Ever since I closed my law firm to go on a long and ongoing sabbatical, people are asking me if I can recommend a lawyer to them. I usually can’t. But I will give you the 10 ultimate guidelines for finding a good lawyer.
He will take time and ask questions.
Lawyers are different from dentists. At the dentist, you want to leave as soon as possible. A good lawyer on the other hand can be recognized by taking time. If a lawyer sends you away after 10 minutes and tells you “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of that.”, something is fishy.
The best way to test the quality of a lawyer is to see how many questions he asks you instead of the other way round. If a lawyer doesn’t ask you any questions about your background, about the facts of the case, about your strategy, about your relationship to opposing or third parties, about your long-term business goals, about your financial limits in pursuing the case and so on, how can he possibly advise and help you? The less questions a lawyer asks, the more he will treat you like a run-of-the-mill standard case. But you aren’t. – Even worse, if he doesn’t ask any questions, he probably doesn’t know what to look for.
When I spoke with my clients, I was often the only one asking questions for the first hour of the appointment before they could voice their first question. But because I was explaining why I asked certain questions, many of the client’s questions were answered in the process.
Should I opt for a young or an old lawyer?
That’s a difficult one and very hard to generalize.
You would expect the older lawyer to have more experience which accounts for something. Speaking about experience, there is no reason why you shouldn’t expect your lawyer to post his CV and a list of his court cases that got published in law reviews.
On the other hand, I have seen it quite often that lawyers stop studying once they pass the bar exam. They don’t read law reviews, let alone legal books, any more and they may not even follow changes in legislation. When I was a young lawyer, it happened to me a few times that I was up against and old-timer who quoted laws that were no longer in effect.
To a point, this is even understandable. New laws get passed every day, new books and articles get published every day. Only a law student can keep up with that. Nobody who has to run a law firm can possibly find the time.
Because of this, I’d take up the cudgels for younger lawyers. They are often at the peak of academic legal knowledge, they will be more dedicated and they will probably have more time to devote to your specific case. They may not know certain tricks, but if they are smart, they will learn them quickly. Law is a research-based profession and somebody who is fresh out of university is usually better at this than a 60-year old who last went to university when a typewriter was a modern invention.
specialist versus general practitioner
I love the idea of a general practitioner who will take the time to get to the depth of any legal problem that you may have. But I am afraid that’s no longer possible. Law is becoming ever more complex, especially in the EU member states where European law is often more relevant these days than domestic law. Add international conventions, jurisprudence, changes in legislation, pending challenges before the Supreme Court and so on, and a lawyer will sometimes struggle to keep abreast in one area of the law. Nowadays, you are probably better off with a specialist in most cases.
I do however think that it is possible to be a specialist in one, two or three areas of the law. It is actually vital that a lawyer understands more than one area of the law because cases often touch on two or more different fields. An example: I mainly dealt with international family law and I was constantly shocked to find out that other lawyers advised foreign clients about how to get a divorce in Germany without ever once mentioning what effects this divorce would have on their immigration status. These lawyers would profess to be family law specialists and guide the client through the divorce, only for the client to face deportation subsequently because he or she was no longer married to a German spouse. This goes back to the first point. If your lawyers asks about all of these aspects himself without being prompted, you are in good hands.
small firm versus large firm
That’s easy: go for the small firm.
Large firms are like bureaucracies with frequent turnover of attorneys and other staff. You’ll just be a number, not a person. And you will pay for their office tower, their corporate jet, their PR brochures and their golf club membership. Waste of money.
You’ll be stuck with your lawyer for a long time, so pick him carefully. If you don’t like his personality, if you think you couldn’t get along, choose somebody else. There are hundreds of thousands of lawyers, it won’t be hard to find another one.
Also, imagine your lawyer in court or in a negotiation. I was always amazed how many shy and rhetorically challenged people work as lawyers. They were all probably hoping for a government job, but didn’t get one. You want somebody who will stand up for you in court, who will speak clearly and convincingly and who has an appearance that will allow him to be taken seriously. (I’ll probably have to get rid of my beard when I return to practice law.)
If a lawyers posts FAQ on his website for free, you can already see if he is somehow competent and if what you read is in line with what you would expect. Also, this shows that this guy is more interested in helping you than in charging you for answering the most basic questions which he could answer if awoken at 4 a.m.
strategic (non-legal) advice
A lawyer is only good if he is willing to stop thinking as a lawyer from time to time.
If a lawyer tells you “This is illegal” without telling you a way around it, he is no good. If he tells you “You are obligated to turn over this piece of evidence to the other side” instead of asking “Does anybody else know about this document?”, he is no good.
In my philosophy, I am on my client’s side, not on the side of some weird concept of objective justice.
The lawyer must have a broad education.
If a lawyer only ever read law books and nothing else, don’t even consider him. A good lawyer, like every professional, needs a broad education that includes current affairs, history, economics, philosophy, languages.
To me, this educational background was especially helpful in immigration and asylum cases. I had been to many of the Middle-Eastern countries where my clients came from. This helped me both to understand their stories and also to verify if they were telling the truth. I remember how I once had a Palestinian asylum seeker in my office who was telling the wildest stories about life in the West Bank. He was stunned when I could tell him that I had just been to the West Bank the month before and that it was nothing like he described it.
male or female lawyers?
Especially in family law, there is some prejudice among clients that men are better lawyers for men and female lawyers are better lawyers for women.
In my experience, I could never detect any correlation like that. Quite the contrary, especially from a lawyer’s perspective, I think it’s important to have gained experience representing different clients regarding gender, social status, nationality, etc. If a lawyer voluntarily limits himself or herself to a small subsection of the population, I would see that as a warning sign.
Finally, a lawyer’s website is a good indicator. If somebody has been awarded the domain
for example, you can assume that he really is a hot shot.
Now good luck with your search!
Because I studied and practised in Germany (although mainly in international law), these tips may have less value in other jurisdictions. If you are a lawyer from anywhere around the world, let us know your advice!