My dad was a Plumber and my summers spent working with him taught me many valuable lessons. Perhaps one of the most important lessons I learned was that there is the “right tool for the right job”. My father couldn’t stand to see someone using a wrench as a hammer or a screwdriver as a pry bar. If I heard it once, I heard it 1,000 times, “Use the right tool for the right job”.
Picking the RIGHT lawyer for your case is just like that. In every city, there are hundreds if not thousands of lawyers and it’s virtually impossible for anyone to know who they should hire as their attorney. I am shocked and amazed that given the importance of choosing the RIGHT attorney, that many people literally pick the first attorney they see on TV or in the phone book.
While I view it as a necessary part of my business that I advertise on TV and in the phone book, I would not for one moment suggest to anyone that the fact that I advertise like this means that I am the right lawyer for YOU.
I strongly believe that the choice of a lawyer is a very important one and I therefore urge you to keep the following suggestions in mind when you pick the RIGHT lawyer for YOU:
- ASK FAMILY AND FRIENDS FOR LAWYER RECOMMENDATIONS
Despite the fact that I advertise, I strongly believe that the best source of information that people should consider when choosing a lawyer is the recommendation of their family and friends. Ask around. Talk to people you know and respect in the community and ask them who they believe would be a good lawyer for your case. Trust me, when you start asking around about lawyers, I know you will hear many strong opinions. While it is true that it is almost impossible to please everyone, you will quickly learn those lawyers who are respected in the community versus those who are not respected. As a plumber, my dad was highly respected and took great pride in the quality of his work. Although being a plumber is not generally seen as a glamorous job, I learned working with him that there were good plumbers who had reason to be proud of their work and there were horrible plumbers whose work was an embarrassment to the trade. The same is true of lawyers and virtually every other profession. The key for you is to identify who the good lawyers are so that you can stay away from the bad lawyers.
2. FIND AN ATTORNEY WHO HAS YEARS OF EXPERIENCE HANDLING ACCIDENT CASES
Just like the best plumber might be a disaster trying to fix your electrical problem, not all lawyers are experienced and competent in handling accident cases.
When I first started working as an attorney, I handled virtually every type of case that came across my desk. I handled family court cases, traffic tickets, real estate closings, divorces, workers compensation, etc., etc. Thankfully, for both me and my clients, I had a very wise and experienced mentor, Carl Hayden. In fact, it was Carl who convinced me to come to my current firm as I knew he was one of the finest trial lawyers I had ever seen in the court room. Trust me, this is no faint praise, as I was working in Washington, DC at the time and had the opportunity to see some of the best trial lawyers in the country. Although Carl could have gone to any big city and been a very accomplished trial lawyer, he settled in Elmira when a certain young lady caught his eye. Carl put down roots in this community and at the time I was a new lawyer, he was widely respected by the local attorneys and judges. I was proud to have Carl as my mentor. After several years of doing virtually every type of legal case known to man, Carl sat me down and said it was time for me to focus on “those cases you truly love”. He explained that being a jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none was NOT the way to become a good lawyer and he encouraged me to pick my passion. It was the best advice I ever received. Now, for more than twenty years, I have limited my practice to personal injury and medical malpractice cases.
Why is this history important? Because it illustrates my point that some lawyers dabble in all types of legal matters while others choose to concentrate their practice in a focused area of the law. If you needed a real estate lawyer, I would be the worst lawyer you could ask for and I would promptly send you down the hall to my partner, Mark Weiermiller, who focuses on real estate and bankruptcy law. Likewise, if you need a Will, I am not the guy for you and I would refer you to my partner, Don Mustico, who is both a CPA and lawyer.
My point is that the law is very, very complex in every practice area. In my opinion, it is impossible to be competent in any given area of the law if you are trying to do many different types of law.
Accordingly, I think one of the best questions you should ask any attorney who you are considering for an accident case is whether that attorney restricts their practice to personal injury cases. Ask them how long they have limited their practice and how many years of experience they have representing accident victims. Ask them about their results. While it is true that past experience in cases does not guarantee future results, past results do provide some indication as to whether the attorney has successfully handled similar cases.
3. CONSULT ANY PROSPECTIVE ATTORNEY’S WEBSITE OR THEIR WRITTEN PUBLICATIONS
In this day and age, good lawyers usually have good informative websites. While I do not mean to suggest that a glitzy website necessarily means that that lawyer is a good one, a website is often a reflection of the lawyer’s approach to his profession and his clients. A lawyer who has no website or a poor website may be a lawyer who is failing to take advantage of the latest technology or one who doesn’t approach his or her cases with the same level of seriousness as the lawyer who has invested the time and effort necessary to put together a good website. Here is a link to my website: www.zifflaw.com.
Most good websites feature sections providing biographical information about the lawyer, a description of the types of cases the lawyer handles, a description of some representative cases the lawyer has handled, and client testimonials for clients the lawyer has represented. Reading through these sections will provide a great deal of information to you as to whether or not that attorney or law firm is right for you and your case.
4. HIRE A LOCAL ATTORNEY WHEN POSSIBLE
I am often asked “Should I hire a local attorney or an attorney from a distant city who may advertise in my area?” My response is that I am strongly of the mind that hiring a local attorney is almost always better IF there is a good local attorney experienced with handling your type of case.
Why? Because the local lawyer knows the local “scene”. What I mean by this is that:
- Local attorneys are much more convenient for you to meet;
- Local attorneys are familiar with the local judges and lawyers;
- Local attorneys know the local court personnel and the unique quirks of getting things done in the local courts;
- Local attorneys know the insurance adjusters who typically handle cases in that area;
- Local attorneys know the doctors and their medical staff from whom cooperation is most important;
- Local attorneys know the local police and investigators who can be crucial to an accident investigation;
- Local attorneys know the local roads, the local bars, the local witnesses so often they have general background information that can assist them in understanding your case.
Some people ask me whether they should worry about hiring a local attorney because they have some sense that the local attorneys or insurance adjusters might be friends or “in cahoots” with one another. My response is that I am in business to get as much money for my clients as possible. By doing so, I maximize my attorney fee. With three kids to put through college, trust me, I am NOT going to pull any punches just because I know the defense attorney or the insurance adjuster. To the contrary, I feel my knowledge of my local opponents (and their knowledge of me) helps me do BETTER for my clients. I know who is going to jerk me around, I know who is going to deal fairly with me, I know who can be trusted and who cannot. In other words, the local knowledge HELPS, not hurts.
This is not to suggest that you should ALWAYS use a local attorney. There are some circumstances when you need an attorney outside the area. If you have a unique type of case and there is no local attorney experienced with that type of case, you should definitely consider a specialist from outside your area.
For instance, I was once consulted by a family whose son had been very badly injured as a result of taking a particular prescription medication. My research revealed that there was an attorney in New York City who had focused his entire practice on handling cases involving this prescription and he had been successfully handling these cases for several years. On behalf of the family, I spoke with that lawyer and ultimately suggested to that family that they hire this lawyer instead of having me personally handle their case.
Most good lawyers are concerned enough about their clients that they will readily make referrals like this when it is in the client’s best interests to do so.
A local attorney may also not be appropriate where your injuries occurred in some distant state. Most lawyers are only licensed to practice in one or maybe two states. Therefore, they cannot handle cases that occur in other states. For instance, I am licensed to practice in New York and Pennsylvania and I can only handle cases in those two states. Often I am approached by local people who may have been injured in an accident in Florida, New Jersey etc. Generally, I will sit down with these people, gather as much detail about their case as I can and then assist them in the process of identifying a good and experienced Florida or New Jersey attorney to handle their case. Many times I end up handling the local contact with the client and cooperating with the other lawyer in making sure the client’s case gets handled as conveniently as possible. This cooperative approach means that the client has to travel to the distant state as little as possible but that their case gets handled by a local attorney who knows the local “scene”.
5. CAREFULLY CHECK OUT THE ATTORNEY’S PRIOR RESULTS
Although it is true that every case is different and that past results are no guarantee of future results, an attorney’s past track record IS a very critical piece of information you should carefully consider. An attorney’s track record is an indication of whether they have previously handled the type of case you have and whether they were able to successfully resolve that case. Also, because insurance companies keep a scorecard on all attorneys those attorneys with a good reputation for past results often get earlier and larger settlement offers because their good reputation precedes them. Most attorneys list their results on their websites so that is an easy way for you to check out the attorney before you even meet with them. Here, I list some of my firm’s results so you get an idea of what type of results information is usually provided by most attorneys.
6. CAREFULLY REVIEW THE ATTORNEY’S CREDENTIALS
Every attorney has many credentials which will appear the same– they went to High School, College, and Law School and passed the Bar Exam in their state. However, despite the similarity of these credentials, I will be the first to tell you that the ability of two lawyers with credentials that look identical can often be miles apart. Every lawyer knows someone whom they went to Law School with or took the Bar Exam with who they can’t understand how they got into Law School or how they ever passed the Bar Exam. I personally know lawyers who went to great Law Schools whom I would never refer a client to and I know other lawyers from other Law Schools who do not enjoy good reputations who nonetheless are excellent attorneys who achieve great results on behalf of their clients.
Given this fact, how are you supposed to pick a good lawyer from a bad lawyer by reviewing their credentials? Well, like I said before, the word of mouth and reputation in the community are in my view much more important than any “paper credentials”.
However, there are a few things in the credentials that may suggest that one attorney may be better qualified to handle your case than another. Credentials that provide useful clues about the attorney include:
- Memberships in professional associations,
- Selections for merit-based or invitation-only organizations,
- Whether the lawyer has been invited to lecture other lawyers on legal topics, and,
- Whether the lawyer has authored and published articles in legal publications.
MEMBERSHIP IN PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS— Membership in professional associations may or may not tell you whether an attorney is right to handle your case. Quite frankly, most professional associations require nothing more than the payment of a membership fee. In other words, whether you are a good attorney or bad attorney, you can join that association by just paying a fee.
For instance, if I wanted to join a national association of bankruptcy attorneys, I would be able to do so even though I don’t have a clue about bankruptcy and would never consider handling a bankruptcy case. While membership in these associations cannot definitely tell you whether an attorney is competent to handle your case, it can provide useful information because if an attorney is NOT a member of a professional association in the area of law that your case involves, then that is a huge warning sign that that attorney may not be experienced enough to handle your case.
For example, I am a member of several professional associations associated with personal injury and medical malpractice cases: The New York and Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Associations, the New York Academy of Trial Lawyers, the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). My membership in these associations does NOT mean that I am necessarily a good injury attorney, but it does show that I at least am interested in subjects involving injury lawyers. If you are looking for an injury lawyer, then these associations would be important. However, if you were looking for a bankruptcy lawyer and the prospective attorney was not a member of similar associations of bankruptcy lawyers, that would be a red flag that that attorney might not be the good lawyer to handle your case.
INVITATION ONLY ASSOCIATIONS— More important than membership in these associations who permit anyone with the money to pay the membership fee to join, are those associations where the attorney is either selected or invited to join because that attorney has distinguished themselves in some significant way.
For instance, I was invited to become a member of the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum. This Forum is only open to those attorneys who achieved a recovery in excess of $2,000,000.00 on behalf of their clients. If an attorney has not met that significant milestone in representing accident victims, they are NOT permitted membership in the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum.
Another great example is my partner and mentor, Carl Hayden. Carl is the only plaintiff’s attorney in the Twin Tiers who has ever been selected as a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers (FACTL). Invitations to join FACTL are only issued to those attorneys who have distinguished themselves by many years of successful and ethical representation of clients. The FACTL selection process is a rigorous one that requires the submission of several references from both judges and attorneys who have personal experience with the proposed member.
Obviously a membership in merit based associations like the Million Dollar Advocates Form or FACTL provide good information for you in considering the selection of an attorney.
LEGAL LECTURES AND PUBLICATIONS— The fact that an attorney is selected to lecture to other attorneys or write articles for lawyer publications can also provide useful information. Obviously, it is very flattering for any lawyer to be picked by his peers to lecture on legal topics. Over the years, the attorneys in my office have often been asked to provide lectures on a wide range of legal topics and we have been flattered to do so. Likewise, we have published articles and a wide range of publications including the New York State Bar Journal which is the most widely distributed legal publication in New York. If you are evaluating an attorney’s credentials, be sure to see whether they have lectured or published before and don’t hesitate to ask that lawyer about their experience in doing so.
LAWYER RATING SERVICES— Historically, the grand-daddy of lawyer rating publications was called Martindale-Hubbell (MH). This company would ask other lawyers in the community to rate local lawyers and firms by filling out a questionnaire. MH would then compile the results and rate lawyers– the highest rating was “AV” meaning that the lawyer was rated an “A” for professional competence and “V” for very ethical. My firm was very proud of our AV rating. More recently, some online rating services have emerged. The most popular is www.avvo.com. Avvo rates lawyers on the basis of many different criteria: year in practice, professional recognition, disciplinary complaints, endorsements by other attorneys, etc. Here is my Avvo rating so you can see what one looks like: http://www.avvo.com/attorneys/14901-ny-james-reed-626466.html
7. Carefully Interview any prospective attorney-Once you have narrowed your search, there is no substitute for meeting face-to-face with any attorney you are considering for your case. Do you like this person? If not, LEAVE, because often your first impression of the lawyer (and the lawyer’s first impression of you) is an important one. If you have “bad vibes” right from the beginning, you are probably better off with another attorney. On the other hand, if you like the attorney’s demeanor, that may be a great sign that this is the right attorney for YOU. This is probably the best way to find the attorney who is right for you.
I know this is an extremely long post but I feel that the selection of the right lawyer is one of the most important decisions you may ever make so I wanted you to have as much information as possible. Good luck and choose carefully!
Thanks for reading,
Jim Reed, NY and Pa Accident Lawyer