There is no shortage of labor and employment lawyers in the San Francisco Bay Area.  A Yelp search for “employment lawyer” “near San Francisco” generates a list of 380 law firms!  Some of those firms focus entirely on employment law, while other firms’ practices are broader in scope. Some firms are employment law specialists while other firms are not.

We know from SEO research (“Search Engine Optimization”) that law firm websites that appear on the first two pages of a Google search are clicked more often than law firm websites that are buried on page three or beyond.  A law firm’s high ranking on Google is not indicative of the quality of the firm’s employment law work or its attorneys, however.  A high Google ranking might only mean that a law firm has put more time and money into SEO than has a law firm that is ranked lower on Google search results.

If Google search results are not the most accurate and effective measure of the quality of an employment lawyer, what measures can a consumer use when selecting and retaining an employment law firm?  How can an employer or an employee effectively sort through the many law practitioners in their community to choose the “best” one from them?

The 10 Steps

In this article I describe 10 steps that will help you to make an informed decision about retaining employment counsel.  Evaluating potential attorneys for an employment-related matter according to these steps is more likely to lead to a satisfactory experience and outcome.

Step 1:  Evaluate Content Area Expertise

Employment law is not one of the 11 legal specialty areas certified by the California State Bar. Nevertheless, most law firms practicing in this area have a certain level of expertise in one or more aspects of employment law. Some firms focus exclusively on wage and hour class action litigation and have little interest in prosecuting individual employee claims.  Other firms focus on employment laws relating to employee benefits, including retirement programs.  Still others focus exclusively on harassment, discrimination, whistle-blower and wrongful termination claims.

The first step in finding the right lawyer is to determine whether they have extensive experience in the area of law you need them to address.  You would not choose to undergo surgery by a doctor who has only performed a few of the procedures.  The same goes for choosing an employment attorney.  The depth of an attorney’s experience is important. But, how can you learn about their expertise?

First, make sure that the law firm’s website describes its advocacy in the area of law at issue in your situation.  If a lawyer’s website only makes passing reference to your issue, keep searching until you identify 2-3 law firms that appear to have the necessary knowledge and expertise for you.

Second, spend about 10 minutes on each of the pre-selected law firm websites.  Look for blogs or articles specifically on your topic by the lawyers in the firms.  Thoughtful writings on the subject are a good indicator of knowledge and experience.

Later, when you speak with one or two of the pre-qualified attorneys, ask them about their experience in your specific area.  Don’t be afraid to ask about outcomes of their cases.  Although many settlements are confidential, the lawyer should be able to generally describe their track record.  Because you have many lawyers to choose from, take your time.

Step 2:  Check the Martindale-Hubbell Ratings

There is an unending number of websites that “rank” attorneys.  Many of them, like Yelp, rank attorney listing order primarily on the fees that law firms pay for placement of ads on their sites.  I am only aware of one company that rates attorneys based purely on reviews by an attorney’s peers:  Martindale-Hubbell.  Martindale-Hubbell’s Peer Review Ratings are based on evaluations from an attorneys’ colleagues and the judges they appear before.  Attorneys are rated on two scales, one for “legal ability” and one for “general ethical standards.”

The highest-ranking Martindale-Hubbell category is AV-Preeminent.  Generally, you see ratings of AV, BV, or CV.  The CV rating is usually given to new attorneys and it indicates the attorney has achieved a very good ethical rating by their peers and a good rating for legal ability.

All things considered; a consumer should lean toward an AV-Preeminent rated employment lawyer if possible.

Step 3:  Review the History of State Bar of California Discipline

While many ethical and legal issues can lead to discipline by the State Bar of California, a history of having a violation reported by the State Bar should be a big red flag regardless of the reasons for the discipline. You can look up the name of any attorney you are considering by running their name through the Attorney Search on the Bar’s website.  If they have been disciplined, the record will show, “License Status, Disciplinary and Administrative History.”

Step 4:  Determine Number of Years in Practice

The number of years an attorney has practiced law in California is helpful to consider as well.  You can check this factor on the State Bar’s Attorney Search page.

Step 5:  Evaluate Client Reviews

Most attorneys have reviews posted on one or more websites, including Google, Yelp, Martindale, LinkedIn, and Avvo.  It is worth your time and effort to read the reviews.  If the reviews are mixed and there are indications that the lawyer failed to respond to calls and emails, or suggestions of malpractice, then it would be best to keep looking.  If there are a dozen great reviews and one terrible one, however, perhaps the poor review says more about the reviewer than about the attorney reviewed.  Use your best judgment and trust your instincts.

Step 6:  Check the Personality Fit

After more than 25 years representing thousands of employees, I understand the importance of the relationship between attorney and client.  An attorney and their client work hand-in-glove over the course of a year or more.  They spend numerous hours together on the phone, meeting in person and exchanging emails and texts dealing with stressful issues that affect the outcome of the case.  Clients should expect, and deserve, an open, truthful and compassionate communication relationship with their lawyer.

From my perspective as a lawyer, I believe the first in-person meeting with a potential client is one of the most important moments in the legal representation process.  Before meeting with a potential client in person, I have almost always had a telephone conference with the person to gather basic information about the employment issues they are facing, whether as an employer or as an employee.  I have done what I can do before the meeting to research the issues we will discuss.  An in-person meeting at my office almost always means that I believe I can be of help to the person.  So, when I meet with potential clients, I am ready and we can focus on the tasks ahead, including building our relationship of trust.

If a potential client has done their homework too, then they can focus on the relationship as well.  If you feel bullied or if the lawyer has a dismissive attitude toward you, tell them you would like time to consider your options.  Let them know that you have decided to interview other attorneys and will get back to them when you decide.

Step 7:  Expect a Clear Assessment of your Options

After they have reviewed your situation, an attorney should be able to clearly articulate your legal options.

If you are an employer facing an employee claim, you have options.  Is it better to mount a strong and expensive defense to the claim, or to take less expensive steps toward resolving the claim early?  What are the risks and benefits of the different options you have?  The attorney should be able to make these options very clear to you.

If you are an employee and are considering filing a claim against an employer, what options do you have?  When potential clients come to me with wage and hour claims, for example, I explain that they have several viable options, each with different risks and potential benefits.

First, the person can do nothing, which is sometimes the best choice they can make.  Second, the person can make a demand for unpaid wages from the employer on their own without a lawyer.  Third, the person can file a wage claim at the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.  Fourth, the person can retain my office to make an informal demand on the employer by letter.  Fifth, the person can file a lawsuit.

Each of these options has different risks and offers different potential benefits.  A consumer should expect their attorney to explain each of their options.

Step 8:  Trust but Verify Referrals

Even if you have been referred to employment counsel by a trusted adviser or friend, it is important to do your homework on the lawyer.  It is also important to pay close attention to relationship issues.  Is this attorney someone you trust?  Someone you can work with for a year or more?  Do they have the knowledge and experience to handle your unique issues?

Step 9:  Understand the Fee Structure

Depending on whether you are retaining an attorney on an hourly or contingency fee basis, you can expect to pay a substantial fee to an employment attorney to handle a lawsuit on your behalf.  While attorneys’ fees are not set by law with respect to employment matters, most law firms have established rates that they charge for almost every case.  You can expect to pay a 40% contingency fee on most wage and hour cases.  Some firms will charge a lower rate if the case is resolved within a certain number of days, or before a certain step in the litigation process happens (like depositions).

When discussing fees with an attorney, don’t be afraid to ask them questions about how the fee agreement operates.  Attorney fee agreements should be unambiguous.  Ask, what if there is no recovery?  How are costs of suit to be handled?  How much money, if any, will be required to be deposited as a retainer?

Step 10:  Evaluate the Value of Convenience

Although many firms have a statewide reach, for most cases it makes economic sense to hire an attorney in the Bay Area for a case that would be filed in a Bay Area court.  This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however.  Regardless where a case will be filed in California, a law firm with very special expertise in a specific area of employment law might be the best choice even though their offices are located at the other end of the state.

Kitchin Legal, for example, has prosecuted a number of cutting-edge class action lawsuits on behalf of retail workers for off-the-clock, unpaid work.  So, whether an action would be venued in San Diego or Sacramento, Kitchin Legal could be the right firm to handle a class action involving unpaid loss prevention inspections in retail settings.

The Takeaway

Finding the “best” labor law attorney involves both objective and subjective factors.  Has the lawyer been subject to a State Bar disciplinary procedure?  How long have they been in practice?  Does the lawyer seem like a kind and caring person you would like to work with for a long time, or a bully with a huge ego who will intimidate you?  Unless you are facing statute of limitation issues, take your time and trust your gut.

Please contact Patrick Kitchin at prk@kitchinlegal.com if you have an employment issue you would like to discuss.