Finding a Good Lawyer in Unfamiliar Waters
Cases are sometimes won and lost based on the quality of the legal team. All lawyers are NOT equally skilled, competent or ethical. Therefore, consumers have a need to know how to find a good lawyer and how to avoid a bad one. The task is not always easy. Detailed below are a series of 'red flags' that can be identified:
A lawyer’s work habits are one of the strongest indicators of competence. The following habits may indicate it's time to find new legal representation.
- Unreturned phone calls - A lawyer who fails to return phone calls promptly, or at all, does not place a premium on client service. He may be too busy with other cases, uncertain with how to proceed with your case or ignoring your matter altogether.
- Unanswered emails – Like unanswered phone calls, unanswered emails can indicate that the lawyer is too busy, stressed or overwhelmed to handle your case, or is not making your matter a priority.
- Missed deadlines – Missing deadlines, especially court filing deadlines, can seriously damage your case. If a lawyer consistently misses deadlines, it is best to terminate the relationship and move on.
- Poor attitude – A lawyer who displays a condescending, uncommunicative, rude, impatient or otherwise poor attitude may be difficult to work with. A poor lawyer-client relationship may create conflict, tension, and ill-will.
- Lack of proper calendaring system – A reliable, organised calendaring system is critical to meeting deadlines and prioritising multiple obligations. A lack of a proper calendaring system can lead to missed deadlines and other disasters.
- A promise of a court victory or successful outcome – A lawyer should never promise a client a specific outcome, no matter how likely that outcome may be. Be wary of promises of a sure-fire victory.
- Refusal to provide references – A refusal to provide references or let you talk with past clients indicates that the lawyer had problems with past clients that he does not want you to know about.
A lawyer’s work premises, from the building exterior and location to the reception room, conference room and offices, can speak volumes about a lawyer’s work practices and clientele. Below are a few signs that all is not well.
- Office space in a state of disrepair – Office space or property in disrepair can signal financial problems on the part of the lawyer.
- Many empty offices – A high number of empty offices can signal significant employee turnover, too-rapid growth or financial problems.
- Unkempt, disorderly office – A messy, cluttered office is a red flag for disorganisation and inefficiency. Perhaps the lawyer thrives in chaos, but do you want to risk losing important paperwork or missing a deadline?
- Stacks of unfiled papers or unopened mail – A backlog of filing or unopened mail may indicate that the lawyer lacks proper support staff or is disorganised, unmotivated or overwhelmed.
A look at the lawyer’s staff members and their interaction with them can provide clues to effectiveness, competence, reliability, and ethics.
- Unhappy staff members – Disgruntled employees or low workplace morale can signal poor lawyer-staff communication, strained relationships and a lack of caring. A lawyer who treats staff poorly - through bullying, verbal abuse, rudeness and other behaviour - can fuel conflict, tension, and ill-will. If the lawyer fails to treat employees well, will they treat clients well?
- High turnover rate – High employee attrition can signal dissatisfaction with the law firm in general or the lawyer specifically. Committed and satisfied employees are more likely to remain with a firm, regardless of pay or benefits.
- Lack of staff - A lawyer who lacks adequate support staff may be difficult to work with or may be experiencing financial difficulties.
A lawyer’s billing practices can also raise red flags.
- Overbilling or excessive billing – Overbilling is a sign that a lawyer or paralegal is inflating the time it took to perform a task (known as “padding time”).
- Vague billing – Your legal bill should explain in detail the tasks performed, who is performing them and when. For example, a phone call should include information as to who made the call, what party they were calling, the nature of the matter and the duration of the call.
- Surcharge on legal expenses – Some law firms add a surcharge to routine expenses such as copying or postage fees as a way to boost profit levels. In most cases, such charges are inappropriate and unethical.
- Hidden expenses – Watch for hidden expenses that were not disclosed at the outset or in the fee agreement or retention agreement.