Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to identify a good lawyer without using his/her services for a while to see if you “got it right” on your choice. There are, however, a few good rules of thumb to help you avoid a bad choice. This is how I’d do it, if I were not an attorney, but in the market for one:
With rare exception, new lawyers aren’t very good (I wasn’t when I was fresh out of school, even though I was trying my best and doing as well as could be expected of a newly-minted attorney). They don’t really teach you how to practice law in law school, they teach you a lot of information you’ll need in the practice of law, and they teach you how to pass the bar exam. But how to do the job is something a law school really was never intended to teach. You’re expected to learn the practice of law on the job. So a potential client will improve his odds of getting a good attorney by getting an experienced attorney. Look for a lawyer with at least about 7 consecutive years of experience in the field of practice you need help with.
Look for someone who can give you clear and straight answers to your questions (and an attorney who has the confidence and humility to answer your tough question with “I don’t know” may be a better choice than the attorney who appears or tries to appear to be a know it all).
Understand, understand, understand that you get what you pay for. While it is possible that you find a great attorney for cheap, the odds are highly against it. A good lawyer cannot do the job well without being paid well to do it.
Find someone you feel you can trust. Someone who works with your personality and your schedule. Now you have to do your part in your case. You have to accept the fact that your attorney isn’t going to be your legal slave (you will have to do a lot of your own work to help your case succeed). And you can’t just let your gut guide you, but if, after you’ve vetted a few attorneys and created a short list, you don’t feel you and a particular attorney on that list would be a good fit, you and he/she probably won’t be.
Don’t just interview 2–3 attorneys. Interview 5–6. Or more, if you have time. There are lot of attorneys, and so there are a lot of bad ones out there. Taking the time and effort to sort through them will be rewarded.
Once you’ve narrowed the field to 3 attorneys or so, go watch them in action in court. See how they conduct themselves. You can call the court clerk for the local courthouses and ask if and when that attorney is scheduled to appear in court and where. And you can turn this method on its head with good results too: just go to court and watch domestic relations proceedings. They are open to the public. Watch for attorneys you feel are prepared, knowledgeable, carry themselves well and know how to handle the give and take of argument and questioning witnesses. After the trial or hearing, go up and introduce yourself and ask if that attorney is taking on new clients.
Finally, and unfortunately, I’ve found that asking judges and other attorneys who they believe to be a good attorney has usually led me in the wrong direction. Why? Most judges and other attorneys believe a “good” lawyer is someone they get along with. ‘Nothing wrong with being well-regarded, but if the reason for that is because that lawyer “gets along to get along,” I’ve found that means that that lawyer values his/her relationships with judges and other attorneys more than doing the job well for his/her client. Beware.
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