Suppose you were in a car accident and you didn't know what you were entitled to. Or, you bought a defective car and the dealer wouldn't honor the warranty. Or you were accused of a crime you did not commit. How do you find the right attorney to help you? As an attorney, let me lend you some insight.
Attorneys, like doctors, have areas of expertise. Just as you would not ask an eye doctor to set your fractured leg, you would not ask a criminal defense attorney to draft your will. While this might seem like common sense, many people do not put much effort into finding an attorney. Often, they assume that attorneys are all alike. Sometimes, they know an attorney and ask him or her to handle their legal issue. Ask any attorney you meet about the times they have encountered another attorney completely out of their depth, handling a matter for a friend or relative. And, some people just call a phone number they saw on TV or in an ad somewhere.
First, figure out what kind of case you have. If you've been arrested, you might surmise that you need a criminal defense attorney. But you will notice there are a lot of those. Narrow the search. Arrested for drunk driving? There are attorneys who focus on that. Caught with a few million dollars of company funds in your offshore account? Again, there are attorneys who specialize in handling those kinds of accusations. Find the attorney whose practice area is what you need.
On the civil side – that is, lawsuits – you will also need to narrow your search. A car accident might need an attorney who does auto negligence. Crushed by a falling pallet at Home Depot? Premises liability. Attacked by dogs? Dog bite. This is where the internet will help you. Run searches to find out what the area of law is called. Then, search for an attorney in your area who handles those cases. I get a lot of phone calls at my office because people type "auto law" into a search engine when looking for help with a car accident. You'd get better results trying "car accident lawyer."
Next: do not believe it when someone claims they handle everything. They might try – but you want someone who handles one thing really well: the thing you need. Search for attorneys by area of practice and by the area you live in. "Michigan Lemon Law Attorney." "Nashville Auto Negligence Attorney." "Miami Drug Possession Attorney." Notice that I used a state for one of those. Some specialties will be too narrow to find more than one in a particular town. And attorneys routinely travel a little bit to handle cases.
After doing a few searches, you should be able to find three or four attorneys who handle what you need. As you go through this process, avoid referral sites. Those are the sites that pop up and claim they are nationwide and can direct you to what you need in your state. You do not need a middleman in this process nor do you want an attorney that needs a referral site to steer them clients. Good attorneys have websites and telephones. As quaint as that sounds, the next step involves picking up the old hoot-and-holler and talking to someone.
Call at least three of them. Ask to speak to the attorney. Some firms have call screeners and will not let you speak to an attorney on your first phone call. Handle that however you feel but I personally would be put off by it. Once an attorney is on the phone, introduce yourself, explain briefly what your case is about and ask a couple of questions. How long have you been practicing? What percentage of your practice is handling cases like mine? How much will it cost to handle this case? If it is a lawsuit you are looking to file, will they handle it on a contingency?
After telling the attorney about your case, ask for an initial "take" on what they think they can do for you. The attorney will, by necessity, have to couch this answer a bit since they only know what you have told them but they should be able to tell you something. They might be able to tell you results they have achieved in similar cases, for example. Then, after getting your questions answered, thank them and say you are going to think about it.
Call the next attorney on your list and repeat the process. After going through the list you might find that you had a better rapport with one attorney. Or an attorney might have not given you answers you were comfortable with. Something might have felt "off" about an attorney. Then, and only then, make an appointment to go and meet with the attorney you felt best about.
Keep in mind that in most fields, attorneys will meet with you without charging you for the "initial consultation." If you are unsure, ask during the first phone call – but most will state this on their website so you won't need to ask. Go to their office and talk to them for as long as you need to so that you feel comfortable enough to hire them (or not). If you want to hire them, great. If you are on the fence, tell them you need to think some more and leave. If necessary, make an appointment with the next attorney on the list and repeat the process.
One of the things to keep in mind is that you will have a relationship with this attorney for the length of your case. So ask them at the face-to-face how long they think this matter will take to resolve. Some types of cases are easy to predict and some are not. But it will be vital that you can work comfortably with your attorney during the whole process. Ask the attorney how accessible they will be – will they return your calls the same day you call with a question? Simply asking that question might get you a surprising response.
You might be wondering if all of the above is "enough." I have news for you: I suspect that 90% of the people looking for attorneys do not do even half of this. Too many people just hire the first attorney they run across who is willing to take their case. The good news is that there are a lot of attorneys out there. That's good news, you ask? Yes, it is a buyer's market. That gives you many to choose from. Take your time and choose carefully.
Follow me on Twitter: @stevelehto
Steve Lehto has been practicing law for 23 years, almost exclusively in consumer protection and Michigan lemon law. He wrote The Lemon Law Bible. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation. You can hear his podcast Lehto's Law on iTunes here.
This website may supply general information about the law but it is for informational purposes only. This does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not meant to constitute legal advice, so the good news is we're not billing you by the hour for reading this. The bad news is that you shouldn't act upon any of the information without consulting a qualified professional attorney who will, probably, bill you by the hour.