Saturday, August 29, 2009

On choosing a lawyer

One of the things I've always liked about my doctor is that she's never shy about sending me to a specialist. Sometimes the specialists think she was overly cautious. More than one has told me, "She could have done that." One even burst into laughter when she learned what my doctor had sent me over for.

Like I say, I actually appreciate that in her. She understands that the day of the generalist is over. Oh, there's plenty she can and does do. (I'm making this sound like I see her weekly; this is all over a period of many years.) But she understands that medicine has become too complex and that too much of what could be done can go wrong for her to do vastly more than basic monitoring and wellness care. Her job is to keep me in generally acceptable condition, to recognize when I need something else, and to direct me to someone competent. Good for her.

What's true in medicine is maybe even more true in law. The day of the generalist is ending. Law is becoming too complex, too specialized, too peculiar for the general practitioner to do much more than handle routine matters and be a referral service. (I'm not even going to try explaining what matters are routine and how to recognize ones that aren't.) The referral service part is key because finding the lawyer who does what you need done, and does it well, isn't easy. Even among good lawyers, not every one is right for every client or every case.

But it matters who you have. I've spent a lot of time over the years dealing with the consequences of bad representation. Sometimes they can be cured. Sometimes not. But it's always better to avoid the problems in the first place.

The question is how you find the right lawyer. And frankly, I don't have much of an answer. Part of the problem is that every lawyer in private practice is also a marketer (and yes, I know Scott Greenfield doesn't entirely agree with me and doesn't think he is, but he's wrong). Some of us are better at it, or more diligent or more creative than others, some are more obvious about it than others, but we all do it.

The trick for the legal consumer, you who need a lawyer, is to figure out how to sort through the marketing muck and figure out who to hire. I don't know that I have any particularly brilliant insight. But I know who you want: You want someone who knows your area of law (even the sub-areas are specialties these days - DUI defense is a specialty, so is computer crime, capital defense too), will work hard for you, is actually competent, does not believe in fighting over trivia or being aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. Like I say, I'm not sure I can tell you how to find that person, but I'm pretty sure I can tell you how not to do it.

Beware of advertising. The lawyer or firm who paid for a billboard (or six) or has a TV presence or a big ad in the yellow pages may be good. Or not. There's simply no correlation. There's no mediation there, nobody checking. There's no way to tell.

In some ways, the internet is even worse. Look in the blogosphere and you'll find blogs that are no more than selling tools, ending every post with some variation on "When you need a _______ lawyer, you should call me at _______." It's the internet version of ambulance chasing. Let me tell you, folks. Anyone can start a blog. (Trust me, if I can do it, anyone can.) There are services that advertise themselves to lawyers. For a fee, they design the blog, post it, and tell the lawyer or law firm how to self-promote. There are superb lawyers with blogs, but the mere fact of a blog says nothing. Ditto for websites.

Worse, still, in many respects, are the on-line referral services. There is, for instance, a drunk driving defense site which says it can find you "qualified DUI or DWI Attorney to help fight your drunk driving case" anywhere in the country. It looks impressive and professional. But see, here's the thing. When you fill out the on-line form or call the business, they'll direct you to the one lawyer in your area who has paid them for, well, they say it's not a referral service but just advertising, except that's in very small print. Some of the lawyers who pay to advertise with them may be very good. Others not. There's no way to tell.

All of which brings me to this new service that's being widely touted on the internet - even by those who should know better (e.g., the Cleveland Law Library.) It's, and its apparent appeal makes me very nervous. Lawyers sign up, create a "profile" of themselves, and the public can find them. And, for a limited time (until next April), every member of the public gets a free 5 minute consultation with every lawyer. Just enough time to learn nothing. And it's the same point. Some of the lawyers who sign with newlawyer may be absolutely first rate. Others not. Despite the appearance of vetting, there is none. Will the lawyer you call be competent? There's no way to tell. And that makes it dangerous.

I think you can learn useful things about lawyers from the internet. You can do some research into what they've done. You can find newspaper stories. You can often track down disciplinary records. You can learn about the cases they've worked on. There are services that actually make some effort to provide objective ratings of lawyers, and do it without charging the lawyers, so that it's not pure advertising.

And then there are those blogs and websites. Can you learn something valuable about some of the lawyers and firms who have them? Sure. But carefully. And with lots of cautions and caveats.

Oh, and if you need a good lawyer, give me a call. You know I'm good. I have a blog.

1 comment:

  1. "Part of the problem is that every lawyer in private practice is also a marketer (and yes, I know Scott Greenfield doesn't entirely agree with me and doesn't think he is, but he's wrong)."

    Sigh. For the 500 time, it's not marketing when it's a collateral consequence of just being a hard working lawyer.