CHOOSING AN ATTORNEY
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN AN ATTORNEY
A GOOD REFERRAL
There are at least four good referral sources:
◾A personal friend or family member
◾The Bar Association
◾An acquaintance who previously hired the attorney and obtained good results
An experienced attorney is a Godsend. The reason is that with every new client, an attorney learns something about the law, people, the prosecutor, the judges or jurors. No amount of schooling can teach you that. An experienced trial attorney can predict outcomes and can answer your specific questions without spending time researching a lot of issues and costing you more money. The experienced attorney will analyze your case and go directly to the conclusion and not waste time and money going in unproductive directions or doing unproductive and irrelevant work.
Success is determined by the results and what it costs you to get those results. Most people do not have OJ Simpson money to buy a result. Therefore, you need to balance the cost against the result.
An experienced attorney should give you good results at a fair price.
You and your attorney should like each other. You should be able to talk with your attorney and feel that he or she is answering your questions. However, do not be put off by an attorney who is short and interrupts you in the initial free interview period as he or she might simply be trying to get you to provide the basic information so he can accurately estimate your chances of success, the direction you want to go, and the probable cost involved, all in 30 minutes time! That will be a challenge for both of you, so don’t waste your time and money telling irrelevant stories. The experienced attorney knows what is relevant.
Look for an attorney who has been practicing in the same location (county) and has a real office and not working out of his home or is borrowing space from another attorney. Would you want to hire a doctor or a dentist who is working out of his or her home?
You have the right to and should ask the attorney if he or she has malpractice coverage, and if so, in what amounts. I generally tell my clients that their hiring me is like buying insurance, in that if I malpractice the case, they have up to $600,000 in insurance to cover my mistake.
BAR ASSOCIATION DISCIPLINE RECORD
You want to go on line to the Washington State Bar Assn. to check out an attorney’s disciplinary record.
THE ATTORNEY/CLIENT CONTRACT
The Washington State Bar Association has adopted legal contracts and recommended them for use by all attorneys. They fully disclose the relationship your attorney is to have with you and if your attorney is not using the Bar Association forms, I would want to know why. You will probably not have an attorney review the contract on your behalf before signing it, so why not have a contract that has been blessed by the Bar Association and designed to protect you from unscrupulous attorneys?
If you are not asked to sign a contract with the law firm, something is wrong and you should not proceed with that attorney.
Attorneys in Washington are allowed to charge fees in one of three ways:
If you want to bring a legal action against another party, you might want to ask the attorney if he or she is willing to take the case on a contingency fee of 1/3 the recovery. If he or she says no, then you have a good indication about the value of your case. As explained below, the hourly rate an attorney charges should not be the basis for hiring the attorney, but the standard range in the Seattle is $200-$400 per hour.
Most personal injury cases are contingency cases and usually the attorney receives 1/3 of any recovery. This is a negotiable percentage. You can even have a sliding scale agreement, e.g., whereby the attorney receives 1/3 of the first $50,000 and then 25% of the next $50,000 and so on. You have the right to also find an attorney to agree to an hourly rate for a personal injury case.
Most criminal cases are handled on a flat fee basis. Some attorneys vary their fees and charge one price if the case does not go to trial and another price if the case goes to trial. Some attorneys also add an amount if they file motions and attend a hearing.
Most all attorneys have trust accounts and your initial retainer in an hourly case has to be placed in the trust account and cannot be disbursed until earned and billed to you. Some attorneys who only bill on a flat fee basis may not have a trust account. Generally speaking, make your retainer checks payable to the law firm’s trust account.
Most attorneys send out monthly billing statements, although there is no requirement that they do so. You may request a billing statement at any time. If you call the attorney to discuss your bill, you cannot be charged for the time it takes to discuss, negotiate or gain a complete understanding of the bill. When you receive a bill, review it immediately and do not hesitate to call and ask questions if you have them.
WHAT NOT TO LOOK FOR
COMMERCIALS AND ADVERTISING ARE NOT RELIABLE
Generally speaking, a good attorney does not need to advertise. He or she can easily succeed on referrals from past clients and his general reputation in the community. Advertising does bring clients and oftentimes so many that you may be really represented by an inexperienced associate in the firm.
FANCY OFFICES MEAN LITTLE OR NOTHING
Generally speaking, fancy offices on the 88th floor of a downtown building will not result in better results. If you ask yourself, “Who is paying for this”, and the answer is “You,” you may want to re-think your decision.
HOURLY RATES MEAN LITTLE OR NOTHING
Most people want to ask questions when they first speak with or “interview” an attorney. One of the first questions I get asked is, “What is your hourly rate?” My answer is “almost anything you want it to be.” After the client stares blankly at me for a few seconds, I explain that a client does not know how long it takes me to do anything. Letters, court documents, telephone conversations, e-mails, memos to the file, faxes, travel time, etc., are complete unknowns to most every client. Therefore, experience, honesty and the ability to go straight to the resolution of the case are the most important factors you should be looking for.
THE TOTAL “ASSHOLE” ATTORNEY
Do not look for the attorney who will get “revenge” on your opponent or their counsel. You do not want an attorney who will ignite areas of disagreement or throw fuel on the fires of disagreement. You DO want an attorney who will fight for your legal position, use leverage to get you good results, go to court when necessary, and be firm and always concerned about the expense versus the benefit of any action, with an eye towards the success vs. failure possibilities. You can win the battles but ultimately lose the war if your attorney ignores this approach.
MALE OR FEMALE ATTORNEYS
Many clients believe that they might want a female attorney in certain cases and a male attorney in other cases. My experience is that this is simply not true. Judges do not prefer one attorney over the other based on gender, race, creed, color or sexual preference. However, it is my opinion that Judges and Commissioners in King County do generally prefer wives over husbands in domestic matters. That is not quite so true in Snohomish County.
FORMER PROSECUTORS IN CRIMINAL CASES
It is my personal belief and experience that the fact that a criminal defense attorney once worked as a prosecutor is of no benefit to you as a defendant. Generally, the two are different breeds of cat, although some very good defense attorneys have made the switch from prosecutor to defense attorney. This factoid should be of no relevance to you in deciding who to hire to represent you in a criminal matter.
You should compare attorneys who you are considering to represent you. I have 37 years of experience, am hopefully compatible with you, have a stable practice in Bellevue, show no discipline on my WSBA record, use the WSBA approved contracts, bill at $250 per hour, have a trust account, send out regular billing statements, have insurance protection for you, and do not throw fuel on the litigation fire in order to increase fees and costs to my clients.
Take a little time to review the things that former clients have said about me and my representation of them in years past.