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Finding long-distance legal help

Every law school graduate knows his diploma comes with a lifetime obligation to provide free legal information to family and friends.

What you may not be prepared for is the inquiry from folks with serious legal needs out of state. They have been ticketed – or, worse, arrested – in some place you have never heard of. Because you are the only lawyer they know, you are the oracle who must tell them how to find effective representation at the Elsewhere County Courthouse in Faraway State.

The clients are willing to pay, but who are they going to call?

Most attorneys are willing to provide names of worthy adversaries, as long as they are not dealing directly with the adverse party.

Even a fledgling lawyer knows tough cases require more than just any good lawyer. Your hapless friend needs a lawyer who knows the local courthouse personalities and the local practices.

The web may not be much help for these searches. If the case is in some small town, the local courthouse lawyers may not have websites. In some states, the legal lingo makes a web search difficult.

Say you want to make a collegial call to a local prosecutor for recommendations on their favorite opponents.

Try finding a listing on the web for a prosecutor in a rural South Carolina county. Searching for “prosecutor,” “district attorney,” or even “commonwealth’s attorney” will not work. You need to know that prosecutors in South Carolina are called “solicitors.”.

In a couple of recent personal test cases, I called the prosecutors’ offices, asked for whoever handles traffic cases, and explained the situation: I am a Virginia attorney, not retained in this case, who is trying to help a friend locate counsel. There was no need to disclose the name of the defendant.

In each case, a local prosecutor provided names of several attorneys who regularly handled traffic matters in the court in question. I passed all the names to my worried friends, who later reported good results all around.

Falls Church lawyer David Bernhard said another reliable source for distant traffic and criminal defense lawyers is the local public defender’s office. “I ask them, who would you send your son or daughter to?” Bernhard said.

Bernhard recommends some follow up to check on the recommendations. He suggested a case search to see what appellate work the lawyers have done, and an inquiry with the state’s licensing agency. “Most states have a database of lawyer disciplinary actions,” he said. “It’s well worth it to check there.”

Even when a broad web search is unavailing, the Internet offers referral tools for lawyers who are linked with their peers in a listserv or similar information-sharing network. The American Bar Association, for instance, offers SoloSez, an electronic community of more than 3,500 solos and small firm lawyers.

Fairfax County lawyer David Z. Kaufman, former administrator of the SoloSez listserv, said the list is “invaluable” for locating recommended lawyers in unfamiliar locales. A quick review of his inbox revealed 15 to 20 such inquiries in just a few days, he said. “SoloSez is filled with this stuff,” he said.

SoloSez is available to all, without regard to ABA membership. Some advice, however – membership generates scores of e-mails each day, and there are rules and customs about introductions and requests. A separate e-mail account might be worthwhile.

Statewide voluntary bar associations also can supply a trusted referral network that extends beyond state boundaries.

The Virginia Women Attorneys Association has seen increased referral activity on its member listserv over the past few years, according to Inge Ford, administrative director of the VWAA. The group’s referral network works on multiple levels, from personal through regional chapters and on through the commonwealth and beyond.

“Through membership, you actually increase your chances of obtaining new clients,” Ford said. “You get a better word-of-mouth referral” than through a general web search, because you are likely to find someone who has personal experience with the lawyer from outside your local area.

The plaintiff-only listserv at the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association is known for wide-ranging referrals, with some members practicing in other states.

Bernhard pointed to one anomaly when lay persons shop for lawyers – they are suspicious of lawyers with lower fees. “They sometimes ask, ‘Why are you so much cheaper?’ It’s almost as if they expect to be fleeced,” he marveled.

His advice for would-be clients: a large fee is not necessarily a good measure of a lawyer’s effectiveness.

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