Thursday, January 13, 2011

Good Lawyer, Bad Lawyer

I have spent the better part of the last four years wrangling with legal issues. There was the class action suit over the tainted pet food that killed one of my cats and hospitalized the other. There was the self-proclaimed literary agent who sued me, along with a dozen other writers, real literary agents, and publishing types, for calling her a pretend wannabe.  There was that lovely piece of work by my Insignificant Other, and finally, at least so far, an issue with a lying sack of shit that I prefer to forget about. I’ve dealt with a lot of lawyers during that time, and I want to help you determine when you’ve got a good one, and when you’ve got one who is likely the source of all greasy lawyer jokes. So here’s a shopping list:


~ You meet for the first time as he opens the door to the courtroom for you on the day of your appearance.

~ The extent of his knowledge of your case is limited to the evidence you brought to show the judge, and he barely looks at it.

~ He misses one of your court dates and you neither know why, nor are able to reach him by phone.

~ He does not answer your phone calls or emails within reason. By “within reason,” I mean that you are not contacting him every day, or even every other day, or even once a week if this is a long, ongoing drama in your life. If every once in a while there is a small flurry of exchanges while short, pertinent, direct questions are asked and answers are given, fine, but when that business is done, leave him alone. You are not his only client, nor the only thing he has on his plate that day. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, a reasonable amount of time to hear back from him is twenty-four hours.

~ His secretary says he is in court every single time you try to contact him. That’s bull. Lawyers actually spend very little time in court unless they are over-priced high-profile attorneys like F. Lee Bailey or Gloria Allred.

~ His phone is always answered by voicemail. He does not employ even one full time secretary, assistant, or paralegal.

~ He agrees to represent you in a case where he clearly has a conflict of interest. This may be hard to discern unless you ask pointed questions. If you need a lawyer to represent you in a bank robbery, for instance, ask him directly if his account was at that bank.

~ He is an attorney in a class action suit where the only funds that are distributed are payments to the lawyers.

~ He guarantees that you will win. Says things like, “We’re going to get this guy.” Enthusiasm for your case is good. False promises are bad.

~ His diploma is from the University of Altered State or Beach College of the Bahamas.

~ He’s a showboat who loves publicity and to hear himself talk. If he has time to give to a weekly radio show, he probably doesn’t have many clients (ask yourself why), and probably isn’t giving sufficient attention to those he has. A good lawyer saves it for the trial.

~ Is under-dressed or over-dressed. If he shows up for court with toothpaste on his tie, or he’s more interested in the French cuffs on his shirt than the brace on your neck, you should look further for representation.


~ Meets with you in his office to hear your story and see your evidence.

~ Asks questions about your case that have never even occurred to you.

~ Would never dream of putting a witness on the stand without knowing what they are going to say.

~ Will tell you up front that there are never any guarantees. He cannot control the judge.

~ Keeps you informed! If you have a short case where you’re going to see a judge and it’s going to all be said and done in fifteen minutes, then this is probably a moot point. But if you’re involved in a case that will drag on for years, your attorney should be sending you letters or copies of documents all along the way to let you know what is going on.

~ Sometimes prolongs a case not to bank billable hours for which he can charge you, but to wear down your opponent. If your lawyer is excelling on every other point listed here under “Good Lawyer,” consider the possibility that this is the case, even if he doesn’t say it.

~ Obtained an excellent education, graduating Summa Cum Laude or Magna Cum Laude. Lectures, teaches, publishes. Provides a list of representative cases. Is active in organizations related to his field of expertise. Is respected not only in his profession, but in his community. And the #1 sign that he’s a good lawyer: He has achieved a degree of success that enables him to take on pro bono cases (even if it’s not yours) just because they’re interesting. This is the epitome of good lawyers, the Holy Grail. See example here.


~ Do not call your lawyer expecting him to bail you out of jail unless he is a personal friend with whom you have dinner or cocktails on a weekly basis. That’s what bail bondsmen are for. This is not TV.

~ Your lawyer is not a detective. Do not expect him to chase your opponent all over town to catch him red-handed. This is not TV, and that is not reality.

~ Never handicap your attorney by hiding the truth from him. He knows how to deal with whatever you’ve done. That’s his job. Nasty surprises on the witness stand will sink your ship. 

For a good attorney in the Memphis /  northwest Mississippi area, try Al Welshans, with the O'Brien firm.


  1. Super Lawyers is just that - a title - that could be given to any one being refered to by people who knew them or they knew those people. Nothing special in there.
    Attorney Macon

  2. It's been a while since I wrote this post, so I had to re-read it to see where I referred to "Super Lawyers." I didn't. Am I correct in guessing that you are saying it's a matter of opinion? You don't think that education, skill, experience, respect from peers and community, or character make a difference in how a case is handled? Pray, do tell.


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