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As a population, lawyers are nowhere near endangered. Recent figures number them at 1.1 million in the United States, 140,000 in New York state and 75,000 in New York City alone. With the species so abundant, it should pose little problem to find one when you need one, provided you have the means to pay. But finding a lawyer is a far cry from finding the right lawyer. With so many to choose from, the task can be daunting.
Not only are there thousands of lawyers in thousands of offices, but they have many different areas of specialty, many different ranges of experience, many different sets of skills and – truth be told – widely divergent levels of competence. If you are going through a divorce, you want a lawyer who handles divorce cases, not one whose specialty is securities law. More to the point, you want a lawyer who handles divorce cases well – who has experience in matrimonial law and a track record of success.
Finding a lawyer is much like finding an auto mechanic or a dentist. You have little understanding of their actual craft, but you need to trust that they know it well, will serve you well, and will not rip you off. "This is going to be a marriage between you and the lawyer," says Marvin Salenger, a Manhattan personal injury lawyer. His suggestion for finding the right lawyer: "You have to trust your gut." In fact, the gut is the measure many recommend for finding a lawyer who is right for you. "It is not enough that the lawyer has the requisite skills," says matrimonial lawyer Sheila G. Riesel, a partner with the New York firm Blank Rome. "You have to feel you can relate to that lawyer – it has to be a good emotional fit."
Salenger takes the gut test so far as to suggest you survey the mood of the lawyer's office. Do the people working there appear happy? Do they work well together? Do you sense camaraderie? If you are unsure after the first visit, he suggests, pay a second one, unannounced. Weigh your welcome. Measure the mood. The best lawyers, Salenger contends, feel as he does about his work, and it shows in their attitudes and the attitudes of their partners and employees. "I love what I do. It is as if someone gave me a job to play basketball for the rest of my life."
Your gut may serve as the ultimate arbiter, but before you get to that point of final decision, you need to narrow the pool to a handful of prospects. At the Legal Referral Service run by The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, director Allen Charne says he and his staff get 500 phone calls a day from people looking for a lawyer. Callers' typical request: "I want the best lawyer." Charne's typical reply: "The best lawyer for what?" For someone with a minor injury, he explains, the best lawyer is a lawyer who handles minor-injury cases. "What they need is someone who is experienced in the exact type of matter they have, not someone who handles multimillion dollar transactions."
There is no substitute for a face to face, eyeball to eyeball meeting. If the chemistry between you is not right, it's not going to work.
Legal industry experts will tell you that the way to find that just-right lawyer is through what Stephen P. Gallagher, former law practice management advisor for the New York State Bar Association, calls a "trusted advisor" – some person or source with a sound basis for making a referral. "Start by speaking with trusted friends who may already know something about your particular situation," says Gallagher, who now coaches lawyers on managing and developing their practices. If you need to find an assisted-living facility for a parent, for example, find a personal friend or business associate who went through a similar situation.
But Allen Charne of the Legal Referral Service cautions against blind faith in the recommendations of friends and relatives. Beware the suggestion of a nephew just out of law school or of the lawyer who handled a friend's divorce when your case involves a business dispute. "The recommendation should come from someone who has some grounds for making it," he says.
The referral service Charne runs is one such solid source. His staff screens each lawyer before adding the lawyer to its referral list for a given legal specialty. Charne requires lawyers to submit proof of experience in their areas of law, submit work samples and be questioned by a panel of judges and lawyers. Once his staff approves a lawyer for the referral panel, they check the lawyer's legal standing annually and ask each referred client to complete a satisfaction survey. Besides ensuring that a lawyer is qualified, the referral service helps protect consumers financially. Panel lawyers must maintain minimum levels of malpractice insurance and must agree to arbitrate any disputes with clients over fees.