Not all lawyers are created equally. Attorneys come in all different varieties, with highly variable skill sets, subject matters of expertise, personalities, and communication styles. The best lawyer for you will be someone that is highly competent in the relevant practice area – whether that be criminal defense, DUI, personal injury, or civil litigation – as well as someone that educates you through consistent, clear communication every step of the way. The best attorneys will optimize the outcome of your case while also providing peace of mind throughout the lifecycle of your legal matter.
It can be difficult for non-lawyers to evaluate attorneys, just like a lawyer might not be the best person to ask when evaluating a plumber's skills. Not to worry; there are objective criteria that can be relied upon as indicators of quality or ability. These objective factors cannot be impersonated, embellished, or marketed in a specific light, as they are just that – objective.
The first area of objective factors to examine when selecting a lawyer is educational pedigree. Admission to the very best law schools mandates navigating an extraordinarily competitive process as these colleges and universities screen for the best and brightest. While not a perfect solution, you can use educational background as a shortcut when evaluating intellectual ability and academic work ethic, which are both important attributes of any high-level attorney.
In addition to evaluating your lawyer's academic background, you may also want to inquire about the attorney's work experience or lack thereof. You cannot fake the number of years that have passed since you were admitted by the State Bar of California to practice law. You either have 15 plus years of experience as a practicing lawyer or you don't.
Finally, you can take it a step further and scrutinize the quality of those years of experience. For example, if you were looking to retain the best criminal defense lawyer, you might find it more desirable to engage an attorney that spent a portion of their career as a Deputy District Attorney as opposed to one who worked exclusively in a personal injury law firm handling car accident cases.
While objective factors such as experience and educational pedigree are important, you will also want to find a lawyer that is compatible with your own personality and communication style. It does not matter how brilliant your lawyer might be if you do not understand his explanations of your case status and strategy moving forward. Even worse, what if your attorney fails to clearly and consistently communicate with you? This means, you would be left in the dark throughout most of the process and would likely be unable to effectively contribute to your own cause. The best lawyers will make themselves available to you via both phone and email for reasonable communication pertaining to material developments in your case.
Attorney–client privilege is absolute. This means that whatever you tell your lawyer stays within the confines of your lawyer's office. While you are free to share communication with your attorney with anyone you choose, your lawyer (and the lawyer's office staff) are not permitted to share or publicize anything you say within the parameters of the attorney–client relationship, unless you furnish express permission to do so. It's vital to feel comfortable and confident being open and honest with your lawyer so that he may best evaluate your needs and tailor your legal strategy accordingly.
If you look at older or more traditional lawyer stationary, you might find legal practitioners describing themselves as both “Attorney and Counselor at Law.” The legal profession has roots not only in advocacy but also in counseling. While zealous representation is often desirable, it is essentially meaningless if the attorney does not take a thoughtful, holistic approach as to what the actual client's needs are in the context of the law.
The best lawyers will be able to craft creative solutions to complex problems within the context of the client's life goals as opposed to amassing hollow (and sometimes expensive) legal victories. An example might be a criminal defense lawyer who takes the time and effort to truly grasp mental health or addiction issues to ensure that any case resolution both optimizes the near-term result and sets the client up for success over the long-term. Oftentimes, committing crime is a symptom, not the cause, of something more. By crafting and endorsing a probationary plan that considers treatment, social support, education, and incentives that all align with the client's long-term objective of leading a productive life, the thoughtful lawyer aims to be the last attorney the client will ever need.
Lawyers are generally compensated either by payment for time spent on the case (hourly rate), by flat-fee for a specific scope of professional service, or on contingency, by taking a portion of any monetary recovery for services rendered. While you may be able to request a specific attorney fee arrangement, there are customary norms that depend upon the legal practice area.
Criminal lawyers are generally compensated through flat-fee arrangements, which generally include all reasonably necessary legal services. The exception is a jury trial, which often requires a separate retainer agreement with distinct consideration (payment). While most criminal attorneys require that their retainer fee be furnished upfront before beginning work on your case, some criminal lawyers might be willing to offer installment payment plans, depending on your unique circumstances. If cost is a concern, it might be worth asking your criminal defense attorney if payment arrangements might be a viable option for you.
Civil litigators (lawyers that help with lawsuits over money) and transactional attorneys (business lawyers) are often compensated by the hour. This means they often require that you furnish funds upfront, which they deposit into their client trust account (known as an IOLTA) and draw against these funds held in trust, similar to a security deposit. These attorneys that work by the hour often bill in six-minute increments, meaning that every six minutes, or a portion thereof, constitutes “.1,” or a charge for one-tenth of their hourly rate. For example, a lawyer billing at $400/hour would charge $40 for each “.1” denoted on the timesheet.
Personal injury lawyers, investor protection lawyers, class action attorneys, and other plaintiff or consumer protection-oriented attorneys most often charge contingent fees. For example, if an attorney recovers $100,000 for the client and is on a 35% contingency arrangement, the lawyer would take $35,000 as his fee and the client would take the remaining $65,000 (ignoring any calculation concerning reimbursement of case expenses). The advantage of a contingency agreement is that it allows persons that may not normally be able to afford legal counsel to gain access to justice. While this might sound appealing, there are certain areas of the law where this kind of arrangement is prohibited. For example, criminal defense and DUI defense lawyers are not permitted to offer their services on a contingent basis.
Cost is what you pay, and value is what you get.
There are many attorneys that charge relatively lower fees; however, they provide disproportionately less value, so hiring these “cheap” lawyers is often a poor choice. This does not mean that higher-priced lawyers automatically constitute a better investment. Rather, it is the combination of what the lawyer charges in the context of his training, experience, temperament, and judgment. Once you have determined that your attorney is the right fit for you and your case, you want to ensure that you are charged a fee that is fair to both you and the attorney. The wheels of justice often turn slowly, which means your attorney–client relationship can endure for months or even years. With time as his only asset, you want to ensure that your attorney is adequately incentivized and that your interests are aligned to the maximum extent possible.
At the Aron Law Firm, we view each and every client as a unique individual and we tailor our representation, accordingly. We take a thoughtful approach in all we do and would appreciate any opportunity to discuss your needs in confidence and without obligation. Call us at (805) 618-1768 or contact us online.
The Aron Law Firm is led by Attorney William M. Aron, a former prosecutor and graduate of the Duke University School of Law. Clients have entrusted Attorney Aron with their legal matters – big or small – since 2004.