When Looking for a Lawyer, Go with Your Gut

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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.

Another referral source is someone who has been through a similar legal problem or who regularly works with lawyers in the field. Need a real estate lawyer? Call a real estate broker. Others who often have first-hand knowledge of local lawyers are bankers, accountants and insurance brokers. Of course, lawyers themselves can be good referral sources, but try to talk to a lawyer with direct knowledge of the particular field. “I wouldn’t call an antitrust lawyer for a referral to a divorce lawyer,” says Charles C. Abut, a divorce lawyer in Fort Lee, N.J. He suggests giving greater weight to referrals from people who have seen the lawyer in action, such as other lawyers and former clients.

The notion that it takes one to know one is the idea behind the directory of lawyers, The Best Lawyers in America. Its editors select lawyers to include based on the recommendations of other lawyers who practice in the same field of law. They survey lawyers, asking the single question: “If you had a close friend or relative who needed a real estate lawyer (for example), and you could not handle the case yourself – for reasons of conflict of interest or time – to whom would you refer them?”

In the search for the right lawyer, referrals are only starting points. The next step is to research the lawyer’s credentials and background. “It is important for every consumer to do his or her own independent homework,” says Stephen Gallagher. Start with a Web search. Look for news reports about the lawyer, articles written by the lawyer, cases the lawyer won or lost. Call the local Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce. One important item many consumers fail to check, Gallagher says, is whether the lawyer is properly licensed. In New York, the court system maintains an online registry of lawyers that shows whether they are properly licensed and whether their license has been suspended or revoked. Connecticut and New Jersey provide similar information online.

If checking the lawyer’s license seems overly cautious, consider this: Last November, a Syosset, N.Y., lawyer was sentenced to prison following the discovery that, for more than a decade after losing his law license, he had continued to practice law – maintaining an office and taking on clients. The Nassau County district attorney alleged the unlicensed lawyer stole some $613,000 from his clients.

While the Internet is useful in checking up on a lawyer, legal industry observers say it should never be a consumer’s sole source for selecting a lawyer. “The Internet is like the yellow pages,” says Charne. “One of the problems is that anyone who hires someone who is skilled in graphics and marketing can look very good.”

You have to feel you can relate to that lawyer - it has to be a good emotional fit.

So you have some lawyers’ names. You’ve checked their backgrounds. Now comes what experts agree is the most important step in finding the right lawyer – the interview. “There is no substitute for a face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball meeting,” says divorce lawyer Charles Abut. “If the chemistry between you is not right, it’s not going to work.”

Joel A. Rose discovered this in the extreme when he and his wife needed to hire a lawyer to represent them in a shore-town zoning dispute. A Cherry Hill, N.J., management consultant to law firms for nearly 40 years, Rose is no stranger to the legal profession. He wanted a lawyer who knew the law and who knew the local politics. He sought referrals from friends, lawyers and business associates, then set up interviews with several prospective lawyers. When Rose was unable to make the interview with one lawyer who came well recommended, his wife went without him. As she sat in the waiting room, the lawyer came out, saw her, approached and said, “Sorry, we don’t have any secretarial positions available.” Politely, Mrs. Rose explained the reason for her visit and went through with a brief interview, but nothing the lawyer could say would undue her first impression.

Some lawyers charge for the initial interview, many do not. If you found the lawyer through the city bar’s Legal Referral Service, you will pay the lawyer $35 for the first half-hour, which the lawyer sends to the referral service as its administrative fee. At the interview, don’t be afraid to ask questions, experts say. Ask about the lawyer’s overall practice and experience in handling matters such as yours. Ask who will handle your case – the lawyer or a less-experienced associate. Query the lawyer about answering and returning phone calls. Find out the lawyer’s approach to making decisions about your case and how he or she will inform you of new developments. Does the lawyer seem attentive, or is one eye on e-mail?

Potential clients often seem reluctant to ask about fees, lawyers say, but they agree you should not have to ask in the first place. Lawyers should be upfront in an interview about what they charge, what retainer they require and the total amount your matter is likely to cost. Ask to see the retainer agreement and make sure you understand its terms. Most lawyers will quote you an hourly rate, but hourly rates can be deceiving. A lawyer with a lower rate may take twice as long to do the work. A better measure is to ask for an estimate of the total cost. For Marvin Salenger, asking about cost can serve as a litmus test. When he helps find lawyers for clients with legal problems he does not handle, he always asks what the matter will cost. “If they say, ‘I can’t tell you,’ then I say, ‘Do you have experience in these cases or not? If so, what is the average cost?’”

A single interview with a single lawyer may suffice, but interviewing several lawyers will let you compare their backgrounds, demeanors and fee structures. “Shop around,” says Salenger. “Do not hire the first lawyer you talk to.” You can ask for references, but out of respect for the confidentiality of their former clients, lawyers may be reluctant to give them. If so, ask them to tell you about their publicly reported court cases or business deals.

After all is said and done, your decision comes back to that feeling in your gut. Joel Rose recounts what “a very wise lawyer” said to him many years ago: “Once a client comes to me, that client has to have a feeling of relief, that now it is our problem, that I am part of the client’s team.” Marvin Salenger sums it up in three words: Experience, intelligence, demeanor. If you are comfortable with those aspects of the lawyer, he says, then your gut is telling you OK.

Copyright 2005. ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

See also:
20 Questions for a Lawyer

Sources for Referrals and Research

When Looking for a Lawyer, Go with Your Gut