You should carefully consider which lawyer is right for you and your case. An attorney's experience, ethics and honesty, reputation, record of success, and your comfort level with the attorney are important to consider before retaining his services.
Experience: Don't Rely on Representations Alone
Advertising does not necessarily reveal the true quality of the lawyer. Always ask the following questions regarding a lawyer's experience before you retain him/her:
- How often do you try cases before a jury?
The is the true test of an experienced trial lawyer. Fewer cases are being tried but a lawyer should be taking cases to trial periodically. Lawyers who do not try many cases are not a credible threat to the insurance industry and rarely get the best settlement offers.
- Are you a member of one of the top four peer-selected trial organizations?
Membership in these organizations is an indication of extensive trial experience. Any lawyer can be a member of The American Bar Association, The Consumer Attorneys of California, The San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association, The American Association of Justice (AAJ) or various state or local bar associations. All that is required to join these organizations is paying the dues. Peer selected organizations are different. They are highly selective organizations that require an invitation to join which is offered only after extensive research is done by lawyers who are already members of the group (i.e. "peers") including lawyers who would ordinarily be on the opposing side of cases of the lawyer and trial judges who have witnessed the lawyer on his or her feet in trial. Lawyers are eligible to be elected to these organizations after 15-20 years of practice. There are four major peer selected organizations. Membership in them tells you a lot about the lawyer you are considering:
The American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA): a national organization that requires inductees to prove they have tried a minimum of 20 civil jury trials and meet strict ethical guidelines. Membership in the Northern California Chapter of ABOTA also requires an affirmative vote of 75% of the members; an abstention is equivalent to a "no" vote.
The American College of Trial Lawyers (ACTL): an international organization, including the United States and Canada, which elects only the "best of the best" trial lawyers. Membership for any state or province is limited to 1% of the lawyers in that jurisdiction so it is very selective. Lawyers are invited to membership only after an exhaustive analysis of all the cases they have tried and interviews with all their opponents and the trial judges who presided over the trials. The ethical requirements are very high, as well.
The International Academy of Trial Lawyers: an international organization, with members in the United States and 33 other countries. Admittees are limited to a total membership of 500 lawyers in the world. Requirements for admission include that the nominee possess, "...to an exceptional degree,...superior skill and recognized ability in trial and appellate practice"....as well as "excellent character and absolute integrity."
The International Society of Barristers: an international organization with members in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Scotland, Mexico, and Australia, whose goal is the selection of lawyers who possess "excellent character and integrity of the highest order..."Candidates must have distinguished themselves as "...outstanding in the field of advocacy, rather than demonstrating mere competence or average skill as an advocate."
You should ask the lawyer you are interviewing if he/she is a member of any of these groups. If he/she is not, you may want to consider this factor in deciding whether others are more qualified. The general rule is that the greater number of these peer reviewed organizations he/she belongs to, the more prominent is his/her experience and reputation.
- Are you listed in the national publication entitled The Best Lawyers in America?
A lawyer can only be listed in the publication if his/her peers, other attorneys already in the publication, recommend him/her. The publisher annually polls lawyers throughout California for this purpose.
- What is your Martindale-Hubbell rating?
The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory reliably rates ethics and legal ability. This evaluation is continuous and the ratings are updated annually. The highest rating is "AV" and it means that the lawyer's ethics are very high and his/her legal ability is very high to preeminent. Lower ratings are BV and CV. Lawyers who are not rated at all should be viewed with caution. You can determine a lawyer's rating by going to the following website: Martindale Hubbell. You can use these ratings as a preliminary screening method.
- Are you currently listed as a California Super Lawyer?
This annual listing identifies the top 5% of lawyers in the area, considering competence and reputation. To be listed in the "Top 100" is an additional and notable honor.
- Are you personally going to handle my case?
It is unfortunate that it has become common practice for some lawyers who are not very qualified or ethical to advertise heavily on billboards, telephone books, the internet, radio and TV. If you contact them, they are in a hurry to have you retain them, only to refer you to someone in your area whom you have never met nor sought out. These lawyers often demand a percentage of the fee generated by your case. This is how they afford their large advertising budgets. You should question the referring lawyer and the lawyer to whom you are referred using the same approach outlined for you above.
Ethics and Honesty:
- Have you ever been disciplined by the California State Bar?
Check it out for yourself at http://www.calbar.ca.gov/ . Never retain a lawyer who has a record of discipline by the State Bar.
- Can you provide a list of references, including prior clients and judges?
The lawyer should be willing to provide this for you upon request.
- Are you involved in any activities that reflect your good reputation in the legal community?
Such as lecturing for continuing legal education programs, bar and trial lawyer organizations, teaching at law schools, publishing articles and book chapters for publications in the lawyer's specialty, and invitations by the local courts to serve as a pro-term (temporary) judge
Record of Success:
- Have you had success handling cases like mine?
The quality of the result is what counts. In other words, it is important that the settlement or verdict is collectible. A "quality" verdict is one that is large enough to compensate the injured person, is not reversed by an appellate court, and can be collected. Don't be misled by the amount of a verdict or settlement without asking if that verdict or settlement was collected.
Some lawyers also have been known to represent the total payout of a structured settlement (i.e. one settled with an annuity) to make the result seem much larger than its real present value.
- How many of the results were due to jury verdicts as opposed to settlements?
To get the maximum settlement, your lawyer has to have the ability to take cases to trial, and a reputation for taking cases to trial.
Financing the case:
- Do you intend to borrow money from private investors to finance the case and charge me interest?
Some lawyers (not Abramson Smith Waldsmith) are contracting with private investors to finance their cases because they cannot afford to finance it themselves. These private investors are charging the lawyers very high rates of interest and the lawyers routinely pass that on to the client as a cost or expense. You need to know this ahead of time because it could substantially reduce the amount of money you will ultimately receive.
- When can I meet you?
A personal meeting is the best way to know whether you can comfortably work with your lawyer. You need someone who will promptly return your phone calls and emails and will treat you with respect during the entire time he/she is representing you. Invite the lawyer to come meet you or find time to visit his/her office which will tell you a lot about the law firm. It is essential that you do this before you make the important decision of selecting a lawyer.
Choosing a lawyer is among the most important decisions you'll make in your lifetime. Contact Abramson Smith Waldsmith LLP for San Francisco personal injury attorneys who satisfy all of the above criteria.