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Choosing an Attorney: Why Their Experience Matters

One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the car, washing dishes or just looking for a distraction, is to listen to various podcasts. A favorite of mine is This American Life. Each week the one-hour long podcast tells two or three short stories that focus on a general theme. Recently, the topic of the podcast was people dealing with situations that they are not prepared for, appropriately titled “Deep End of the Pool.”

One story focused on an individual being forced to work outside of their comfort zone. The individual was a personal injury attorney who was appointed public defender for a young man wrongfully accused of burglary. Jack Bailey, the attorney interviewed in the story is an accomplished well-known personal injury attorney with 20 plus years of experience in his field. He had television ads, notoriety around town and was well-respected by his peers. He did not, however, have any experience with criminal law. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Bailey because he admits this immediately. He then goes on to explain all of the missteps and errors that took place over the course of his representation of his client. Court dates were missed, incorrect documents were filed and Mr. Bailey and his legal assistant where left muddling through a system they did not understand.

The story is worth a listen and it brings about one of my biggest pet peeves as an attorney: attorneys practicing outside their scope of knowledge. Admittedly, I would not fair nearly as well as Mr. Bailey in a criminal court. Nor would I do well representing a client in a personal injury case, but I would not take those cases either.

Generally speaking, all attorneys come out of law school with the same “legal” knowledge. What each attorney learns in actual practice is very different dependent upon experience and further education. There are general practice attorneys who are qualified to handle many different types of civil cases but they are not likely to take on a criminal trial. Each court system is different; criminal court is very different from district court and they are each different from probate court. What might be acceptable in one court is absolutely not in another.

The same goes for estate planning. An attorney who drafts pleadings in criminal court or whose practice focuses primarily on drafting contracts for large corporations may not know the proper way to create and execute a will in the state of Texas. Or how to fund a trust. Or how to set a hearing for an intestate administration. Each of these processes is very different and requires not just legal knowledge but also experience in the field.  There is significant value to working with an attorney who is knowledgeable in his or her field of law and not just OK in all areas of law.

From time to time we meet with a client who has been misled by a well-meaning attorney stepping out of his or her comfort zone. The client is then left dealing with the aftermath of the attorney’s foray into another area of law, possibly years after the advice was given. What might have seemed to be inexpensive legal advice years ago has caused an unnecessary and potentially costly legal proceeding.