If your legal problem is complex or involves lots of money, you might not want to attempt to handle the matter without a lawyer. After all, lawyers do more than dispense legal information. They offer strategic advice and apply sophisticated technical skills to legal problems. Ideally, you'll want to find a competent and savvy lawyer to guide you through the complicated legal process.
Locating a good lawyer who can efficiently help with your particular problem isn't always easy. Don't expect to find a good lawyer by simply reading an advertisement or looking online for a lawyer nearby. There's not enough information in these sources to help you make a valid judgment.
Fortunately, you have other options. Here are a few helpful strategies.
A better approach is to talk to people in your community who have experienced the same problem you face—for example, if you have a claim of sexual harassment, speak to a women's group. Ask who their lawyers were and what they think of them. If you talk to half a dozen people who have had a similar legal problem, chances are you'll come away with several good leads.
But don't decide on a lawyer solely based on someone else's recommendation. Different people will have different responses to a lawyer's style and personality. Make your decision about hiring a lawyer after you've met the lawyer, discussed your case, and decided that you feel comfortable working together.
Also, it might be hard to find a lawyer with the expertise you need through a personal referral. For instance, if your friend had a great divorce lawyer, but you need incorporation advice, the referral won't do you much good. However, don't give up immediately. Consider calling the divorce lawyer, explaining that they came highly recommended, and asking if the office uses a particular business lawyer. You might find the perfect fit.
Many sites, including Nolo.com, offer a way to connect with local lawyers based on your location and the type of legal case you have. You answer a few questions about your case and provide your contact information. Then a lawyer specializing in the area you need contacts you directly. Talk to a local lawyer.
Nolo offers a unique lawyer directory that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney with information to help you select the right attorney. The profiles tell you about the lawyer's experience, education, fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with their bar association.
Businesses that provide services to key players in the legal area you're interested in might also be able to help you identify lawyers you should consider. For example, if you need small business law representation, speak to your accountant, insurance agent, or real estate broker. These professionals regularly make informed judgments about business lawyers because they come in contact with them frequently.
Lawyer referral services are another source of information. However, there is a wide variation in the quality of lawyer referral services, even though they are required to be approved by the state bar association. Some lawyer referral services carefully screen attorneys and list only those with particular qualifications and a certain amount of experience. In contrast, other services will list any attorney in good standing with the state bar who maintains liability insurance. Before choosing a lawyer referral service, ask about the qualifications for including an attorney and the screening process.
However, what you might not get from a lawyer referral service is an insight into the lawyer's philosophy. For instance, you won't know the lawyer's communication and litigation style.
Here are a few other sources you can turn to for possible candidates in your search for a lawyer:
Keep in mind that a "general practitioner" who practices in many legal areas might not know enough about the particular area of your concern to be effective. For example, of the almost one million lawyers in America today, probably fewer than 50,000 possess sufficient training and experience in small business law to be of real help to an aspiring entrepreneur.
It can pay to work with a lawyer who already knows the field, such as employment discrimination, zoning laws, software design issues, or restaurant licensing. That way, you can take advantage of the fact that the lawyer is already far up the learning curve. A specialist might charge a little more, but it is often money well spent.
When you get the names of several good prospects, the next step is to talk to each personally. If you outline your needs in advance, many lawyers will be willing to meet with you for a half-hour or so at no charge so that you can size them up and make an informed decision.
Pay particular attention to the personal chemistry between you and your lawyer. No matter how experienced and well-recommended a lawyer is, you might never achieve an ideal lawyer-client relationship if you feel uncomfortable with that person during your first meeting or two.
Trust your instincts and seek a lawyer whose personality is compatible with your own. Look also for experience, personal rapport, and accessibility.
You want a lawyer who will work hard on your behalf and follow through promptly on all assignments. Ask all prospective lawyers how to contact them and how long it will take them to return your communications.
Don't overlook this step even if the lawyer is easy to talk to and seems friendly. Busy lawyers often have systems in place to streamline workflow, and they'll appreciate you adhering to it.
Unfortunately, the complaint logs of all lawyer regulatory groups indicate that many lawyers are terrible communicators, but to be fair, some clients' expectations run too high. Although receiving a call within 24 hours is ideal, if you must wait several days before talking to your lawyer on the phone or getting an appointment, there's usually no reason to be alarmed. Most lawyers must juggle office time with busy court calendars, and your patience will be appreciated.
However, anything longer than a few days is usually unwarranted. At a minimum, the office should contact you and explain the delay. Attorneys know that nothing is more aggravating to a client than to have weeks or even months go by without anything happening and that it could be damaging to your case. If your calls are going unreturned, consider hiring a new lawyer before finding yourself in this situation.
For more tips on choosing and working with a lawyer, see the eBook The Lawsuit Survival Guide: A Client's Companion to Litigation by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).
Before you meet with a lawyer, you might want to learn some common (and perhaps even not-so-common) legal terms. Nolo's Plain-English Law Dictionary is available as a free iPhone app (compatible with iPod touch).