February 13, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

The older we become, the more we understand “Life doesn’t come with an instruction manual,” including work, marriage, raising kids, and until recently, hiring a lawyer.

As far as hiring a lawyer is concerned, that’s all changed, as we found the ideal ‘Instruction Booklet’ helping in the search for a good lawyer, and making that attorney-client relationship a truly good one.

Written by a paralegal with over 20 years working in many different field of law, Denver, Colorado-based Ellen Hughes gained a unique insight into the legal profession that she shares in “Be a Smart Client.” This small book — only 100 clearly-written pages — truly is an instruction manual, filling an important need, and not just for the person or company about to hire an attorney for the first time.

Two things are unique about “Be a Smart Client.” First, Hughes asks readers the types of questions that few think of and which are essential in finding the right lawyer. Second, she provides concrete advice that guides clients through what can be difficult moments in the attorney-client relationship.

This empowering book begins with a look at the wrong way to find a lawyer. As she points out, “The most important thing is to hire an attorney who meets your legal and personal needs. There is a right way and what can be a costly, wrong way to find that person.”

“Strictly based on advertising,” she strongly maintains, “isn’t the best way of finding a good lawyer, and don’t let yourself be overly influenced by a billboard, TV or impressive internet ads. People see these and think, ‘He’s got to be the best! Advertising like that isn’t cheap, so whoever has the most ads must be the best lawyer for me. Money talks, and I’m impressed!’ “

While today, an internet search will provide names, Hughes believes — and we agree — “The old fashioned way of referrals from colleagues, friends and family can be the best way of finding lawyers who handle your type of a case. Then, when located, and before you schedule an appointment, ask yourself:

  • Am I more at ease with a man or a woman?
  • Do I prefer working with a younger or older person?
  • How far am I able or willing to travel for appointments? 
  • How do I generally wish to communicate? Phone? Email, text or in person?
  • How involved with my case do I want to be?

In many states, such as California, there is a dramatic over-supply of recent law graduates who have not been able to find jobs in law firms and therefore, open their own office. That is a real matter of concern for anyone hiring that fresh-out-of-school attorney.

Lawyers admit to each other that right out of school, most of us had a head full of theory, but didn’t know where to stand in a courtroom. Take that to generally mean incompetent. There are some exceptions for lawyers who had jobs while in law school as clerks in a law firm.

Because a legal education isn’t at all hands on from day one as it is with health care, we learn our skills under the wing of a senior attorney, as a Deputy D.A. or in some other government law office. That first job is our “internship.”

To Ellen Hughes, this places a, “Special responsibility that you have to yourself. Before making that first phone call, always look up the lawyers you plan to contact on your State Bar’s website. This will tell you when they graduated law school and if they got themselves in trouble with their State Bar.

“When you call, get a feel for their personality. Do they listen and show real interest in your legal problem? Always ask:

  • How long have you been in practice?
  • If on their own, “Where did you work before and what types of cases did you handle there?” 
  • What is your experience with my type of case?
  • How do you charge?

After the call, Hughes asks us to think about the conversation and ask:

“What was my immediate reaction? Do I feel comfortable in sharing intimate details of my life and things which I might have done wrong? Did the lawyer speak in terms I can understand? Were my questions answered? Do I have a positive gut feeling?”

And what if your answer is “No” to any of these questions? “Keep on looking until you find the right fit,” is her recommendation.

From the first meeting to hiring the lawyer, clients have rights and obligations. We’ll look at them next time. A visit to is well worth the time.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.