Monday, June 09, 2008

Before You Hire An Attorney...

If you are ever going to be involved in litigation (i.e. a case that will be decided by court) it is the opinion of this blog that you should always hire an attorney (the exception being a small claims case). Even if you are an attorney, you should still hire an attorney. Why? First, of all, litigating a case is difficult. There are lots of rules. There are lots of statutes (municipal, state, and federal) which may apply to any given case. Then throw in the fact that we live in a common law system which means that not all the laws are in teh law books, a litigator is going to have to research the case law as well.

Now, if you are going to be part of a lawsuit, make sure that you understand what kind of lawyer you need to hire. Not all lawyers are suited to every type of case. If you are considering initiating a law suit, talk to more than one attorney. Do not feel like you have to settle for the first attorney who has an opening in their calendar. Ask your friends to see if they have had to retain a lawyer in the past. Ask questions of the attorneys. In a sense, you are interviewing them to work for you.

Why am I writing about this? Because too many times in the past few years, I have run across people who took on cases without understanding what they were getting into. Then they panicked. Then the clients had to find new counsel because the old counsel had not done enough preparation to know what they were getting their clients into.

Which brings us to why this post is getting written. Mrs. Angrybell brought me a recent edition of the verdict search report which contained the report of a case which went to trial last year.
It told the tale of a trial which happened just over a year ago, where some tenants were forced to leave because the landlord refused to make necessary repairs. The family repeatedly requested the repairs. The landlord told them that they were not going to make the repairs and if they did not like that, they could leave. Coupled with the fact that there was a severely disabled (as in a quadriplegic) living in unhabitable conditions and the family had to leave.

Now, the family took the next step: the decided to sue to press their rights. The lawyer they went to has experience with landlord-tenant situations. However, most of this attorney's experience is as a landlord's attorney.

The end result was a verdict just over $21,000.00. On its face, not a bad result for a tenancy that lasted just over a year. However, this was not $21,000 to the client. The court awarded about $6,000.00 in damages and $15,000.00 in attorneys fees. Now, in looking at the complaint in this case, its clear that the attorney knows something about landlord-tenant law. However, it is equally clear that there were causes of action which were available to the plaintiffs which could potentially resulted in doubling or tripling the damages.

Why were these not plead? Most likely because they are causes of action which is antithetical to the landlord's bar. Was this attorney trying to undermine their own client's case because of an ideological bent? Almost certainly not. It is my belief that they were not plead because this attorney was practicing on the opposite side from what they are normally on.

Litigators are by nature type A people. They like to be the best. They also tend to believe that they can handle any case which comes their way. So its up to the client to make sure that they are getting the right kind of lawyer. If you are going to a person with a general practice (i.e. does more than one type of law) ask questions about the types of cases which they have taken. Ask them what their experiences are. Do not simply accept their bare pitch to you. In the end, it can mean the difference between a a verdict and a victory.

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