Legal proceedings in our nation, both civil and criminal, may be very complex. Outside of small claims court, which is designed to help people advocate for themselves without a lawyer, it can be very difficult for people navigate through the legal system without special training and experience. Even when judges are sympathetic to pro se litigants, those who are representing themselves, your effort to represent yourself may cause a signficant delay in the resolution of your case, and even small procedural errors may be very damaging to the outcome of your case. Most people who are involved in litigation can best protect their rights by hiring a lawyer.
Among the many ways to find a lawyer, you can request suggestions from friends and family members who have had similar legal problems. You may consult other professionals who you trust, including your doctor or accountant. You can search online, or check an online lawyer directory. But no matter where you look, keep in mind that although there are many ways to find a lawyer, none of them are guaranteed to help you find a good lawyer. Whatever you see, read or hear about a lawyer, your decision to hire a lawyer should be made carefully.
Seek a Referral from a Lawyer You Know
One good way to find a qualified lawyer is to consult a lawyer who you already know and trust. If you do not know any lawyers, you can ask your friends and family members for the names of lawyers who they trust. When seeking a referral it's not necessary that the lawyer you consult be able to handle your case. You are looking for a lawyer who is familiar with other lawyers within the legal community who may be qualified to assist you, or who may know of highly qualified lawyers for you to consider. Even if the lawyer to whom you are initially referred cannot take your case, that lawyer may know somebody who is both highly qualified and willing to represent you.
Attorney Referral Services
An attorney referral service attempts to match people who have legal problems with lawyers who offer services for those specific types of problem. Referral services come in two basic forms: Bar association referral services, and services operated by membership organizations that offer referrals to their member lawyers, and those that operate on a commercial basis and make referrals in exchange for a fee from the participating attorney. Many state and local bar associations offer referral services.
A bar association or lawyer organization's referral service may have eligibility criteria for participation, including a requirement that the attorney carry legal malpractice insurance for the areas of law for which the attorney has requested referrals. They may require a free or deeply discounted initial consultation, and often require that participating lawyers report back to the referral service with information about whether a consultation occurred and whether they were retained by the client. Beyond basic eligibility criteria, nonprofit attorney services are normally open to all of the members of a bar association or organization.
A for-profit referral service may impose requirements on lawyers, such as verification that they are members in good standing with a state bar association, but often the only criteria for participation is the attorney's willingness to pay a referral fee.
Although a referral service may be able to suggest an attorney who offers services relevant to your legal problem, you should work from the assumption that the referral service has not verified that person's claimed qualifications, and should investigate to verify any referred lawyer's experience and areas of practice.
Online Lawyer Directories
A significant number of websites offer online directories of lawyers. Some of those directories claim that they screen the listed lawyers, or that they list only highly qualified lawyers. Unfortunately, those claims can be misleading or even false. Regardless of any representations made, most online directories will list any directory who pays the listing fee, and will provide no guarantee that a participating lawyer is qualified to handle your case.
Lawyer Organizations and Associations
Some specialty organizations, such as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, offer attorney directories. Some organizations have high standards for admission or qualification, or are generally joined only by lawyers who are highly skilled and active within their area of practice. However, most legal organizations are open to all lawyers who pay a membership fee. Although membership in a specialized organization may indicate the lawyer's specialization and skill, you cannot assume from mere membership that the lawyer is skilled or experienced.
Commercial Lawyer Directories
Most commercial lawyer directories charge a fee in exchange for listing the lawyer in a directory. Some directories include large databases of lawyers, many of whom don't even realize that they are listed, and allow attorneys to purchase featured listings or advertisements so that they appear above the other listings. Even if the directory isn't charging for the listing, when you see a lawyer listed in a directory you should regard the listing and of any information provided about the lawyer as an advertisement.
A number of commercial on-line directories claim to screen the attorneys that they list, or claim that they include only highly qualified attorneys. Most are not being completely honest. Regardless of their promises, most on-line directories will list any attorney who pays the required fee, and there is absolutely no guarantee that the listed attorneys are qualified to handle your case.
Some sites offer lawyer ratings or rankings, but those ratings and numbers can be arbitrary and misleading.
A high rating may reflect that the lawyer has paid the company for an impressive ranking, or that the attorney has figured out how to game an algorithm.
A low rating may mean that an attorney has not registered with the site, paid membership fees, or posted material on the website.
One prominent legal website features a numerical rating system, ranking lawyers on a ten point scale, but if you go to a separate page and read the fine print you will find a declaration that the rating does not reflect a lawyer's knowledge or past performance. If you're asking, "What good is a rating that doesn't tell me if a lawyer, ranked 10 out of 10, is competent?", that's a fair question. The answer is, it has very little value: It's misleading and has the potential to cause you to hire an incompetent lawyer while passing over a competent lawyer.
Some legal directories include client reviews, but review sites may also be highly misleading. Some lawyer reviews are inflated by false reviews posted by the lawyer, or the lawyer's friends and family members. Sometimes multiple negative reviews are posted b a single disgruntled client. A negative review may also be left by a competitor of the lawyer. You should be suspicious of reviews in general, but particularly when a lawyer has significantly more reviews posted than most other lawyers on a website, or when those reviews are posted in a cluster over a short period of time, in a series of clusters, or when the lawyer seems to be getting new reviews on a regular schedule rather than at relatively random intervals.
Finding a Lawyer Through Internet Searches
When you search the Internet for a lawyer, the most prominent results that are returned are normally advertisements. Those advertisements may be for legal directories, attorney referral services, or for specific lawyers and law firms. While many good attorneys engage in online marketing, including through search engine advertisements and sponsored links, a lawyer's purchase of Internet advertising does not indicate that the lawyer provides quality legal services.
If you see a lawyer's webpage come up in response to a search, and when you click through to the site you find that it is full of well-written, useful information that demonstrates expertise in the field of law for which you need assistance, that is generally a sign that you've found a qualified attorney. You do need to exercise caution, as sometimes that great content is boilerplate material provided by a marketing company, or was written for the site by somebody other than the lawyers who work for the firm. On the other hand, if the content you find is cursory, is poorly written, or comes in the form of a sales pitch, the lawyer's search engine success does not provide any assurance that the attorney is skilled in that field of law.
Finding a Lawyer Through Billboards, TV or Radio Ads
Advertising through mass media and through billboards is expensive. The more prominent the advertisement, and the more frequently it runs, the greater the cost.
Many TV and radio ads for lawyers are for law firms that operate as referral services. Those firms work with a network of lawyers, some of whom may pay a fee to participate in the network, some of whom may pay to the network a percentage of any legal fees they earn from a referred client, and refer many or most of the potential clients who respond to the ads to lawyers who participate in their networks.
In most cases, law firms that run large media campaigns will not have an office near you. Unless your case is worth a great deal of money, you will likely find that you are quickly referred to a different lawyer. If your lawyer does not have an office near you, you may find that it is inconvenient to meet with your lawyer or that you have difficulty communicating with your lawyer about your case.
Finding a Lawyer Through the Yellow Pages
Although many businesses have stopped advertising in the Yellow Pages, due to the high cost and diminishing returns provided by Yellow Pages ads, some consumers still rely upon printed phone books to find businesses. Lawyers have traditionally been among the largest buyers of yellow pages advertisements. Before the rise of the Internet, the Yellow Pages were an unreliable means of finding a lawyer, and that issue has not improved.
If you look at lawyer ads in the Yellow Pages, among the largest and most expensive ads you will find two broad categories of advertisement:
Ads from local lawyers who have chosen to purchase large ads; and
Ads for attorneys and law firms from outside of the area, often from a lawyer or firm that also runs expensive television and billboard campaigns.
In many cases, the out-of-area lawyers operate referral services and will refer your case to a local lawyer for a percentage of the fee you pay to that lawyer.
The most expensive ads are purchased by personal injury law firms that hope to attract large numbers of clients through their prominent advertising. However, many of the best personal injury firms rely almost exclusively on referrals to bring in new cases, and some do little or no advertising at all, which means that they do not appear among those expensive Yellow Pages ads. Also, some of the advertisements are purchased by lawyers who want to make their practices seem better or more important than they actually are, and the only thing a lawyer has to do to obtain a larger advertisement is to pay a larger fee. Although a large Yellow Pages ad can provide some degree of assurance that a law firm is established, they do not provide any assurance that the lawyer running the advertisement is qualified to handle your case.
As litigation is expensive, many people find themselves unable to afford lawyers. When that occurs, possible sources of legal representation include:
Legal Aid Programs - Legal aid programs operate under the auspices of the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit organization that funds and monitors free civil legal aid programs throughout the United States, assisting people who have limited financial resources with legal issues. Legal aid programs usually focus on family law cases such as divorce and child custody, domestic violence cases and protective orders, housing cases and evictions, and cases involving eligibility for public assistance, including food assistance, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability benefits. Some offices may also assist with consumer law issues, bankruptcy, disability claims, and immigration law.
Law School Clinics - Most law schools have clinical law programs, through which law students represent clients under the supervision of practicing lawyers. Most clinics offer services in the same areas as legal aid programs, and similar eligibility rules. The services provided by a law school's clinics will vary by school, as will the eligibility requirements for assistance.
Low Cost Referrals - If a legal aid program or law school clinic is unable to assist you, sometimes the program will be able to provide a referral to a local lawyer who may accept your case at a reduced fee.
Legal Insurance Programs - Legal insurance programs offer a limited range of benefits and discounts on legal representation. Some insurance programs, such as those provided as employee benefits, may prove to be helpful in obtaining affordable legal services. Many of the programs sold directly to the public include a lot of restrictions on what legal fees and services are covered, and may offer little more than a discount or prove not to be helpful. Before you purchase a legal insurance policy you need to read the policy carefully to see what legal matters are included or excluded, what co-payments are required, and whether you are able to select your own lawyer or if you must work with one of theirs.
Private Legal Clinics - As a benefit of employment or membership, some larger employers and unions offer legal services programs to their employees through which lawyers employed by the legal plan provide advice and assistance to the employees and union members for common legal matters.
Pro Bono Representation - Many attorneys accept a small number of cases on a pro bono or "no fee" basis. Lawyers most often accept pro bono work when the case is of particular interest to the lawyer, and the issues involved in the case are significant to the public interest. Attorneys receive many requests for pro bono work, often several each day, and can at best take only a few of those cases.
When choosing a lawyer, you need to identify lawyers who have sufficient knowledge and skill to represent you in your specific legal matter. That may mean finding a lawyer who specializes in a relevant practice area. There are many specialties within the law, just as there are in medicine. Within the practice of law you will find:
General Practitioners - Some lawyers are general practitioners, and handle a wide variety of cases, usually within the categories of family law, criminal defense and simple estate planning.
Specialists - Many other lawyers are specialists who have developed particular knowledge and skill for a specific legal matters or specific types of litigation. Examples of legal specialties include bankruptcy, real estate, business law, contract law, consumer protection, immigration law, criminal defense, personal injury, intellectual property law, appeals, criminal defense, workers compensation, wills and estates, and family law.
Subspecialists - Some lawyers practice a narrow field of law within a specialty. For example, some criminal defense lawyers handle only drunk driving defense cases. Some personal injury lawyers handle only automobile accident cases. Some intellectual property lawyers handle only patent law matters.
Multiple Specialization - Some lawyers specialize in more than one practice area, or in an area of law that combines two practice areas. For example, many estate planning lawyers also practice tax law, particularly as it relates to real estate transactions, business succession planning, and estate and inheritance tax. Some criminal defense lawyers also practice immigration law, particularly in relation to removal proceedings that might be triggered by serious criminal charges.
The more specialized a legal case, and the greater the stakes for the parties or the more money that is potentially involved, the more important it becomes to find a lawyer who specializes in the areas of law most relevant to the case and its issues.