Let’s say you want to buy new shoes. You could shop at a discount store, a shoe boutique, a department store, online, any number of places. You get even contemplate making your own. The place you choose will depend on the kind of shoes you want (generic tennis shoes, pink satin platforms or vegan loafers?), the amount of money you’re willing to spend, and your location – if you live in southwest South Dakota, you may have fewer options.
Like shoes, lawyers and law firms come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and quality depends upon on more than looks. An office on the 72nd floor of a fancy high-rise is no guarantee that the lawyer inside it will provide quality services, and an online, faceless lawyer with a generic website is no guarantee that the fees charges will be a genuine bargain. Quality will come from the lawyer who can best meet the needs of your particular case, which is not necessarily the one with the degree from Harvard Law School or the wood-paneled office.
Lawyers are individuals – some have marvelous personalities and fantastic bedside manners; others are not-so-loveable curmudgeons. Some have all the charm and less of the average garden slug, yet they are highly skilled; others have charm in abundance, but they lack the necessary experience to work on your particular case. Remember, you’re looking for a lawyer – not a new best friend.
Types of practice
Initially, you may choose to take your case to a general practitioner. Like family doctors who handle a range of medical problems, general practitioners handle most basic legal needs. If your case requires special expertise, the general practitioner will refer you to a lawyer who specializes in that particular area.
Lawyers practice in a variety of settings-alone as solo practitioners and together in firms that can range from two or three lawyers to hundreds. Practice setting does not always dictate specialty, although it would be reasonable to assume that large-firm lawyers handle drunk driving and juvenile delinquency cases as often as solo practitioners take on cases involving class actions and antitrust law.
Like other lawyers, solo practitioners can choose to be generalists or to specialize in a certain area. If a case is particularly complex, a solo practitioner may hire one or more lawyers to help work on it or may associate temporarily with a second lawyer or a firm, essentially sharing the work.
Small firms typically include two to 25 lawyers, although, obviously, a six-lawy4er4 firm might be considered large in a small town, and a 26-lawyer firm might be considered quaintly puny by big-city standards. Depending on firm policy, you may maintain a relationship with one lawyer throughout your case, or, if the firm favors a team approach, you may work with a cast of different lawyers-one in charge of intake, on in charge of research, another in charge of discovery and trial preparation, and maybe even another showing up in court with you.
You are likely to find large law firms organized into departments of practice-for example, estate planning, litigation, taxation, corporate law, insurance, and personal injury. A large-firm lawyer will have strong staff support, which can be a definite asset in complex cases. A large law firm operates like a hospital which has separate departments for orthopedics, obstetrics, pediatrics, and general surgery.
Keep in mind that it’s not the size of the firm that matters, it’s the fit. Size has no bearing on competency, cost, and the quality of service.
Meet the Staff
Usually, the first person you will encounter at a lawyer’s office is the receptionist. The receptionist’s main function is to greet and manager incoming calls and visitors. If you are setting up your first appointment with the lawyer, identify yourself and provide a brief description of what brings you to the lawyer’s office. The receptionist is not a lawyer and will not be able to give you legal information.
Your lawyer’s secretary completes forms and does word processing, filing, billing and administrative tasks; the secretary may act as the office manager as well. Although legal secretaries have an opportunity to become familiar with many aspects of the law, do not expect a secretary to give you legal advice. Some questions, however, do not require answers and are appropriately addressed to the secretary:
” May I schedule an appointment?
” Where is the courthouse?
” What should I wear to the deposition?
” Where can I obtain a copy of the deed to my house?
” Where do I pay child support?
Save your lawyer’s time (and your money) by considering which of your questions require the lawyer’s expertise. Do not be offended if the secretary refuses to answer a question that relates specifically to your case. Some secretaries have been instructed not to answer those questions.
Staff members who are paralegals have been trained to assume some of the functions that have traditionally be in the lawyer’s domain, such as interviewing clients, helping clients complete answers to interrogatories, preparing clients for depositions, and doing legal research. One way to understand the function of paralegals is to view them as lawyers’ nurses. Your lawyer’s particularly style and form of practice will determine whether the lawyer will employ a paralegal and, if so, whether the paralegal works on your case.
Law office support staff operate under the same rules of conduct as lawyers. Your lawyer’s staff are, in effect, an extension of your lawyer and equally responsible for maintaining confidentiality. A secretary who discloses client secrets will likely be disciplined or even fired, and the lawyer in charge of that secretary may face professional sanctions-it is the lawyer who bears the ultimate responsibility for the secretary’s misdeeds. If you think that you have not been treated fairly by the staff, tell your lawyer.
In some law offices, support staff roles are clearly defined; in others, one person may assume a number of roles. Be aware that a larger staff-to-lawyer ration does not necessarily indicate quality.
The Lawyer’s Role
When your lawyer was admitted, that lawyer took an oath to maintain the integrity of the law. The lawyer’s professional behavior is governed by the Code of Professional Responsibility, which consists of three parts: canons, ethical considerations, and disciplinary rules. The code defines the behavior expected not only of your lawyer but also of the lawyer’s employees. Although ethical considerations and disciplinary rules vary from state to state, the canons are the same for all lawyers.
To qualify to practice law, lawyers must graduate from law school, pass the bar exam, and, in most states, pursue ongoing legal education. Some states require that lawyers complete a specific number of continuing education every year.
Lawyers also must answer to a constant moral litmus test. A dishonest act such a fraud, theft, deceit, illegal conduct involving moral turpitude, or any other conduct that reflects adversely on the “fitness to practice law” can result in suspension or revocation of a lawyer’s license to practice. Although punishment is not limited to acts that occur in the course of client representation, peccadillos and foibles such as an extramarital affair, a traffic violation, or an occasional lack of sobriety will not result in suspension or revocation of a license.
Although some lawyers are perfectly willing to discuss a legal matter at any time and in any place, others compartmentalize their professional lives. Don’t be surprised if your lawyer fails to volunteer legal advice when you see that lawyer at Starbucks, in church, at a social event, or on the street. The confidential nature of the lawyer-client relationship, as well as the need for a lawyer to give clients uninterrupted attention, usually demands that the lawyer-client relationship be kept on a professional basis.
Keeping that in mind, is it wise to hire a lawyer who also happens to be your neighbor, friend or golf buddy? If you’re wrestling with a decision like that, think about whether it will be possible to separate your social relationship from the professional one. Will the friendship impair the lawyer’s ability to give you sound legal advice? Will you regret your decision when it’s time to tell your friend-the-lawyer any secrets that must come forward in your case? How will you react if your friend-the-lawyer has to tell you something that you do not want to hear? In other words, will the professional relationship ruin the social one?
Do not feel obligated to hire someone simply because you’re friends. That lawyer will not be insulted if you look elsewhere for legal services. In fact, chances are that your friend will actually breathe a sigh of relief
On the other hand, suppose your lawyer was not a friend when you first hired that lawyer, but the professional relationship has begun to take on nonprofessional overtones: perhaps the lawyer made sexual advances or proposed a business venture. Feel free to question the lawyer’s involvement in your life, and realize that you have the right to terminate that lawyer-client relationship if the lawyer’s actions make you uncomfortable. It is your lawyer’s responsibility to maintain a professional demeanor when working with you.
Your lawyer does more than study the law. Your lawyer is also a business person, and that means your lawyer is concerned with making enough money to pay expenses-rent, utilities, staff salaries, internet access, and subscriptions. Profits are limited to whatever money is left over after paying the expenses of keeping the doors often. Your lawyer expects to be paid. Your lawyer’s ability to give free advice, work on pro bono cases, or discount fees is limited.
Your lawyer is bound by a code of ethics that governs a variety of professional issues. Ethical rules will prevent a lawy4er from taking your case in these situations:
” There is a conflict of interest. For example, the lawyer who represented your former husband in your divorce may be prohibited from representing you when you seek to modify the divorce decree.
” The lawyer cannot act competently. A lawyer who knows nothing about bankruptcy will (and is wise to) decline your bankruptcy case.
” The lawyer is likely to be called as a witness in your case.
” The lawyer is involved in a business transaction with you.
In the privacy of the lawyer’s office, the lawyer may be quite candid about your case, opposing counsel, and the court, and you will likely be quite candid, too. Your lawyer is required to keep your conversations confidential except in the following circumstances:
” When the lawyer is required by law or court order to divulge your secrets.
” When you have told the lawyer that intend to commit a crime. In those instances, the lawyer is permitted to provide the information necessary to prevent it.
” When the lawyer is attempting to collect fees or defend against your accusation of wrongful conduct.
Although your lawyer may be quite relaxed in the office, that demeanor is likely to change outside the office. In court, for example, your lawyer will act in a more formal manner: another set of rules applies-the judge’s rules. The judge is the boss of the courtroom, and the judge demands respect. Even if the judges rules against you, your lawyer still must be courteous to the judge. Unlike you, who will probably never see that judge again, the lawyer is likely to appear in the judge’s court repeatedly.
It may sometimes seem as though your lawyer owes something to everyone – to you, society, the court, and even opposing counsel. The most effective lawyers enjoy a hard-earned reputation for being fair in their dealings with opposing counsel. You may hate your opponent and the lawyer who represents your opponent, your lawyer cannot allow those feelings to affect his behavior.
Bear in mind that a lawyer who is aboveboard and has a reputation for fair dealing will be fair more effective on your behalf than a lawyer who plays dirty tricks and throws cheap shots for short-term gain. If opposing counsel asks your lawyer for a favor, such as postponing a trial date or deadline, or waiving some procedural formality, don’t think your lawyer is weak for agreeing to do so. Each professional courtesy that your lawyer shows to the other side is a deposit in the favor bank.
�jennifer j. rose, 2013