In the second article in this course, I told you about the many things that don’t matter in hiring a lawyer. That begs the question of what does matter? Here’s a handy, downloadable infographic (just right click and “save as”).
Yes, this is a specific list of deep, personal characteristics of someone whom you do not know well (or at all) yet. But you can get a good sense of whether a lawyer has these characteristic by doing two things. First, examine their body of work. Second, interview them.
Why look for these traits?
As discussed in the first article in this course, what differentiates a great lawyer from software or a hired thug is their ability to understand complex situations, predict and strategize based on many possible outcomes, apply experience and wisdom in a practical way, and understand and work with predictable human behavior to obtain a desired result.
Good judgment, varied life and business experiences (i.e. someone who lives life as well as practices law), and being results driven means the lawyer has wisdom. Wisdom is what will get you the best results long term, even if it means foregoing instant gratification or hearing the news you want to hear.
When I was a very young lawyer, a wise and well-respected senior lawyer told me, “There is a difference between good news and good advice. Give good advice.” That is something all worthy lawyers live by. Good advice comes from wisdom (as well as courage and maturity).
A student of humanity
The famous Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” What this means is that the law is created around the human experience and all the things that make us function together in society.
Without getting too philosophical on you, consider that the law boils down to standards for how we treat one another (whether it is in our criminal codes, our contracts, or our civil rights). Legal applications by judges and juries is therefore as varied as the human experience of each one of those people. The best lawyers understand this.
That is why you need a lawyer who is courageous and mature, who listens and who is articulate. But most importantly, you need a lawyer who possesses and understands how to use empathy. A lawyer without empathy will never understand you, the other people in your deal or case, or a jury. He will never understand the easiest path to victory or to closing a deal. He will not be elegantly persuasive.
Many lawyers read the law and try to apply it to all situations by rote. This “all problems are a nail” approach will not serve you as the client. The “art” in practicing law is what separates the few, best lawyers from the thousands of average lawyers.
In the first two articles in this course, I suggested that a lawyer must possess a certain number of years experience before he is an able practitioner. A minimum amount of experience is indeed important. But do not equate years practicing for technical mastery. There are many lawyers who have practiced for twenty, thirty or even forty years, who still haven’t figured it out. So you must evaluate whether the lawyer in an expert in his areas of legal practice.
The best lawyers are always learning. They are acquiring and practicing their legal skills. They are staying abreast of changes in the law, both profound and subtle. They are aware and can apply principles from many different legal disciplines (and they know when to call in another specialist).
In addition, you must evaluate how well a lawyer writes. The main job duty of all lawyers (except criminal defense lawyers) is writing. This is an essential skill. A case can be won or lost on written motions alone. A problem can be solved by a letter. A deal can be saved by a tight agreement.
In the same vein, a lawyer must be detailed. In law, the devil is in the details. A contract can turn on a single word. A motion can be thrown out if all the technical requirements are not met (things like page limits, lines per page and fonts matter). Deadlines are unforgiving. Rules and statutes require deep reading as they have layered meanings and applications. A lawyer who is sloppy and unconcerned by the minutia of law is bad at his job.
The right lawyer for you
The right lawyer for you listens to you and works to achieve the results you desire. The right lawyer for you understands you. The right lawyer for you will be able to trust you and fight for you without reservation. The right lawyer for you will deliver value.
This is why the best lawyers are selective in what clients and matters they accept. If a lawyer cannot trust you or does not understand you, he is not the best fit for you. The best lawyers recognize this and will decline representation. If the lawyer cannot deliver value to you — perhaps you have a problem he cannot solve — he should say so. The best lawyers are courageous and moral enough to say no to business when they cannot serve the client at their highest capacity.
Volume lawyers are not the best lawyers. Discount lawyers are not the best lawyers. Desperate for business lawyers are not the best lawyers. Remember that.
How to evaluate a lawyer’s expertise and traits before interview.
This is easy. You do not need to read legal briefs or technical scholarly journals filled with footnotes. You need to read the lawyer’s blog. Other good sources of a lawyer’s body of written work include the lawyer’s newsletter, magazine articles, white papers, ebooks and print books. If available, you should watch the lawyer’s videos or listen to her audios.
Yes, it really is that simple: read the lawyer’s blog.
There is a saying that, “How you write is how you think.” (This is actually a paraphrase of something Oscar Wilde once said.) While this might be an overstatement for any who do not write for a living, it is an excellent rubric for lawyers.
A lawyer who can write a blog that explains complex legal ideas simply is a lawyer who can also explain your case to judges and juries simply. A blog shows the lawyer’s mastery over language. A blog shows, in a subtle way, the lawyer’s personality, persuasiveness, empathy and values. It also shows how detailed and professional they are (e.g. Do they have a lot of typos? Did they just hire an SEO company to write a bunch of key-word stuffed information? Is the information well-organized?).
A blog also shows the lawyer’s mastery of legal concepts in his area of practice. It is also evidence that the lawyer is staying abreast of legal changes and continuing to learn about law. One cannot blog about a technical subject without research and study.You do not have to read everything. Just read enough to get a sense for who the lawyer is and what she knows.
In the fourth article in this course, you will learn about additional details that are necessary to narrow your pool of potential lawyers so you do not spend the next week reading the blogs of lawyers who are inappropriate hires.