Even lawyers have to hire lawyers sometimes.
The law is so specialized that even lawyers who are at the top of their own field need to retain lawyers outside of their areas of expertise. Personal injury lawyers hire tax lawyers. A tax lawyer may need a divorce lawyer. Employment lawyers need wills. And defense lawyers hire real estate lawyers when they buy and sell homes.
The strategies that lawyers listed in “The New York Area’s Best Lawyers” use when they need to hire an attorney yield important pointers for the rest of us when we want to hire the best legal professionals.
In addition, because they understand the courtroom and the legal process so well, lawyers in “The New York Area’s Best Lawyers” look for some other qualities as well when they are seeking representation outside of their areas of expertise.
Harvey Weitz, of Weitz & Associates, is a New York personal injury lawyer who has won many multimillion dollar verdicts. For him, the most important factor in hiring a lawyer is how easy it is to talk to that person. “I assess the ease of conversation,” says Weitz. “I don’t want someone who comes in and is too highfalutin’ and who doesn’t know how to speak plainly. I look for someone whose language and manner of expression is plain talk— not trying to impress me with their erudition or knowledge.”
Weitz adds that he thinks it is important for a lawyer of any specialty to be able to talk as if they are standing in a bar and could carry on a conversation with anyone else in it. “Lawyers have to be able to communicate with people,” says Weitz. “It’s a very small talent we have as trial lawyers. It’s not a really great talent. It’s a craft that you learn, and it starts with the basic ability of being able to talk to people.”
“I don’t want to hire someone who has a chip on their shoulder or is out to prove how aggressive they are.”
For many great lawyers, appearance is important though it is not a matter of attractiveness rather it is pride in grooming and stature. For trial lawyers, says Weitz, “Neatness counts. Taking care of oneself is important.” It could be said that the care attorneys’ take in appearance reflects the care they will take with their clients.
For lawyers who are not going to appear in front of judges or juries, Weitz is not overly concerned about an attorney’s appearance. “For an inside lawyer, I want to recognize an analytical mind. I’ll give them a problem and see what their approach is.”
There are certain qualities that some lawyers view as red flags. Despite the stereotype that successful lawyers have to be aggressive, Weitz feels that a lawyer who is too aggressive is dangerous. “I don’t want to hire someone who has a chip on their shoulder or is out to prove how aggressive they are. Aggressive personalities … are more interested in getting some sort of personal satisfaction than they are in analyzing the problem.” Often times, lawyers appreciate other lawyers who are confident, but not overly aggressive. Sometimes being a tough litigator means being stealthily diplomatic: Knowing what to say, and when and how to say it.
Many lawyers also pay careful attention to another lawyer’s resume. They examine which schools a lawyer attended, and how they did while they were there. Did they receive academic honors and distinctions? Even though professional experience is paramount, a lawyer’s academic record can infer a lot about ability, persistence, and performance.
And although resumes are important, there is no substitute for an in-person interview. That’s where lawyers and non-lawyers alike can judge whether they feel comfortable with the person they might be hiring. Lawyers caution clients to be wary of attorneys who spend too much time selling themselves especially if it’s at the expense of gaining an understanding of a client’s particular legal problem.
In-person interviews can also reveal how quick thinking a lawyer is. Do they seem to be able to answer unanticipated questions quickly? That may signal how they’ll do in a courtroom before a judge, or in a conference room across from opposing counsel.
Specializing in mass tort litigation, Perry Weitz of New York’s Weitz & Luxenberg, feels that there is one quality that stands out above all others: “I first look for somebody I can trust,” he says. Trust is an intangible feeling. Sometimes, it is easiest to tell that you don’t trust someone. If that feeling emerges, it’s important to pay attention to it. If a lawyer doesn’t trust another lawyer implicitly, he or she won’t make the hire.
Like trust, feeling comfortable with a lawyer is something every person judges by their own instincts. If you don’t feel comfortable with someone, you shouldn’t hire them.
The lawyer-client match needs to be a good one on a personal, as well as a professional, level.
Perry Weitz also makes sure that the person whom he hires is the one who is actually going to do the work. In some firms, a client may hire a top-notch lawyer, but it is actually younger associates who perform the lion’s share of the work. “I want to make sure the lawyer I hire is not going to be delegating the work to other people,” Mr. Weitz says.
In addition to scrutinizing a lawyer, Perry Weitz asserts that it is essential to examine the firm in which the lawyer works. He looks for a firm with leverage and power, with financial resources as well as legal ability. “I gauge this through the past results the firm has achieved,” says Mr. Weitz, “the types of lawyers they have in their firm, and the kind of litigation that they have handled before”
Of course nobody wants to write their lawyer a blank check, so it’s always important to ask for the lawyer to project what the case will cost in the initial meetings. Personal injury cases are generally handled on a contingency basis, which means that fees are not paid up front by the client. But most legal work—from real estate and divorces to corporate matters—is billed on an hourly basis, so it’s important to understand what a lawyer’s fee is, as well as the fees of other lawyers and paralegals who might be spending time on the case. Many lawyers are capable of giving a range of the number of hours likely to be involved.
Lawyers in “The New York Area’s Best Lawyers” possess strong work ethics, so it is imperative that the lawyers they hire are just as diligent and industrious. “I like to see an understanding—whether someone is a trial lawyer or not—that the workday ends when you think you have done your job, not when it is five o’clock,” says Harvey Weitz.
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Expert lawyers follow many of the same steps that non-lawyers do when they are seeking legal representation:
■ Ask their close friends and family for recommendations if they have worked with lawyers in a particular field.
■ Get references from other lawyers that they know and trust – especially lawyers in fields that closely mirror their specific legal need.
■ Interview prospective lawyers to get a sense of their trustworthiness, intelligence, and experience. There is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting.
■ Make sure they feel comfortable with the person they are thinking of hiring.