the attorney has been disciplined by the State Bar, official documentation is available for download, right at the attorney’s profile page. To research California attorneys, go to www.calbar.ca.gov.
You may also search the attorney’s name online. It would be helpful to include terms such as “California lawyer,” along with the person’s full name in quotation marks. You might find some interesting articles, blogs, videos, reviews, complaints and comment threads. Having said all this, take what you find online with a grain of salt (aside from disciplinary records) and consider the source. For any complaint you may find there is always more to the story and another perspective.