How to choose a good lawyer: 9 ways to select the right legal counsel.
Choosing a good lawyer is a challenge. In Ontario alone, there are over 20,000 in private practice to choose from. It is almost as diverse as choosing what kind of food you want to eat. Unlike food choices, the decision in selecting a lawyer will likely substantially affect your life. To add to the challenge, most people have very little idea of what it is they want or need for a lawyer. Worse still, most seeking legal counsel can only obtain a general sense of what a lawyer’s experience is and how they will approach your case.
In essence, choosing a lawyer a leap of faith often misguided by erroneous landmarks of quality.
Below is a list of a few things you should look at when assessing whether a particular lawyer is right for you and your legal needs. None of these factors should be considered determinative, and not every factor will apply to any given legal issue. However, the factors below ought to serve as a helpful roadmap in making a very personal and important life choice.
1) If you are have a friend or a family member who is a lawyer, speak to them first.
No other person is better suited to advise you of good lawyers that other lawyers. We know who the players are in the business. We often know the gossip, the results, who is a jerk, and who is empathetic. Even if those lawyers do not have experience in the exact area of law you need help with, they will generally be able to figure out what your particular needs are and guide you accordingly. If that lawyer doesn’t know, they should have a very good sense to assess the lawyer(s) that you are considering to advise you whether they meet objective quality control points. Although its only one factor, asking other lawyers is probably the best starting point.
2) Look to actual, not claimed, credentials and accomplishments.
It’s easy to say you are qualified or good at something; it is quite another to achieve something impressive by objective standards. It’s true that credentials and further qualifications alone do not make someone good at something. One can spend their entire life in school and still not be very skillful at what they are educated in. However, highly educated and qualified failures are rare. Most people, and most lawyers, who seek further education, qualifications, and accreditations are good at what they do. At minimum, they are ambitious people who treat their professional life seriously. They also have a lot to lose should they compromise that.
Therefore, look to people who obtain these credentials and accomplishments. For lawyers, you might want to ask:
- Do they have additional post-secondary education beyond their undergraduate and law degree? For example, they might have obtain an LL.M. (Masters of Law) or obtained Certified Specialist status?
- Have they been reported in the news for a noteworthy success in a case?
- Are they asked to comment on matters by the media as “experts”?
- Have they obtained any honorary degrees or special accreditations by Universities or Law Societies (for example, and Honourary Doctorate)?
- Have they won any notable awards by respected lawyer societies or organizations?
3) Generally speaking, the more specialized a lawyer is the better they are at it.
Unlike many other professions, lawyers are licences to practice any area of law no matter what their experience or knowledge may be. There is an assumption (quite wrong in my view) that once you have passed the bar, you are qualified to take on any case for any matter you wish. This perspective is very archaic and lends itself back to times when the “law” might be able to be known in its entirety. In today’s modern world, the notion that a lawyer could know enough law to take on a murder case one day, merge multi-national corporations the next week, followed by offering advice on creating complex tax shelters is patently absurd. Fortunately, most good lawyers are would be frank with potential clients that their practice is limited to a particular area of law. Unfortunately, some are not so scrupulous.
The common sense notion of specialists being better than generalists at a particular field is a matter of common sense. It would be like saying someone in “construction” can do anything on the site. Carpenters do not do electricians’ jobs, engineers do not do the plumbing, and architects don’t pour concrete. “Working in construction” is just as vauge and unhelpful as saying “practicing law” when trying to figure out the right professional for your need.
One qualification to this tip is that generalists can also be specialists. In those examples, the specialization is the general practice. This is somewhat confusing but best illustrated by a good family doctor. An excellent general practitioner doctor treats basic ailments, prescribe drugs, and most importantly: refers patients to specialists when it is required. Excellent lawyers in general practice do the same thing. A good general practice lawyer is frequently found in smaller towns where there is nothing particularly complicated happening and it is the same legal issues in and out. Lawyers in big cities must become more competitive to handle the challenges and complexities of city life. Therefore, more specialists are found in the larger cities and will even travel outside the city to the smaller town those general practitioners may refer them to.
4) Are they active and involved in their area of practice?
Generally speaking, good lawyers are active members in the area of law they practice in. They may be executive members of a particular organization, sit on volunteer boards relating to issues that affect the law they are in, or have even started up advocacy groups. Perhaps they have written reputable text books in that area of law. They also might teach at a law school. Have they ever spoken at professional continuing legal education seminars for other lawyers?
These are some of the many questions you can ask your potential lawyer before retaining them. This is typically easy to determine by searching their name on the internet or viewing their profile on a website. If you can’t find this information, ask them what they do beyond their immediate practice in that area of law.
5) Know what your budget is.
We all can’t afford to fly first class and drive Porches; of course, we all don’t need these things either. It’s the same with lawyers. The challenge is ensuring the right balance is met between obtaining high quality legal services and not overpaying. Having a budget will guide you, and the lawyer, in understanding what you need and what you can afford. Simply because a lawyer is well known and presumably expensive does not mean they cannot offer you affordable solutions.
Most lawyers who are accomplished and respected will have junior associates or colleagues who work directly under their tutelage and high expectations. That otherwise unaffordable lawyer might offer a highly competent junior (that probably would have done the majority of research anyway) to conduct your case at a rate you can afford. Having a budget in mind assists all parties in understanding what can be delivered within the perimeters of your legal problem. Don’t be afraid to tell the lawyer your budget and ask if that is something that can be accommodated. You may be pleasantly surprised when you end up flying first-class after all.
6) Be wary of guarantees, insider information, and bargains.
Avoid promises and guarantees in the law. Like anything in life, there are few certainties. In litigation this is particularly true. Lawyers are surprised daily with cases that are decided by the Supreme Court of Canada. One day the law is X and the next it is Y. That is part of the inherent nature and beauty of the law – it is forever evolving. This of course can be rather frustrating for a client who wants certain answers. There are many lawyers who will speak of certainty in results but no one who is honest can make them.
More troubling are lawyers who will make innuendoes that they know the other side or the prosecution and that will somehow benefit you – as if that lawyer will somehow compromise their own career and reputation for the sake of you. If anything, a lawyer claiming to know the other side as a friend would presumably put their loyalty with that friend over you (i.e., just another client who comes and goes). Paying a lot of money just because someone “knows X well” is a bad way to choose a lawyer. On the other side of things, if it sounds too inexpensive to do what needs to be done, you should be equally wary. As with anything in life, you generally get what you pay for. If someone offered you a hamburger under questionable circumstances for $0.75 would you eat it?
You should never be in a lawyers office feeling like you are guaranteed a result, up to something shady, or not having to pay for a lot of work. Go with your intuition: if something doesn’t seem right, you are probably correct.
7) Meet with them.
Most of us are very good judges of another’s character. We can generally pick up on subtle cues on a person’s honesty, candour, and knowledgeability. It is very hard to appreciate whether a lawyer is suited for you after only speaking to them over the phone. By meeting them in person you can assess all sorts of things that may be helpful in making a decision. Even something as simple as seeing what sort of office they practice in, how their staff treat them, and how they treat you in their comfort zone. Take the time to meet with a lawyer before making a decision.
Many lawyers will meet with individuals for an initial consultation at no cost, but even if you have to pay consider it an insurance policy before you get locked into one lawyer who will have such a huge influence on your future decision making out of your legal issue. Also, listen to what they say closely. Does it sound like a general sales pitch that could be easily applied to a used car or are they actually talking about legal concepts that are beyond your knowledge? Have you learned anything from meeting them or only how much it will cost? Are they realistic or overly optimistic to the context and seriousness of the problem?
Again, listen closely for expertise, not general sales tactics.
8) Ask difficult questions.
Good lawyers like difficult questions because they know the answer; bad lawyers change the topic. Ask them how they might defend your case, or why they believe you are entitled to a certain amount, or why they feel (in law) that you were wrongfully dismissed at work. Much like an annoying three year old who keeps asking “why” ad nauseum, ask why, and ask why again, and again.
9) Take your time.
Court isn’t going anywhere and neither is your lawyer. There are no fire sales in law. Even time-limited offers by prosecutions or opposing counsel are always within reasonable time frames. Don’t panic, you have time. Choosing a lawyer should be deliberate, well thought out, and not influenced by any sort of external pressure of time constraints. Some of the best lawyers will set out everything and ask you to think about it, or even encourage you to meet with other lawyers, before making such an important decision.
Bonus: four terrible ways to choose a lawyer:
Just as there are guidelines on how to choose a great lawyer, here are some awful ways to go about the same task:
1) Looking at anonymous lawyer ratings online.
After a legal issues, people don’t want to think about it again. There are few things that we do as lawyers where people walk away thinking “That was great, I need to tell everyone about it!” People like posting photos of Maui or the little Thai restaurant they found; talking about their amazing lawyer who got them off impaired driving is not as enticing.
On the other hand, a lot of people like complaining about their experiences with the justice system and often take it out unfairly on their lawyer. Enter the anonymous rating system where people can go on and talk about all the injustice they suffered within the care of a particular lawyer not caring at all of the effect it may have upon their reputation online. Going to an anonymous online rating post to look for a lawyer is like going to a Fox News to try and find a good Democrat to vote for. Ignore it.
2) Asking a lawyer who is their competition and who is trying to acquire you as a client.
I never understand it but people often ask me what they think of another lawyer who they have met with, i.e., my competition. I always advise clients that I do not comment on other lawyers, good or bad, that are in the same area of law as me. I wonder if others are equally dismissive of this request. Regardless, would you ask what Papa Pete’s Pizza thinks of Mama Mary’s Pies down the street? If you want an honest answer, ask an honest question.
3) Picking one up who is lingering around a courthouse.
Reputable, successful, and accomplished lawyers have more pressing things to do than hang around courthouses looking for clients. You may find one who is midway through trial or waiting for a colleague but this is rare. Just like you don’t intend to meet the person you marry at a nightclub, don’t expect to find the lawyer of your dreams walking around looking for that perfect client they just want to help. If you want to find a lawyer you may regret in the morning, then go for it.
4) Obnoxious advertisements.
If a lawyer is screaming at you on the television or radio, has a self-proclaimed nickname (like “The Hammer”, “The Pitbull”, or “Dr. Justice”), or has a catchy slogan that sounds like it was made up on the way to the radio station – don’t bother. Reputable lawyers care about their reputation and how they come across to the Court and other lawyers. If a judge is already saying under her breath mockingly “oh, here comes Dr. Justice” then you are in big trouble as a client from the get-go. Good luck: our legal issues are often defined by the choices to solve them. – Sean Robichaud, Barrister & Solicitor