This is a common question that people ask me at the initial client meeting. After all, what client does not want their lawyer to "fight" for their case? The primary source for this expectation has its roots in the vast wasteland known as television. Between law shows showing aggressive and over the top courtroom lawyer betrayals, and countless lawyer TV ads vowing to "fight for you" or to "make them pay," it is little wonder that people may expect that of the lawyer they hire.
But that question is the equivalent of eating cotton candy for dinner. Little caloric value, not fulfilling, and leaves you wanting for more, for lots of reasons.
After having been a personal injury attorney for 25 plus years, with the battle scars to prove it, you learn a few things. Being a "bulldog," without more, is like that cotton candy meal. I've seen and have gone up against so called "bulldog" lawyers who are long on bombast and hot air and short on common courtesy, civility, common sense, and legal acumen. They run roughshod through everyone--opposing counsel, witnesses, sometimes even the judge. Sometimes the trail of destruction they leave makes it difficult if not impossible to bring a case to an amicable resolution.
When your stock in trade as an attorney is fear, intimidation, yelling and screaming, and pushing and injecting personal emotions into any given situation, well good luck with that. It eventually implodes like an arsonist who sets the fire and leaves the scene, even if it gives the lawyer's client a temporary sugar high.
So what is a good set of criteria for choosing an attorney to help you solve any legal problem? In no particular order, competence should be high on your list. How do you measure a lawyer's competence?
First and foremost, ask around. You'll get more from simply asking trusted friends and colleagues than any useless lawyer ad or slick, self-laudatory materials left on your doorstep or mailbox two days after your crash.
Second, what kind of information can you acquire from your attorney or firm for your particular problem? Generally speaking, any written information the lawyer offers in the form of books or reports can be helpful in measuring competence, but you have to be careful here. I've seen law firms that have great looking websites and list their "significant cases,"when in reality they farmed the case out to another lawyer or firm, and are merely taking credit for the results of a case they did no heavy lifting on.
Third, you must ask about the attorney's actual experience in the courtroom if you have a personal injury or criminal case, for example. Here are a few simple questions to ask of any personal injury lawyer: when is the last time you tried an auto or medical negligence case to a jury? How many of these cases have you tried to a jury verdict in the last few years? You need to know this as your worst case scenario, and if your attorney has not seen the courtroom in years, think: paper tiger.
Finally, you need to gauge the attorney's passion for what he or she does and your case. Did the attorney take the time to talk to you in detail, or did you feel like a number or that your time was not really respected or valuable? More than anything else, what kind of vibe are you getting from the attorney? Realistic yet positive? Personable? Disinterested? All the personality of a piece of wet cardboard?
And back to that bulldog thing. There is a time and a place for everything. Generally speaking, in the world of litigation, my prescription is simple: treat everyone like you would like to be treated. Simple decency, kindness, and common courtesy will get you more information than acting like a mad dog tearing through a meathouse. On rare occasions, a witness or a defendant or an expert will be so caustic or rude that they give you permission to take a more firm handed approach.
After all, any dog backed into a corner will know when and how to bite back.
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