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Legal Aid: Choosing a Lawyer

How to find a good attorney
By Peter J. Lamont, Esq.
June 11, 2010

At some point in your business, a situation will arise that will require to you hire a lawyer. Your company may be sued by an unsatisfied customer, or perhaps you need to ramp up the level of protection your sales contracts provide you. Whatever the reason, when it becomes necessary to hire a lawyer, you need to make certain the one you hire is skilled, competent and will not overcharge you. Lawyers are a dime a dozen, which makes it very difficult to find a good one. However, if you follow a few simple guidelines, you will have greater success hiring the right lawyer and avoid a tremendous amount of frustration.


FINDING THE RIGHT TYPE

Surprisingly, many people do not know how to find a lawyer. They end up turning to the phone book and looking for the biggest ad or for the attorney whose ad says he can handle every legal matter under the sun. In general, television commercials and telephone book ads are not good places to find an attorney.

The two best ways to find a lawyer are through word of mouth and the Internet. Speak to people in your industry who have used a lawyer in the past. Find out if the lawyer did a good job, made a professional appearance and did not overcharge his client. Additionally, use the Internet to search for lawyers in your area who practice the type of law for which you need services. Most attorney websites provide potential clients with a lot of useful information on individual lawyers, such as the years and places of their admissions to the bar, practice areas, prior cases, articles and publications, and perhaps even a photograph.
 
There are also attorney-rating websites, such as www.avvo.com, which not only includes information about an attorney’s practice but also indicates whether they have ever been sanctioned, disciplined or disbarred.

The key to hiring a lawyer is to determine what you need and then to select an attorney whose practice area fulfills that need. Just like doctors, lawyers specialize in various areas of the law. Some specialize in family law or handle insurance defense, while others call themselves “general practitioners” and “trial attorneys.”

If you have been sued, you should hire a commercial litigation attorney, not a real estate attorney—even if he is a family friend. If you need an attorney to write new contracts for your business, you need to look for an attorney whose main practice area is contracts. It might not be the best decision to hire a general practitioner who may have some experience with contracts but focuses on a large variety of areas. While you may find a general practitioner who can create a good contract, most often a general practitioner is a jack-of-all-trades yet master of none.


SMOKE AND MIRRORS

Many businesses hire lawyers based on the various awards, titles and designations held by an attorney or law firm. For example, some lawyers are designated “Super Lawyers” and some law firms have an “AV Rating.” Before deciding to hire a lawyer simply because he or she is a “Super Lawyer,” it is important to understand what these designations actually mean and how they were obtained.

The “Super Lawyer” designation is a peer-based designation that can be manipulated. One lawyer nominates another lawyer, and if the lawyer gets enough votes, he or she will receive the “Super Lawyer” designation. Many large firms have used political pull and nomination manipulation to have their lawyers receive this designation.

Law firms rated “AV” often achieve this rating in a similar fashion. The firm is nominated by peers, and if the firm received enough votes, it gets the AV rating.

While other criteria are used in awarding these designations, the point is they can easily be manipulated and do not necessarily mean all that much. This is not to say that a “Super Lawyer” may not be an excellent attorney, but it should not be the deciding factor when you’re choosing an attorney.

Furthermore, the idea that you have to hire the largest firm or highest-priced attorney is nonsense and will not necessarily provide you with the best “bang for your buck.” Far too often large firms will assign an inexperienced, over-priced junior associate to handle your matter. If you don’t want an associate to handle your matter, be prepared to pay handsomely for the services of the partner.

There are plenty of small to midsize firms whose attorneys are of top-notch caliber and will provide you with personalized attention while not charging exorbitant fees.


RETAINER AND SCOPE OF SERVICES

Make sure the attorney you hire understands your legal issues and can provide you with an overview of the work he will be doing for you. Obviously, no attorney can guarantee results, but he or she can tell you what to expect and can provide you with a budget.

You should also make sure the attorney provides you with a retainer agreement. Often the term “retainer” denotes an upfront payment. However, a retainer agreement is simply an agreement between you and the attorney that spells out the scope of his services and provides a breakdown of how he or she will get paid. You should ask the attorney to explain the retainer agreement to you before signing it. Make sure the issues you discussed with him and his scope of services are included in the agreement.

Hiring the right attorney is important to the outcome of your legal issue. Take your time and do some research. Make sure that the attorney understands what you need him or her to do and that you are provided with a retainer agreement and scope of services. Finally, do not be afraid to ask the prospective attorney as many questions as you need. You are the client and will be paying the bills, so make sure that all of your questions and concerns are satisfied before you decide to hire the attorney.


—Peter J. Lamont, Esq., is a commercial litigation attorney practicing at McCarthy & Jennerich in Rutherford, NJ. He specializes in the representation of small- to large-size companies in the building and design industry. To contact him with questions and suggestions on topics for future articles, please email him at plamont@mcjennlaw.com.

Want more legal advice? Read the last Legal Aid column on understanding force majeure.
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