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Lawyer Referral Service | Helpful or Not?

Updated on February 27, 2014
This picture might be humorous, but there's nothing funny about hiring an attorney!
This picture might be humorous, but there's nothing funny about hiring an attorney! | Source

What's Your Experience?

Have you hired an attorney before?

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Why did you contact that attorney?

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How to Hire a Good Attorney

Most of us occasionally need an attorney. Today's lifestyles are complex, filled with confusing contracts that we skimmed over when we signed them, only to discover too late that we missed a critical piece of information that's now wreaking havoc on our lives. About half of us experience a divorce at some point. If we're wise, we'll plan our financial affairs carefully and leave something for our children and grandchildren - and a legal pro can help us make sure our wishes are carried out.

Yet we hate hiring these people who can help us live our lives with more security and confidence, and we have damned good reasons for feeling that way!

1. Attorneys are expensive.

2. Often, we do not get the results we expected.

3. Lawyers aren't held accountable for their behaviors very well.

When we need an attorney, most of us turn to a friend, a television commercial or website advertisement, or trust a lawyer referral service to locate the legal help we need. This, plus our "gut instinct," often are how we evaluate an attorney's skills.

This is a grave, expensive mistake!

I have hired approximately fifteen attorneys, and have spoken with more than a hundred who were candidates I considered hiring. Of all of these, there are only two that I would recommend! (And because they did such outstanding work, I'll take a minute to give these two guys a shout-out: If you are in Wisconsin and have a family law issue, James Jaskolski is amazing. In Missouri, Brandon Stafford is my go-to guy. They were both among the most honest, ethical, and hard-working attorneys you could ever hope to have on your side.)

Keep reading to understand how attorney referral services work (or don't), and what else you must do if you want to achieve your goals in the judicial system.

How pleased were you with your attorney's performance?

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Lawyer Reviews

Most attorney referral services are operated by a state or local bar association. These services typically ask a caller for basic information about their case to determine what kind of lawyer practices the type of law needed for their particular issues.

However, the odds are high that the bar association has no significant data about the attorney. They can't tell a caller anything about the lawyer's trial experience, win ratios, or complaints filed against the attorney. (Even if they can, they generally don't reveal this kind of information!)

Just about any lawyer - including the ones who barely passed the bar exam on their second try - can pay for membership and get referrals from some bar associations. Then again, there are other locations who uphold higher standards.

Here are two examples of how bar associations tout themselves to the attorneys compared to how they present themselves to you:

Chicago Bar Association (CBA)

Benefits of Membership page: "In the day-to-day hustle of serving clients and meeting billable hours, it's easy to forget about yourself...your career...your future." The Chicago Bar Association promises to provide ongoing educational opportunities, networking opportunities, career development and job search tools, and advertising materials. To join, the lawyer only needs to pay an annual fee ranging from $90 to nearly $400 per year, depending on how many years the member has belonged to the organization. There is no requirement to prove capabilities, or demonstrate a particular caliber of skill.

Nonetheless, the Chicago Bar Association promises people like you and I that their attorneys are pre-screened and that the CBA "has among the highest experience requirements for its member attorneys in the entire nation." Really?

Better still, if you were referred to an attorney by the CBA, you will be charged for your initial meeting, something that may not happen if you schedule an appointment without the CBA's help.

Compare this to a much better example...

San Francisco Bar Association (SFBA / LRIS)

The California Bar Association does not provide attorney referrals at all, but local chapters may. In San Francisco, the SFBA operates the Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS), which requires attorneys to demonstrate ongoing and extensive experience in their particular area of practice. The lawyer must be in good standing with the state bar. Further, they must be approved by a peer review, and finally, they must periodically renew their applications and undergo the entire process again. They must also agree to provide discounts on a variety of cases.

Each attorney must confirm if they represent a client referred to them, and clients are interviewed about their satisfaction.

More recently, a patented rating service has been developed by Super Lawyers, a Thomson Reuters publication. The rating system is rigorous, with fewer than five percent of all attorneys achieving recognition. It's based on years of experience, settlements, verdicts, honors and awards, and more. Using research, a points system, and a peer review, those attorneys who are named as "Super Lawyers" are proud of the distinction.

Certainly methods like the LRIS or Super Lawyers rating system will ensure a great experience, right?

Not so fast, friend!

Ensuring an attorney is highly skilled is just one piece of the puzzle. It's an important one, yes, but just like any jigsaw puzzle, it takes many pieces to create an accurate picture.

When considering a lawyer, consider which professional or trade associations they belong to and then find out what that organization requires for membership. This will give you a good idea about the attorney's skill level before you meet.

Consider this the "appetizer" on the menu of hiring an attorney. Now that you've nibbled, let's get down to the main course. What else should you consider before you hire someone for your case?

A Humorous Look at Reasons to Choose Attorney (or Not!)

Before you even THINK these words about someone who may represent you, use the tips below to make sure you won't be let down.
Before you even THINK these words about someone who may represent you, use the tips below to make sure you won't be let down. | Source

"We'll Stand Behind You."

This video provided a funny glimpse of something that is, sadly, quite true of many legal representatives.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the attitude and indifference we see from attorneys, and it's beyond the scope of this article to analyze these reasons, but in addition to checking out your future attorney's skills, you'll want to do a few more things before you agree to pay a retainer fee.

  1. Determine if a trial or a settlement will provide the better outcome, and investigate whether the attorney's experiences are inclined toward that method. (Some are naturally aggressive and want to take cases to trial, while others try to find common ground that will allow the parties to settle a matter without going before the judge.) What do you want to see happen?
  2. Evaluate staff support. Understand what each of you will expect of each other. Be ready to build your own case by providing evidence instead of expecting your attorney to tell you what you'll need. Make sure that they have people who can provide the things you can't, such as investigators who can suss out hidden assets if this is likely to affect your case, or staff who will return calls and provide information if your lawyer's in trial on days you need them. Do they prefer calls, e-mail, or text communications? How will this help or hurt your experience with them?
  3. Understand how your attorney's motivations and biases will affect their performance (See the next section for details on this.)
  4. Know your rights and how to uphold them. (Check out the text box below!)

Know Your Rights on Legal Representation!

Don't be a victim of judicial misconduct!

1. You can negotiate fees, including the retainer fee. You should negotiate whether unused portions will be refunded.

2. You have a right to know how you'll be billed when working with staff (paralegals, for instance, or documents prepared by an intern.)

3. You have a right to full disclosure about how you will be billed.

4. You are NEVER obligated to sign promissory notes, judgments, or mortgage liens to pay legal fees.

5. You have a right to an estimate of future legal costs for the legal matter at hand.

6. You have a right to decide how much to spend on your case.

7. You have a right to all the original documents you provided to your attorney.

8. You have a right to attend all conferences related to your case unless a judge says otherwise.

9. You have a right to know the cost of bringing a motion, filing fees, and so on to the best of the attorney's ability to answer. A reasonable estimate should be available.

10. You have a right to file a grievance if you were overbilled or billed for something illegally. There are disciplinary and oversight committees, and while they may not always work well, you still have the right to use them.)

Source: Karen Winner, from the book shown below:

Understanding what motivates an attorney you're interviewing will help you determine if he'll be a shark for you, or serve you up as shark food.
Understanding what motivates an attorney you're interviewing will help you determine if he'll be a shark for you, or serve you up as shark food. | Source

What Motivates this Lawyer?

People have different reasons for becoming lawyers, and these reasons are sometimes reflected in the type of law they practice. My opinions on this topic are purely my own, and not backed up by any studies that I've ever seen. I don't mean to offend anyone, but these are observations I've made over the years. There seem to be just a few basic motivations for entering the legal profession and for choosing which type of practice to pursue.

I ask "What made you decide to get into (specialty) law?" and try to glean clues from their answer. Although humans are complex beings with multiple levels of motivation, honing in on these makes it easier to estimate how an attorney will serve on a case.

Money: Sometimes, an attorney will be blunt. "I thought I'd earn a lot of money as an attorney."

Attorneys who are in it for the money won't be excited by a case that they expect will only earn them a couple thousand dollars. They will be drooling at the idea of earning a lot of dough for a little work, or at getting that pie-in-the-sky judgment that'll pay for their new airplane, though!

Attorneys who practice personal injury law, tort law, and wrongful death cases often work for a percentage of the verdict. For this reason, they tend to prefer slam dunk cases they know they're likely to win, and will avoid cases where the case is not black and white (unless it's a class action suit involving many people), or is so novel that it will establish their career for years to come.

Because there are only so many of these kinds of cases, however, they take on other cases, too, such as family law, employment, or contract disputes. Their fees are likely to be higher than a general practice attorney, and if one of those drool-worthy cases lands in their lap, their less promising cases are likely to take a back seat if they don't have tremendous staff support. Paralegals, junior partners, interns, and their external network (investigators, for instance), can all help keep an attorney on track with your case. If you're considering an attorney who is likely to be motivated by the prospect of earning big bucks, consider who else works with him or her!

Expect to pay a lot with an attorney motivated by dollars. They are more likely than any other type of attorney to take cases on a contingency basis (you don't pay if you don't win) but if your case is not qualified for this type of agreement, they're also more likely to push you into unnecessary trial dates, delays, and paperwork that can consume a lot of your financial resources. You may obtain a better end result (on paper, at least!), but net less because of the cost of getting there!

Power & Prestige: Hints that a lawyer is motivated by power and prestige include their desire to become a partner in their firm or to work for a powerful company. These men and women thrive in a corporate environment or have worked their way up in advocacy or political arenas. You know what they say - know thine enemy! If we are facing foreclosure actions or have an enemy who has hired the "big guns," pay attention to what this kind of motivation brings to the attorney's arsenal.

My informal observation is that these attorneys aren't necessarily in a corporate environment. Sole practitioners can be formidable in their areas of practice, too. They may specialize in certain types of law - notably, real estate, domestic, and contract law. Beware: unethical ones may stoop to questionable methods to achieve their goals. Watch for underhanded tactics and grandstanding. On a positive note, they're more likely to be pals with the judge and taking positions that allow them to influence legislation. They tend to have excellent skills and take pride in their work.

If you're considering hiring a lawyer, be aware of his or her political and professional participation outside of the courtroom. These are good signs that they're on top of current legal issues and can negotiate a better solution whether or not you go to trial. These are factors I personally consider when I hire an attorney. It can easily be the best of the best to find an ethical attorney who is motivated by power and prestige!

Altruistic or Philosophical Reasons: An attorney who is passionate about a topic will put in time and effort on a case that interests them. I've noticed this trait in action in family law and environmental issues in particular. However, it can also work at a disadvantage: many divorced men and women can attest to attorneys who allowed their own biases to affect the way they handled their client's case.

One example from my own experience involved an attorney who clearly didn't like or respect women. My husband and I were meeting with him on a guardianship issue. Although my husband told this gentleman to speak with me and explained that I handled our paperwork and legal issues, the man refused to look at me or direct any of his comments toward me. Looking back after having gained much more experience at hiring attorneys, I can honestly say that this particular attorney did not complete some important steps that should have been taken in our case (specifically, he should have recommended hiring a guardian ad litem for our nephew and explained more about guardianship to us, but he was so avoidant of me that important details were never brought out.)

I've seen worse results, though, where an attorney's bias resulted in unfair settlements involving years of child support or unfair asset separation that made thousands of dollars' worth of difference in their client's life.

Criminal law is an area that's often filled with altrustic lawyers, probably more than any other specialty. Hiring an attorney to handle a DWI or DUI case or other criminal charges carries this bias risk. Inquire about the lawyer's personal beliefs on the topic and do not accept, "But that won't influence my representation" under any circumstances. A lawyer who believes in you and your case will perform better. Period.

Before and After Your Court Case

Whether it's hiring an attorney or battling your opponent, it's always a great idea to be well-prepared. The inexpensive book shown here is thirteen short chapters that have stood the test of time. Written more than two millenia ago (in the sixth century B.C.!), Sun Tzu's The Art of War is a "must have" for navigating difficult conflicts in any environment.

This book is highly recommended by military and corporate leaders, and provides sound principles for defeating opponents and protecting yourself. I highly encourage everyone to read it - particularly if they are going to be enduring a prolonged legal battle!

I hope you find a great attorney when you need one. The cost of a bad one, while cheaper by the hour, usually costs so much more! Good fortune, friends.


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