For most people, choosing a lawyer is not something they will have the time or resources to do thoroughly, in the way one might approach buying a new car. It is usually a decision necessary because of an unpleasant event in life—a spouse who has announced the desire for a divorce, a serious accident, or an arrest. They must act as soon as possible to limit financial and emotional harm.
Unless you are fortunate enough to have a lawyer in the family whose advice you trust, how do you choose among thousands of lawyers, many of whom are promoting themselves on billboards?
The face of the New Hampshire bar is far different from when I started practicing, and light years away from that which my father entered after law school. In my office is a poster from 1958, which includes the photograph of every lawyer in the New Hampshire bar, the year my father started practicing. There are 243 lawyers in all, and only one of them was female.
I never asked my father if his law school, the University of Michigan, admitted women, or if there were any women in his class, but, I also never heard him speak of any. In contrast, when I graduated law school in 1981, half of my University of Pennsylvania class was female, and several of us aspired to be trial lawyers. But the New Hampshire bar was still small—my bar number is 1880, meaning only 1879 lawyers had been admitted before me.
Two things happened which have exponentially increased the number of lawyers practicing in this state. The Franklin Pierce law school (now UNH Law) was founded, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court decided out-of-state lawyers who had passed the bar exam in their own state did not have to take the New Hampshire exam (a two-day rite of passage for the rest of us). As a result, our ranks have swelled with Massachusetts lawyers, as well as UNH Law graduates who stay in New Hampshire.
The other dramatic change in the legal landscape was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that restrictions on lawyer advertising violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Hence, the appearance of billboards and television ads. But, is the lawyer who spends the most on advertisements, claiming to have recovered millions of dollars for his clients or to be tough on insurance companies, going to be the best for your needs?
Here are a few thoughts on selecting legal representation. First, make sure the lawyer has experience with the type of problem you have. Few lawyers these days are generalists. When my father started practicing, most lawyers did a little bit of everything, from wills to closing on real estate deals to handling divorces to defending DWI cases or trying accident cases; many lawyers were good in all these areas. But today, even a very good lawyer cannot excel in many different practice areas, as the law has simply become too complex. But, a good lawyer should be willing to tell you the names of lawyers who specialize in your area of concern, so begin with the advice of lawyers you already know and respect.
Once you have found a lawyer who knows the area of your legal matter, find out if they themselves are willing to offer a free consultation in person before committing. Do they talk to you in language you can understand, and clearly spell out their fees, and for what, exactly? Many people want guarantees (will you be able to win my case? How much money can you get me?), but a good lawyer knows that these questions are impossible to answer at the outset, so if the lawyer you consult makes promises, it should raise a red flag.
In the field of personal injury, for example, the two most important elements are whose fault caused the injury (liability), and, the type and extent of the injury (damages). Determination of these depend on investigations of facts, including witnesses, weather, accident scene, medical treatment and the patient’s response to it, all of which take time for your lawyer to fully discover.
Ultimately, every area of the law involves the human element—how a witness responds to the lawyer’s questions, or an insurance adjuster, a jury, or a judge. Or, in a corporate matter, the other party to a negotiation? A good lawyer appreciates that, and tries to understand the other people involved in a matter, where they are coming from, and how to use this to their client’s advantage.
The New Hampshire Bar Association Board of Governors interviews the Governor’s nominees for judge. The eight guidelines that are used in evaluating nominees also define the qualities of a good lawyer. They are:
2. Legal Knowledge and Ability. 3. Professional Experience.
4. Judicial Temperament.
7. Financial Responsibility.
8. Public Service.
I do not claim to be the best lawyer, or even to have always lived up to these guidelines, but I have been lucky to have had good clients—ones who accepted my faults, trusted that I was trying to get the best result for them, and followed my advice. And, ultimately, a good client makes a good lawyer, and getting a just-and-fair result for a client is the greatest reward of being a lawyer.