Thursday, March 1, 2012

Choosing an Attorney- Avoid Hiring a Lemon

By Kristen Doleva-Lecher, Esq.
Wolf, Baldwin & Associates, P.C.

The average time an individual spends researching cars prior to making a purchase is approximately 30 hours, with around 60% of that time, over 18 hours, spent on internet research.1 This statistic should not be surprising given that a car is a huge financial investment, on which we all rely for safety, transportation and functionality. Similarly, retaining an attorney for serious litigation can be a significant financial investment. A client will rely on the attorney’s knowledge and expertise, courtroom savvy, and negotiation skills. A certain level of trust goes along with the type of car you choose; that trust should be even deeper in the attorney you select. That being said, why is the time spent in choosing an attorney significantly less that that of a car purchase? Listed below are some suggestions as to how a more diligent search can and should be conducted prior to selecting your attorney.
Clients often find me on the internet. However, not one client has told me that he spent anywhere close to 18 hours searching. The internet is a terrific research tool for both cars and attorneys. There are several reputable sites regarding attorneys: Martindale Hubbell (lawyers.com), Avvo.com and Findlaw.com to name a few. These internet sites go into detail as to an attorney’s practice areas, education, years of experience, published works, seminars given, and more. Some of the web sites also have client reviews for the attorneys.
When an individual begins her car search, she has certain features she desires for her car. Some people need all wheel drive, or a convertible, or are looking for low gas mileage. Not all cars match every person since each individual has specific needs. The same holds true for an attorney – lawyers are not one model fits all. Some things to consider: if you are the type of person who is seeking a newer car with newer technology, think Bluetooth, SiriusXM, backup cameras; perhaps you will be looking for attorney who is more facile with technology. Some law firms are more progressive than others in use of technology. Is your attorney able to scan and email documents quickly, will he or she respond to email as a means of communication, does he or she accept text messages from clients? Some law firms will email invoices to cut down on paper usage and even offer payment through the internet on their web site via credit card.
Another example might be if you are in the market for a hybrid SUV with navigation and a DVD player; you may be looking for one vehicle that encompasses many functions. Similarly, do you need an attorney for one particular legal discipline, such as divorce, or do you own a business and have several issues for which you may need legal assistance? There are many attorneys identify themselves as “general practitioners” whose knowledge spans several different areas of law. A general practitioner can likely help you with a divorce as well as draft your Will. This is certainly not uncommon. However, another approach is to choose a law firm where you can take advantage of the knowledge of multiple attorneys who concentrate in each area in which you need assistance. This is an intensely personal choice as to whether you feel more comfortable working with one attorney who is familiar with you versus “switching” attorneys within the firm to ensure a specialist in each area.
This raises another issue to consider. We’ve all heard about bait-and-switch techniques in which you select a car and when you arrive at the dealership to complete the paperwork, a different car is waiting for you. Some law firms engage in bait-and-switch techniques as well. When interviewing a potential attorney, inquire as to whether that person will be handling your case or will an associate be doing some of the work. Who will return your phone calls, write the necessary documents, or go to court with you? The answer will vary depending upon the firm. It is not uncommon, especially in larger firms, for a client’s work to be performed by associates or paralegals. This is not to say that such policies do not result in certain efficiencies and potential costs savings for the client, but if you are concerned about who will be doing your work you should ask up front about the firm’s policies as to delegation of work.
Inherent in the purchase of a car is a lot of paperwork, such as a contract, the title transfer, loan documents, and warranty information. When you retain an attorney there is a contract created as well. Attorneys in Pennsylvania are required by the Rules of Professional Responsibility to enter into a “fee agreement” with each and every client. Fee agreements vary from attorney to attorney but they should be clear regarding the scope of the attorney’s work, and how the fees are to be billed (typically hourly, contingent, or flat fee). Fees can vary widely depending on the time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, and the skill requisite to perform the legal service properly, as well as the local market and the experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer or lawyers performing the services.
The final step in purchasing a car is the test drive. Unfortunately you can’t really “test drive” an attorney but you can take the opportunity to meet him or her through a consultation and ask the types of questions raised in this article. Clients meeting with attorneys for the first time are often shy, and this is understandable given that many people do not meeting with attorneys frequently. However, this is your opportunity to ask questions. As I tell potential clients, I should be the one feeling like I’m being interviewed because that is exactly what should be occurring. Attorneys work for clients and yes, and they should have to “sell” themselves. Take that first meeting as an opportunity to ask as many questions as you like. In my own consultations with clients, I take it upon myself to give a brief run down on my experience, my practice philosophy, and how I try to handle my interactions with the client and opposing attorneys. That first meeting is as much about your case as it is about whether that attorney is right for you. While you are deciding whether the attorney is right for you, the attorney is doing the same thing. As your attorney I want to believe in you, trust you and be able to provide you with the best representation possible. If I feel for whatever reason I am not able to do that, then I might not be the lawyer for you.
I hope that potential clients will spend more time choosing their attorneys, which will in turn mean more experienced, ethical attorneys will be retained. Most attorneys I know work very hard for their clients and have great relationships with those clients. Unfortunately just like there are cars that have a reputation as lemons there are “lemons” in the legal profession too. Unscrupulous attorneys, while few and far between, are those that give our noble profession a bad name. Spend a little more time choosing an attorney – it will be worth it to you, and will squeeze the lemons out of the business of law.
Kristen Doleva-Lecher, Esquire is an attorney in the law firm of Wolf, Baldwin and Associates, P.C., which has offices in Pottstown, Reading, and West Chester. She is a certified mediator and practices in the areas of family law and business representation. She may be reached by telephone at 610-374-2400 or by e-mail at kdoleva@wolfbaldwin.com.
1 Helen Leggatt, Car buyers spend majority of shopping time online, February 7, 2011, http://www.bizreport.com/2011/02/car-buyers-spend-majority-of-shopping-time-online.html

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