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Picking a lawyer, starting from scratch


Stephen Naifeh, new to Aiken, S.C., asked around town for a real estate lawyer and hired the first one he talked to. Susan Illston and her husband went to his old college roommate when they needed a will.

Nicholas Carroll, who has moved often and hired lawyers at nearly every stop, has consulted the Yellow Pages.

And these three probably know as much as anybody about lawyers, if that's any indication of how hard it is to find a good one. Mr. Naifeh is co-editor of "The Best Lawyers in America" (Woodward/White, 1995); he and his partner are both lawyers and have a staff of seven who evaluate lawyers' evaluations of other lawyers.

Ms. Illston is a federal judge in San Francisco who spent 20 years as a trial lawyer. Mr. Carroll wrote "Dancing With Lawyers" (Royce Baker, 1992), a guide for small-business owners.

"People are really at sea," Judge Illston said. "I think most people have no idea where to start to look for a lawyer. It's a good question."

It's an especially good question in a nation of about 820,000 lawyers -- more per capita than just about anywhere else in the world. But the fact is, more people are turning to lawyers for help without much notion of what to look for or what to look out for.

Sixty-eight percent of respondents to a 1993 poll for the National Law Journal said they had used a lawyer in the previous five years, up from 52 percent in 1986.

Where do you look for lawyers, and how do you know if they're any good? As Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University puts it, "Most of us don't have general counsel."

But most of us do have common sense, and that is what experts urge to use in pursuit of the perfect legal practitioner. One bit of advice that they never tire of repeating is "Ask obvious questions."

That was what Mardee Astor, the owner of a dried-flower business in Moraga, Calif., did after her husband left town without telling her he had retained a divorce lawyer. Forced to make an emergency search for one of her own, Ms. Astor took steps that experts always recommend and that almost no one follows: Make a list of candidates, question them on the phone, weed out some of them, prepare more questions and interview at least three lawyers face-to-face. Then review your options.

"The most important thing is," Ms. Astor said, "before you go in, you have to get an idea of what you need to accomplish. Some people would rather just walk in and put it in the lawyer's lap and say, 'Take care of it for me.' "

Also critical, Ms. Astor said, was each lawyer's ability to explain the process. "Some may be aggressive and competent and have the price tags to show it, but can't answer questions well," she said. The lawyer she hired was the one who gave her the most honest picture of how judges and settlements work. "Justice has nothing to do with the law," Ms. Astor said pleasantly.

Legal specialists say Ms. Astor made most of the right moves. But they warn that just collecting names can take time. Among the obvious sources, probably the best are other lawyers. Others include court employees, professors at local law schools, business acquaintances, accountants (they always know tax lawyers) and family and friends -- the latter especially for a strictly personal matter like a divorce.

Most libraries have legal reference books, including the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, a multivolume set that lists lawyers across the country. Martindale includes a rudimentary rating system, but many lawyers are not assessed, either because they have not been in practice long enough or they are not well-known by colleagues. The names in Mr. Naifeh's "Best Lawyers in America" are obviously recommended, but they are a small, fairly pricey group.

Most experts say getting names from advertising or the phone book -- and people really do -- is a terrible idea. "Would you call 10 hairdressers listed in the Yellow Pages?" asked Mr. Naifeh.

But Mr. Carroll, the author, defends his Yellow Pages research, at least for exploration. On the phone, "I'm shopping around, asking questions and getting free information," he said. "By the 5th or 10th phone call I'm pretty smart on the subject."

Bar associations' referral services are another source of names, though some sign up anybody who needs the business.

For people who start from scratch, though, specialists recommend shopping around. Most people make the mistake of hiring the first lawyer they talk to, according to Mr. Carroll. "They go to the lawyer's office, and then they don't have the nerve to say, 'Well, thanks for telling us what you do. We'll get back to you'," he said. But most lawyers say that this is what they should do.

It is essential to learn as much as possible about a candidate's area of expertise, legal experts say. General practitioners are neither as common nor as general as prospective clients might think, for example.

Finally, "don't leave the office, don't leave, without finding out about fees," said Brad Carr, a spokesman for the New York State Bar Association. More often than not, he said, the lawyer won't bring it up.

If the lawyer is working for a contingency fee, a practice that is standard in personal-injury cases, almost all states require a written agreement. Most lawyers say any fee arrangement should be put in writing, explaining hourly rates, disbursements and billing practices. Mr. Gillers, the law professor, has a litmus-test inquiry: "If I have a question about your bill, will you bill me for asking a question about the bill?"

Some experts suggest asking a state's disciplinary agency whether any measures have been taken against the lawyer. But this effort is unlikely to yield much because, practically speaking, only lawyers who commit an egregious act are officially disciplined.

"We're just talking about the miscreants who do something outrageous," said Robert Gould, a legal malpractice lawyer in Seattle. "There's a vast iceberg of incompetent lawyers who don't fall within that screen."

Still, most experts say it's worth a call, reasoning that it's better to know than not know if you're about to hire someone who has been caught, dipping into escrow funds.

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