I often write about how to be a smart legal consumer, and an important part of that is finding a lawyer you can trust. I don’t mean “trust” in the sense of being dishonest with you or your money, because I think it is a very short list of lawyers you cannot trust in that sense.
Rather, I mean trust in the sense of your being able to trust the lawyer to have the wisdom, confidence and foresight to approach matters focused first on your best interests. A lawyer you can trust like that will, among things, help you find the right weapons for the right needs, which is a critical aspect of managing your legal costs.
But how do you know if you have found a lawyer you can trust? Of course trust is something you have to feel, and like any professional relationship it may have started with some degree of a personal relationship. But you may not always have the luxury of having established a personal relationship when you need legal help. For example, you may need a particular expertise, or a lawyer in a particular city or state, and not a known quantity available.
Here are a few good signs that you can trust a lawyer:
1. The lawyer does not hesitate to send you to another lawyer sometimes.
No lawyer can do everything. (In fact, most of us can’t do the things we are asked about most often at social functions – wills and divorces.) Even with things we can do, there may be other lawyers better suited to a particular task for any number of reasons – cost, location, knowledge of other parties involved in a matter. The lawyer who says, “I think it would be best for you if this other lawyer assisted you with this particular project, let me introduce you and give him/her a brief review of the matter,” is usually focusing on your best interests and not his/her short-term economic gain.
2. The lawyer is comfortable partnering with other lawyers and other professionals on your behalf.
Some legal matters require more than one lawyer, and some interact with non-legal issues such as accounting, public relations or employee relations. For example, an Ohio company with an issue in another state may want the involvement of the Ohio lawyer who knows the company best, but needs a lawyer in that other state who knows the laws, processes and players of that state better than your usual lawyer.
Or, a legal issue that may become public may require partnering with a professional who can work with you and your lawyer to shape internal and external messaging. A lawyer who is not looking to dominate a project, but rather is willing to fill the role best suited to the project, and to work in a coordinated (but not duplicative) fashion with other professionals, again has your interests in mind.
3. The lawyer tells you you’re wrong.
Most of us don’t like being told that we are wrong. So it takes a certain confidence and/or fortitude to tell our clients or prospects they are wrong in their thinking about a legal matter, but it is our job to do so.
A common example from my own labor and employment law practice is when an employer gets sued, the employer will usually be certain it did nothing wrong in its dealings with the now-plaintiff employee, and will be looking for the lawyer to validate that and express confidence in defending the case. Experience tells us, though, that even with a well-meaning employer and a problematic employee, very few of these cases are slam dunks for employers, and we need to tell our clients that even when they don’t always want to hear it.
Regardless of the context, a lawyer on your side who is disagreeing with you is doing you a favor despite the possibility that you will react negatively to the messenger. That lawyer likely deserves your trust.
4. The lawyer gives you something of value at no charge.
There is a lot of noise about the cost of lawyers. Some of it is deserved, but most of us can agree that lawyers should be compensated consistent with the value of their services. Still, it is a good sign when a lawyer delivers value from time to time without charging you for it. This can take many forms:
- – “Here is an article I wrote that is relevant to your situation. Read it and see if answers some of your questions, then we can talk about any remaining questions.”
- – “This situation may have public relations issues. Here is a marketing firm I worked with that might be able to give you some insights from that perspective. Can I introduce you?”
- – “I see that your company is involved in XYZ charity. I think that’s an important cause. Let me know if there is a particular event or other time it would be particularly helpful for me to assist with a small donation.”
- – “I saw this article about a new project your competitor is starting. Did you see it?
All different kinds of value, unsolicited, that show you the lawyer is thinking of your best interests even outside of work you have asked the lawyer to do.
What these items have in common is that each of these behaviors demonstrates that the lawyer is looking beyond his/her short term self-interest. The lawyer’s focus is where it should be – on your interests.
Not each of these scenarios will be present at the start of a relationship. But by discussing with the lawyer your various potential needs and how the lawyer would approach addressing them, you will often be able to see whether the lawyer is thinking about these kinds of issues the way you would like. Lawyers who propose a relationship that seems to have some of these elements may very likely be able to help guide you to effective and cost-effective use of counsel.