If you are in the market for a lawyer, whatever it was that got you there was probably a life changing event. People rarely hire lawyers to deal with small matters. Because of the gravity of the matter at hand, choosing a lawyer is one of the more critical decisions you will make. Most people have a general idea of the qualities they want in a lawyer, but there are at least a couple of items that should be a part of every search, and yet they are ones that most people probably fail to consider.
Whoever you choose a lawyer, you can derive a small amount of assurance from the fact that that person at least had to meet certain minimal requirements to be able to practice law. But it really is only a small amount. The bar exam is hard, but strangely, the skills it tests are not the skills it takes to be a good lawyer. You’ll know that, at least at one point in his life, your attorney was able to quickly rattle off the basic elements of a defamation claim from memory. That’s something, I guess, but it doesn’t tell you anything about whether he will keep you reasonably apprised about the developments in your case, is organized enough to reliably meet deadlines, or will be able to creatively solve problems for you. Your attorney can look up the elements of a defamation claim if he has forgotten what they are. The parts of being a lawyer that the bar exam doesn’t test, however, are, at least from the client’s perspective, significantly more important than the stuff that it does test.
So what should you consider when choosing a lawyer? For the most part, it’s nothing you wouldn’t guess at. Just about every bar organization in the country has advice on its website about how to choose a lawyer. A referral from a friend or family member is a great starting point. You will, of course, want to review your potential attorney’s marketing materials to confirm that he has expertise in an area of law relevant to the problem you’re trying to solve. The number of years he has been practicing and his educational background may be useful information. And, of course, the amount your attorney charges for his services will likely play a role (although like just about anything, “you get what you pay for” is wisdom worth keeping in mind).
But before you sign a fee agreement, there are two items that you can and should quickly check: (1) does your attorney carry professional liability insurance; and (2) has he ever been the subject of disciplinary action? Most people probably don’t consider either of these even though both provide critical information.
Your attorney’s insurance is for your protection
Professional liability insurance provides coverage if your attorney makes a mistake that costs you money. It’s as much for your protection as it is for his. Your reasonable expectation, of course, is that your attorney will meet every deadline, follow every applicable rule, and stay abreast of every relevant change in the law, and that no insurable event will occur. Mistakes can happen though, even to the most experienced, competent, well meaning attorneys. And as with anything that you insure, while the chance of disaster is low, the cost to you if something does go wrong could be astronomical.
If you’ve gone to the trouble to hire an attorney, you’ve probably got at least tens of thousands of dollars at stake. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Or millions. But one slip on the wrong deadline in front of the wrong judge and your can’t-lose case is suddenly gone forever. In that situation, your best chance for recovery is now against your lawyer, but only to the extent he has the money to pay it.
You may be under the impression that attorney’s are required to carry this kind of insurance as a condition of practicing law. Not in Colorado (or a lot of other states). They do, however, have to publicly disclose whether they have such a policy in place, and you can easily find out whether your attorney has one by going here.
Previous disciplinary actions
An attorney’s disciplinary history is also a matter of public record, and something that you will want to check before signing the dotted line. Again, it’s easy. Go here and type in your attorney’s name.
Not necessarily disqualifying
Now, a caveat: although I’m recommending that you check your attorney’s insurance status and disciplinary history, I wouldn’t automatically disqualify someone based on what either of these searches reveals. Maybe your attorney isn’t carrying insurance because he really does have the wherewithal to personally cover any mistake. And while a history of disciplinary actions is a bad sign, it can be difficult to get through an entire career dealing with high stakes, highly emotional situations without disappointing someone along the way.
But in the event that you hire an attorney who doesn’t carry insurance or who has a disciplinary issue in his past, you want to do so knowingly. Finding this information takes about 30 seconds. That’s time well spent.