Finding the right attorney for your matter is crucial. The right attorney can save you time, money, stress, frustration, and can ultimately make the difference between victory and disaster.
How I came up with the five steps.
Coming out of law school many years ago, I expected to start getting the random legal questions from friends and family, and I was not disappointed. Once I graduated, and even before I passed the bar, I routinely received legal questions, sometimes even from strangers.
Over time, I became aware of a question people should be asking more often, but do not. The question is this, how do I choose a good attorney?
No single attorney can practice in every area of the law and in every jurisdiction. I, myself, primarily practice in business law, estate planning, and asset protection in Virginia and Florida; but, my friends and family often have questions from other areas of the country and regarding other areas of the law, such as family law, immigration, personal injury, criminal law, etc.
I routinely answer what I can about an unfamiliar area of law, and direct my friends and family to hire an attorney who specializes in the area in which they need help. Over time, as I have helped friends and family find legal help, I have developed five steps below to finding a good attorney.
Obviously, these steps are not fool proof, and may not work for every situation. But, I have found these steps to be very helpful to family and friends, and hope you will benefit from them as well.
Step 1: Cast a broad net.
When you first start searching for counsel, you should cast a broad net by choosing multiple firms and attorneys to try out. Although it is time consuming, having a large pool of attorneys to choose from is worth every minute. Create your list with an online search. Review the websites of the various firms, and even give them a phone call.
You will not always get a free discussion with an attorney, but that is okay. I know this is a deal-killer for some people, but I think that view is a mistake. Very often good attorneys are kept so busy they do not have time available to speak with prospective clients. There are exceptions to this (I used to take prospective client calls in my car while commuting), but you can lose out on a good attorney by taking them off your list simply because they did not take your phone call before you hired them.
Also, most of the remaining steps on my list do not require you to speak to the attorney, and interactions with the law firm staff and a good review of their website can give you most of the information you need.
Referrals can be a great resource. But even if it is a referral, you should still run the attorney through the remaining four steps to make sure they fit your needs.
Step 2: Four years of experience.
Make sure your attorney has at least three to four years of experience as an attorney. Although there are some exceptional young attorneys out there, you generally want someone with experience. Three to four years is the sweet spot where attorneys really know enough to be effective.
There are exceptions to the four-year rule. The exceptions are, (1) your primary attorney is young, but they have a senior attorney monitoring their work, or (2) the firm is geared towards pumping out one type of legal service and has good controls in place to ensure quality. In both these exceptions you could benefit from using an attorney who has been out less than four years. Let me explain.
- You do not always want to have a senior attorney with higher billable hours completing every task on your project. Doing so would result in a larger than necessary bill. There is a sweet spot where you have a senior and junior attorney working on your matter together. You receive the benefit from the junior attorney providing the grunt work at a lower rate, while the senior attorney provides quality control and vision for your project at a higher rate.
- In situations where the firm has a certain type of legal product it provides over and over, and quality control systems are in place to ensure high quality, the junior attorney’s inexperience is balanced by the strength of the process. Early in my career I saw an example of this in a firm in Virginia. It was a Bankruptcy firm where every attorney had a role, and became specialized in that role. That firm could pound out dozens of quality bankruptcies which gave the junior attorneys the requisite experience they needed in their role in year one or two. Also, many of the legal products my firm currently offers are set up this way, such as entity formations, estate planning, document drafting, and trademarks. Once again, under this exception you can get the above average legal services at a reduced junior associate rate. Exception 2 is rare to find, because most law firms do not put in the time and cost to build such systems.
Step 3: Experience in subject matter.
This one is very important and very often ignored. It is not enough to have years of experience; you should want your attorney to have their experience in the very subject matter you are coming to them about.
You would not hire a car mechanic to fix an airplane or a brain surgeon to set your bone or diagnose your skin rash. You should not hire a family law attorney to form your entity, or a criminal law attorney to draft your employment agreement. Those attorneys could do it, but you usually end up paying them extra money or providing them extra time so they can research what they do not know about the area of law they are not familiar with. Attorney’s experienced in your specific matter can provide legal services faster, and many times at a better result.
Most attorneys can specialize in multiple areas of the law, but usually those areas include a general theme such as, business law, real estate law, family law, tax law, criminal law, patent law, etc. You can find out about what area of law the attorney practices by simply looking on their website, or asking the receptionist, “does this attorney routinely practice in the exact same area as my matter” or “how often does your firm handle this exact type of matter?”
Don’t find the attorney that just dabbles in the area of your matter, but find the attorney who is specialized in it.
Step 4: Resource and system fit
You should find a firm that has the right resources and system for your type of matter. Not all firms are tooled to fit the same type of cases. I am not talking about practice area. I am talking about the type and size of your matter.
For example, some firms are structured in such a way as to handle very small cases (litigation and transactions with small dollar amounts). They do this by handling cases in high volume. They rarely take only one large case to hearing, they take dozens of small cases. Rather than drafting detailed briefs with heavy analysis, they pound through quick single-issue motions. Other firms are more meticulous about their filings and shepherd their cases through the system. Both types of firms serve a purpose, but generally speaking the first is more fitted for cases with small dollar amounts and the second for large dollar amounts.
Some transactional matters are hundred-dollar matters, and some are million-dollar matters. The more money the transaction involves, the more meticulous the attorneys should be and the more you will likely have to pay them. Also, the larger the matter is the more resources you want the firm to have by way of staff and capacity.
Sometimes, you can find the unicorn that can handle all the above, for example, my firm handles both large and small transactional matters, but that is because we have tooled our practice to be able to handle even small dollar amounts efficiently.
You can determine what type of system a law firm has simply by asking them about their structure and which area they focus.
Step 5: Personal Fit
Last but not least, you need to determine if the attorney you work with is a good personal fit. Now don’t set the bar too high here. Remember, attorneys generally speaking, are the worst! The personal fit should really be about trust, communication, and achieving your goals. Remember, you can have a professional relationship with your attorney. You do not have to invite them for dinner, catch a game, or watch a movie together.
You do however, want to feel like you can trust them. You will need to be able to communicate with your attorney and their staff in a collaborative way, and you want to be able to feel like they understand your goals and have your best interest at heart. If you can do these things, or an acceptable combination of them, they are likely a good personal fit.
Now, this last step is easier to determine once you have met the attorney, which is why my firm offers a money back guarantee after the attorney kickoff meeting. Once you have met the attorney, if you want to immediately cancel the matter, you can do so and receive a full refund.
But, even if a firm makes you pay a little to meet with the attorney, you should not hesitate to cut your losses and terminate a firm where the attorney is not a good personal fit. The majority of the time, it is money well spent to avoid the frustration that could result from a bad fit.
When looking for a lawyer you should always (1) cast a broad initial net to have a good pool of candidates to choose from; (2) find an attorney with three to four years of experience or one that is monitored by a senior attorney or has a supporting system in place to ensure quality control; (3) make sure the firm has routine experience in the subject matter of your legal issues; (4) check to see if the firm is set up in a way that matches your legal matter (i.e. handle large or small cases); and (5) ensure the attorney you are working with is a good personal fit.
I hope these five steps help you find a firm that will meet your legal needs.