What You Really Need to Learn During a Free Consultation!
Updated: Apr 14
By Clayton T. Robertson, Attorney-at-Law (Criminal Defense Attorney)
One of the most frequent concerns expressed by clients (or potential new clients) is whether their attorney will regularly contact and update them about their cases. Similar concerns include how hard their attorney will fight for them once the attorney signs them up as a client. Also, worse, will the attorney work only as hard as the retainer amount? Meaning, if you pay a low retainer, will the attorney only work so hard on your case before the attorney thinks he or she is wasting their time? (By the way, this is an ethical problem if an attorney has this attitude.) What about attorneys who are already overloaded and back-logged with cases? What about firms who hire and lose attorneys frequently? Are these legitimate concerns?
The answer is an unequivocal "yes." When you hire an attorney, ask them about their caseload. Ask them about the number of attorneys working for them. Ask them about how many attorneys have come and gone from the firm during the past year. These are tough but fair questions. Are they already overworked or possibly overwhelmed? If so, then you need to be concerned about how much time they can dedicate to your case. You should also ask them how many cases they are working on or how many clients they have. If you have the answer to these tough questions (including the number of existing clients as a ratio to the number of attorneys), you can get a good feel for whether the firm is "in the weeds" (meaning, it has little time for each new case) or has the time to focus on your case competently. If the firm is "in the weeds," it might be more inclined to pressure you to "take a plea" (in a criminal case) or accept a settlement amount (in a civil case) that does not properly value your injury. And, inevitably, it means your case might not be worked up as it should be, through a failure to obtain or review all discovery (documents and information from the other side) or otherwise. You also need to ask your attorney before you hire them whether they go to trial or not. Some attorneys do not go to trial because they prefer not to try cases (or lack the competence to do so) or because it's not part of their business model (i.e., a trial takes away too much time from their other cases).
In addition, you should check glassdoor.com for reviews by former employees. This is a must-go site. Yelp, Google, and other customer-review sites tell you what some former clients are saying about the firm. (Incidentally, some firms are better at getting former clients to leave positive reviews, or the reviews are for a specific attorney at the firm and not for other attorneys. These issues, and others, can influence whether positive reviews are relevant to your particular case.) However, glassdoor.com tells you what former employees think about a business or firm, which can be critical. If you see a trend on glassdoor.com that shows frequent attorney or employee departures from a firm, and numerous negative former-employee reviews, then that's a huge red flag. It not only means that the firm is potentially underwater in terms of catching up on cases that former attorneys or employees (including paralegals) handled (depending on their role), but it also means there is likely some operational or employee morale issue affecting the firm, which in turn impacts how cases are handled.
Often, the solution is to find an experienced and competent solo practitioner who is not deluged with cases who can focus on your case, or a larger firm that is properly and reliably staffed. The problematic middle-ground consists of those firms that have far too many cases for the number of attorneys who staff those cases, or that have had frequent recent turnover combined with a bad client-to-attorney ratio. If a firm has different offices or branches, the answers to the above questions depend on the branch or office (and attorney) handling your case. Importantly, ask the attorney with whom you are speaking when you hire the firm whether he will be the attorney handling your case or whether he will assign it to another attorney, including to a "junior associate." How much experience does that "junior associate" have for your case type?
So what does this mean to you? Remember, when you speak with an attorney during your "free consultation," you are indeed trying to obtain free advice from the attorney (but make sure you are speaking to an attorney, as opposed to a paralegal or business development or firm marketing specialist). At the same time, don't squander that invaluable opportunity to interview that attorney to ask them the tough questions you need answered to evaluate and hire their firm. And if you hear any hesitancy to answer those questions, then run (don't walk) away. Your case might very well depend on it!
P.S. One other consideration is you want to look up the potential attorney on the state bar website for prior disciplinary actions.
For CA, see here: http://members.calbar.ca.gov/fal/LicenseeSearch/QuickSearch.