This blog focuses almost exclusively on criminal law and criminal procedure, making this posting something of a oddity. With that said, however, this posting may certainly be viewed as a comment on an issue that is significant in any criminal case, which is the selection of defense counsel. When it comes to choosing a lawyer, the obvious things that come to mind are knowledge of law and procedure, years of experience, and whether the attorney has previously handled cases involving the charge at issue. But a criminal case is a highly stressful experience, and one of the most important factors in selecting legal representation is something that many clients do not consider until it may be too late. An astonishingly large number of clients fail to ask themselves if they can work with the lawyer they are thinking of using under highly pressured circumstances for what may be an extended period of time. The likelihood of a positive result in the case frequently diminishes with the extent to which the defendant is at loggerheads with their attorney.
Most clients shop for attorneys the same way they shop for everything else. They seek attorneys online, and start their search by viewing websites. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Committee on Attorney Advertising recently recently issued a Notice to the Bar dated May 4, 2016, reminding all New Jersey attorneys that certain items currently appearing on many attorney websites may be presented in a way that is misleading and/or easily taken out of context. This Notice appears to have been issued after the receipt of numerous grievances from clients who may have thought their lawyer was “Super” or “the Best” when the case started, but apparently changed their view before it was over.
Specifically, an attorney’s website may state that the lawyer is a “SuperLawyer”, one of the “Best Lawyers in America”, one of the “Best Lawyers in New Jersey”, and on and on and on. These are all designations issued by various organizations, business entities or publications, and come with attractive shields or badges that the attorney receiving the designation may – and almost always does – post on their website. The Notice observes that such awards have little if anything to do with an attorney’s actual knowledge, skill, experience, or ability to handle people. In fact, many of them are are little more than popularity contests between and among attorneys. Because they are frequently given based upon the number of endorsements that the recipient received from other attorneys, the award process often degenerates into “I’ll endorse you if you endorse me”. Thus, the recipient did not necessarily receive the award or designation because they are really good at what they do; rather, they received the award because they know a lot of attorneys who are willing to endorse them in return for the same favor, and the person who knows the largest number of attorneys willing to issue an endorsement wins the purported prize. Further, these awards may also be given based upon simple membership in an organization, the payment of money to the issuing entity, or the recipient’s willingness to respond to legal questions on the issuing entity’s website. In fact, there is at least one website that claims to be able to rank attorneys numerically. However, this site also appears to be driven by attorney advertising. The site tells consumers that its purpose is to assist them in navigating the legal jungle, while simultaneously telling attorneys that its purpose is to assist them in growing their practices. This begs an important and obvious question – is the site’s numerical rating of an attorney influenced in any way by the amount of advertising the attorney purchases? If so, this is one of the concerns of the New Jersey Supreme Court, and its Committee on Attorney Advertising, as articulated in the Notice. (If any of this is inaccurate, I will certainly be more than willing to correct or edit it.)
In any event, and as the Notice reminds us, the important things to remember about such awards is: (a) none of them appear to be endorsed in any way by the State Supreme Court, any Supreme Court Committee including, without limitation, the Committee on Attorney Advertising or Ethics Committee, or any other official body; (b) few if any of them are based upon a quantifiable measure of an attorney’s competence, and may have no relationship of any kind or nature whatsoever to an attorney’s actual qualifications or skill level; and (c) almost none of them are issued by any organization or entity that actually knows something about the practice of law, or must answer to a regulatory body.
Attorneys can still display these designations on their firm websites, so long as they are accompanied by language stating that the viewer must do additional research to understand the criteria for the basis of the award, and that the award is not endorsed or regulated by the New Jersey Supreme Court or any of its regulatory arms. This firm has received several of the awards that are of concern but, as a policy matter, has elected to not display them on our website.
In this light, what is the best way to choose your defense counsel? We want you to read our website, and then come and meet with us to discuss your case in person. After doing so, we think you will be impressed with us and, like so many others, will retain us to defend your criminal case. We want people to know that our success is not based on advertising, but rather stems from the fact that we provide solutions instead of hype.