Finding an attorney can be a daunting process! Do you rely on personal recommendations from friends or family members? Select from the parade of lawyers advertising on late-night television? Search the internet for professional directories and performance reviews?
There are countless resources available to assist you with searching for legal representation. In this article, I’d like to recommend one simple starting point: consult your local state or county bar association. More than 300 lawyer referral programs are offered by area bar associations to direct legal consumers to appropriate counsel.
These programs were created to assist the public in selecting attorneys with experience tailored to meet specific legal consumer needs. To identify these needs, a referral clerk typically conducts a pre-screening interview to determine if an actual legal issue exists. If the matter can be resolved by a government or public service agency, the client will be directed to that resource.
Bar association referral staff can also direct consumers to other legal service providers, pro bono programs, and low-to-moderate income legal clinics. (For additional help locating legal resources and representation for impoverished clients, see next month’s blog post.)
The primary mission of the bar association referral programs is to provide consumers unbiased, qualified referrals based upon their specific legal needs. These programs presume an ability by the client to pay regular attorney fees (if the referred attorney is retained), but there is usually no fee for seeking a referral. Further, most initial referral meetings are offered at a free, discounted or capped rate ($0 dollars to $50 in the jurisdictions surveyed), so the consultation appointment is not prohibitively priced. Some lawyer referral offices provide up to three referrals at the same discounted rate, so you can seek a second or third opinion at a relatively affordable cost. Initial appointments average 30 minutes in length; confirm the maximum time allowed for the discounted rate when booking the appointment. You may also want to discuss the attorney’s fee schedule at the time of booking or during your meeting.
What type of attorneys are available through lawyer referral programs run by state and local bar associations? First, all are members in good standing and licensed to practice in the requested jurisdiction. They may be members of multiple state bars, or the federal bar (which may be important if your legal matter involves a multi-state conflict of laws issue, or a federal question). They may be sole practitioners or members of a firm, have general practices or very specialized areas of expertise.
How does the referral staff match your needs to an appropriate attorney? Is the selection process random, based on a simple rotation, or may you request legal representation reflective of your personal needs and preference?
First, all participating attorneys of a referral service provide extensive educational and professional backgrounds. Some attorneys pay to be on these services; others may participate by virtue of bar admission. It varies from state to state. You may wish to receive a referral to an attorney based upon years of practice or level of experience in a particular legal area.
You may prefer a female or male attorney (many referral services honor that request), or a practitioner who speaks a particular language or has translating services available. Perhaps you need an attorney who reads sign language, or who has experience representing physically or mentally challenged individuals. Some clients seek attorneys who are willing to take meetings on weekends or at their homes due to mobility issues. All these criteria can be included in a referral request.
Be sure to identify in your referral request (whether conducted by phone interview or completed online by screening application) the general nature of your legal issue, but also peripheral issues or factors that may be of significance or particular concern to you. For example, if seeking an estate lawyer to prepare your will, will you be able to provide future pet maintenance and care by establishing an animal trust? If you are facing a marital dissolution but your spouse is in another country, can you seek guidance for an international parenting plan? If incorporating a business, can the attorney advise you of tax incentives for “green” technology and design?
A lawyer referral service clerk can assist you in the proper categorization of your primary legal needs, but be sure to address those secondary factors to get the best “niche” referral. Express your preferences and desires, but refrain from asking for “the meanest pit bull divorce lawyer” in the area. (Author disclosure: I worked for a state bar association referral service and cannot count the number of times I received some variation on that request! Don’t ask. No subjective opinions will be offered.)
Again, the search for legal counsel can be overwhelming, but finding the right attorney is critical. Take advantage of the services offered by your local bar association, and the resources they have at their disposal to select appropriate legal counsel for you.
For an extensive list of lawyer referral services by jurisdiction, search CourtReference.com. Simply enter your state and county, then select the category “Legal Aid and Lawyer Referral” to review available of referral services and directories.