In selecting a lawyer, the first thing you should do is make sure you are selecting a lawyer whose primary area of practice is in the area of your need. The legal profession does not have clear specialty differentiations, as opposed to physicians for example. For lawyers, it’s a self-designation. A consumer should look at the lawyer’s central focus of their practice to find what they excel at.
If a lawyer’s website lists more than three areas that they practice in, I would be suspicious. You’re looking for a specialist, not a generalist. It would be like going to your family doctor for back surgery. He might be able to get it done, but that’s not really his type of work. It’s the same with lawyers.
How do you determine what area they devote the most time, energy, and money to? What resources are available to you? I believe other lawyers are the best judge of competency in the profession. There are also multiple accredited rating services that give validity to special practice areas.
Law firms receive numerous phone calls a day from people with legal issues across the spectrum. I prefer to take calls and listen to each individual’s story and situation so that I can best assess how to help them. Occasionally, I make referrals to other lawyers who are better equipped for that particular area of practice. I keep a directory so I can quickly give them a couple recommendations. This accomplishes two things: I’ve gotten them to the right person and hopefully created some good will, and I made a recommendation that I feel comfortable with.
When speaking with your potential lawyer, the first question you should ask if your issue falls into their area of normal practice is about what their experience has been with these types of cases. Do they try cases or only settle? It’s important to know that some lawyers never try cases. For example, we have some major television advertisers in the Knoxville market who have never tried a case, yet still regard themselves as being great lawyers. The defense bar views these lawyers as not willing to prepare a case, not willing to try a case, noy willing to even perform the preliminary steps of written discovery and depositions. In my view, they don’t serve the consumer unless the consumer’s only interest is getting a check, no matter how fair the amount may be.
Personally, I never settle cases. I fully prepare to go to trial for a client. For example, I recently tried a case with an insurance company. The case could have been settled for the policy limits of $50,000, but they offered me zero. So we went to trial and the jury awarded my client $315,000. Because we prepared the case, knew who the witnesses were, and brought in a doctor’s testimony, we were successful against State Farm.
Fortunately, I rarely run into incompetence on the defense bar. We have a great defense bar in Knoxville with competent lawyers of multiple firms who know exactly what they’re doing—which is why the insurance companies have hired them. They have been practicing for years and most of them are a pleasure to deal with. One thing we do enjoy in Knoxville is that there is no better place to practice law.