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How to Find a Good Lawyer

how to find a good lawyer

There’s a saying: There are too many lawyers but not enough good ones. So how do you find a good lawyer?

Sadly, not even lawyers know the secret to finding a good lawyer. Lawyers who work in a certain specialty might know good lawyers and bad lawyers in the same specialty. Outside their specialty, some lawyers might be able to give a referral. But, the quality of those referrals tends to be spotty because they’re often not from any experience of actually working together.

So, is finding a good lawyer just random luck? Not quite.

There are a few things you can do to better your odds to find a good lawyer. For example, there are websites that will pair you with a lawyer. But, for this article, let’s explore how to find a good lawyer the old-fashioned way.

The Type of Lawyer a Small Business Needs

Before you start, because there are many legal practice areas, you’ll need to know the type of lawyer you’re looking for.

For starting and running a small business, you’ll need to find a lawyer who practices corporate law, business law, commercial law, or maybe business transactions law. For those lawyers who work with small businesses, these basically mean the same thing. (At large businesses or law firms, these are closely related but different practice areas.)

Sometimes, there are outlier practice areas that might be able to help entrepreneurs form business entities. For example, some intellectual property lawyers, because they work with inventors who want to start a business selling their invention, often can help you form your business entity.

Once you find a candidate, ask the lawyer if they can:

  • Help you form your business
  • Draft template agreements that you can use for everyday operations
  • If/when necessary, review and negotiate important contracts for your business

Find a Lawyer by Asking Your Personal Network for Referrals

The most tried and true way to find a good lawyer is to go through your friends, family, and business associates. Sometimes, they’ll know a lawyer who practices corporate law. Other times, the lawyer they know might be able to give you a referral.

Naturally, given that you need to find a lawyer for your business, asking other small business owners for lawyer referrals might be the best way. Still, most businesses run just fine without having to frequently consult with a lawyer. So, not every small business owner will be able to suggest a name.

Search on State Bar Website for a List of Lawyers in Your Area

Some states require all lawyers licensed in that state to be members of the state bar. Other states have no such requirement but still have state bar organizations. In either case, you can often find a list of lawyers on these websites. The list can be searched based on location and sometimes area of practice.

You can use this list to narrow down some possibilities. Then, go to each lawyer’s website and read their professional bio to learn more. Keep in mind, though, that these bios often are marketing documents. Sometimes, lawyers list types of work they only have a small amount of experience in.

Note that some state bar listings will include disclosures of any disciplinary action the lawyer has received in the past. Naturally, you should stay away from lawyers who have gotten in such trouble in the past.

Look for Lawyers Board Certified in a Specific Area

Sometimes, either on the lawyer’s website or in their state bar listing, you’ll find a statement that a lawyer is board certified in a specific area. Each state has its own areas of board certification, so you might or might not be able to find a lawyer board certified in business or commercial law in your state.

Being board certified typically means the lawyer had to pass an exam in that area of specialty, must do more continuing legal education in that area, and, often, must devote a certain percentage of their practice in that area.

Is a board certified lawyer a good lawyer? Maybe. A good lawyer has other qualities that can’t be quantified with a board certification. A board certification does mean that the lawyer is competent in the area of specialty.

Consider the Size of the Law Firm

Large firms with hundreds of lawyers do not necessarily have the best lawyers. They often do, however, have the most expensive ones. So, while you might be able to find a competent lawyer at a large firm, you might also get better value for your money elsewhere.

Often, smart, young lawyers start at large firms and learn some sophisticated ways to practice law. However, because a lawyer’s stay at a large firm depends on their ability to bring in paying clients, some highly skilled lawyers end up being asked to leave.

These lawyers often land at medium or small firms or maybe even practice by themselves. Some of them are excellent lawyers looking to build their practice. Look on their bio for a good law school, a fairly large firm, and then being currently at a medium or small firm. You might be able to find a good lawyer this way.

Set Up an In-Person Meeting

Hopefully, by this point, you’ll have two or three lawyer names that you can contact. Your next step is to call and set up an initial consultation with them. A good lawyer not only knows their area of practice but also has interpersonal skills that you can only evaluate from an in-person meeting.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself and/or the lawyer in the evaluation process.

Do They Return Calls in a Reasonable Amount of Time?

Young lawyers are taught that they should return client phone calls within 24 hours. Sometimes, when a lawyer is traveling, they might not be able to return the call for a longer period. But, you should at least get some sort of response saying they’ll call you back as soon as possible.

If you have to wait longer than 24 hours to get a response, then you probably shouldn’t work with that lawyer. Good lawyers respond to inquiries from clients or prospective clients.

How Long Have They Practiced Business Law?

Despite formal schooling and a professional competency exam, the practice of law is still very much an apprenticeship. Newly minted lawyers simply won’t know the unwritten tricks to the practice of law (and there are many).

We recommend you hire lawyers with at least 5-7 years of experience in a particular area of practice. By then, they should have seen enough real-life legal situations to be able to intelligently help you solve your legal issues.

One exception to this guideline is if an already experienced lawyer changed practice areas. Often, general lawyering skills can translate to new practice areas. So, such lawyers can take less time to become competent in their new area.

Do They Charge a Fee Upfront? What are Their Hourly Rates?

Don’t be shy to ask about the lawyer’s charges, if the lawyer doesn’t bring this up themselves. Most lawyers still have a standard hourly rate, but they often charge a specific sum for different types of work. For example, if you wish to form a corporation with multiple shareholders, they should be able to quote you a standard charge for the work.

Some lawyers will ask for a consultation fee for the initial meeting. Often, this is at a reduced hourly rate. They tend to ask for the fee to separate people who are seriously looking for a lawyer from folks who just want free information.

Do You Feel Comfortable with Them?

Good lawyers have people skills. “Good” is also subjective. Some folks prefer aggressive lawyers who won’t back down an inch. Others want to work with lawyers who can compromise and close a deal. So, “good” depends not only on the lawyer but also on you.

Often, the easiest way to find a “good” lawyer is to ask yourself if you feel comfortable with them. If you do, then try them out. If something about them doesn’t rub you right, then move on to the next lawyer on your list.

Try Them for a Project or Two and Don’t Feel Shy to Stop to Using Them

At the end of the day, even after you’ve done your research and even after speaking to the lawyer, you still won’t know their competency level or how they react in different situations. You’d have to actually work them for a project or two, to know to be able to judge. This is true even lawyers who have a lot of experience hiring and working with other lawyers.

During the project, continue to ask yourself if you feel comfortable working with them. If the lawyer makes a mistake, do they own up to it and fix it for you for free, or do they make excuses and point fingers at others? Trust your gut instinct.

At the initial business startup stage, you’re just looking for a competent lawyer as opposed to a “good” lawyer. As a business person, you’ll have plenty of chances to work with lawyers in the future. If you try one out and don’t like them, find another one for another project. Eventually, you’ll find someone you’re comfortable with and who can be your trusted legal advisor, for the long term.

Interested in starting and running a small business? Here’s the beginning of our step-by-step guide: What to do right after getting that great business idea.

Questions? Comments?