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Questions that Every Client Needs to Ask when Retaining an Attorney

      The following article was written by my former client as part of a college class on research and survey design:

     Several years ago, I had the misfortune of being involved in a protracted legal dispute.   The entire experience was made infinitely worse by the first two attorneys that I retained.  The first attorney, a highly regarded and extremely expensive Rockville attorney, was too busy to perform the necessary work on my case.    I then interviewed 3 replacement attorneys.  I made the rookie mistake of retaining a Bethesda attorney, who excelled at marketing herself and self-promotion, but lacked the sufficient legal skills and expertise to properly represent me.

     After an exhaustive search, I then retained Stewart A. Sutton.  What a difference the right attorney makes.   He reviewed and personally organized my legal file and documents; he conferred with me to make sure that he understood the facts of my case; he researched and explained the applicable law to me; and he developed a new legal theory to resolve my case.   As a result of Stewart A. Sutton’s efforts, I was able to settle my complex legal dispute quicker, more favorably, and less expensively than I had ever expected.

     The lesson that I learned is that the right attorney will be able to resolve your legal problem in a favorable and expeditious manner.  The wrong attorney will prolong your legal problems or make them worse.  This makes the selection of your attorney a critical step in the process of solving your legal issues.

     So that others do not repeat my mistakes, I wanted to determine how a person should go about retaining an attorney.   In conjunction with a college  course I was taking on surveys and research, I designed and undertook a study to answer my question.

     My methodology was simple.  I obtained the names and addresses of a wide cross-selection of former clients from recently closed civil court files from Montgomery County Circuit Court.  I then interviewed the clients regarding whether or not they were satisfied with their former attorneys.  I obtained basic characteristics of the attorneys from their former clients, the attorneys’ website, and other public databases.  I then compared the characteristics of the attorneys from satisfied clients with the characteristics of the attorneys from dissatisfied clients.

     The results were astonishing.  I found that the attorneys for the satisfied clients shared many common characteristics.  I have distilled my findings into 6 areas of inquiry and 15 essentials questions that a client needs to ask to retain the right attorney.

 I.   Survey Questions

            Step 1: GRADUATE OF A TOP RATED LAW SCHOOL

             The first step is to select an attorney who attended a top rated law school.  There are 200 law schools in the United States.   Select an attorney who attended one the top 20 law schools as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. 

             Top rated law schools have a highly selective admission process; and graduation from one of these schools assures that the attorney has received a first rate legal education.   While the University of Maryland produces many fine lawyers (Ranked No. 48), you are more likely to be satisfied with graduate from these local law schools: University of Pennsylvania (No. 7); University of Virginia (No. 10); Duke (No. 11); Georgetown University (No. 14); and George Washington (No. 20).

             The other schools in the top ten are: Yale; Harvard; Stanford, Columbia, University of Chicago; New York University; Berkeley; and University of Michigan.  The remaining schools in the top 20 are: Northwestern; Cornell; UCLA; University of Texas; Vanderbilt; University of Southern California; and Washington University in St. Louis.

             Questions for clients to ask:

            1.         Which law school did you attend? (top 20 law school)

            2.         When did you graduate?  (12 or more years ago)

             Step 2: LARGE FIRM EXPERIENCE

            The best students from top rated law schools are recruited by prestigious law firms located in major cities.  These large firms are structured to train young lawyers to gain the necessary skills to practice law.

            Questions for clients to ask:

            3.         Where did you work after you graduated law school? (a prestigious  or well known law firm)

            4.         How many attorneys worked at the law firm? (50 or more)

            5.         Where was the law firm located?  (a city with a population over  500,000)

            6.         How long were you employed at this law firm? (5 or more years  years)

             Step 3: BEGAN OWN LAW FIRM

             After working at least 5 years at a large law firm, a lawyer has acquired sufficient skills to represent clients without supervision.  A small fraction of such lawyers will eschew the high pay and prestige of working at a downtown law firm and start their own legal practice in suburban areas.

            An attorney who starts his or her own firm is both confident and ambitious.  You are looking for an attorney is a founding member of the firm and has been self-employed for at least 3-years. 

             Questions for clients to ask:

            7.         Are you a founding member of this firm?  (yes)

            8.         When did you start your firm (3 or more years ago)

             Step 4: SMALL FIRM

            Small law firms (1 to 3 lawyers) have a distinct advantage over large firms.  Small law firms have less overhead, less staff to supervise, and are less likely to become overextended with too many clients.  A high attorney-to-staff ratio ensures that the attorneys are performing the work, not paralegals or secretaries. 

             Questions for clients to ask:

            9.         How many attorneys work at your firm? (1 to 3)

            10.       How many staff do you directly supervise? (0 or 1)

             Step 5: NON-MATERIALISTIC

             Many lawyers deliberately attempt to create the impression that they are successful by displaying their extravagant lifestyle.  They drive high-end luxury vehicles, wear designer clothes and expensive jewelry, and live in high priced homes.   The problem arises when lawyers live beyond their means.  Such lawyers have a dysfunctional incentive to take on more cases than he or she can possibly handle.  The hallmark of an overextended lawyer is providing low quality legal service to a high number of clients and charging excessive fees.

             A non-materialistic lawyer is not concerned with creating the impression that he or she is successful by displaying ostentatious badges of wealth.   The hallmark of a non-materialistic lawyer is providing high quality legal services to a small number of clients.  Such lawyers can afford to turn away business, because they are not burdened with an extravagant lifestyle overhead.

             Questions for a client to ask:

            11.       What type of vehicle does the lawyer drive? (under $30,000)

            12.       What type of watch does he or she wear?  (under $250)

             Questions concerning the attorney’s personal property can easily be worked into your initial interview with your prospective lawyer.  You might say that you admire the attorney’s watch and inquire as to the manufacturer.   You may inform the attorney that you are thinking about buying a new car, solicit his or her advice, and then ask him or her what type of vehicle he or she drives.   

             Step 6: Acknowledged legal expertise

             A non-materialistic attorney wants to impress clients, colleagues, and judges with his or her legal knowledge and skills.   Such lawyers write legal books or articles for law journals, teach other lawyers at seminars, and serve as expert witnesses in court cases.

             Questions for a client to ask:

            13.       Have you written a book or an article for law journal? (yes)

            14.       Have you taught other lawyers at a seminar or conference?  (yes)

            15.       Have you testified in court as a legal expert? (yes)

 

II.   INTERPRETING THE SURVEY RESULTS

             The clients who were most satisfied with their attorneys had affirmative responses to 12 or more of the questions.   The clients who experienced the least amount of satisfaction had affirmative responses to 6 or fewer questions.  Clients who had between 7 and 11 affirmative responses generally had a neutral experience with their attorney.

 III.  LIMITATIONS

             My findings are only preliminary in nature.   A comprehensive study will have to be conducted to validate my results.  My recommendations may only be applicable to clients who are seeking to retain an attorney in Montgomery County, Maryland. 

            Based upon anecdotal evidence of friends who have used my recommended methods for retaining an attorney, my advice increases the probability that the client will be satisfied with his or her attorney.

 

 

           

 

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Law Office of Stewart Andrew Sutton, LLC
8 Executive Park Court
Germantown, Maryland 20874
Telephone: 301-916-5000
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