The dirty secret of hiring a great lawyer

The dirty secret of hiring a great lawyer

The dirty secret of hiring a great lawyerThe dirty secret is it is very difficult knowing for certain that you have found a good lawyer to represent you in whatever legal matter you have.

(At the end of this lengthy article I talk about how my family made the decision on hiring a lawyer as this might be helpful to you).

I know this sounds like a crazy thing to say, since I’m a lawyer who clients hire to represent them, but it is the truth.

The reason is that normally you don’t know how to evaluate the actual quality of the legal services you are considering hiring.

I first discovered this when I was on a plane to Dallas.  Years ago I had a multiple wrongful death case and I was taking the deposition of an executive at a Fortune 100 company.  I was prepared for the deposition and wanted a change of “scenery” so I picked up a book someone had given me.  I think it was “Selling the invisible” and the chapter I read was where the author made this very point — you can’t tell quality when hiring professional services.

At first I thought, “That’s crazy.  People can tell the difference in a great lawyer and a lousy lawyer.”

Can they?


Do you know if a personal injury lawyer is qualified to handle your family’s truck wreck wrongful death case?  How do you know?

Or a criminal attorney?  How do you know she is any good?

Or someone suing a mortgage company or a debt collector?

Or any other legal area?

Here are the usual responses:

  • Qualifications
  • Past results
  • Reputation

Let’s look at these.

How do you know the lawyer is qualified?

Certainly every lawyer you look at should be licensed in Alabama.  That’s a given.

But beyond this, how do you judge qualifications?

Do you look at awards?  What others say about this person (we’ll get to this next — “reputation”)?

Where the lawyer went to school?  I’ve known people who barely passed the bar who are phenomenal in a courtroom or in helping advise clients and I’ve known geniuses from the best schools who should never be allowed near a client or a courtroom.

How long the lawyer has been practicing?  Some young lawyers are very good and some experienced lawyers are only experienced at making a mess of their clients’ legal situations.

Experience is great — and as I look at the growing amount of gray hair in the mirror I’m a fan of experience (22 years and counting for me) but it is not the end all be all….

Lawyers say “But I’m the best cross-examiner or the best estate planner around — clients should be able to tell!”

Really?  How?

Change the context — how do you know your doctor is any good?

Are you able to evaluate the course work she did or how steady his hands are in surgery?

I think for most of us, including lawyers, this is something that is very hard to do.

Personally, I focus on consumer litigation (this website covers this), personal injury litigation (, and elder law (

These are the three areas of the law and I teach other lawyers the law.

I don’t know anything about divorce law.

So I don’t know whether a divorce lawyer is skilled or not.

I don’t do criminal law and don’t know if the criminal law lawyer who is my friend is any good or not.

To be blunt, other than lawyers who I have actually worked with in my firm or as co counsel, I don’t even know if a lawyer in my area of focus is skilled.  All I know is what others say about this person and the past results they have achieved.

So look for qualifications but understand the limitations of using this as your guide.

What do past results teach you?

Past results show what a lawyer did in the past for someone else.

Our Alabama State Bar reminds us that we have to put disclaimers on past results — something like this:

These recoveries and testimonials are not an indication of future results. Every case is different, and regardless of what friends, family, or other individuals may say about what a case is worth, each case must be evaluated on its own facts and circumstances as they apply to the law.

There is an old trial lawyer joke that is helpful.

Someone says, “Mr. Lawyer over there has million dollar cases.  He must be a great lawyer!”

The somewhat funny response is, “Mr. Lawyer takes five million dollar cases and turns them into million dollar cases.”

Sometimes results may seem good, but compared to what?

Is a coach with super talent who gets decent results a better coach than someone who has lousy talent but gets average results?

Well, how do you know which one the lawyer is — a skilled lawyer or below average?

The financial commercials always remind us something about “Past results do not predict future performance.”

That’s true but it is natural to want to know what someone has done in the past because it does give us some sense of what they can do in the future.  Personally I’m proud of what my firm has done for clients — and I wish I could say to you “This proves we will be a great lawyer for you” but that is simply not true.  It is a factor to look at but it doesn’t prove anything.

But the lawyer’s reputation is the most important factor, right?

Well, what is reputation?

It is what others think of someone.

We have rating services such as Martindale Hubbell — it rates lawyers at the highest level as “AV” lawyers.

We have that rates lawyers on a variety of factors including reputation.

These are fine places to start but are the accurate?

(I say this and I have been AV rated since my first eligible year many years ago and my Avvo rating is the highest possible so I appreciate these but truthfully they don’t prove whether I’m a good lawyer or not).

What about client testimonials?

A great place to look but again, each case is different.  I suggest you look at testimonials to focus on not so much what the person says about the lawyer’s skill (again — hard to judge) but how the lawyer treated the client and the overall experience.  Nothing wrong with looking at result but sometimes this can be misleading (remember the lawyer who takes $5,000,000 cases and turns them into $1,000,000 cases).

We have represented a number of lawyers — that is flattering that other lawyers (even our “competition”) hire us to represent them personally or to try their cases in federal court.  But does this prove we are good?  Nope.  It just means other lawyers think highly (whether right or wrong) about our abilities as lawyers.

So certainly look at reputation — read testimonials to see what others think — but do understand there are some limitations on using this factor in evaluating a lawyer.

OK, if I can’t rely on these factors, what should I do when I’m deciding to hire a lawyer?

Here’s what I suggest.

  1. Do look at qualifications, past results, and reputation.
  2. See whether the lawyer can explain the law in a way that you can easily understand.
  3. Meet with the lawyer and see if you feel comfortable and confident in what the lawyer says he or she can do for you in your legal situation.

We’ve already spoken about the first one.  Let’s look at the other two.

“Can the lawyer explain to me the law and my options in a way I can understand?”

Some lawyers pride themselves on showing clients that their vocabulary is huge, that their knowledge of legal “jargon” is vast as they think this impresses clients and intimidates clients.

I suppose sometimes it does.

Personally, I think the smarter you are, the more skilled you are, the easier you can explain things in an understandable way.

Supposedly, President Coolidge was asked one Sunday after church about the sermon — what was it on?

“It was on sin.”

The reporter asked what the preacher said about it.

President Coolidge responded, “He’s against it.”

Give me that preacher over someone who uses big words, quotes dead French scholars, and leaves me with no practical plan to follow.  I want to know what the Bible says and what it means to me personally in my everyday life.

Same with a lawyer.

Find someone who can explain to you what your options are in a way that empowers you to be able to make the right choice.

Think of it this way.

If the lawyer you are talking to can’t explain things to you, how will the lawyer:

  • Explain your position and the law to the other side?
  • Explain your case and persuade the judge or the jury?

Not always but normally the inability to explain in simple terms shows a lack of knowledge, skill, and judgment.  So find someone who makes the law practical and real to you in your case.

“Why do I need to feel comfortable and confident after meeting with (or speaking with) the attorney?”

Ultimately, take all you can find about the attorney.  All the materials the attorney has produced to help explain the law.  And then go meet with the attorney or have a phone call.

What does your gut tell you about the lawyer?

Do you feel the lawyer is trustworthy?

Does the lawyer listen to you or does he talk to you like you are an idiot and should never ask a question again?

When you imagine in your mind’s eye in the future having this attorney by your side, how do you now feel?  Good or scared?  Confident or uncertain?

You see, ultimately you can’t know with 100% certainty that the lawyer you are considering hiring is any good or not.  But you take all that can find out and learn about and then you trust your gut instincts.

Normally your gut is right.  If you are like me, when I have not listened to my gut — my intuition — normally I regret it.

I suggest you listen to yours as you make the important decision of who to hire as a lawyer….

Also, I thought it might help to give you a personal example.

Both of my children are adopted.

I knew nothing about adoption law so I met with a lawyer that someone recommended.

Drew Whitmire in Birmingham.

His qualifications seemed excellent.

He had a great reputation.

When we met with him, he explained the law in a way we could understand it.

I thought, “He knows the law and can explain it.  He’ll be good in front of the judge.”

We felt good — confident — in having him handle this most important matter.

That confidence was important because if we were given bad advice, it would dramatically affect our family.

It worked out great so when another opportunity presented itself, there was only Drew to hire.

No one else.

Now I can’t promise you he’s a great skilled lawyer as I just don’t know that area of the law — but what I do know from my own experience and from the way he made my family feel through the process, he’s great.

Ultimately, I think that’s how you should evaluate and hire a lawyer.

Hope this has been helpful….

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with us.

You can call us at 1-205-879-2447, or fill out a contact form and we will get in touch with you. 

Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

John Watts


  1. Melanie Simmons says:

    I was really impressed with the article. I thought it was very insightful. Also want you to know I think you are a great lawyer, the kind with all the qualities that your article talks about. I know first hand and you are the first person I would go to for advice, if you can’t help you will recommend someone. I can trust that you are looking out for what’s in my best interest and that you and Randi will always shoot me straight. I recommend you toanyone looking for a good lawyer.

    • John Watts says:

      Thanks Melanie for your kind words! We appreciate it and we appreciate clients like you!

      John Watts

  2. Jackie says:

    Thank you for this article and the videos on your website. I had been wondering if my lawyer was really working on my behalf. I thought my uncertainty may be my insecurity with my case. However, I strongly felt my lawyer was not explaining the law and my options in a way I could understand. She also got angry when I asked her to reiterate several things about my case. Although we talked through our conflict, I am left feeling that I don’t trust her to advise me thoroughly. You are so right, when thinking of some future matters I may seek representation for, she is not at the top of my list.

    • John Watts says:

      Thanks for your kind comments Jackie.

      Glad you were able to reach some type of solution with your lawyer.

      Keep learning and growing in every area of life — the alternative is not very appealing, is it? 🙂

      Hope your case or legal issue turns out great for you and thanks for your comment!


  3. Benny Carter says:

    Great article! I will use this information to help me find an attorney. One thing I read though is that some of the review sites like avvo and Martingdale are tainted because of advertising. I believe you can use those sites for reference, but also do some other online research.

    • John Watts says:

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t know about Martindale but on Avvo lawyers can advertise. Doesn’t impact the reviews or the rating. Best thing is to look at reviews and then ask for free information and then decide if a particular lawyer is right for you.

      Best wishes

      John Watts

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