Really good lawyers are hard to find. It takes a great deal of skill to excel as an attorney. One must be smart, knowledgeable, judicious, articulate, persuasive, creative, psychologically astute, personable, professional, detail-oriented, cool under pressure, and a good listener, writer, and negotiator. Law school cannot possibly teach all of these skills. Consequently, top-notch lawyers must hone their craft over the course of their careers.
The perils of using a lawyer that is not up to snuff are clear. A good business lawyer will minimize your risk and close the transaction quickly. A bad business lawyer could expose you to unnecessary risk, cost you more in legal fees, and take much longer to close the deal. A good litigator will win the court battle. A bad litigator will lose the battle and cause you to pay damages to the opposing party.
The stakes can be very high. That’s why it is important that you rigorously evaluate any lawyer you are considering engaging.
Below are five tips on how to choose the right lawyer for you or your company:
1. The right expertise is critical. The chances that your cousin’s wife’s brother, who happens to be a lawyer, can help you set up an equity incentive plan for your company is very low. There are a practically endless number of fields of law, including corporate finance, real estate, commercial litigation, personal injury, insurance defense, employment, tax, patent, executive compensation, government contracting, international, financial services, and intellectual property. Most lawyers specialize in one or two of these areas, because it is not possible to excel at more than that. Make sure that the lawyer you choose has the expertise necessary to solve the specific problems you need solved.
2. Always verify expertise. Lawyers are always looking to sign up new clients. Consequently, they are prone to exaggerate their expertise and tell you they can meet your needs. Check each lawyer’s bio and make sure it includes the areas of expertise that you need. If it doesn’t, move on to the next candidate. If it does, make sure you ask probing questions designed to determine how deep their expertise truly is and take the time to check a lawyer’s references.
3. Experience matters. Although less experienced lawyers charge less and seem more hungry for your work, their hunger generally causes them to bite off more than they can chew and they generally will not achieve the results you will get from a more seasoned attorney. It takes time to develop all of the skills necessary to be a good lawyer. Choose experience if you can afford the price.
4. Seek value, not low hourly rates. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is only true in the law at the extreme ends of the hourly rate spectrum. Chances are good that a lawyer billing at $150/hour does not have the expertise or experience that you need. It’s also a good bet that most lawyers at big firms charging $1,200/hour are pretty darn good at what they do, but you’re also paying for the vast overhead of a big firm. There are a lot of solo practitioners and lawyers at small firms who charge hourly rates between $400-600 who are very capable. Many of them used to practice at big law firms.
5. Do not engage a lawyer who does both transactional work and litigation. It is very difficult to do both well.
I hope this newsletter has provided you with insights into what to look for when engaging counsel. My next newsletter will detail specific questions you should ask when interviewing a lawyer.
Feel free to contact me if you need a referral to a lawyer with specific expertise. I have developed a deep network of curated lawyers.