How do I find a good lawyer: Hiring a lawyer that fits your needs

“How do I find a good lawyer?” This is one of the most common questions we hear.  Nobody thinks ‘You know, my life is really great right now.  I think I’ll go find a lawyer to tell me if there’s anything I should do.’  For most people, having to hire an attorney means something (usually bad) has happened in their life.  They are faced with spending excessive amounts of money under circumstances in which they have little control over the outcome.  What do you do to give yourself the best chance of finding the right advocate?

What is Your Legal Issue?

How do I find a good lawyer

The first step is to determine why you feel the need to talk with a lawyer.  Have you been served with a complaint and you now need to file an answer?  Has someone threatened litigation?  Are you buying property and need someone familiar with code compliance and zoning issues to review the purchase before committing?  If it has been a few years since your estate plan – your will, your trust, your non-testamentary dispositions, your life insurance – was reviewed, you probably need someone to review it.  Especially in the field of probate and estate planning, the legislature can make changes which drastically impact your estate.  Most of the time, there is a period during which you can ‘opt out’ of those changes and maintain your existing structure; however, once that period has passed, you may be stuck with changes you don’t like.  If you are getting married, particularly if it is a second marriage for either of you, or if you have significant separate property, you should talk to a lawyer even if you are not interested in a premarital agreement; that lawyer can advise you how California treats various types of assets, particularly as it relates to things like how you take title to the family home.  Talking to a lawyer does not mean you need a premarital agreement; it is just a means of educating yourself.  Once you have identified why you feel the need to talk to a lawyer, the next question is:

How do I Find a Good Lawyer Near Me?

There are a few things that are not good sources. The Yellow Pages (do they even still exist?) are probably the worst place to find an attorney. I once had someone tell me they chose an attorney because he had the largest ad (more than three full pages). We used to joke that an attorney’s competence was inversely proportional to the size of his or her Yellow Pages ad.

How do I find a good lawyer? Be wary of reviews.

Start close to home.  The best information source is always word of mouth.  Talk to your friends and family.  Have they ever had to hire an attorney?  Were they satisfied with the service?  Were they satisfied with the outcome? (sometimes you can do great work and still lose).  Did the attorney keep them informed about what was going on?  Was there time to reflect on important decisions or was everything done at the last minute?  Were the communications and court filings clear and concise?  Would you feel comfortable referring a friend to that attorney? Some people will spend days researching which car to buy: which one gets the best mileage, who has the best frequency-of-repair history on Consumer Reports, which one has the best rating from JD Power, who has the fewest recalls, etc.  Yet, that same person might spend less than an hour deciding which lawyer will best represents his or her interests in court.

How to Find a Good Lawyer: Be Ware of Bias

The fundamental problem for consumers is that there are few independent, unbiased rating programs for lawyers.  Online reviews are problematic because people who post reviews are fundamentally different from people who do not, and because a dissatisfied customer is more likely to post a review than a satisfied one.  Also, because of the way social media algorithms are written, a negative report is about three times more likely to be picked up and repeated than a positive one.  Many of the online rating services (such as AVVO, Yelp,, etc.) are linked to, or provided by, marketing programs that ultimately want to sell you something.  That doesn’t mean they’re dishonest; it just means they may have financial interests that are not necessarily aligned with yours.  When AVVO started evaluating attorneys several years ago, its rankings were based upon the extent of the attorney’s social media presence and engagement – there was no mechanism for actually evaluating the attorney’s competence.  Some ‘elite’ marketing programs are best described as scams.  There is one well-known certification which promises that only the top 10% of all attorneys are eligible for membership, and that all new applicants are carefully vetted and evaluated by a distinguished board of attorneys and judges.  In reality, that program sends invitations to almost anyone, including law students and others who are not even attorneys, and the ‘vetting’ consists of waiting to see if your check clears.  Its membership roll includes at least two dogs and one chicken, all of whom are authorized to display the plaque and logo advertising their membership in this elite organization.  

There are several local attorneys whom I know to be excellent lawyers, but who have negative ratings on specific websites.  There are others with a collection of five-star reviews whom I suspected were brain-dead.  A comment that a lawyer ‘only cares about money’ likely means the lawyer expected to be paid and was not willing to work for free. I would not give any credence to any rating on a specific site unless that lawyer has at least 30 to 40 reviews.

For online reviews, the best practice is to look for consistent themes expressed across all the review sites, without focusing too much on 1 or 2 specific reviews.  You should also always visit the California Bar Association site to see when the attorney was admitted and if he or she has a record of discipline; lawyers are not required to disclose disciplinary proceedings or malpractice actions in their marketing materials.  

In my view, the most credible source for attorney reviews is Martindale-Hubbell.  M-H is the only true attorney peer review site.  The evaluations are obtained from a list (which must include judges as well as attorneys) submitted by the attorney; however, the lawyer being rated does not know which individuals from the list will be contacted, and the actual reviews are anonymous.  A Martindale-Hubbell rating represents the collective judgment of the relevant legal community regarding that attorney’s competence and professionalism.  Of course, since TMPC is listed in the Martindale-Hubbell Bar Register of Pre-Eminent Lawyers, I may be biased…

After M-H, I think all of the online review services (AVVO, Yelp, Google,, etc.) are about the same.  They all rely on self-selection, which inherently skews the result.  Nevertheless, if an attorney has at least 30 to 40 reviews, and if the reviews and comments are consistent across all the reviewing sites (Ignoring outliers, because they are, by definition, exceptional cases), you can probably get a fair idea of what to expect from that attorney.

There are a few things that are not good sources.  The Yellow Pages (do they even still exist?) are probably the worst place to find an attorney.  I once had someone tell me they chose an attorney because he had the largest ad (more than three full pages).  We used to joke that an attorney’s competence was inversely proportional to the size of his or her Yellow Pages ad.

How do I Find a Good Lawyer: Does a Free Consultation Make Any Difference?

Yes.  It makes it harder to figure out if that lawyer is the right one for you.  

Almost all individual lawyers and firms these days offer a free initial consultation, usually up to about an hour or so.  That consultation is generally a combination of actual legal advice, and marketing to convince you to hire that firm.  There is nothing wrong with this; it’s simply the way the legal market works these days.

TMPC does not offer free consultations; we have a flat charge of $150.00.  There are several reasons for this; one is to filter out people who simply can’t afford our services.  It is an unfortunate fact that lawyers are very expensive, and a person who cannot afford to pay $150.00 for an hour or so of my time is unlikely to be able to afford the retainer and the ongoing fees.  If I’m not going to be paid for my work, I prefer to know that up front.  

Another reason is to avoid people who have no interest in hiring you, but simply want to establish a conflict that will prevent you from representing their ex.  Sometimes, it is painfully obvious that the person calling has no interest in actually hiring us; they just want to get in first so that we could not represent the other side.  At one point, we had represented all of the sitting family law judges in Ventura County (or their spouses), so all of them were disqualified from hearing cases in which we represented one of the parties. 

For a period of two years, the Judicial Council assigned a retired judge – one who did not have a conflict – just to hear the TMPC cases.  If your goal is simply to disqualify the attorney offering the consultation, a modest fee at least assures that person will experience a bit of financial pain for gaming the system; if the consultation is free, there is no reason not to take the shot.

So what do our potential clients get for their $150.00 payment?  We tell everyone up front that the fee will cover ‘about’ an hour of actual case review and advice.  I don’t put a firm time limit because I never know what the case will entail.  I think the longest I’ve spent on an initial consultation is about three hours – obviously not a big money-maker for me, but that is what her case required.  I have never told a client ‘Sorry, that’s all the time I can give you.’  So, for your $150.00, you get as much time as it takes to explain your case and give you some idea of what you should do.  

At the same time I am advising you about your case, I am evaluating whether it’s even a case I want to take.  How much should the retainer be?  What needs to be done immediately?  How much will it take to shepherd the case through the system?  Is the attorney on the other side someone I can work with?  These are all things I think about long before I quote you a retainer.

The retainer is never the amount it will take to resolve the case; all it does is get you started.  In a garden-variety family law case, the original $7,500.00 retainer will pay for file setup, filing of required pleadings, an initial motion (typically a request for support and for an award of fees) and maybe the initial round of discovery.  Once the retainer is exhausted, we will send you a billing statement at the end of each month.  It will have a detailed description of the services performed, the hours worked, the billing rate, and the amount due.  So long as you pay the bill promptly, we do not require an additional retainer; however, if you don’t pay, and it goes on for several months, we may ask you to make an additional deposit to cover future fees.  

Sometimes, a client comes in whose case is such a mess that you simply can’t bring yourself even to quote a retainer.  I recently had to tell a potential client I would not even consider taking her case; it was the most complicated, convoluted monstrosity I have seen in over 30 years of practice.  It was simply more than I was willing to take on, at any price.  She pleaded with me to help her, so I quoted a retainer that I thought was high enough to scare her off. 

Silly me.  The check arrived in my office about two weeks later.  No good deed goes unpunished.  

How to Find a Good Lawyer: 10 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Lawyer

Some questions you might consider asking at the time of the consultation (as well as my personal responses to these questions):

  1. How long have you been an attorney?
    (Over 31 years; law is actually my second or third career)
  2. Do you have a specialty? (Yes, family law and appeals)
  3. What is the local legal community like? (Good ole’ boys/girls club)
  4. How long will it take to finish my case? (Way longer than you want)
  5. How much money will it take? (Way more than you want)
  6. Do you see any specific problems in my case? (Few cases are trouble-free)
  7. Will you personally handle my case? (Yes, except for routine paralegal or clerical tasks)
  8. Will I have to take time off to go to court? (Almost certainly)
  9. Will you barter for services?  (Generally no, unless you have a vintage motorcycle)
  10.   Can I call you at any time? (No.  Office hours only, unless by appointment or a genuine emergency.  Being worried about your case is not an emergency)Anyone who enters into litigation has to accept that their life will be chaotic, stressful, and expansive until it is resolved.  Choosing the right advocate is the single most important decision you will make.