Last week, we learned that shopping for a lawyer is not quite the same as buying a washer or dryer. This week, let's discuss ways to find the right lawyer for your needs. Here are some suggestions:
- Figure out why you want a lawyer in the first place. Will this be a one-shot experience with the lawyer hired to draft a basic will, or are you trying to find someone to consult regularly about your small business and keep you out of legal trouble? Obviously, you will be looking for different attributes if the lawyer will be representing you for some time. Legal competence won't be enough; the two of you will have to get along. If all you want is a will prepared, you don't have to like the lawyer, but you don't want someone who has never done it before, either.
- Start with your friends, especially business colleagues and other professionals. Bank officers, doctors, ministers and social workers often come into contact with lawyers and may know one who is right for you. If any friends have been hauled into court, ask how they rated their lawyers.
- Contact lawyer referral services. Most local bar associations, including those in Orange County, Los Angeles, San Fernando Valley and Pasadena, operate referral services, as do some special-interest groups. Usually these services charge only a nominal fee, if any, and list lawyers by categories, such as criminal law, personal injury, estate planning and adoption. Don't be confused; a referral is not an endorsement. Often there are only minimal qualifications required to be included on the referral lists, but at least you'll be given names of lawyers who prefer one area of practice over another. (The American Bar Assn. publishes a directory of lawyer referral services. Call (312) 988-5000 and ask for order fulfillment. The cost is $5, plus $2.50 shipping and handing.)
- Research prospective candidates. Go to a law library and check the biographies listed in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. Law firms are listed by city; included is information about a lawyer's education, awards, other clients and published articles. Bear in mind that the information is provided by the lawyer.
- Call the State Bar of California. You can check to see if a prospective attorney has ever been disciplined for unethical conduct. Call (213) 482-8220 and ask for membership records. The State Bar also certifies specialists in a few limited categories--worker's compensation, tax, criminal and family law--and can provide a list of specialists in your county. Such specialists are also listed by category in the "Parker Directory of California Attorneys," which you should also be able to find at a local law library.
- Check advertising in newspapers and phone directories. But just because someone calls himself experienced doesn't mean it is true. You have to interview the candidate carefully to be sure.
- Drop by the local courthouse. Watch some lawyers in action and chat with court personnel about their own favorite trial attorneys--that is, if you need someone in court and not for tax advice.
- Contact local civil rights and public-interest groups. If you have a potentially precedent-setting case, a group may decide to fight your legal battle for free. Or someone on a group's legal staff may recommend a qualified, ethical attorney.
- If you are low on funds, call the Legal Aid Foundation to see if you are qualified to receive its services for low-income clients. Call your local Legal Aid Foundation office.
- Visit local law schools and professors. Some professors consult in highly technical areas and usually are very expensive, but they may be able to recommend graduates who fit your needs.
- Consider joining HALT Inc., a legal reform group, 1319 F St. N.W., Suite 300, Washington D.C. 20004, (202) 347-9600. Members who pay a $15 annual fee receive several self-help manuals, including "Shopping for a Lawyer."
- Interview several candidates. Once you've narrowed your choice down to two or three possible lawyers, interview each one and try to arrange to have the initial interview free of charge.
In a later column, I'll suggest some questions you should ask.