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How to Pick a Lawyer


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WOULD YOU WANT AN OPERATION performed on you by a physician you’d never met? No way, says Superior Court judge Fred Link, who feels the same about picking a lawyer.

“Before you have a doctor cut you open, don’t you want to take the time to know a little about him—about his education, about his experience, about his reputation?” Link says. “I always recommend talking to friends, colleagues, other professionals and getting recommendations from them. And then when you start talking to [prospective] lawyers, always ask them about their experience, what they’ve done—and why they’re holding themselves out as competent attorneys.

“People assume that just because someone’s a lawyer, they know what they are talking about. But the truth is, that’s so far from reality,” he says. In the old days, says Link, it was a lot easier. “When I first started, this one lawyer had a business card that read ‘Miscellaneous lawyer,’ which basically meant he did everything—civil, corporate, defending a murder case,” Link says. “But those days are gone. We are in an era of specialization. You go to a law firm, and they have different departments for litigation, for real estate, for intellectual property. The law has gotten increasingly complex, and this complexity has required us to go that way.”

Here are five things judges say are critical when choosing an attorney:

1. Experience—not just in the law but in the specific field of law in which you need help. “That’s critical,” says retired federal Judge Lawrence Irving. “Make sure your lawyer has experience with cases of this type, and also that he has trial experience—because you don’t want a lawyer whose first trial is going to be this case.”

Link agrees. “It’s amazing to me how many lawyers I run into who have never been to court, and to whom the idea of going into a courtroom frightens the hell out of them,” he says. “Criminal attorneys are used to going to court, but a lot of civil lawyers don’t try lawsuits and just don’t know what they are doing.”

2. Education. Make sure the attorney is a graduate of an accredited law school. The American Bar Association maintains a list of law schools it has approved on its Web site (abanet.org).

3. Reputation. Check with friends, colleagues, judges, other lawyers. The Internet also can be a valuable resource; Irving recommends Martindale-Hubbell, which maintains a peer-review database of lawyers on its Web site (martindale.com). “It’s also smart to see if there’s any press about a lawyer,” Irving says. “And you should check with past clients.

Naturally, a lawyer will only give you happy clients, but you can still get information that way.”

4. Cost. When hiring a lawyer, you still often get what you pay for. The problem is that legal costs have risen so sharply that for most folks, the big, prestigious law firms are out of the question.

“They’re far too expensive,” says Irving. “They won’t handle matters unless there’s a certain minimum fee attached to the case, and the numbers can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Still, the goal should be “to get the best you can for what you can afford,” Irving says. His advice: “Call a judge in the community and say, ‘I’ve got a problem in this area; give me some names.’ And usually the judge will recommend a few good lawyers.”

5. Personality. Make sure you and your prospective attorney connect on a personal level. Some people just don’t click, and that’s something you most definitely need to take into account when choosing a lawyer.

“Once you sign up with a lawyer, it’s very difficult to end that relationship,” Irving says. “Keep in mind this is a personal-service business, so getting along with your lawyer is very important.” But it’s not just you, the client, who has to get along with your lawyer. “You may have a lawyer you think is the most obnoxious person in the world,” Link says. “But if he knows how to handle a jury, the fact that you may not like him or get along with him may be secondary to the objective you want to accomplish.

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