Choosing counsel

Your business may be chugging along just fine in the legal arena using only your Uncle Louie’s neighbor’s friend whose real specialty is maritime salvage law, but what do you do when you need a lawyer with the right specialty?

Having a friend of the family check some boilerplate documents or give a contract a read-through is one thing, but what if you are sued by a large corporation, accused of creating a hostile work environment or have to navigate a bankruptcy?

“There are a number of different avenues to find a good lawyer,” says Steve Kaufman, former president of the Cleveland Bar Association and a business litigation partner with the law firm of Thompson Hine. “You have to recognize nowadays that each area is more and more specialized. Lawyers are forced to spend a lot of time maintaining current knowledge in a particular area of practice.”

There are three main avenues of finding a lawyer.

* Ask your current general lawyer for a recommendation for someone who spends most of his or her time on the area of law you need guidance in.

* Call the bar association. The bar has referral panels grouped by areas of expertise. They will give you several names to contact.

* Consult a legal directory. A directory such as Martindale-Hubbell, which is also available online, has lawyers listed by areas of practice.

“Once you identify some prospects, it is important to speak to several and, in effect, interview them about their background and experience,” says Kaufman. “You have to do due diligence with the prospects. Do they have the experience and time to work on the particular problem you are bringing them?

“You have to make sure the chemistry is right. Oftentimes, even if they have good experience, if the chemistry isn’t right, the relationship will not be successful.”

Start searching for the right lawyer with a phone call to identify whether the person is qualified and available to handle the case. Also make sure there are no conflicts of interest.

“Once you are satisfied, I recommend a face-to-face meeting,” says Kaufman. “You can learn a lot about the chemistry you’ll have. You can see what the office looks like and how organized the person is. You can see a lot in a meeting.”

When asking about experience, find out how many cases the prospective attorney has litigated that are similar to yours and how successful he or she was in those cases. If you think the matter might go to trial, find out how skilled the attorney is in trial work.

“Find out whether it will be him or her handling your case or whether it will be brought into the firm and handled by someone else,” says Kaufman.

Also, get an estimate from the lawyer of projected costs, which can vary greatly among firms because of size and experience differentials.

“If the lawyer has enough experience in the area you need, they should be able to give you a rough range, even if it’s a wide one, of bottom and top end estimates,” says Kaufman.

With everything else in place, don’t forget to look for one intangible: passion.

“The biggest intangible is how much passion and how much energy a lawyer brings to a matter,” says Kaufman. “It’s the last variable in the equation. Make sure the person representing you has fire in their belly, a high level of energy and wants to represent you. It’s a variable that makes a difference in a case.” How to reach: Cleveland Bar Association, (216) 696-3525; Martindale-Hubbell,