I. Overview of Topic
Lawyers have an image problem in America - a big one. But that's nothing new, really. In
Henry VI, written over five centuries ago, Shakespeare says, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." (Actually, this famous quotation was spoken by a villain in the play so it's not quite as anti-lawyer as is generally supposed.)
At any rate, lawyers are among the highest-paid and lowest-esteemed professionals in American society. Theirs is also one of the most popular professions for new college grads - tens of thousands jostle for admission to law schools every year, to join an already overcrowded profession. The reasons aren't hard to find. Law offers - potentially - high status, at least for those who manage to become partners in major firms (just read one or two John Gresham novels), huge incomes for some, and, ideally, a lifetime lived in the rarefied atmosphere of the court, the expensive legal office suite, and the cloistered law firm library.
And yet, despite the prestige many attorneys enjoy, we also find lawyers staring down at us from billboards above city streets touting their "aggressive" injury litigation services and buttonholing us via their annoying TV ads. We read news accounts of crooked lawyers bilking their clients or engaging in other unethical practices. Clearly, law is a profession with more than its share of bad apples. So it's always an excellent idea, before hiring one, to check him (or her) out as thoroughly as possible - particularly if you're involved in a serious legal matter. But how do you go about checking out lawyers?
First Step in Checking Out Lawyers: Getting a Referral
First, consider where you got the lawyer's name. Was it from somebody whose judgment you respect? Just as it's not a good idea - in fact it's a terrible idea - to get a doctor's name from a telephone book or an office sign on the street, it's also a terrible idea to get a lawyer's name this way.
Always try to get a reliable referral. You're looking for an attorney with a good reputation in whatever legal specialization your particular legal matter involves - wills, divorces, taxes, probate, personal injury, criminal defense law, etc.
In general, avoid lawyers obtained from advertisements. First of all, ask yourself: why does this attorney need to advertise? A reputable attorney, like a reputable surgeon, CPA, architect, etc., should obtain plenty of referrals. More than he/she can handle. Blatant pitches for legal business aren't a good indicator of professional success - in fact of professionalism, in general, in my opinion.
Do you happen to have a friend or relative who's recently employed a lawyer and gotten good results? Do you know a judge who could recommend one? For that matter, do you know a lawyer in another specialization who could refer a lawyer in the specialization you need? Perhaps your family's attorney will be willing to "call around" and find a good referral for you.
In some fields of law, especially personal injury and malpractice, fee-splitting or "finder's fees" are a commonplace way of doing business. This is usually okay, as long as it's handled out in the open and you receive an assurance that the referred attorney is not increasing his/her fee in order to cover the referral fee.
Another means of checking out lawyers is attorney directories, the best known of which is probably Martindale-Hubbard. It lists lawyers by location and specialization and provides basic info on their backgrounds and education. (Another source of this type, generally well-regarded, is FindLaw.com)
If you use a law directory, you'll probably want to contact several lawyers, not just one. This way, you'll have a better chance of finding one with the exact experience you need as well as one you feel personally comforatable with - you can probably interview them over the phone on a preliminary basis.
Once you've found one or two lawyers who seem to have the legal background and experience you need, you next want to do whatever you can to find out if these lawyers are reputable. Or even better, to find out if they're known to be good at what they do.
First, ask yourself if you know anyone in the legal field - other lawyers, paralegals, legal secretaries, court personnel (court clerks, bailiffs, court reporters, etc), or even judges at any level? If so, now's a good time to tap into that pool of knowledge - give these folks a quick call and mention the names of your selected lawyer or lawyers. Perhaps suggest they make some inquiries for you. Checking with friends and colleagues is a good initial step. This may seem a bit intrusive, but remember the old adage: good lawyers, not good cases, usually prevail in our legal system.
Of course, you may not know anyone in the legal field who can help you in checking out your selected lawyer or lawyers - that's fine, there are other sources of information.
The most obvious is the state bar association. Today, this can often be done online, though in many cases the state bar's website will refer you to a telephone number to call for background information, especially for disciplinary information on a given attorney.
For example, when I enter "Florida Bar Association" into Google, I'm taken to www.floridabar.org, the Florida Bar's website. On the home page I click on "Board Certified Attorneys by Specialization" if I want to check out the certification of a specific attorney, or I can click on "Lawyer Regulation," then on "Lawyer Conduct" to learn about Florida state disciplinary actions, news and statistics. However, to obtain disciplinary records on individual members I have to call a supplied telephone number - this information is not provided online in Florida.
You should always check out your selected lawyer with the state board before hiring him/her - in fact, this is the absolute minimum you should do in the way of a background check. The state bar should be able to provide information on the lawyer's education/training (including any continuing education in his/her specialization), additional licenses held (for example, a CPA license), and complaints filed, if any.
You should be aware, however, that the state bar may be less-than-eager to provide disciplinary information on its members to the general public. As in so many professions, there may be a certain amount of behind-closed-doors "hand slapping" of members who have been found at fault for ethics or other violations. You may have no way of finding out about such actions. For example, in California, there are no fewer than eight distinct "levels of disciplinary action," and the first level, referred to as Private Reproval, is not made publicly-available at all. At the Private Reproval level, the attorney has been found culpable of professional misconduct but his/her name is not made public even though he/she may have been placed in a "probationary" status. Actions at the other seven levels, from "Public Reproval" all the way to "Disbarment" are, however, public information.
A question in some people's minds who are lawyer-shopping is whether the prestige of a given attorney's law school should be an issue - should you favor an Ivy-leaguer, for example, over a state-law-school grad?
Generally, it's pretty easy to find out where a lawyer went to law school - this is usually available through the state board or the online directories mentioned above. But is it really important?
Actually, it can be, especially to the attorney. If you're a young law school grad hoping to get hired as an associate at a major law firm, the law school you went to can be very important. I'm told it's virtually impossible to land a job with one of the major firms without a degree from a top law school. In fact, the class rank is also very important. Most major firms will only interview students in the top half, or in some cases, in the top ten percent of their graduating classes.
But practically speaking, it seems very doubtful a Harvard or Yale lawyer will do a better job of representing you in your divorce or tax proceeding than one from, say, Penn State. As in the medical field experience and a history of success are what really count. Would you rather have a surgeon right out of Stanford perform your triple-bypass, or one from Cal State who's done several hundred such procedures successfully in the past? I think the answer is obvious, and probably applies equally well to the legal profession.
Using Public Records
In the previous section I suggested you take care regarding how you choose an attorney (i.e., get a referral from someone you trust), then make inquiries regarding his/her reputation and with the state bar association.
Beyond that, you can do further background checking by means of public records. Your attorney will not be aware that you've done it and it's well worth your while, especially if you're involved in a serious legal proceeding. Briefly, here are a few of the most important public records sources to investigate --
- Criminal records. Does your lawyer have a criminal record? You can check this out yourself at the local county courthouse, but that will only reveal criminal convictions in that county. Given the difficulty of checking out criminal records on a national basis (which is the only way to get a reliable result) I suggest you use a good online background-check company like Intelius.com
, or for an even more thorough criminal background check, my company's own
- Civil Records. Has your lawyer been sued (e.g., for malpractice)? Sued anyone? Been divorced? Had a tax lien placed on his/her property? Been bankrupt? Any of these possibilities may well color your judgment of him/her as a professional you want to entrust your case to. You can check out civil records online through a reputable information provider like Intelius.com
or U.S. Search
- Business Background Check. Investigate your attorney's law firm at the Secretary of State's Office in your state. For more information on how to conduct a business background check, refer to our report, Checking Out A Business.
- News Search. Has your attorney been written about in the news? You can find out online using AJR/Newslink or NewspapersOnline.com
- Property Records. Want some insight on your lawyer's financial situation? Again, this may seem intrusive, but I think if I were hiring an attorney for a major case, I would want one that's been financially successful. You can get a pretty good gauge on this just by checking property records. What does he/she own in the way of property? Your local tax assessor can tell you via Netronline.com
That's it - our ten minutes are up! (OK, maybe twelve or thirteen if
you're a slow reader.) Below is a listing of Web resources to help you
continue your research on checking out lawyers.
DON'T FORGET TO GIVE US A "LIKE" AT TOP OF PAGE.
II. For Additional Information
This Section provides reviews and recommendations of Web sites and other
Fee-Based Online Background Checks
I've already mentioned, in Section I, that for criminal records checking you're usually better off hiring an online background-check company, as opposed to doing the work yourself. The reason is that in the United States criminal records are widely-scattered among the states and counties. There's no single, central repository for criminal records which is available to the public. So if your lawyer has a rap sheet in Illinois and is now practicing law in Ohio, you'd never find out unless you hire an online background-check company to check all jurisdictions for you. I've looked at a number of online offerings and it seems to me the best bet for most people is one of the following two services:
This company's "Advanced Background Check" provides a nationwide database criminal search, bankruptcies, tax liens, small claims judgments, and home values for $99.99.
This is offered by my own company, Washington Research Associates, Inc., and is probably the most thorough criminal records search on the Internet. Here are the records we search:
- Nationwide criminal records (going back twenty years)
- Aliases - We check criminal records not only in your lawyer's current name but also using any aliases or former names (for example, a woman attorney's name before marriage).
- Wants & warrants (Few other online criminal records searches include this but it's vital for thoroughness)
- Federal convictions
- Sexual offense registries nationwide, terrorist watch lists (I hope your lawyer is not on this list), Interpol search, news search (in case your lawyer has been mentioned in a news story linking him/her to criminal wrongdoing).
The fee for the E-MaximinalCriminalSearch report is $115. I suggest you consider using this report plus the previously-described U.S. Search report if you're involved in a high-dollar-figure civil case or a felony criminal case, and need as thorough a background report as possible on your selected attorney.