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.
Tags: Free Legal Help
This blog has been following the expansion of the use of technology in the justice system. See our posts about electronic filing (2010), court appearances by telephone (2011), and fighting tickets online (2012).
Video technology is also being embraced by the courts. One well-established use of video is the recording of depositions. A deposition is the sworn oral testimony of a party or witness that takes place prior to trial. Depositions are a form of evidence, and they are normally taken in court reporters’ or lawyers’ offices. Video is simply used to record the testimony, and replaces a voice recording or the transcription of the court reporter’s notes on paper.
Video court appearances by incarcerated criminal defendants have also been in use for some time, because a video link from the courtroom to the jail is much easier and more secure than transporting the defendant from the jail to the courtroom and back. Video appearances may also be used in applications for restraining or protective orders, to allow the applicant to testify without having to be in the same room as the person they need to be protected from. Another common use of video is in child custody hearings, where one party resides in a different state.
Use of video in court proceeding has been increasing as video technology has become cheaper, more reliable, and more mainstream. Many states now permit video conferences, appearances, and testimony in many other types of cases, not just those noted in the previous paragraphs. Use of video is governed by each state’s court rules, and CourtReference has links to each state’s court rules in its Self-Help and Legal Research category. Finding the relevant court rules that govern video can be time-consuming, so South Dakota’s 2nd Judicial Circuit has published information about its video appearance procedures on its website. Watch for more creative uses of video and other technologies by checking court rules and court website resources, right here on CourtReference.
Tags: Court Systems · Courtreference.com · New Sites · News · South Dakota · Technology
Perhaps it’s a term you’ve heard on Law & Order. Or you may remember the calls for withdrawal of Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Clarence Thomas from hearing The Affordable Health Care Act case due to alleged conflicts of interest. Both Justices remained on the case, although critics were quite vocal about their participation-Kagan, for her role as Solicitor General in the Obama administration when the Act was signed into law, and Thomas, for failing to disclose his wife’s income from organizations opposed to the Act. Demands for their recusals may have split along partisan lines, but how important is public perception of judicial impartiality, whether a high profile case or not? And what exactly is judicial recusal?
Simply stated, recusal is the act of a judge removing him or herself from a case to avoid the appearance of judicial bias or conflict of interest. A fair trial demands the participation of a judge who can impartially preside over legal proceedings, whether criminal or civil in nature. If a party to the proceeding (plaintiff, defendant, respondent, attorney) perceives judicial bias or possible conflict of interest, that party may seek recusal of the judge by request or motion. Under what circumstances are recusal proceedings initiated, and how compelling must the appearance of bias or conflict be for removal from the case?
All states have codes of judicial conduct that govern the activities of judges to guarantee the integrity of the justice system. Most states follow guidelines from the American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct, which direct judges to recuse themselves from legal proceedings if their impartiality may be reasonably questioned. There does not need to be a definitive showing of prejudice or bias, merely a reasonably drawn inference that the judge may not be able to execute legal duties impartially, given a personal, professional, or financial interest.
Who decides whether an allegation of bias or conflict is sufficient to warrant recusal of the challenged judge? You might be surprised to learn that the decision to recuse remains with the individual judge, regardless of how the question of possible bias emerged. The judge may disclose a potential conflict, or one of the parties may raise it. Regardless, the judge alone determines whether a conflict exists, and whether he or she can preside over the proceedings impartially and equitably.
Even if the codes of conduct for judges grant them broad discretion regarding self-disqualification from cases, there are obvious circumstances that warrant recusal. A personal conflict of interest includes legal proceedings in which the judge, a family member, or close friend is a party to the action, or has some stake in the legal outcome. A judge’s extra-judicial activities or past issue advocacy may also challenge the appearance of neutrality, depending on the nature of the legal action. For example, a judge should not preside over a criminal case in which the defendant is a family member, but should the judge also withdraw from a case involving a past political opponent involving election fraud?
A professional conflict of interest involves proceedings in which former clients, judicial peers, past employers and/or colleagues are parties to the case or have some stake in the legal outcome. For example, if a judge is assigned to a case involving a former client represented while practicing law, the judge should elect to recuse. Professional conflicts of interest can also extend to professional relationships of family members and judicial staff. Further, an elected judge should opt for recusal from any legal proceeding involving campaign staff, volunteers, members of political action committees, or anyone else associated with getting the judge elected. If the judge was appointed, he or she should refrain from hearing cases involving the appointing executive or political organization.
Judicial campaigns present another significant conflict of interest challenge-the unprecedented amount of money in state judicial elections. Campaign contributions by a specific litigant, attorney, or issue advocacy group should be disclosed and monitored to prevent the appearance of bias or favor by the recipient judge. Other financial conflicts include legal proceedings impacting a judge’s personal or family assets, investments, and other financial business affiliations. Clearly, recusal would be in order if a judge is assigned to a case involving a company in which he or she holds significant stocks.
While many of these circumstances are obvious, some are more nuanced. We must rely on our judges to police themselves, to disclose potential conflicts of interest, and err on the side of disqualifying themselves from any legal proceedings where their impartiality may be reasonably questioned. Our notion of a fair and unbiased legal system demands it.
To find rules of judicial conduct in your state governing recusal, look for links to organizations like the State Bar Association or the Administrative Office of Courts on CourtReference under the Self Help and Legal Research category.
Tags: Court Systems