In North Carolina, there are thousands of attorneys, and picking one is about as pleasant as shopping for a used car. For instance, even if an attorney has gotten results for someone else, how do you know whether he is doing a good job for you? How do you know that he is better than other attorneys practicing the same area of law, or whether being better is even necessary? Is an attorney better just because they charge more money, or will a cheap lawyer get the job done right? As a lawyer, people often ask me these questions, and sometimes I feel bad when I have to inform someone that they should think about finding someone else to take over their case. Here are some factors to consider in determining if you should talk to another attorney.
COMMUNICATION – A lawyer is required to keep a client “reasonably informed” about the status of their case–whatever that case may be about. If your attorney is not keeping you informed, and he or she has set time goals with you that have not been met, then start calling them everyday until they take your call and explain what is happening. Be persistent.
ETHICS – Shockingly, I have heard many stories about attorneys asking their client or the opposing side to do things that are unethical. These stories range from hiding money from the IRS to keeping information from parties that should be informed. If you think your attorney is asking you to do something unethical, stop the representation immediately. If you let the circumstances progress, and the court finds out about it, both the attorney AND YOU could be held liable.
READ THE COURT’S DECISION – Sometimes, a court will explain in their order or judgment why they ruled in a certain parties’ favor. If the court says something like, “plaintiff/defendant could have done ________ but failed to do so . . .”, this may be an indication that your attorney failed to do something that was fatal to your case. Now, it is possible that the attorney did not take a certain action intentionally as a strategy, however, good attorneys will communicate with you about these things beforehand. Moreover, an honest attorney will admit that they made a mistake, or communicate with you about what the court has said. Other attorneys, however, may just tell you that you lost, and that the only thing left to do is pay them more money to do something else. If your attorney has not adequately explained the result of your case, and you suspect that they made a mistake that they are not admitting, talk to another attorney to see if anything can be done.
CHARM ISN’T EVERYTHING – Many times people will hire an attorney based only on personality. This should not be your primary criteria. Lawyers are problem-solvers, and in your first few visits with your lawyer, you should get the distinct impression that this person is capable of solving your particular problem.
COST – A lawyer cannot charge a fee that is “clearly excessive” in North Carolina. There is no hard rule as to what fee is “clearly excessive,” rather, the NC State Bar looks at a group of factors and looks at complaints on a case by case basis. The ONLY way to ascertain if your attorney is charging you a good fee is to shop around. There are no general rules on how lawyers and firms charge for their services. I know big firms that don’t charge very much and do a great job, and I know others that charge an arm and a leg that do a great job. I’ve recommended friends to small firms, big firms, and solo practitioners; some charge a lot and some charge significantly less.
What I tell friends and family to do is this. Talk to friends, and have them refer you to someone. Get a price quote in writing, and then price out a few others. If you are in a bind, do this process quickly, but still do it. Getting the right attorney is too important, and the only way to get someone you trust is to meet as many attorneys as you can.
These factors are not intended to help you decide if you should sue an attorney who has represented you. That question is only one that a malpractice attorney can answer. Instead, I hope that this list aids you in your attorney shopping, and helps you pick an attorney who is right for you and your situation. Like a used car, be skeptical, thorough, and keep your ear tuned to hear odd noises. Your case will be better off for it.