A good lawyer is like a good friend—someone who is smart and honest, has your best interests at heart, and is enjoyable to be around. But finding such a lawyer can be an intimidating experience. Should you look online? Ask a friend to suggest someone? And how do you know when you’ve found the lawyer you need? Here are five things to look for when seeking legal counsel:
1. LGBT Bona Fides
Your first priority should be to find a fellow member of the LGBT community. Working with a lawyer means letting down your guard and entrusting your confidences to a stranger who is also a professional. You will probably feel more comfortable doing this if the professional in question has had life experiences similar to yours.
A gay or lesbian lawyer is also more likely to understand your legal concerns on a personal level. He or she will probably be better informed about the latest changes in the laws affecting LGBT people and will know how to leverage the law to your greatest advantage.
A lawyer outside our community may be fully competent. But someone who has also suffered through the anxieties of bullying, coming out, or fighting for equality will be better equipped to provide the unique skills and understanding you need.
If you must consider a lawyer outside the LGBT community, find out whether they support LGBT causes. Does the lawyer have a track record of advocating on behalf of our community, or do they simply want to market to our demographic? Look for someone who sponsors advocacy organizations like FreeState Justice, Lambda Legal, or the Trevor Project, or who has taken leadership positions on issues that affect LGBT equality.
2. Bedside Manner
Next, evaluate the lawyer’s soft skills. Especially in the realm of estate planning or family law, you want an understanding counselor who is attentive, engaging, and warm. Responsiveness and good communication skills are also important. Take note of things like how quickly you get a response to your initial inquiry and whether the lawyer can speak in plain English, rather than “legalese.”
Look for a lawyer who can grow with you—someone who is committed to their area of law and to the community they serve.
The lawyer should focus on your concerns, rather than touting his or her past successes or discussing only the technical aspects of your matter. Your legal concerns are too important to leave to chance, so make sure they are as important to your lawyer as they are to you.
3. Skills and Experience
Beyond finding an LGBT lawyer who is easy to work with, consider how competent the lawyer is likely to be. Find out whether the lawyer’s practice area aligns with your legal needs and how long he or she has been working in that area. For example, if you need to prepare a will or settle an estate, an estates and trusts attorney with more than 10 years’ experience will likely do a better job that a general practitioner still cutting his teeth.
Scan the attorney’s online bio for awards and other accolades, for membership in professional organizations, and for leadership in the law. These feathers in the lawyer’s cap won’t guarantee competency, but they will give you a sense of how well regarded the lawyer is by his or her peers. Online reviews can also be helpful, but the best endorsement may be the recommendation of a friend who has worked with the lawyer personally.
4. Reasonable Billing
Some lawyers offer a free consultation and then charge by the hour. Others charge for the initial meeting but then apply the charge toward a flat fee for the work to be done. Ask up front how the lawyer bills and what the total cost is likely to be.
Another important question about fees is when they will be due. Some attorneys will ask for a deposit up front and then make monthly withdrawals against it based on the amount of time spent on your matter. Others will collect nothing until the work is complete and may even allow you to pay over time. However the attorney bills, his or her fees should be described clearly in an engagement letter you receive before the work begins.
5. Sense of Commitment
Finally, look for a lawyer who can grow with you—someone who is committed to their area of law and to the community they serve. If you can continue to work together, the good lawyer you find may well become a good friend you can rely on.
Lee Carpenter is an Estates & Trusts attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. This article is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice. For qualified legal counsel contact Lee Carpenter at Lee.Carpenter@saul.com or 410.332.8626.