What to Look For in a Lawyer: The Basics

Basic Information. Every Washington lawyer is required to be a member of the Washington State Bar Association. The State Bar regulates lawyer discipline and has full-time staff in the Office of Disciplinary Counsel who assure compliance with the Rules of Professional Responsibility. Lawyer discipline is ultimately governed by the nine justices elected by the public to serve on our State’s highest court, the Washington State Supreme Court. I start off with this information because the Washington State Bar Association has a directory of all Washington lawyers and indicates whether they are in good standing and their disciplinary history. You can find this at www.wsba.org by following the Resources for the Public tab, which will take you to “Find a Lawyer.” You can put in the name of any lawyer and find out if they are in good standing and whether they have been disciplined in the past. You will notice that the site refers to “public” disciplinary history. That is because if a complaint was filed and was determined to be without merit, it will not appear, which is fair since it was not supported by the evidence and the burden of proof was not met. This means that any disciplinary history you find has already been determined to exist and has already been “tested” by the disciplinary process and found to have been established by a clear preponderance of the evidence – or agreed to by the lawyer. As a starting point, it is important to know that the lawyer you are considering to represent you is in good standing and licensed to practice law. Although having had a disciplinary history is not necessarily fatal to your consideration of a lawyer, it is a good thing to know, just as you would probably want to know if your surgeon had been found liable for malpractice, for instance. Every attorney has a “Bar Number” and can be located. If someone you are speaking with claims to be a lawyer but doesn’t have a Bar Number or is not able to be located in the Washington State Bar Association directory, then Look Out!

The Numbers. Of the estimated 6,897.012 people (2012 Estimate) who live in Washington State, roughly 30,000 are members of the Washington State Bar. Some of the members of the State Bar, to which all Washington lawyers must belong, are serving as judges, some are retired, some are brand new. As a rule of thumb, you can figure that lawyers are just under half of one percent of the general population or about 1 in 200 people. This means that you may or may not know a lawyer personally or whether the lawyer you know is the best choice for you. The choice of lawyer will involve your considering a number of factors.

The Factors to Consider. There are many factors that you will want to consider. They basically include: (1) Personal Relationship with the Lawyer (Trust); (2) Experience; (3) Expertise in the Type of Case You Have; (4) Credentials: Educational Background and Training, Awards, Recognition, and Publications; (5) Disciplinary History and Status of License; (6) Personal Style; (7) Cost.

(1) Personal Relationship. Although on first blush you may think that you would prefer a lawyer to be someone you already know and trust, perhaps a family member, you may wish to think about this further. Representation can sometimes result in revelation of private matters that could prove embarrassing. Since communications to a lawyer are subject to confidentiality, you should be able to trust that these matters are kept to the lawyer. If the lawyer is a close family member, however, such sharing of intimate details can be confusing to family dynamics and may result in the blurring or compromise of professional boundaries and family or friendship boundaries. It might be better to keep your legal matters separate, just as you might not wish to see a psychologist, counsellor, or psychiatrist who was a family member. Having a family member represent you can confuse issues surrounding professional accountability. If, for example, a mistake is made, this may lead to hard feelings and compromise family relationships or strain friendships in ways that would not have occurred if you asked your friend or family member to help you find a lawyer – rather than have them undertake the representation by themselves. Having a family member assist you in working with a qualified, independent lawyer, may be the best of both world. I have often found it to be very helpful to have a family member with legal training help explain some of the decisions and issues in the case. This can also be a challenge for you and the lawyers, depending upon the relationship between the family member-lawyer and the independent lawyer, so it makes sense to explore the anticipated dynamics of that relationship – the earlier the better. In other words, everyone needs to know and respect how decisions are going to be made to avoid conflict.

(2) Experience. It is a relatively simple matter to determine the number of years a lawyer has been practicing. The Washington State Bar Lawyer Directory will provide you with the date of admission to the Washington State Bar. Of course, even a senior attorney, with valuable experience, may be a recent admittee to Washington State. It is useful to know – or to ask – whether the lawyer has trial experience in the type of case for which you are seeking representation. How many cases like yours has the lawyer handled? How were they resolved?

(3) Expertise in a Case Like Yours. Experience is not only the number of years in practice, but really should be analyzed in terms of relevant experience or expertise in cases like yours. Even a lawyer with many years of legal practice may not have experience handling cases like yours. A young, dedicated and talented lawyer may do better for you than an experienced attorney making his first foray into a new area. In the area of personal injury representation, it is also important to consider whether the lawyer’s experience comes from representing plaintiffs (injured people) or defendants (insurance companies and their insureds).

(4) Credentials. Some websites, such as www.avvo.com, provide a description of the lawyer’s education, training, awards and publications. Such factors are not dispositive on the issue of whether the lawyer is the right one for you, but they are part of the picture. If a lawyer went to a prestigious school (Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Michigan, and others you may have heard of) this, at least, tells you the lawyer was a good student. Is this enough to be a good lawyer, good person, or good advocate for you? No. Many fine trial lawyers did not go to big-name schools; but, many did. I, myself, graduated from Harvard Law School, but I would never contend that this was the attribute that should be valued above all others. Since 1999, I have been teaching as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Seattle University School of Law and I can tell you that many fine local lawyers were former students from Seattle University. Awards, honors, recognition (and, yes, teaching experience) go a long way towards creating that ineffable trait known as “reputation.” Reputation is important in many ways, including whether, for instance, an insurance company in a personal injury case is going to regard your lawyer as one who “always settles” or one who “takes cases to trial.” These considerations are actually part of a computerized program (Allstate, for instance, uses a program called “Colossus”) that values your case based upon your attorney’s track record. If you are, yourself, a person who values educational accomplishment, then the fact that your lawyer has done well in this arena may be a positive indication that you will be able to respect and value your lawyer’s advice with greater comfort. So, to some extent, you must yourself determine how important these factors are to you. Credential provide a valuable objective measure of your lawyer’s past achievements, but they do not always reflect how your lawyer will perform for you in your case today. You might say that reputation is like the light from a distant star, telling you how the lawyer performed in the past (a very important indicator of future performance), but not necessarily telling you how the lawyer performs today.

(5) Disciplinary History and Status of License. As we have already noted, the State Bar website at www.wsba.org will tell you whether a lawyer has been disciplined or whether a lawyer is currently in good standing. A lawyer who is suspended from the practice is not permitted to represent others or be paid for services. This is a basic inquiry and you should make sure that a person who holds themselves out as being an attorney can show you their Bar Number and prove that they are, indeed, licensed to practice. This is free and there is simply no reason for any consumer of legal services to be deceived as to this basic prerequisite for any practicing lawyer whom they are considering retaining for representation.

(6) Personal Style. When you are deciding to hire one lawyer over another, you should not be afraid of trusting your own “gut” instinct. Is the style of the lawyer one that works for you, that you enjoy, or is it off-putting, officious, pompous, or condescending. You have a right to have a lawyer who is willing to spend time with you to explain the law and your case. You are the client, after all, and the lawyer’s job is to represent you in a way that works for you. Taken together with some of the objective factors above, personal style may be a great indicator of the degree to which you will be satisfied by your representation.

(7) Cost. In legal services, like most other things (my daughters say “hair products” fall in this category), you do, indeed, get what you pay for. In personal injury cases, where a contingent fee is available, legal fees may be virtually identical between firms. The Rules of Professional Conduct make it clear that a client must remain “ultimately responsible” for the costs of litigation. So, beware of any lawyer who claims that you will have no obligation for costs at the outset: this is not proper from a professional standards viewpoint. Lawyers may advance costs (and many do and charge you interest until the case settles), but those costs ultimately will come out of your settlement. This subheading deserves its own blog entry. Lawyers should, and in the case of contingent fees (fees based on a percentage of the recovery obtained) are required to have, a written fee agreement. You should read this contract and you should never be afraid to ask how the fees and costs are handled. Once again, the Washington State Bar Association has set out how fees and costs are to be handled in the Rules of Professional Responsibility and in written Formal and Informal Ethics Opinions. Hiring a lawyer is entering into a business relationship and you should always consider professional qualities other than price. You should consider hiring a lawyer the same way that you would consider hiring a contractor: is it quality of work or only the lowest bid? It is nearly always a mixture of those factors, sometimes called “the lowest responsible bid.”

Finding a Lawyer. Now that you know what you are looking for, you can go about finding a lawyer. The obvious methods are: word-of-mouth, past experience, advertising, and the internet. I would like to suggest that all of these have a place. Recommendations from friends and colleagues who have had a positive experience are important. Recommendations from friends and colleagues referring you to their family members or friends who are lawyers may be less valuable. Your own past experience with a lawyer is likely (for good or ill) to inform your decision-making. At least, you have some experience and, if it was positive, this is definitely valuable intelligence. Advertising, however, is all too often self-serving and tells you nothing about the lawyer who will be representing you. Some large advertisers simply gather in clients and then refer them to other lawyers who have paid for the advertising or paid to receive referrals in a certain area of town. Such advertising does not assure you of a good “fit.” Many large firms bring you in with the impressive credentials of a senior lawyer, just to have you learn later that your case is really being handled by younger associates. This is not necessarily bad for your case, but it can come as an unwelcome discovery if you are expecting the lawyer you meet to be the lawyer who represents you. It is always fair to ask directly and clearly about who your lawyer will be and how the work is handled. If you go to a deposition, who will be your lawyer? If you go to trial? Who negotiates your case? Who goes with you to your defense medical examinations?

Sites such as www.avvo.com attempt to give lawyers ratings based upon credentials, publications, speaking engagements, awards, and client recommendations. This can be a valuable resource. In King County, the Lawyer Referral Service of the King County Bar Association [http://www.kcba.org/lrs/ ] can help you find lawyers with expertise in specific cases.

Your case is important. Finding the right lawyer for you takes some work, but really pays off in every sense of the word. Your satisfaction with the outcome of your case will, in large part, depend on the expertise, experience, credentials, and personal relationship you have with your lawyer. A lawyer who inspires confidence, who works hard, who is easy to reach, who explains things well and as often as needed, who is patient, well-qualified, is also likely to be effective and efficient. This will truly improve the quality of your experience.

It is hard enough to be in a spot where legal representation is needed. It makes the experience so much better when you find the right lawyer for you and your case that it is well worth taking the time to do it right. Do your research. Listen to others. Trust your own feelings. Over the years, I have spoken to many clients who were dissatisfied with their legal representation and remarked: “I felt there was something I was uncomfortable with, but I didn’t feel comfortable making an issue of it.” If only they had listened to what they felt! Remember, litigation and legal representation is stressful. Having the right lawyer can make it much, much easier to get through it. I hope these remarks help you out.

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