Most people can go their entire lives and have only minimal contact with the legal system. Generally, people do not know what to expect when they find themselves in a situation where they need a lawyer. It can be very difficult to evaluate or differentiate one lawyer from every other lawyer in your city. With that thought in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain some common issues that might not seem obvious about what to look when choosing a lawyer and a law firm.
Experience & Competency
Ideally, the lawyer you select should have a sufficient level of experience in the area of law relating to your legal issue. The Texas Rules of Professional Ethics state that a lawyer should not take on a client with an issue, which he or she cannot give competent representation.
However, many newer but extremely competent lawyers run into the problem of not having enough experience but they cannot gain experience without handling cases. As a prospective client, you should ask the lawyer what their experience level is and if they are comfortable handling your particular legal issue.
Many new lawyers are eager to prove their worth and will work diligently on your case so you should not be automatically dissuaded by the prospect of hiring a less experienced lawyer.
You should always ask a lawyer about their open cases and current clients. Some lawyers only take a few high-paying cases while others choose to take on several smaller fee cases. A lawyer should only take on a reasonable number of cases. There are only 24 hours in a day and most lawyers only work five days a week. If your lawyer has 100 open cases you should ask yourself “how much time is my lawyer really spending on my individual case?” In my personal experience, some law firms have even more open cases than that. I don’t do that and I never will. You’re a unique individual and your case is too.
Do not settle for a standard cookie-cutter plea deal.
You should also ask your prospective lawyer “who is actually going to be working on my case?” Some experienced lawyers and law firms will gladly meet with you in person, they will sign you up with their firm, and they will gladly take your money. Then those same lawyers may promise that they will be personally handling your case only to hand it off to a less-experienced associate attorney as soon as you leave the office.
You should be aware of this tactic and you should demand a clear answer. You don’t want to pay top dollar for a big-name law firm when a first-year lawyer is the person actually handling your case.
You should be able to establish clear and effective communication with your lawyer. Most lawyers have legal assistants and secretaries specifically for the purpose of putting up a barrier between themselves and the client. Shockingly, many lawyers view what they term “client control” as one of the worst parts of the job. You should be able to have reliable and respectful communication with your lawyer as long as you call during regular business hours.
In the American legal system, trials are very rare. Approximately 97% of all criminal cases are resolved by a plea bargain, even more so in the Federal system. Prosecutors do not want to take most cases to trial. They have too many cases to handle and they don’t want to waste time on cases they might lose.
If a prosecutor is going to trial, they want it to be a slam dunk case they know they can win.
I cannot tell you how many times I have set a case for trial only to be offered a plea bargain on the morning of trial that is too good for my client to pass up. Trials are high risk, high reward situations. They are also the pinnacle of the legal profession. Trials combine oral advocacy, knowledge of case law, the rules of evidence and procedure, and personality.
Every lawyer can negotiate a case, but only a few can take your case to trial and win. It is the client’s decision to go to trial – a lawyer can only do a few things: counsel the client on the risks involved with trial, and prepare.
Some lawyers secretly know that they are not capable at trial so they try to convince their clients to accept a plea rather than reveal their lack of trial experience. Some lawyers go even further and hire other lawyers to try the case because they know they are incapable. Imagine showing up on the morning of trial and your lawyer introduces you to another lawyer and explains that this person you didn’t hire and have never met is now going to be trying your case! If it were me, I’d feel furious, deceived, and cheated! As a prospective client, you should always ask your lawyer about their trial experience and their views on trying cases.
Now, some clients may think “why should I care about trials if my lawyer can negotiate my case and avoid a trial altogether?” I’ll tell you why – because a lawyer who is prepared to hold the line and fight in the courtroom is a more credible threat than a lawyer who will fold when negotiations break down! Not every case can be negotiated, especially not serious felonies involving violence and/or sex offenses. A prosecutor approaches your case differently when they know that your attorney is not afraid to fight.