In an earlier blog, I detailed the importance of the first call to the law firm. Assuming a series of successful first calls, you should now have two or more firms that still interest you. The next step is to visit prospective firms. When you do that, I suggest you create a mental checklist for the experience.
Visiting law firms is a critical part of the selection process. The expression "seeing is believing" has no greater meaning than when it comes to your visit to a law firm. Everything in this process has a meaning. When you see these various law offices and meet law firm personnel, these are the same experiences that the insurance adjusters, their lawyers, and other clients are seeing. An attorney's presentation affects which attorneys are tested by the insurance companies with trials verses which attorneys are offered good settlement offers. The office and the staff also help establish the attorney's reputation for success. I suggest that as you attempt to figure out which firm is the right fit, you should create a mental checklist to gauge those experiences. A checklist can be an invaluable tool in choosing the right firm.
There are rarely diamonds in the rough when it comes to the correlation between the presentation of the office and the lawyer in charge. As a rule, the appearance of the attorney's office reflects the quality of the attorney. In fact, you should consider everything you see (good or bad) to be a reflection of the lawyer you are considering hiring.
APPEARANCE OF THE OFFICE:
A law firm that is unkempt or messy suggests a lack of attention to detail on the part of the attorney. A law firm that looks like they just moved into their office, with a paper sign and things still in boxes, projects a lack of consistency or establishment. Cheap furniture and minimal décor reflect an attorney who is not going to spend what he should on experts and reports to maximize client recovery, nor will he go all the way to trial. Trials are expensive and cannot be done "on the cheap." This type of attorney is going to invariably sell your case short. A clean, well-organized, appropriately arranged office projects that the attorney has that same attention to detail in his legal work.
Angry, or even bickering staff, means a law firm in disarray. Any unprofessional outburst during your visit suggests poor management. Seeing staff members walking around projecting dissatisfaction or outright hostility towards other staff or clients is a sure sign of deep-seated fundamental problems in the survivability of the firm. Staff with poor hygiene, wearing shorts or jeans, joking and laughing, and a general lack of office decorum projects a general lack of professionalism that you can assume goes all the way to the top. Does the receptionist greet you warmly? Are you promptly given intake paperwork to fill out? Do they give you a pen and a clipboard? Do they seem to know what to do with you after the intake paperwork is completed? Do they move you into the conference room promptly for your meeting? And of course, does the attorney start that meeting without making you wait too long? Every one of these items should be on your mental checklist when considering the retention of your new attorney.
NON-STAFF IN THE OFFICE:
When you enter the office, look for what appears to be a healthy mixture of opposing party's attorneys, current clients, court reporters and other activities that reflect that the firm is in the midst of litigating cases. You do not want your new law firm to be just a settlement mill, where they simply warehouse and settle cases without any real attorney activities occurring. But pay attention to any other unfolding dramas. For example, nothing is more telling as you walk into the office than to see an angry current client screaming at the receptionist. How are current clients being treated by the staff? When people call, are they getting to talk to the attorneys in the office? Or are you hearing the receptionist give a series of explanations to various callers as to the unavailability of the attorneys? Listen to how often the callers are being offered voice mail. Voice mail is useful. But you want a professional relationship with an attorney, not his voice mail. Are there private client matters being discussed openly among the staff? Settlement paperwork being signed in the reception area is a big "no-no." Client matters must always be kept confidential even when it comes to settlement paperwork. Do the firm members have smiles or frowns on their faces? An unhappy law firm makes for unhappy clients. All of these experiences, both sights and sounds, need to be placed on your mental checklist.
If you finish your meeting and think to yourself, "this firm seems like a decent firm, but I know that lawyer (receptionist, paralegal, whomever) and I are going to come to blows," do not hire that attorney. In fact, a first meeting is like a first date. If, despite putting their best face forward, you still hate the personality of the receptionist, the lawyer is rude, or the staff seems unprofessional, do not hire that firm. Remember, the first impression is important. You are not going to like these people more in your second or third encounter. In fact, you will invariably like them less in these subsequent meetings. So cut your losses and keep looking for a better fit. Keep setting meetings with law firms until you find one where the experience was completely satisfying. You are entitled to be completely satisfied with location, parking, and the personalities of the office staff. All of these things need to be right for you before you hire an attorney. There are plenty of attorneys out there. You should resolve not to hire a firm until you feel completely comfortable.
Of course, I wrote this blog because I feel we score pretty high on this checklist and would encourage you to give us a chance to be that perfect (or at least near perfect) fit for you. We always provide a free consultation and we invite you to apply this checklist to your experience with our firm on that first meeting