How To Find a Good Lawyer
The single biggest request I get in emails from this web site is to help people find a lawyer in their city and state who actually listens, who actually cares, who actually explains things. This article will give you some insight about how to find a good lawyer who does those things. It will tell you what you should look for when you shop for a lawyer, or when you get a new one because yours is a dud. It won't be pretty.
Why Won't Lawyers Listen or Explain Things?
I can't understand this at all: Lawyers all too often don't listen or explain things. Their main skill is supposedly communication, and yet they frequently can't be bothered to communicate with their own clients about many key things. This is the problem with lawyers which I hear the most, sometimes several times a day.
Many clients don't even know what their own case is about, because their lawyer never bothered to tell them. They don't know the strategy the lawyer is going to use to win the case. They don't know what is going on in court and why. They don't know what the lawyer is doing day to day on their case.
It is wrong and unethical for a lawyer to withhold this simple and important information from a client, per Rule 1.4 of the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct (and all other state rules as well). These family, juvenile and restraining order cases involve critical things: the fate of children, or money, or a home, or reputation, or liberty, or critical rights, or even jail.
So what is the answer? Why do lawyers refuse to explain things? My belief is that it is: LACK OF EMPATHY, meaning that the lawyer can't feel your pain or care about it, or see things from your point of view. If you have one who acts like that, it is time to get a new one.
You may be either at the beginning of your case and don't have a lawyer yet, or in the middle of a case, and know that you need a new lawyer. So, we'll cover all the various options.
What Do You Look For in Any Lawyer?
A good trial lawyer has a whole basket of skills, many of which have nothing to do with court. Believe it or not, most lawyers don't try cases any more. Trial lawyer skills are becoming rarer, because most cases now settle, rather than go to trial.
What is the perfect combination of traits for a successful trial lawyer? No one will have them all, but will have them in various combinations, with certain ones stronger and others weaker.
Here is a reasonable starting point:
Is Your Lawyer Yukking It Up With the Enemy?
Have you seen your lawyer yakking and laughing with the opposing lawyer, or the DCF persecutor and social workers like they are best buddies? Next to the failure to communicate, this is the complaint I hear most often in child protection cases.
There you are, suffering bottomless pain because your whole life is being destroyed before your eyes in a divorce, or the DCF has kidnapped your child, and your lawyer is yukking it up with the enemy. You are tortured by the worst heartbreak of your life, and the lawyer seems like he or she is not concerned at all about what you are going through.
It looks as if the lawyer is more on THEIR side, not yours.
What gives? Again, I think it is a lack of empathy; A lawyer who is clueless about your feelings and how you are suffering the loss of your child, and how the horrible indignity of the system affects you, since it clearly doesn't care about you or your children.
Other than that major personality fault of lack of empathy, here is why this happens: Many lawyers who work in the family law area in the family or juvenile courts are insulated from the real world of law. They are in a cocoon, and don't understand how law is actually practiced outside of it, and don't understand the feelings of people who are not part of their world.
Their world is fine in that court. Their families are not being ruined, they are not losing everything, their children are not being kidnapped. They are making money and having a fun time. The people they see every day in court, such as the lawyers and social workers, are their world, their buddies.
In a word, they have lost touch with normalcy, and with how the system really looks to you as an outsider: Corrupt, inept, tyrannical, unjust, and uncaring. It doesn't look that way to the lawyer because the lawyer thinks it is normal. You, however, see the reality.
If you have a lawyer who shows a lack of empathy, doesn't listen or explain, and thinks that DCF people and the court are OK rather than monsters, then it's time for a new one.
A Good Lawyer Has Both Empathy and Competence
One caution: Don't confuse empathy with competence. Empathy - the ability to care about you and your case - is great. But it doesn't guarantee that the lawyer knows how to handle a case. Lawyers need BOTH empathy and competence.
Some surgeons have lousy bedside manner, but can save your life, while being a jerk. Which would you rather have in a lawyer: A jerk who can save your family, or a nice guy who can lose?
What if Your Lawyer is a Dud and You Are Paying the Bill?
If you are paying for your own lawyer, you call the tune. If your lawyer won't communicate, or won't work on your case, fire the lawyer and get your retainer back.
Lawyers must use written fee agreements, and make it clear exactly what you are paying for. If the lawyer collected a big fee, but hardly did any work, there should be a big refund. However, many lawyers won't give you one. That alone is a good reason to fire the lawyer.
If the lawyer took a retainer, it has to be put in a special account separate from the lawyer's business account. It is called an IOLTA account, which stands for "Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts". It is a special "trust" account, actually owned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who steals the client's rightful interest from all of them every month to use on pet political projects like "Save the Useless Political Cronies Society" or whatever.
Each month, the lawyer can transfer any money which the lawyer earned on your case from the IOLTA account to the lawyer's business account. The lawyer must give you an accounting of this. If you fire the lawyer, and the retainer has not been earned yet on your case, you should ask for an accounting of time spent and how much has been transferred into the lawyer's own account.
You are also owed a copy of your case file within a reasonable time after you fire the lawyer. Lawyers often refuse to give you the paperwork from your own case, for some reason I cannot understand.
If you get rid of your lawyer and you don't get your money or your paperwork, contact the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, because each of these are ethical violations.
How Do You Change Lawyers?
The mechanics of changing lawyers can be complicated. If you have already hired a new lawyer to replace the old one, it is not too bad. The new lawyer sends in an "appearance", and the old one sends a "disappearance". Poof!
If you are just firing the lawyer, and representing yourself, it gets tougher, particularly if you are in the middle of motion hearings or are close to a trial. You then have to file an appearance for yourself as your own counsel. Sometimes judges won't let lawyers out of the case if it is too close to a trial, and that can really be bad, since at that point, you and the lawyer are probably not getting along well.
What About If the State Is Paying For My Lawyer?
In Dept. of Children and Family cases, many parents have lawyers appointed for them by the Juvenile Court. Some are fabulous. Others couldn't care less, never return calls, don't tell you what is going on, never show you paperwork, and have no strategy for winning the case. Heck, you could probably do a better job yourself.
In that situation, you should gently tell the lawyer that you want a new one. Maybe, just maybe, the lawyer will come to his or her senses and start actually working for you, or may even help you get a new one. The lawyer may actually be relieved, because the lawyer doesn't like you either.
If the lawyer won't budge or lift a finger to make a change, then you can file your own motion at the court asking for a new one.
So How Do You Get the Right Lawyer?
How do you get the right lawyer? It is one thing to know the things to look for in the list above, but how do you find out whether the lawyer you are talking to is the right one?
People are fooled all the time by slick talking lawyers. They sit down for an interview, and the lawyer dazzles you with legal baloney, and you are sure it's the right one. Not really. You don't know if you are talking to Attorney Slick, or the real thing.
The first question is usually: Where do I even begin to look for a lawyer? That is by far the hardest question. Once you find the right "pool" of a few candidates to choose from, then you interview each one and ask the right questions and look for the qualities that I have set out above.
I can give only some feeble suggestions as to how to locate the lawyers you want to consider and interview. Look at what the lawyer wrote on-line. Is it passionate? Is it against the status quo? Does it show that the lawyer does not like the system? (a huge plus) Does the information show that the person knows his or her stuff? Is there a heart there, or does he or she come across like a soulless bureaucrat?
You can also talk to friends and family and see if they know someone. But careful: You need a lawyer who specializes in family or juvenile law, not one who does house closings or corporate law.
Once you narrow your search, you should interview each lawyer, first by phone, and then in person. Here are some signs to look for: