Selecting a Lawyer in the Internet Age

I have just returned from 3 days of mandatory continuing legal education. Among the topics was a lecture on how to ethically market your legal practice. Needless to say, there was a heavy dose of advice regarding the internet. The speaker told us the public no longer relied on the yellow pages and that television advertising was a waste of time and money unless you were willing to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars. None of this was news to me, but I was surprised to learn the degree to which the public was relying upon the internet and the lengths to which lawyers will go to manipulate their internet presence. 

At the seminar we learned the importance of compatibility with mobile devices, positive client reviews, "friendliness" of a website, use of social media, manipulation of search engine algorithms through the strategic use of words, phrases, content, and video, and much much more. After all was said and done, I was still wondering whether the unsophisticated consumer of legal services is actually helped by all of this or just lured into a relationship by fancy marketing. 

Even the finest of lawyers must have clients. Therefore, in this hypercompetitive world, some marketing is necessary. But, I am put off by marketing schemes that are blatant appeals to greed and those that take advantage of ignorance.  In an ideal world, lawyer advertising would be helpful rather than a trap for the unwary.

I recently needed to hire a lawyer in Iowa to assist me in a major case. I had never practiced in that state, knew no one in that area, and was not influenced by public advertising. In other words, I had to start my search from the same position as most people, but I had the advantage of over 40 years of legal experience. My search began with professional legal directories which are available online. I read the listings (advertisements) for lawyers practicing in that area of Iowa paying particular attention to each lawyer's field of practice and length of experience. I also looked at how the lawyers were rated by their peers. This search was not enough to form the basis of a decision. We then examined the internet and I read more of what the lawyers were saying about themselves and their practices. This was somewhat helpful, but it was mostly self-serving information and not at all objective. 

Next, I decided to call mediators in that area reasoning that they would know who was the best because they deal with the lawyers of that area all the time. This was very helpful. Through these contacts I was able to get honest opinions and identify additional references that I also called. A list of names began to take shape.

Armed with my list, I set up interviews with all of the candidates in their offices. The interviews were very enlightening, both positively and negatively. There were many surprises. After 2 days of interviews, I found the lawyer that met the qualifications I had in mind and I haven't been disappointed. The lawyer I hired was not the lawyer I would have hired had I based my decision solely upon the internet and lawyer advertising. My best estimate is that the total process required at least 40 hours. 

I am not suggesting that the selection of a lawyer requires 40 hours. I am suggesting that the process demands research and a personal interview of the lawyer who will represent you. Without the personal interaction that can be derived only from an interview, you cannot form the relationship of confidence, trust and understanding that you deserve.

My opinion is that lawyer advertising is highly deceptive. Some of it is intended to lead you to believe that the lawyer can and will get you an extraordinary financial result with little or no effort on your part. It is almost like listening to a gameshow host encouraging the audience to “Come on Down!” Others use a much more serious tone and try to convince you of their special competence or experience. Another approach is an appeal to the desire for revenge thinly veiled as a call for justice. Obviously, there are endless variations on these themes and all of them are intended to strike an emotional chord within you that is sufficiently strong to motivate you to pick up the phone. Before you pick up the phone and before you make a final decision, please consider this advice.

1)      Do your research. Consult legal directories that are available online. The most widely used by lawyers is Martindale Hubbell. Martindale Hubbell rates lawyers by surveying their peers. The lawyers are rated by ability (A, B or C) and reputation for ethical conduct (either V for ethical or no rating for questionable ethics). A lawyer with excellent legal ability that is regarded as ethical will be rated “AV.” Ask your friends. Ask your banker or a respected businessman who is familiar with local lawyers. If you know a local lawyer who practices in another field, ask that lawyer. If you know someone who has used the lawyer you are considering, ask that person about their experience.

2)      In Texas, lawyers have the opportunity to become board certified as a specialist in a particular field of law. To be board certified a lawyer must meet certain minimal criteria in the field. The significance of board certification has dwindled over the years, but it is still important. For example, you would not want to hire a real estate lawyer to handle your personal injury case.

3)      You should look at the internet, but be very careful of anything that is not factual and objective. You can trust a website to tell you age, length of practice, board certification as a specialist, educational background and membership in professional organizations. Almost everything else is subjective and has probably been exaggerated to have maximum eye appeal to non-lawyers. For example, there are now many organizations which sell the opportunity to join and use their name in advertising. Some of these organizations simply charge a fee while others require a “nomination”, which makes it necessary for a lawyer to have a friend nominate him for membership. My point is that these memberships are worthless and meaningless. In the same vein are designations such as “Who’s Who”, “Super Lawyer”,
 and “Best of (fill in the blank)”.

4)      Use common sense when reading reviews and testimonials. Some are legitimate and others are not. Safeguards are easily avoided by those who want to create a false impression.  Just as when reading reviews for any product or service, remember that they are the opinions of only one person who has chosen to post a review.  Read them to be sure that the post is sensible while remembering that any review might be more reflective of the person who is writing rather than the product or service being reviewed.

5)      After gathering the objective facts, make a list of candidates.

6)      Schedule personal interviews with your candidates. If you are unable to arrange for a personal interview with one of your candidates, scratch that name off of your list. If a lawyer cannot make the time to see you, he or she doesn’t have time for your case or enough interest in you to do a good job. NEVER sign a contract of employment with a lawyer you haven’t met in person and with whom you have discussed your case in detail.

7)      Beware of lawyers who make promises or paint a rosy picture. Honest lawyers don’t make promises about how a case will turn out. All an honest lawyer can promise is that he or she will make their best effort. Due to the pressure of competition for clients, lawyers will too often lead prospective clients to believe that they have a very strong case and that the case has a much higher value than it realistically has. These lawyers are saying what they think the client wants to hear in order to encourage the client to sign a contract rather than acquainting the client with the true strengths and weaknesses of the case. This type of lawyer will say almost anything to entice the client into signing a contract and worry about how to deal with the disappointed and angry client when the case is over.

8)      During  the personal interview, find out who will be working on your case and meet those persons. There are many firms who allow non-lawyers to do all of the work and have all of the client contact. If you don’t want this type of relationship with your lawyer, you should say so at the very beginning.

9)      Go over the contract of employment in detail. While most lawyers will say their contract is “standard” (implying that all contracts are the same), the truth is that there is no standard contract and that terms, particularly those involving costs, vary from lawyer to lawyer.

10)   Feel free to ask any and every question that you have regarding your case. After all, it is your case. No good lawyer will resent your questions or talk down to you. Good lawyers want to get to know you, want you to know the strengths and weaknesses of your case, learn your expectations, acquaint you with what is realistically attainable, establish mutually beneficial personal rapport, introduce you to the staff, explain the process, etc. Nothing should be a surprise to you after you leave the office.

My personal experience as a lawyer and a client leads me to conclude that the internet is nothing more than a useful tool. It allows you to become superficially acquainted with lawyers before you meet them, but it will only provide you with the knowledge they want you to know and create the impressions they want you to have. The internet will never replace the need to interview a prospective lawyer. A meaningful lawyer/client relationship is intensely personal. When you find the right lawyer, you will know it.