Over the years, the Fi Plan Partners staff has had considerable experience, both in this office and in other professional careers, of assisting our clients choose attorneys and watching the relationship “unfold.” We thought that we would share some practical advice outlined in the following steps that may be useful to you. Some may seem obvious, but even in those cases, we’ve tried to put an “experience twist” on it for your benefit:
Ask around. As with other things in life, you cannot ask enough good questions of others when you are seeking an attorney. Your other professional advisors, such as CPAs or firms like ourselves, are great ones to ask because of their high level of interaction with the legal community.
Experience counts. When I was growing up in Baldwin County, one of my father’s favorite expressions concerning hiring legal representation was, “Always get an older lawyer and a younger doctor.” Of course, there are exceptions to this, but in general this has never steered me wrong. Where newer technology and methods may drive medicine more, knowing the “gamesmanship” needed in the legal world is paramount. After all, practicing law is very “precedent” driven, so someone that has been doing it for awhile definitely gives you a leg up.
Hire a lawyer that doesn’t leave their “common sense” at home. It took me a long time after graduating from law school at Alabama in 1985 to realize how important this really is. I have used many different attorneys for a wide variety of tasks over the years, but my primary “go to guy” simply incorporates his common sense better than any lawyer that I work with, and then “backs that up” with solid technical skills. Unlike others, he never gets “twisted around the axle” so much with legal theories and strategies that he forgets what I am trying to accomplish, and most importantly, why. He has a solid, “day-to-day” understanding of the risk that I am trying to control and always keeps that at the forefront of his work with me. Common sense allows him to “anticipate” beautifully in his work with me, much like a quarterback throwing the ball before his receiver makes the final cut in his route. When I’m “looking for the ball,” it’s already dropping into my hands. This keeps my fees down as well, as I’m not constantly “getting him up to speed” on practical things.
Never confuse a generalist with a specialist. Most of the mistakes that I watch happen in choosing a lawyer emerge here. I love John Grisham’s colloquial expression for a generalist, which is what he himself was in northern Mississippi before authorship of “The Firm” opened a new career for him. Grisham calls these “ham and eggs” lawyers, which in many cases, are perfect for what you need. However, like life, many issues that appear simple at first quickly get complicated and call for a specialist in an area, such as taxation or estate planning. Avoid being the “guinea pig” that a generalist is using to be able to claim that they have a particular expertise when they really do not. The quality of your legal work will really suffer.
Hire an attorney that you feel communicates with you very well as a counselor, and enjoys doing so. This may seem obvious, but you would be amazed how many times this gets “off track” with the lawyer/client relationship. There is a very interesting recent trend going on among attorneys that underlies this. I was having lunch with a partner in a major firm here recently who enjoys a sterling reputation in real estate law. His experience and educational qualifications are impeccable, and I asked him what had changed about practicing law in the past 10 years. He told me, “I really miss the role of being a true counselor to my clients. In the world of “on-line” document drafting, I feel that clients just pay me to ‘rubber stamp’ what they have already decided to do.” He feels that the days of really “knowing” the client situation is something that attorneys miss. I suspect that if you offer an attorney an opportunity to serve in a “counselor” capacity rather than just a “transactional” role, they would jump at that chance and you would receive tremendous value.
Have a clear understanding up front of how a lawyer will bill you, for what, and get that in writing. Again, this seems simple and obvious, but we see it as a source of tension with attorneys and clients far more than you would expect. Remember, behind the “mystery” of the billable hour is just plain, old-fashioned math. A good lawyer will bill you with a well-defined, and understandable, system where you can discern the value given for the money paid. Insist on such a system before you begin.
Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns. I would be delighted to talk with you. You can call me at (205) 989-3498 or email me here.
Senior Vice President
Note: The opinions voiced in this material are for general information and are not intended to be specific advice. Any indices such as the S & P 500 can’t be invested into directly. Past performance is no assurance of a future result.
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