CHECKLIST : The 12 Most Important Tips and Questions to Ask When Considering Hiring an Attorney
After earning their license to practice law by the State Bar, an attorney can advertise themselves as whatever type of attorney they want. Literally, on the day they receive their license to practice law, an attorney can put up a billboard, and advertise themselves as a DUI Lawyer, Injury Lawyer, Divorce Lawyer, etc.
Just because an attorney says that they are a certain type of lawyer, does not mean that they have the necessary experience, background, and training, to properly represent someone on their case.
There are many law firms that use advertising to draw people in, but do not have the proper education, or experience, to properly represent people in the field of law that they claim to be an aggressive advocate of.
Some lawyers literally get their bar license, and because they have a good phone number, or because of the way they look, they put themselves out as experienced lawyers, and in some cases, “superior” lawyers.
It is always important to ask a potential attorney how many cases they have handled that are similar to the charges that you are charged with.
When attorneys graduates law school, they do not leave with a specialty in any one area of the law. Usually an attorney gained experience in areas that interest them, and through jobs and internships. The vast majority of attorneys do not focus on one area of the law, and will spread their fields of knowledge across all different forms of civil and criminal law.
It is not uncommon for an attorney to represent people on DUI cases, the hundreds of different types of criminal cases, as well as personal injury cases, and divorce representation. An attorney that spreads their knowledge amongst several different areas of law lacks the ability to focus, and gain proper knowledge and experience, on a specific area of the law.
If you are charged with shoplifting, you want to get the attorney that focuses on shoplifting cases. If you are going through a divorce, you want an attorney that focuses on divorce cases. If you are charged with a DUI, you don’t want an attorney that represents shoplifting cases, and divorce cases, and DUI cases.
DUI is a very specialized area of the law, with its own set of rules, case law, and often, specialized prosecutors that focus solely on DUI and vehicular related offenses.
When seeking out an attorney, don’t be fooled by placement on a search engine, a TV commercial, or billboard. Really question what types of cases that attorney handles.
There is a handy indicator on AVVO.com that will show a pie chart, which the attorney, themselves, fills out, which indicates how much they feel their time is spent on different areas of representation.
There is one local attorney that has paid cab drivers to hand out his business card to people that are picked up from police stations and the DUI Van, after they have been processed for a DUI arrest. On that card, he lists himself as a DUI lawyer, but when you go onto AVVO.com, he has personally set up his account to indicate that he represents people in 3 different areas of the law, none of which are DUI, or even criminal.
Some of the bigger law firms are known for certain tactics in attempting to get people to sign up with their law firm. Often, the first person you talk to is a “Hype-Man,” who may not even be an attorney, but will attempt to talk you into signing up with their law firm, and doing so under a false sense of emergency or immediacy, and will even go so far as to make false promises in order to get you to sign up.
Occasionally, a lawyer, maybe one that you have seen smiling on a billboard, will come in to be a closer, and assure you that they are going to aggressively fight for your rights.
Once you have signed up, and handed over your money, your case will very likely be passed off to someone else who will actually be doing the representation.
It is important to ask who, exactly, will be representing you on your case.
It might also be a good idea to find out whether the initial person you are talking to, is an actual attorney, or is just the “Hype-Man.”
Many of the large law firms, once you have signed a contract, and paid the Retainer Fee, will pass along your case to a subordinate lawyer, possibly one fresh-out-of-law-school, or a paralegal, or a law clerk, who will be doing most of the work.
Is a good idea to find out if the person who you may have seen ranking high on a website, or one you may have read testimonials on, or one you may have read about their successes on a case, is actually the one that will be doing the work on your behalf.
If you are going to have an attorney represent you on your case, you want to make sure that you are actually getting the attorney’s experience and expertise, and not have a subordinate learn how to be an attorney at your expense.
One of the biggest complaints from clients is that they had a very difficult time contacting their attorney. Whether it is a secretary taking a message, with the promise that someone will get back to them, or constantly leaving voicemails, which are rarely if ever returned, one of the biggest benefits that an attorney can offer their client is the ability for quick access by way of cell phone and email.
Ask your attorney if you will be provided their personal cell phone, where you can call and text them if you have a question.
Obviously, attorneys are busy individuals, often have to appear in court, and have meetings to attend to, but the ease of access through texting, is something that an attorney should offer all their clients. If an attorney is going to put barriers between themselves, and the client, by way of a secretary or receptionist, that is a big red flag, and likely something that will lead to your frustration as the case proceeds through court.
The vast majority of DUI and criminal cases do not go to trial. Only about 5% of cases in criminal court end up actually going to trial, with the other 95% being dismissed, or handled by way of a negotiated plea agreement.
That being said, you want to make sure that your attorney has the reputation of not fearing trial. If an attorney is adverse to going to trial, that will have an impact on any plea negotiations, or requests for dismissals, that are requested in representing your case.
A defense attorney that is unwilling to go all the way to trial, and fight for their client’s rights, and fight for their client’s freedom, is not going to be able to properly fight for a beneficial plea agreement, or fight for a dismissal.
There are some attorneys that are actually scared of going to trial, and have little to no experience in going to trial, and that can absolutely have an impact on how the case is handled with the prosecutor, who may know that the defense attorney will ultimately back down if there is a threat of the case going to trial.
Accordingly, it is possible that an attorney goes to trial too often, which can be a sign of an attorney that will go to trial on anything, in order to charge the client additional trial fees.
This is a very important question, and one that every potential client needs to ask.
It is amazing how many times the big law firms can be seen in court, withdrawing from their clients case, after taking thousands of dollars from them, but when the client wasn’t willing to pay an additional thousands of dollars more, they get dropped, often with very little to no work done on the case.
An attorney may attempt to answer that they have withdrawn from every case that they have handled, as they are contracted to represent a person on a case, and once the case ends, they file a notice to withdraw.
The question, however, is not how many cases has the attorney withdrawn from, but how many cases has the attorney withdrawn from that were still pending.
You will not necessarily get an honest answer to this question, as that is how the vast majority of the big law firms make their money – signing people up, demanding more money, and when the client doesn’t pay, withdrawing from the case – but it is an important question to ask.
At some point, every attorney has had to withdraw off of some cases, either due to a clients inability to pay, or for other various reasons, but if there is a large amount of cases that are withdrawn from, prior to the case ending, it is a sign that the attorney will withdraw off of your case, before the case has been completely handled.
I once had a client that decided to hire another law firm, because he fell for the (false) hype surrounding that law firm. I honestly told the client, that if he was not happy with my representation, I’d be happy to recommend other attorneys that I believe are excellent attorneys, but that the one law firm that my client had decided he wanted go with was the top attorney on my list of people that I would never recommend to anyone. I told him that they will steal his money, then drop him as a client.
Despite my warning, the client decided to go with this other law firm, and within 2 months, my former client called me up, told me that it was a worse experience than he ever could have imagined, and that after paying the attorney thousands of dollars, with the promise that the attorney would write motions, and argue those motions, the attorney attempted to withdraw from the case, after writing the motion, but before actually arguing those motions in front of the judge.
My client went on to tell me that when that law firm attempted to withdraw from his case, the judge chastised the attorney from that law firm from the bench, in open court, stating that he was tired of that law firm trying to withdraw off of so many cases, and that the judge was forcing the law firm to stay on the client’s case.
The former client asked me what he should do, and I told him that I anticipated 1 of 3 things happening: 1) the law firm was going to make his life a living hell, until he pleaded with the court to have the law firm withdrawn or hired another lawyer; 2) the law firm was going to push him to take a plea agreement, so that they would no longer have to represent him; or 3) the law firm was going to continue representing him, and then sue him under their contract for legal services rendered, but not paid for.
I told my former client that he had a good case, and that he should not give up, and he should not take a plea agreement, and if necessary, I would help him find someone to help fight his case. I ended the call telling him to please not give up, and that he needs to fight his case, because he had some good issues.
A week later, I called the client to find out the latest on his case, and he told me that the law firm pressured him to take a plea agreement, and he just gave up, and took the plea agreement.
It is extremely important to actually read the Legal Fee Agreement that the attorney presents to you. You could end up paying thousands of dollars for an attorney, and not realize that you have signed a contract to pay hidden thousands of dollars more.
Attorneys, especially the big law firms, will often use “failure to comply with the terms of the contract” (failure to pay) as an excuse to withdraw off the case, while retaining all the money that has already been paid.
There is one story that I heard, about a particular big law firm, that is known for stealing their clients money, where they charged something like $12,000 for representation on a pretty serious felony offense, and when the client wised up, and decided to fire the law firm, the law firm came up with some excuse to substantiate keeping all of the clients funds that had already been paid. The horrifying part of the story is, the law firm substantiated keeping all of the funds, claiming them to have been earned, before the first court appearance had even occurred.
It is important to know what will happen if your credit card is declined, or if your payment is received late, or something happens where you will need to split up a future payment, or not pay on the payment schedule in full as stated in the contract.
Unexpected events can occur, which can affect someone’s ability to pay, and it is important to know how the attorney or law firm will handle that situation, and if they will work with you, or if they will withdraw from your case, keeping all the money that you had already paid.
Ethically, an attorney cannot keep money that they have not earned. On occasion, a client will pay an attorney a Retainer Fee, and the case ends up getting dismissed, but the reason the case gets dismissed, is that there is a severe problem with the case, such as insufficient evidence, or a witness that is no longer available to testify.
In those situations, where a case is dismissed, and it has nothing to do with the attorney, just based on a fortunate set of circumstances, ethically, an attorney should return most of the Retainer Fee for “Services Not Rendered.” It would be appropriate for an attorney to keep some of the money, maybe a few hundred dollars, for the time that they had already put into the case, such as with filing Notices of Appearances; mailing out letters to the prosecutor, courts, or other witnesses; interviews done; and court appearances; but often not enough is done to substantiate the funds that have already been paid to the attorney. Many times, the client is so happy to receive a dismissal, that they don’t even bother asking how the case was dismissed. Ethically, if the dismissal was due to a fortunate set of circumstances, and not due to the attorney’s efforts, a refund is due. Unfortunately, many attorneys find it difficult to return money once it is been placed in their bank account, and hope that a client won’t ask questions.
Knowing if an attorney has refunded a previous client’s money for “Services Not Rendered” is a pretty good indication that, if ethically required, the client would refund your money, if a dismissal was due to a fortunate set of circumstances.
There is one local law firm, who does tons of advertising, and indicates that they won what seems like a large number of cases. However, when you really consider everything, you come to realize that what appears to be a large number, is actually a very small percentage.
For example, if an attorney advertises that they have had 100 DUI acquittals, that sounds like an exceptionally high number of acquittals, however, when you consider that the law firm has represented 5,000 DUI cases a year, and has been around for 10 years, 100 DUI acquittals ends up being an extremely small percentage of cases that have been handled.
100 DUI acquittals out of 50,000 DUI cases represented, equals 1/5 of 1%. That is an extremely low percentage.
Accordingly, this one local law firm that advertises the number of wins that have been accomplished is also known for doing a bit of creative accounting with their “successes.”
When they hire a new attorney, and that new attorney has won five trials prior to joining the law firm, all of the sudden the law firm claims that they won those five trials. When that attorney leaves the law firm, the law firm seems to forget to delete those five trial wins, and keeps those trial wins as part of their tally.
It is not surprising that a law firm claims to have so many wins, when they simply absorb the wins of the lawyers that they hire, and do not delete them when the lawyers ultimately leave or get fired.
Attorneys pay money to advertise on billboards, or on the Internet or on billboards. That does not necessarily make them good, that usually makes them expensive.
Many attorneys who list high on search engine results, not because they are good at what they do, but because they pay a lot of money for Search Engine Optimization people to get them to the top.
There also seems to be a trend amongst attorneys who claim to be “superior” attorneys. The few lawyers that I’ve seen who claim to be “Superior DUI lawyers,” seem to be the ones with the least experience, and the least knowledge.
Do your research, and don’t automatically believe that that one with the most exposure is the best for your case.
Anyone can write a testimonial or a review. This includes the attorney themselves, as well as their staff or Website Builder / SEO Company.
While an attorney may have 100% authentic testimonials from real former clients, there are some other attorneys that have padded their profile with fake reviews.
Keep this in mind when choosing your DUI Lawyer.