It is disheartening to read occasionally that a lawyer has stolen from a client. Honesty, fair dealing, and adherence to the law is an absolute requirement of a lawyer. Today the New York Law Journal had a story about a lawyer who was convicted of stealing at least $1,000,000 from clients. He is in prison. One of the clients has won default a judgment against the ex-lawyer for legal malpractice, however, it is very doubtful that the client will collect.
Therefore, it is important to hire a reputable attorney with a track record and standing in the community. Although the number of dishonest attorneys is very few, a client should use care in hiring his attorney just a patient should use care in consulting a doctor.
Here are some suggestions:
- Get a referral from a trusted relative or friend. A referral from a satisfied client is the best recommendation especially if the attorney handled a similar matter. I would say that this is the most important factor.
- Hire an attorney with experience in the given problem. Again, a referral from a relative or friend with a similar problem or case is very helpful. You should check that the attorney has experience in the area of law. An honest and careful attorney will not take work in an area in which he has no experience or familiarity. For example, our office limits its practice to accident cases and cases against insurance companies. If a client came to us with a patent matter, we would not handle it. We would refer it to a specialist in that area.
- Check on the lawyer’s standing in the legal community. You should check as to some of the following factors: a) Does the attorney belong to and participate in bar association activities? b) Has the attorney taught courses to other attorneys? c) Has the attorney written on the subject? d) Does the attorney belong to any recognized groups which rate attorneys for excellence, such as Martindale-Hubbell, Super Lawyers, or the Million Dollars Advocates Forum? d) Has the attorney tried cases? e) Has the attorney had cases reported in the case reporters or Jury Verdict Reporter? e) Has the attorney had a clean disciplinary record? f) Are there any reported malpractice cases against the attorney?
- Check on the attorney’s office and manner of doing business. Does the attorney appear to have a real office with employees? Or does he operate out of his home and meet clients at the local Starbucks? Does the office look organized and professional? The outward signs of stability and success are some indication that you are dealing with a reputable, financially responsible attorney. Generally, lawyers who work on a shoe string cut corners and do not buy malpractice insurance.
- Ask the attorney about his malpractice insurance. You should not be reluctant to ask about it. You would not let a contractor work in your home if he did not present proof of insurance. Therefore, I see this as a proper question when asked diplomatically. We belong to the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service, and a requirement of membership is proof of legal malpractice insurance. I admit that this question is very rarely asked. Perhaps, we are not asked this due to our well-known reputation? Although many attorneys could be insulted if the client asked for proof of insurance before signing a retainer agreement, I personally see nothing wrong in a client making the inquiry if is stated in a diplomatic way. E.g., “in the rare event that something goes wrong, and I do not anticipate anything going wrong because I have full confidence in your abilities, I would like to know if you carry legal malpractice insurance just in case a problem arises.”
- If you do not know an attorney or cannot obtain an attorney referral from a friend or relative, turn to the Legal Referral Service. The Legal Referral Service is non-profit group jointly sponsored by the leading barr associations of New York City. The LRS carefully screens of its attorney panelists for membership. Attorneys who are recommended by the LRS not only excel in their various specialties, but they have clean disciplinary records and proof of legal malpractice insurance. This is a requirement of the LRS. See our prior post on the LRS.
Mark E. Seitelman, 8/7/08, www.seitelman.com.