With 1.1 million lawyers licensed to practice law in the United States, how does a construction company faced with a legal problem decide which attorney is best suited to help the company resolve the problem?

Selecting the right attorney is a time-consuming, but important process. To get started, develop a list of potential candidates by talking to business advisors, people in your industry, other attorneys and other trusted sources. You can consult law firm websites, online resources, bar associations or other referral networks.

The next step is to cut the list of potential candidates down to a manageable short list of preferred candidates. Then, contact and interview each of the preferred candidates in person. An increasing number of companies are investing the time and resources to go through a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) process.

Regardless of whether your company follows a formal or an informal process, construction executives should consider the following ten items when deciding which attorney is best for your company's legal needs.

1. Identify Your Legal Problem and Use a Specialist

 

 

The first step in the process of finding an attorney is to understand the problem or issue facing you. The law has many different specialties and sub-specialties, and before you can accurately determine the best attorney to represent you, you need to determine what kind of lawyer is best suited to address and resolve your problem. During this initial phase, consult your general corporate lawyer or another trusted business advisor such as your accountant.

Select a specialist to help you solve your problem. Lawyers today are as specialized as doctors. You would not ask your internist to perform open heart surgery. Likewise, you should not ask your general corporate lawyer to handle a wage and hour audit or an OSHA inspection. A specialist will know the latest developments and legal nuances applicable to your problem without charging you extra to be on the "cutting edge." This up-to-the-minute knowledge is essential since it could be the marginal difference in winning or losing your case.

2. Make Sure the Attorney has the Right Experience

The appropriate level of experience is one of the most critical criteria in selecting a lawyer. You want a lawyer with a track record of success with your type of problem. Such a record of experience will increase the likelihood that the attorney can help to resolve your problem successfully.

Obviously, length of service, number of cases in a particular specialty and geographic area and prior results are important matters to consider in evaluating the attorney's "experience." Along with experience comes knowledge of the adversaries and personalities involved in a case cumulative wisdom and perspective to evaluate risks and develop winning strategies related to a particular problem and confidence to steer you through the twists and turns of the legal process.

Viewing the law firm's website will also give you insight into the scope of the firm's practice. Explore the website of each firm on your "short list" and Google the firm and individual attorneys. These steps will help you assess the depth and breadth of the firm's practice.

3. Expect the Attorney to be a Good Communicator

 

Attorneys are paid to communicate with their adversaries and those sitting in judgment of their cases. Equally important, however, is finding an attorney who can effectively communicate with you. You want an attorney who anticipates your questions and keeps you abreast of the developments in your case without you having to call first.

The attorney should have the ability to communicate in an organized and understandable manner. The attorney should have a good "bedside manner" and have good judgment as to when in-person communications or e-mail is most appropriate. The attorney should also realize that over-communicating may be unnecessary and not cost-effective.

When you are asked to make a decision or to act, the attorney needs to explain succinctly the options available to you, the practical and legal advantages and disadvantages of the different courses of actions and other matters relevant to your decision.

4. Consider the Attorney's Professionalism

"Professionalism" is more than personality. It involves certain objective actions and behaviors that distinguish the best attorneys from those who are merely competent. Among other things, you should expect a "professional" attorney to:

"Professionalism" is more than personality. It involves certain objective actions and behaviors that distinguish the best attorneys from those who are merely competent. Among other things, you should expect a "professional" attorney to:

  • Work zealously to protect your best interests
  • Work efficiently and economically, using your resources as his own
  • Return all telephone calls or client communications promptly
  • Arrive at meetings on time and well-prepared
  • Follow-up promptly and as appropriate
  • Provide you with advice about alternative dispute resolution procedures
  • Be respectful of everyone, regardless of their position, role or status
  • Be neat and project the image of success appropriate for your business
  • Behave appropriately in all situations
  • Follow all applicable laws and ethical canons
  • Not do anything that would create the appearance of impropriety

 

The attorney should display a tireless passion to protect your interests. The best attorneys take ownership in your problem and devote themselves to finding winning solutions.

5. Consider the Attorney's Approach and Fit with Your Company

Attorneys have many different styles, personalities and approaches to representing clients. In addition to finding a "professional" attorney, you should match the attorney's traits to your own style, personality and approach. Underestimating the importance of this subjective factor would be a grave mistake. In the final analysis, you have to find an attorney with whom you are comfortable and that you can trust to take care of matters that may impact your business.

6. Use an Attorney Familiar with Your Region

Whether you use a local or national specialist depends on the nature of the matter at issue. For example, real estate or workers' compensation matters are almost always handled locally. On the other hand, matters of federal law, such as wage and hour or labor law can be handled best by national specialists. Transportation and technology make it possible to use a specialist from almost anywhere in the country.

Someone familiar with your region will have better knowledge of the local laws and procedures and the personalities of the local judicial or administrative authorities. Moreover, face-to-face communications are generally better than telephone conferences and e-mail, so it may be better to have the specialist located close enough to visit the site of the problem in short order.

7. Get References on the Attorney

To assess many of the considerations on this list, you will need to consult references about those attorneys on your "short list." Ask the attorney to provide a few clients for you to consult. But beware, references provided by the attorneys are likely to give the most glowing references. Check deeper into the attorneys' reputation and check with other sources. Other attorneys in your community can provide information about the attorneys. Online sources, such as Martindale Hubbell (martindale.com), can provide basic background information, and bar associations can tell you of any complaints or disciplinary sanctions against the attorneys. Hiring an attorney is a significant event and you should not take shortcuts in the reference-checking process.

8. Clarify Responsibility for Your Case

 

In a small firm, you may be more likely to deal directly with the attorney you hire, while in a larger firm you may have several attorneys working on different aspects of your case. Therefore, ask the contact attorney which individual attorney will be responsible for your case and which other attorneys will work on it-from start to finish-and how the firm will staff your current and subsequent cases. Also, ask how the firm uses its paralegals and support staff.

9. Assess the Depth of the Attorney's Support Network and Resources

Whether you pick a small, medium or large firm depends on the nature of your legal problem. A larger firm may have more capacity to handle complex cases or spikes in caseload and numerous offices to handle matters in different regions of the country. A larger firm may also have more depth or breadth of experience than a smaller firm.

A larger firm may have more resources to assist you. For example, a larger firm may be more likely to have an information retrieval system that can save you money on research or writing projects. In the area of preventing legal claims, larger firms are more likely to have informative websites, newsletters and educational publications for clients, periodic client training seminars or breakfast briefings and other valuable "add-ons."

10. Ask About Fees and Other Business Arrangements

At some point in the decision-making process, the discussion will inevitably turn to cost. Ask the contact attorney to explain the firm's billing procedures and methods. Most attorneys will bill by the hour, but contingency arrangements and alternative billing methods are becoming increasingly popular these days. Also, ask if the attorney would consider a reduced rate for increased volume of work. Ask what other charges you can expect to receive from the attorney for handling your case, such as travel charges, expert fees, copying, postage, etc. In addition, ask if the attorney charges you the attorneys' hourly rates for travel time, if applicable.

Competition among attorneys is fiercer than ever and it is amazing how accommodating attorneys will be to get new work. However, never make the decision as to which attorney is best for your company based on cost alone. Once you have engaged the attorney, expect to get a written engagement letter that addresses the billing arrangement and other aspects of the relationship.

This list is not intended to cover every situation or to be exhaustive. Other factors will be relevant to individual situations. Nevertheless, this brief list of ten considerations should assist you in the selection of an attorney that best fits your needs whenever you need to hire an attorney.

 

Construction Business Owner, April 2006