The Less Significant Seven

Have you ever wondered why it is that your car battery has outlasted many celebrity marriages? You don’t have to be the million-dollar matchmaker to know that all that glitters is not gold. A custom Vera Wang gown and a fleet of Maybach limousines will not change the fact that relationships based primarily on mutual physical attraction are doomed from the start.

This advice is usually applied to dating relationships: Physical beauty is superficial. An attractive exterior is no indication of a person’s interior or character. But it also applies equally well to your search for the attorney that’s right for you: When making an important decision like who to hire to represent you, don’t allow your judgment to be clouded by superficial considerations that offer little or no insight as to an attorney’s true nature or ability.

Are you now wondering how you are going to avoid being influenced by superficial considerations, when you haven’t dealt with lawyers enough to know what really matters and what doesn’t? Here is the short list of things that matter most when selecting an attorney: character and competency. Attorneys need to not only be good at what they do; they also must be even better at keeping the promises and commitments they make to you when they take your money and accept you as a client.

What are some of the things that don’t matter as much when deciding on what lawyer you should hire? I have compiled a list of what I call the “Less Significant Seven.” These are things that you may have thought were really important considerations when selecting an attorney however they don’t matter as much as you think.

1. Alma Mater: It is not about where you go, but what you know. Attorney Willie Gary is known as the “Giant Killer” for successfully taking on some of the country’s biggest corporations on behalf of his clients. He has won some of the highest jury awards in the history of the United States and is considered one of this country’s top trial lawyers. However, Gary did not graduate from Harvard, Yale, Georgetown or any of the other top-tier law schools.

He is a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University, a small historically black university in Durham, North
Carolina. Central is not one of the top law schools in the country; it is not even one of the top law schools in the state or city where it is located.

Without a doubt, Ivy League schools produce some of the best and brightest attorneys in the legal profession. But Willie Gary’s career is just one of many examples that they don’t produce all of the profession’s superstars. The only reason some attorneys didn’t attend an Ivy League school is because they could not afford the tuition. And the only reason some others did attend is because they (or their parents) could.

If you are having a tough time deciding between two evenly matched attorneys, it may make sense to use the ranking of their respective law school alma maters to break the tie. But if you use law-school ranking as the sole criteria for selecting an attorney, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

2. Gender: If I had listed the Less Significant Seven in order of least significance, gender would top the list. And yet many smart people make the dumb mistake of allowing gender to be the controlling factor in determining what lawyer he or she will hire. It is hard to believe in 2017 there are women who only want to hire female attorneys and men who insist on hiring only male members of the bar. Why does gender matter so much to these people?

I think it is because at some level they have bought into one or more of the following stereotypes: Women are the weaker sex. Men are naturally more aggressive than women. Women are more emotionally sensitive than men. Men are more likely to play fast and loose with the rules than women. Women are morally superior to men. Men are more ambitious than women. Women are less committed to their careers than men. Of course none of these things are true. In the county where I practice, the attorney with the most dubious reputation is a woman. And just recently a man who was considered a rising star in the district attorney’s office resigned his position in order to spend more time with his five-year-old son.

Stereotypes are creatures of preconceived notions, not reality. That’s why if you want to find the lawyer that is right for you, your search should be gender neutral.

3. Popularity: Think back to your high school days. Who was the most popular person in your senior class? I would not be surprised if he or she were also the head cheerleader, homecoming king, prom queen or class president. However, I would be somewhat surprised to learn that he or she was also your class valedictorian. In case you were wondering, I was not popular in high school, and although I got good grades I was not the valedictorian. But you don’t need to have achieved a perfect SAT score to know that the person in high school who knew everyone didn’t necessarily also know how to maintain a 4.0 grade point average.

The attorneys in your area with the highest name recognition are not necessarily the best lawyers in town. This is particularly true if the only reason you know their names is because you see their faces plastered throughout town on billboards, park benches and on the side of transit buses. Or maybe their notoriety comes from the television ads that appear on your screen two or three times a day. It is a mistake to assume that just because an attorney is good at marketing he or she will also be good at handling your case.

It is quite possible the best lawyer in town may be the least-known lawyer in town. McDonald’s is a brand that is known around the globe. They have sold over a billion burgers and counting, more than any other burger place on the planet. But I have no doubt that there are smaller, less well-known restaurants that sell fewer but better burgers.

4. Google Search: Here is my updated version of an old adage: you can’t believe everything you hear and even less of what you read on Internet sites that rate and review attorneys. The problem I have with some of what you read online is that you can never really know who is actually posting the comments. This applies to both really good and really bad reviews.

A few months ago I read an article in Inc. magazine about a serial entrepreneur who started a company that helped students prepare for standardized tests. The company was growing rapidly and making lots of money until a competing company began posting negative reviews and making false claims about them on the Internet. They successfully sued the company for defamation, but by the time the case got to court the damage had already been done.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident of this type of outrageous behavior. A bestselling author was caught posting negative reviews on about books by other authors who write in the same genre he does. But his dastardly deed didn’t end there. He was also accused of posting positive reviews about his own books. Thanks to people like him, you can’t allow online reviews to have the final say in whom you hire and whom you don’t.

5. Legal Fees: Do you want to know a secret that every smart marketing person knows? Most consumers believe that price and quality are directly proportional, meaning the more you pay for something, the better it is. And guess what? Most successful attorneys are also smart marketers, or they have at least one smart marketing person on staff. They know clients will equate legal fees with legal expertise. But we have all had the unfortunate experience of paying more for something than it was really worth.

Here is the bottom line on legal fees: if your choice comes down to two lawyers, don’t assume that the lawyer that charges the most is the best. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that you should hire the cheapest lawyer you can find. You just don’t have to hire the most expensive. Of course there will probably be a big difference in quality between a lawyer that charges $50 per hour and one that charges $500 per hour. But there may be no quantifiable or measurable difference between a lawyer that charges $200 per hour and one that charges $500 per hour. The more expensive attorney may charge more because his or her client base is willing to pay more.

6. Address: Location, Location, Location: These may be the three crucibles of real estate but they don’t apply to the practice of law. Every city has what I like to call “Attorney Alley.” This is the street usually near the courthouse where there is a predominance of law offices. In most large cities it is the high office rent area because it is situated in the middle of downtown. I have been asked more than once whether it was important to hire an attorney whose office is located near the courthouse. “Not necessarily,” is my best answer. Proximity to the courthouse may be an indication of how active an attorney’s practice is. But the fact that they are in the high dollar district doesn’t necessarily mean they are a top-quality attorney.

7. Wins and Losses: The answer to “How many cases have you won?” may be very misleading. The Olympics is a good place to turn for an example why an attorneys win-loss record may reveal little about how good they are. Without a doubt Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps are two of our country’s greatest Olympians. Michael Jordan won two gold medals, one at the 1984 games and the other at the 1992 games. Michael Phelps, on the other hand, has won a record-breaking 23 gold medals.

Does that mean Phelps is better at his sport than Jordan was at his? Few people, who know anything at all about basketball, would attempt to make this argument with a straight face and an alcohol blood level below the legal limit. That is not intended to minimize Phelps’ achievements but he was able to compete in more than 25 events during his four Olympic appearances. Jordan only had the opportunity to compete in one event in 1984 and one event in 1992.

That’s why an attorney may be able to honestly boast that they win all of their court cases. But if he or she only appears in court once every blue moon, then the fact that he or she is undefeated does not mean much. An attorney who may only win seventy-percent of his or her cases but appears in court on a daily basis is far more impressive.

Here is another important point to think about when comparing the relative win and loss records of two attorneys. The only way to accurately compare records is to make certain that both attorneys are handling the same type of cases. I know an attorney who likes to brag about her sterling win-loss record. She conveniently ignores the fact she works for a government agency that provides her the luxury of deciding which cases she will accept and which she will decline. As a result she only accepts the cases she knows she can win. Comparing her win-loss record to another attorney who routinely accepts more challenging cases would be unfair.

“Winning” is a relative term. It may mean one thing to you and another thing to the attorney. I know a personal injury attorney who boasts about winning most of his cases. Which is true. However, he keeps forty-percent of whatever money his clients are awarded plus expenses. In some of his cases the client doesn’t receive a dime after he won the case. Is that winning?

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I would not advise you to hire an attorney who could too easily answer the question of how many cases he or she has won. Reason one: He or she is probably lying in order to get your business. Reason two: if he or she is keeping score of how many cases they have won, their focus is on themselves. Your case is not about them: it is about you.

This is an excerpt from Who Not to Hire. Download your copy below:
Who Not to Hire

Photo Credit: byzantiumbooks at Visual Hunt

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