From high profile celebrity scandals to everyday disputes, one thing's for sure: lawyers are part of our American fabric. Today there are nearly 800,000 practicing attorneys in the U.S. That's one lawyer for every 400 Americans -- more than in any other country on the planet. And yet, when it comes to finding a lawyer, most people don't even know where to start. Google? A friend's recommendation? Whoever is cheapest?
For all of the importance lawyers play in our society, one thing that's not kept up with the times is the transparency of the legal profession. While the Internet has created a "no secrets" environment for restaurants, hotels, and even babysitting services, why is it that the legal profession is still a black box? Just as most people won't try a new restaurant without first checking out its reviews on Yelp, people should not hire a lawyer without first doing their homework.
According to a study by Pew Research in 2012, 82 percent of all Americans use the Internet. Of those, 81 percent use the Internet to research products or services. Additionally, 37 percent of American adults say they have posted comments or reviews online about the product or services they buy, indicating a willingness to share their opinions about products and the buying experience with others.
The law is complex and lawyers are highly trained to navigate our judicial system. As the founder and CEO of Avvo.com, a site that profiles and rates lawyers, I'm all about creating a more open and accessible connection between lawyers and the general public. While attorney/client privileged relationships are incredibly important, and here to stay, it's equally important to help people get the practical legal advice they need to get pointed in the right direction, including basic guidance, such as "what kind of lawyer do I need?" So, before you pick an attorney based on their television commercial, take the following steps to ensure you are an empowered client. Harness the power of the Internet to do your own legal research and get educated before you see an attorney. And as you do, keep these four tips in mind:
1. Make sure you know what "type" of attorney you need to hire. I've heard stories where someone hired a DUI attorney when she really needed a divorce attorney. Most lawyers have specialties. Do your homework to make sure you understand what "type" of lawyer would best represent you.
2. Check references. Check out the lawyer's client reviews, experience, background information, industry achievements and disciplinary records to make sure you're finding a reputable attorney. If you can't find this information, don't hire the attorney!
3. Read client reviews. Be sure to read the reviews left from former clients; these can provide you with subjective opinion on the attorney, such as levels of trust and responsiveness. According to Nielsen, 90 percent of consumers trust peer recommendations and only 14 percent trust advertisements.
4. Be prepared for your first meeting. More often than not, clients come to their first meeting totally unprepared, they haven't done their homework and haven't thought through some of the basic questions they want to ask. I truly believe that if people came more prepared to this first appointment it would help create a more constructive partnership with their attorney, not to mention save them at least a couple of hours in legal fees.
Mark Britton is the founder and CEO of Avvo, a free social media platform that provides a legal and health Q&A forum and directory which rates and profiles 90 percent of all lawyers and doctors in the U.S.