Shopping for a lawyer can be expensive, but only if you make the wrong choice.
Each year, the California State Bar receives thousands of complaints from clients about their lawyers. In 1983 there were 8,094 complaints about the 84,000 lawyers in the state, according to a State Bar spokeswoman. The complaints ranged from violating an attorney-client confidence to skipping town with a client's money.
That's why it is important to shop carefully for a lawyer. You want to find an ethical one, but you also need one who is experienced with the kind of legal problem you have.
So, how do you find a lawyer?
Some Suggestions Here are some suggestions:
--Talk to friends. Ask friends and neighbors who have had legal problems about the lawyers they used and whether the lawyers did a good job.
--Contact the local bar association. In Los Angeles, the County Bar operates a Lawyer Referral and Information Service; the phone number is 622-6700. The service offers a 30-minute consultation with a lawyer for $20. It also has a program to refer low-income clients to lawyers who will accept reduced fees. Other local bar associations offer similar referral services.
--Talk to business colleagues and other professionals. If you work for a large company with its own legal staff, the in-house counsel may be able to recommend a lawyer. Other professionals--doctors, ministers, social workers, bank officers--frequently come into contact with lawyers and may know an experienced attorney just right for your needs.
--Cruise the local courthouse. The people who work there frequently know the best trial lawyers and may be willing to share their opinions with you. You might also check the local court docket for people who have sued or have been sued in situations similar to yours.
--Visit a law library. Actually, all you need to do is pick up a copy of the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, but the library is the best place to find it. It lists lawyers from across the country, including a lawyer's law firm, biography, the types of clients represented and areas of interest. Bear in mind, however, that this information is provided to the publisher by the lawyers themselves, and there is no independent verification of any of the facts.
--Call law schools. Some schools will be able to refer you to graduates. Law professors will frequently know lawyers who practice the subjects they teach. A law student, enrolled in a clinical program, may even be able to help with your particular problem.
--Check with local organizations. Civil-rights and other public-interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, may be able to help. If your case has the makings of a landmark decision, which might benefit others in a similar situation, you may be able to persuade a public-interest law firm like Westwood's Center for Law in the Public Interest to represent you on a pro bono (free of charge) basis.
--Let your fingers do the walking. Check advertising in newspapers and the Yellow Pages (lawyers seem to have more pages of advertising in the phone book than anyone else). For some routine legal matters like a bankruptcy or uncontested divorce, you can comparison-shop prices by reading these ads.
--Write HALT Inc. A legal-reform group based in Washington (address is 201 Massachusetts Ave. N.E., Suite 319, Washington D.C. 20002), HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny) runs a small referral network. Send Halt a short summary of your legal problem, and they may be able to help find a lawyer for you. Members of HALT ($15 membership fee) receive several self-help manuals, including "Shopping for a Lawyer."