1. Get a lawyer who has experience in the field at issue
First and foremost, you want a lawyer who has experience handing your type of case. For example, if you have a case involving business law, you should find a lawyer who has experience handling that type of case. Many lawyers open firms and need business to pay the bills. Some will take any case that comes in, even if they have very little or no experience in that area. I have known of lawyers who will say they are a family law lawyer to a client even though they have never handled a family law case in their life. You will then be their first case, but its unlikely they will tell you that. If you came in and said you had a breach of contract case, a criminal case or a dog bite case, they would likely say they specialized in all that too.
So how do you know? Well first you look at their website and see what areas they claim to be handling cases in. Some firms will list the types of cases each lawyer handles. Then, look them up on the California State Bar website. If you look them up by name you will see that some lawyers are certified specialists in certain fields. But keep in mind, not all areas of law have certified specialties, and its not necessary to be certified in order to be very qualified to practice in a certain area.
The best way to find out the truth is to ask pointed questions. Ask how long they have been practicing law. Ask how long they have been handling your type of case, such as family law or criminal law or special education law. Find out what side they usually represent. Have they handled only school districts before in special ed law, and you are a parent seeking representation? And most important, ask how many cases they have handled like yours. For example, using the special ed example, ask the lawyer you are interviewing questions like:
How long have you been handling special ed cases?
Who do you usually represent, the schools or the parents? How many cases have you handled for each?
How many cases like mine have you handled?
How many due process hearings have you handled?
How many federal court cases have your handled? (due process hearing cases are appealed to federal court so this is important)
What kind of results have you gotten in settlements in cases like mine?
What kind of results in hearings and in trials?
Have you taken a case to trial before? How many times? State Court? Federal?
It is o.k. to choose a lawyer with little experience in the area you are seeking IF you go in knowing this and they either have a lot of experience in other areas (and are thus adept at getting themselves up to speed) and are willing to educate themselves on their own dime, OR they work in a firm where they will be guided and supervised by another lawyer with more experience. And, in that event the billing rate should reflect the experience level. Don’t pay $500 an hour for an attorney with two years of experience.
2. Find a lawyer who will listen to you and follow your directives
Another important quality in a lawyer is the lawyer’s ability or willingness to follow your objectives for the case. Some lawyers will tell you what to do, and just expect you to go along with it. Of course you need to rely on the lawyer to tell you your rights, and the options on how to achieve your objectives. But you should be the one setting out the objectives. For example, in an employment case, is your goal to stay at your job? Or is your goal to reach a settlement and get the most money possible to allow you to take some time off and heal? Or, is making a stand on a particular issue important to you and you want to go to trial? A good lawyer will talk to you about your situation and find out what your goals are. Then they will work with you to determine the most effective ways to reach those goals given your resources.
This quality in a lawyer will pay dividends to you at the end of the case, when you are trying to negotiate a settlement. Some lawyers will decide what is a reasonable settlement and just resolve it without your input (-that is unethical and against state bar rules, but some lawyers do it). You want a lawyer who is going to talk to you about it and make sure the case resolves in a way you are happy with, and if needed will also be straight with you and make some recommendations.
3. Watch out for the fine print in the retainer agreement
One factor to consider is the attorney client fee agreement. The law requires us attorneys to prepare a written contract when the work will likely meet or exceed $1,000.00 in fees. These agreements can be complex. I suggest you always take the agreement with you home unsigned and read it over carefully. Ask for help understanding certain paragraphs if needed. Some areas to look out for:
Liens – Never sign a fee agreement that gives the lawyer the right to put a lien on your real property, such as your house. I have seen this in agreements from my clients’ prior attorneys. If there is mention of a lien, it should only be regarding a lien on the case. This means, if you fire the lawyer midway through the case, they have a right to have to be paid the reasonable value of their services out of the proceeds of the case (I.e. settlement or trial verdict).
Costs- Review the agreement carefully to be sure there are no provisions requiring you to pay any ridiculous costs. You should expect to have to pay for copies at a nominal rate such as 25 cents or even 40 cents a page. You should expect to have to reimburse the attorney for postage or for courier costs. But in this day and age, there should be no charge for faxes or emails. These days faxes are over the internet. Also, watch for the padding of costs, i.e. where the lawyer adds his own charges to the costs. True costs should just be the actual amount it cost the lawyer. Also watch out for charges for legal research by the hour, or charges for contract lawyers that you will be expected to pay. Read the costs section carefully and be sure you know what you are agreeing to. You should be able to negotiate any part of the agreement, from the percentage in contingency agreement to the amount charged for copies.
4. Check their license on the state bar webpage
Lawyers in California are licensed and regulated by the State Bar of California (www.calbar.ca.gov). You can go on the site and click on “public”. From there you can look up an attorney by name, or file a complaint. When you search for an attorney, you will get a result that includes their name, bar number, city they practice in, as well as the month and year they became a lawyer. In addition, you will see if they are currently admitted to the bar, and whether they have ever been disciplined by the state bar. It is not uncommon to find lawyers who have been reprimanded by the state bar for things ranging from stealing clients’ money, to failing to keep clients up to date on their case. If you look up the attorney and it says “Status: active” that means they are legally practicing law. To see if they have prior discipline, click on their name, or scroll down to the bottom of the page.
To see a list of the attorneys who have been recently disciplined by the state bar check out this link.