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What to Look for in a Trial Attorney

When describing lawyers, my Contracts professor in law school used to say, “You shouldn’t judge an entire profession by three or four hundred thousand bad apples.”[1] But with the bushels of bad apple lawyers, there are also many very good and conscientious attorneys who strive to do what is best for their client. So how do you find a good trial attorney who puts your interests above his or her billable hour requirement? Here are some general things to look for when searching for the right trial lawyer for you and your lawsuit.

Before I jump into some specific traits, let’s make it clear that any lawyer you hire must have at least two basic qualifications: competency and experience. This doesn’t mean your attorney had to go to an Ivy League school to get their degree. Rather, it means he or she must be persuasive and believable. There are lots of great attorneys without the shiny academic credentials who are as sharp as a tack in the courtroom—that’s who I want arguing for me if my company or good name is on the line. Additionally, nothing compares with actually having gone through several full trials. You want someone who has been in the trenches and knows what to expect, but can also react appropriately when the unexpected inevitably happens.

Assuming these bare minimums, first evaluate what kind of case you have. Is this a situation where you need to continue a business relationship after the lawsuit is over (with a supplier or a major tenant, for example), or have all ties been severed with the other side and you must win for your business to survive? Look at your case honestly from a business perspective because not all cases call for General Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War—that kind of case is extremely expensive and, while you may get the satisfaction of burying your opposition, you will certainly end up with a bill to your lawyer for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Not all trial lawyers are suited for the slash and burn lawsuit, either. By the same token, not all fire-breathing litigators have enough finesse to win your case without so angering the other side to still keep a necessary business relationship with the opposition after the dust has settled. You are the one who has to carry on the business after the lawyers are out of the picture, so you need to make an early decision as to what you want the relationship with the other side to be after the lawsuit is finished. Then hire the trial attorney with the disposition and skill set to get you there.

Second, make sure the lawyer’s personality doesn’t annoy you; after all, you are going to be dealing with this person for the next couple of years and shelling out tens of thousands of dollars so you need to hire someone you like—or at least tolerate. Litigation is contentious enough without feeling like you are fighting against your own attorney. You do not want someone who tries to bully you into taking positions or making arguments just for the lawyer’s entertainment. Remember: you hired the attorney; he or she works for you, not the other way around. I’m not saying you and the attorney have to start hanging out in each other’s social circles. I am saying that you are trusting your future to this person so find someone who respects you and your input.

An important subpart to this second point is trust. Find someone you trust, someone who will listen to your input and then tell you what you need to hear and not necessarily what you want to hear. Sometimes the strategy you want to take may not be in line with what the law or procedure allows. This is why you need an attorney with enough experience to tell you when something should or should not be done. You will be relying upon your counsel to help you out of your current predicament. Make sure you trust his or her advice.

Third, your lawyer should not make your dispute personal—especially in a commercial setting. Doing so takes away the objectivity he or she needs to represent you properly. Of course, you don’t want your trial attorney so unemotional that you are unsure if your interests are being protected. However, there is a fine line between taking a personal interest in a client’s case and making the client’s case the attorney’s personal mission. If you notice your lawyer is more focused on “sticking it” to the other side’s counsel rather than advancing your interests, you have a problem. Shakespeare correctly said, “And do as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”[2] Litigation is inherently full of conflict and tempers flare easily, but the dispute between your lawyer and opposing counsel must be kept professional and not turn into something personal.

Finally, any attorney you hire must remember that the law is a service profession. Lawyers are supposed to serve you when a problem has become too entangled to separate on your own. A trial attorney’s job is to see that your interests are protected in the most efficient and least expensive way possible; not to bill you for every last nickel. If your lawyer has forgotten the service aspect of this profession, you probably hired one of those bad apples and should look for new counsel.


Footnotes

[1] Professor James Gordon, J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, fall semester, 1995.

[2] The Taming of the Shrew, Act 1, scene 2. For a more humorous example, consider the relationship between Sam Sheepdog and Ralph E. Wolf in the classic Looney Tunes cartoon series. See, e.g., Double or Mutton (Warner Bros. Entertainment, 1955). They were friends before clocking in, ate lunch together, and were social after work, but during the workday, their goal was to defeat the other side. Importantly, neither one took the professional attacks personally.