If you're lucky, you've gone through life without needing a lawyer. And maybe you think you never will need legal representation. One can only hope. But then, something unexpected happens.
Let's say you're driving one night when another car swerves and hits you. Your car is totaled and you have injuries. Now you have to deal with all sorts of complications, such as your insurance company, lost time at work, hospital bills and future uncertainty.
Who do you turn to for resolution and restitution? Probably an attorney.
Or perhaps you're getting a divorce after fifteen years of marriage. You have children, shared assets, a house, a car. Or a family member has passed away and you've been named executor of the estate. It can be many things, but one thing is certain: you need legal counsel.
When you suddenly land in a situation that requires you to enter a courtroom or understand a legal document, you'll come face-to-face with this fact: our legal system is complicated. Even legal experts have to specialize, simply because it's impossible to be familiar with all aspects of the law. You'll need to get help from someone who makes a career out of navigating this sea of complexity.
In some cases, legal representation is critical. In a divorce, you may need a lawyer to divide up the pots and pans and establish custody of children. In criminal matters, legal representation could be the difference between life ... and life behind bars. Or maybe you're filing a civil suit against your employer for harassment or discrimination. Or you're self-employed-or want to be-and you'd like to plan for your financial future.
When these situations come up, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to proceed without a lawyer. Other times, however, you may not need one. How will you know? Answering these questions can help:
In Orange County, California, where Martin Investigative Services is located, there are thousands of lawyers - and thousands more working in nearby Los Angeles County. How do you find the right one?
First off, give yourself enough time for research and be watchful of certain traps that can slow the process:
If you ask friends, neighbors and relatives to recommend a lawyer, chances are they used their attorney to handle a case that involves a different aspect of the law than what you're facing. Adding to this problem is the fact that your friends, neighbors and relatives probably got their references from their friends, neighbors or relatives. These kinds of references usually aren't the best ones to accept.
Another mistake is to ask a lawyer to recommend another lawyer who specializes in cases like yours. If you're faced with criminal charges, don't ask the lawyer who handled your divorce for his recommendation. Many lawyers receive referral fees for their recommendations. Of course, if you really trust him, his recommendation might be a sound one.
Also, a lawyer in one field may know nothing about the qualifications of a lawyer in another. It's so specialized that it would be similar to asking a mechanic for the name of a good pediatrician. You might get lucky and happen upon the perfect lawyer, but do you want your case to depend on coincidence?
Many women facing divorce allow their husbands to pick an attorney to represent both of them. Even if it's an amicable parting, most reputable lawyers will recommend that each party retain his or her own lawyer to look out for the best interests of the client. You not only need equal and objective representation, but superior representation. Insure that your attorney is looking out for you, first and foremost.
You could consult the Yellow Pages or take down a number flashed on a TV commercial, but that's not going to narrow your options. Even incompetent lawyers know how to market themselves and appeal to your needs. Also, be careful of Attorney Referral Services. These services are paid by lawyers for self referrals.
The Right Lawyer
A true-life story
Among the most fascinating people I have encountered as a federal agent and private investigator are those men and women on death row, both here in the United States and throughout the world. They exist in a suspended state between anger and tranquility. They know they will probably die, yet within the context of their existence, hope is the only thing left to hold on to.
There are thousands of stories in which the actions of incompetent attorneys facilitate the guilty verdicts of their clients. In this particular case, however, we accentuate the positive.
Tommy Holderman was raised in the foothills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. His father worked in the judicial system and his mother performed miracles raising money for local charities. Tommy was charged with participating in a bank robbery in which three people were shot, two with fatal injuries. That third person became paramount. Tommy was arrested, charged and went to trial for robbery and two first-degree murder charges. After the district attorney's office added enhancement charges. Tommy learned that he would certainly face life imprisonment and possibly even the death penalty.
The jury found him guilty after the third victim positively identified him as the shooter. A second gunman was also convicted but received a lesser sentence because he testified against Tommy. The jury recommended the death penalty and the judge concurred. Tommy was transported to a maximum security prison. He sat on death row for two years while attorney after attorney tried to win a new trial.
Then along came two attorneys who reviewed all the material and decided to start the investigation all over from day one. This move by them proved critical to Tommy. Our office was retained and we eventually produced evidence that resulted in Tommy being taken off death row and given a new trial.
The key here is not the small amount of work we performed, but the decision by the attorneys to regroup and look at all the evidence and information provided. Had they not done this, they would not have seen the incompetence of the first attorney and the evidence that he and his investigative staff missed.
Not so surprisingly, the district attorney's office dug in their heels and prepared for a second trial. I personally thought the evidence was strong enough to acquit. Some jurors did not agree and we received a hung jury. Well, that's a far cry from being on death row.
A second trial resulted in a not-guilty verdict and Tommy is a free man today.
You might be interested to know that the key piece of evidence we found placed Tommy at a bank conducting a transaction where there was a visual and paper trail proving that he was at a certain place at a certain time. After conducting a time-line search, we showed that even if Tommy had a presidential helicopter escort, he could not have been at the murder scene. This was great evidence, but it falls on deaf ears if not gathered and then used in a proper fashion by competent counsel.
Frustrated? Don't be. There are reliable sources you can turn to help you find a reputable lawyer:
Who's done more research than a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Herald or your local paper? These people are an amazing wealth of information - and for the most part, willing to help if you begin the conversation with, "Are you off deadline?" If you're searching for a criminal defense attorney, talk to the local crime reporter. Ask him or her who the heavy hitters are; who's well-respected; who would he or she use?
Sit in on a court session. During the trial break, ask the court clerks who's respected. Who has the best jury presence? Who's professional?
The bailiffs and marshals manning the metal detectors are the eyes and ears (and sometimes the muscle) of the courts. They hear the conversations and see the lawyers in action, which makes them good sources for information.
In a criminal case, visit the district attorney's office. Don't be shy; just ask who among their staff has left office to enter private practice. These veterans are usually great advocates who know their way around the courtroom.
Call or visit the local police department or FBI agency. Ask the staff for the names of lawyers they respect. They should also be able to direct you to the nearest low-cost legal clinic if you have limited funds.
Local bar associations look after the interests of all their members and will not recommend one over the other. But if you give them a specific problem, they can usually direct you to at least three lawyers with the expertise you need.
Ask them if they know of a group that publishes a directory of attorneys. The Los Angeles Daily Journal sells its annual publication, California Lawyers, for approximately $25. Though the book contains advertisements, it's basically a listing of all the lawyers in the state, categorized by field. It also contains other useful information, such as an outline of court jurisdictions, location of law libraries and listings of civil statutes, judges and court reporters.
The American Bar Association Web site offers a way for you to search legal help in your area.
Before you end your research, consult an experienced private investigator. Look for someone who has been a federal agent or has had law enforcement experience and is now in private practice.
Martin Investigative Services has a reciprocal, respected relationship with the local court system. We've even published a list of top local lawyers by area of expertise. Perhaps a PI in your area has done the same.
Why should we be so concerned about who represents our clients? Besides wanting only the best for you, we also look at it this way: When working for you, we need the process to be handled well all the way down the line. What good would our found evidence be if it's mishandled in court? For this reason, one of the first questions we ask our clients is, "Who is your attorney?"
Lawyers.com is a site that aims to help you evaluate and choose a lawyer.
Martindale.com allows you to make a personalized list of lawyers and law firms that you can access from your account's homepage.
After you've gathered information, evaluate the names on your list based on two considerations:
You're not looking for an attorney who boasts experience with civil, criminal and probate cases. He or she may very well be the jack-of-all-trades who is a master of none. You need someone who� has experience in the type of case in which he or she will be representing you.
If you're in a child custody battle, look for a family law attorney with the most experience winning these cases.
The three priorities in your life may be you, your spouse and your children. The lawyer's three may be retainer, retainer and retainer. Find someone who isn't whispering, "Show me the money," but instead will make your interests the first priority.
Once your choices are trimmed to three or four, do a background check to ensure that the lawyer is licensed, actively working and in good standing. Check with the American Bar Association to see his or her record. This service is free.
Be specific with your questions. Information is rarely volunteered. Ask the clerk if the lawyers have had any disciplinary actions filed against them or if there are complaints pending. See if any complaints have gone into arbitration.
You can also do background searches through the Superior Courthouse (find a clerk and explain that you have never done this before and ask where to look) or hire a private investigator to conduct a background search for you.
“You should expect complete honesty from your attorney, even if it requires listening to news you don't want to hear.”
After a thorough check, your next step is to arrange for an initial consultation. A good attorney will understand your case within minutes and may not charge you for this time. Others may require a consultation fee, but it's worth it. Don't hesitate to consult with more than one or two lawyers, even if it costs you a little extra. Aren't you important enough to research all your options?
Prepare for the consultation by writing down your situation in a brief and easily understood summary. Compile all facts and documented information. The lawyer will appreciate this and it will send a message to him or her that you expect the same level of preparation.
To this end, I requested that one of the nation's top family law lawyers, Mark E. Minyard of Orange, California, to give me his shortest speech on how he would counsel clients prior to the initial consultation. Mr. Minyard advised:
I suggest to clients that they prepare an agenda including their questions, concerns and anxieties. This agenda forces them to participate in planning the meeting as opposed to having a meeting that is solely planned by the lawyer who does not know the specifics of their case.
I also suggest to clients that they arrive at the meeting with a detailed list of assets and debts. It is not cost effective to spend time in the meeting "fact gathering." This is very time consuming. It is certainly better for the clients to spend their time with the lawyer problem solving, analyzing the law as it applies to the facts, etc. I ask clients to prepare a statement of goals and objectives. This gives me an opportunity to explain to the client whether the objective is obtainable and what my methodology would be. It also allows me the opportunity to discuss unrealistic expectations with them early in the case. I would like to be in a position to discuss serious problems in our initial conference so that the client can either become realistic or retain another attorney.
This approach can be expanded in certain areas. An example of this is in the custody area. The client would certainly obtain a better analysis by the attorney if the client would arrive with a detailed statement in outline form of every objective reason why they should receive custody, every objective reason why their spouse should not receive custody, what they believe their spouse will say about them and a reply to each contention. Most clients can summarize these issues in such a way that will allow the attorney to obtain the necessary input within a few minutes. If this information is obtained in a conference environment, the "fact gathering" process can easily consume the entire period of the meeting. This would allow no time for strategizing, analysis, etc. I have found that clients who follow this format will accomplish fifty percent more during the initial attorney client conference. This format also gives the client a better picture of the attorney and thus, the client will have more input available in determining whether to hire the attorney. My format allows the client to become very familiar with the attorney and his or her knowledge, philosophy, methodology and ethics.
Make a checklist of questions.
We've already mentioned that there may be a fee for the initial consultation. The amount varies among lawyers, so ask about it before you schedule time. You don't want any nasty surprises.
How will you be billed for the services? This, too, will vary from lawyer to lawyer and may depend on the type of expertise you need. You should expect a written fee agreement that outlines how you will be charged.
Here are the different ways you may be billed:
You've chosen the best possible attorney to champion your cause. You've also agreed to the fee. You've decided to trust this person and respect his or her abilities. Now, listen to the advice offered. A lawyer's counsel will only help if you follow it.
You should expect complete honesty from your attorney, even if it requires listening to news you don't want to hear. And you need to return that honesty. You'll want your attorney to keep you continually informed and you should do the same. Treat each other professionally and you'll receive the most effective representation.
“I would soon fail than not be among the greatest.” John Keats