Here are nine important questions you need to ask every social media and digital business lawyer you interview to represent you in an online business/legal matter. Just as important, I also share my thoughts about what the right answer to each question should be.
Question No. 1: “How long have you been practicing law?”
The attorney’s answer to this question is important and can be very revealing. It takes many years to become proficient in the legal profession. I recommend that you make sure any attorney you are thinking about hiring has, at a minimum, at least ten to fifteen years of substantial litigation experience in the area of law that you need help with.
Sure, there are exceptions to this rule and I know several very good, ethical attorneys with less than five years of experience. What they lack in litigation and trial experience they make up for with intelligence, drive, passion and the wherewithal to associate with experienced counsel to answer their questions and help them when needed.
Question No. 2: “What percentage of your practice is focused on the type of law I need help with?”
For the past ten to fifteen years of a lawyer’s practice, at least 90% of the attorney’s time should have been focused on representing legal business matters relating to your legal needs. For the past 5-7 years, a heavy emphasis should involve social media, digital, and technology.
Why not 100%? There are two good reasons.
First, the reality of the situation is that good online business, social media, and tech lawyers are hard to find. Most will handle the litigation needs of past clients and friends in other areas of law. They find it interesting and challenging to take on other cases and help people succeed in other areas of law (it’s a competitive nature that top lawyers have, and frankly, it’s difficult to hold back).
Second, I truly believe that the experience and knowledge gained in taking these other types of cases to trial allow a business lawyer to obtain new insight into various “outside-the-box” litigation approach he or she may not normally be exposed to during the normal handling of their files. In the long run, this can prove to be very beneficial to the client in an online business legal matter.
I’ve taken various trial techniques I’ve learned in civil, business and criminal trials and successfully used the approaches in complicated online business tech cases. In my opinion, this made a huge difference in the favorable outcome to my clients in these cases.
Here’s another way to look at this. Let’s say you are looking for a surgeon to help with a complicated heart problem. How would you like to be the very first patient that surgeon has operated on? Not a pleasant thought is it?
The fact of the matter is that you want your surgeon to be a successful specialist in performing open heart surgery and one who has done the procedure hundreds and even thousands of times in the past. As with medicine, in law, it’s equally important to get things done by an experienced practitioner. Often there are no second chances.
Here’s something else to think about. Believe it or not, the successful handling of a complex online business/legal formation or litigation matter is many times more complicated than what your heart surgeon is required to do. Bypass surgery may take several hours with your doctor actually involved “hands on” for only 30-45 minutes. Your online legal matter may take months or even years to conclude. While your surgeon may be required to make dozens of critical decisions during the heart procedure, your lawyer will be required to make hundreds, and even thousands, of legal and procedural decisions during the handling of your online business case.
Question No. 3: “How may jury trials have you had and what are your results?”
Have you had any court trials? How about jury trials? When was the last trial you had? How many of these trials involved complicated online business legal matters? What were the pre-trial settlement offers? What were the results and verdicts?
Many years ago when I first started to practice law, I read an interesting statistic. Apparently, most California lawyers have only tried an average of 3 trials during their entire career. As supported by the facts and contrary to what you watch on television, most lawyers are not trial lawyers, and most cases never make it all the way to trial. I believe it’s that way in most states and countries around the world.
Having an experienced business trial lawyer help you with your case is like having a professional NFL quarterback teach you how to throw a football. There’s no reason to settle for second best.
Question No. 4: “Will I be interacting directly with you?”
The attorney you hire should have the time to meet with you in his or her office, talk with you over the telephone, or meet with you in a private one on one video conference. The attorney you hire should be the attorney appearing in depositions, hearings, and court on your behalf. The attorney you hire should be the attorney who will negotiate on your behalf and if necessary, take your case to trial.
Here’s a little unknown truth that many people are not aware of: In many firms, after you meet with the senior partner during your initial consultation, the secretaries, law clerks, and paralegals do all the work on the file. Young and inexperienced associate lawyers work the file, negotiate, and even appear in court on your behalf. The senior attorney or partner may rarely work or look at the file. This is an ugly truth that many clients are not aware of. Now you do!
For this reason, if your initial consultation is scheduled with a clerk, paralegal or new associate attorney because the “experienced” partner does not have time to meet with you, I strongly suggest that you turn and run the other direction as fast as you can.
What I’ve observed about these types of law firms is that your file will not get the attention it deserves. In more cases than not, the left-hand does not know what the right hand is doing. The last thing you need is to have your file used as a “test” or “learning” case for a new non-lawyer paralegal or associate.
I think it is important that you establish a personal “one on one” relationship with the actual Senior Partner who will be handling your case. Make sure that any written retainer agreements you agree to sign explicitly spell out that the attorney you are retaining is the attorney who will be handling your file and personally representing you during the entire litigation process and trial.
Question No. 5: “Are you “AV” rated by Martindale-Hubbell?”
“Yes” is the answer you want to hear.
Why is this so important? Because according to the 170-year-old independent company named Martindale-Hubbell, an “AV” rating identifies a lawyer and firm as having (1) very high to preeminent legal ability and (2) the highest level of expertise, experience, integrity and overall professional excellence.
This rating is the best you get as a lawyer. It can’t be purchased or bargained for. It’s a rating given by other lawyers and judges in the community. The attorney who is being reviewed does not even know the process is taking place.
An “AV” rating tells you that other attorneys and judges in your community clearly believe that the attorney you’re meeting with consistently “shows a demonstration of the highest professional and ethical standards.” Isn’t that the kind of lawyer you want protecting your interest?
Question No. 6: “Are you active in your local, state and national lawyer organizations? How about your local community and also online?”
Good lawyers share tips, tools, information, and techniques with other attorneys who are members of these organizations. It’s important for your attorney to be “plugged into” these organizations so that you can benefit from the exchange of information.
In Orange County, we have the Orange County Trial Lawyer Organization. At the state level, we have the Consumer Attorneys of California. Nationally, the American Bar Association and American Association for Justice are two excellent organizations.
All of these organizations work hard to educate attorneys and consumers on the latest online social media, digital, and tech legal issues. Information, approaches, and documents are shared among lawyers to help each other win their cases.
When it comes to community service, find out if your potential lawyer is active. What groups or organizations is he or she involved with? For many reasons, it’s extremely important for your lawyer to be “connected” to his or her local community. Interacting with other lawyers, experts and even judges outside the courtroom and in a community service setting will, directly and indirectly, foster new relationships and strengthen old friendships.
Question No. 7: “Can you give me the names of past clients to contact?”
You can sit all day in the lawyer’s office and listen to the lawyer tell you just how great he is. While the attorney may be very convincing, how do you know if he is telling you the truth?
I believe smart consumers should independently confirm the lawyer’s abilities by talking with several of the lawyers past clients.
I suggest that you ask for a list of 5-10 names and numbers of past clients you can contact for a reference. These are people who have already agreed to have you contact them to independently confirm what you’ve been told or have read about the attorney.
It is not OK for the attorney you are interviewing to respond with something like, “my cases are confidential, and I can’t disclose this information.” If you get this kind of response, be very cautious.
Good lawyers have plenty of happy and satisfied clients who are more than willing to share their experiences with you. The smart attorneys have made arrangements to share client names and numbers with you. If the attorney does not already have a list available, we guarantee that he or she will put one together in no time if they are actually interested in handling your case.
Question No. 8: “Do you have client testimonials?”
Client testimonials and recommendations are an excellent way to see what people have to say about the lawyer you are meeting with. Case results and awards are important, but in our opinion, good lawyers with satisfied clients will have plenty of written client testimonials for you to take with you and review. Some even offer testimonials from other lawyers in the community.
If an attorney does not have, or cannot give you client testimonials, you need to ask, “Why not?”
It’s true that some very good attorneys simply do not take the time to ask for testimonials but on the other hand, how do you know if this is the case with the attorney you are sitting across from. The attorney may not have testimonials because simply put– he does not have any happy clients. Just as with the unbiased Martindale-Hubbell “AV” rating discussed above, getting independent third party confirmation and validation as to the attorney’s ability is the smart way to go.
Question No. 9: “Will you always be honest with me?”
I think this quality in a lawyer is very important for the following reasons. If you have a good case, you want your lawyer to tell you. If your case is weak or has other difficult legal issues, you need to know about the problems up front.
You always want your lawyer to be truthful and honest with you concerning the assessment of the case and your options. The last thing you ever want is to have your lawyer tell you what she thinks you want to hear rather than the truth and what you need to hear.
When it comes to getting advice from your lawyer, honest opinions and feedback are necessary. It’s not unusual me to tell 18 out of every 20 incoming potential clients that we don’t think they have a strong case and that we can’t help them.
How’s that for being brutally honest!
When interviewing a lawyer, please put this information to good use. Share this link with your family and friends who need to hire a lawyer.
Use these nine questions (and answers) to interview the lawyers you are thinking about hiring. Print this post out and take it with you to your meeting.
Jon Mitchell Jackson | Lawyer | Tech Entrepreneur | Digital Disrupter | 2013 California Litigation Lawyer of the Year (connect on social)